Seventy years after World War II, boys still like to play war with toy rifles in the yard.
But at an artillery battery in the coastal Klaipėda resoof Giruliai, the smell of gunpowder—and war—still lingers in the air. Moreover, the ammunition left inside makes it tangible.
Beneath the ground, remnants of German torpedoes still lay nearly shoulder-width from the entrance. At dusk, shells, mines, and bomb debris could be mistaken for metal scraps in the dim lantern light. But as the musty smell tickles my nostrils in the twilight, I discern the clear outlines of the ammunition, seen only in history books until now.
If not for a group of history-loving locals, Memel Nord, the only German artillery battery in Lithuania, would perhaps be doomed to decay. Nevertheless, I cannot fight off the feeling that that the chilly meter-thick cement walls are time-proof.
“Anyone who has ever ended up in Memel Nord basically says the same thing: time has frozen there. It literally throws you back to the early 1940s, when the artillery was rattling the bunker walls and city itself. All of the visitors who ever came here and touched the shells with their own hands have claimed the excursion made them think,” says Titas Tamkvaitis, a third-year student of history at Klaipėda University, who meets visitors at Memel Nord clad in the uniform of a World War II German soldier. “They don’t see war as a romantic deed anymore, but realize the cruelty it brings.”
Between 1939 and 1944, the fortification in Giruliai was an embodiment of German military prowess. With bombs lifted by elevators from deep underground shelters to the turrets overlooking the Baltic Sea, the facility was state-of-the-art. It had its own electricity generator, and the shells, fired from 12.8 cm caliber Flak 40 howitzers, could reach military targets 17 kilometers away. It is said that one of their downed war planes still rests at the bottom of the sea.
German-built fortifications along the Lithuanian coast in 1939 had to deter enemies approaching by sea, but as the entire Baltic coast fell into the hands of German troops with little resistance, the weaponry was hauled to Norway, according to historical sources.
The Giruliai battery was taken over by Soviet troops at the end of the war. It was used for Soviet defence until 1961, claims Tamkvaitis.
“There are around eight to nine German military fortifications from the Second World War on the Lithuanian coast, but only three of them are protected by state heritage watchdogs,” he says.
While the niches of grayish, graffiti-scribbled Memel Nord today serve as a shelter from a summer downpour for many beach goers, the history student along with his peers strive to exhibit and preserve the war remnants.
“We invite all who are keen on military and war history to sign up for our €1 excursions. We can be reached through e-mail at MemelNord@gmail.com, our page on Facebook, or via phone at +370 630 20263 or +370 611 53232,” says Titas. “We also want to collect as many historical materials and artifacts from World War II German fortifications around Klaipėda (Memel) as we can.”
Surprisingly, getting visitors to the sites is more difficult than many may believe.
“Frankly speaking, tourists visiting Klaipėda are more interested in seeing places of interest that cheer them up, not those that can cause them distress. Memel-Nord definitely belongs to the latter category,” says Jurgita Neniskiene, a manager at Klaipėda’s Tourism and Information Center. She adds: “Contrary to popular belief, German tourists are not very fond of WWII remnants either.”
For Kristupas, another student and also a big fan of war history, this is a concern.
“I think the state of Lithuania should be keener to preserve what is left from past years. Out of 20 WWII bunkers sprawled along the Lithuanian Baltic coast, only a few are being taken care of by the state as objects in the cultural heritage registry. What about the others?” he asks.
The Vilnius College of Technologies and Design student also works as the editor of the website apleistazona.lt (“derelict zone”). Offering tours of once-thriving buildings in Vilnius and Klaipėda, he looks forward to inviting volunteers to an event aimed at cleaning up untended bunkers and some abandoned buildings in Klaipėda.
“If we manage to raise some money, perhaps through crowdfunding, more bunkers will be given life instead of being doomed to the breaking up that will come sooner or later,” he says.