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Wednesday, August 24, 2016

8/18: Vilnius: Pagans, Heroes and Fake Policemen

After a quick breakfast of cheese, yogurt and banana bread I had brought from home, we walked over to the Cathedral to join the English language free walking tour that began at 10. This one ended up being quite large and was like a mini-UN with about 25 countries being represented.

In spite of many years of neglect, Vilnius has one of the largest Old Towns in Eastern Europe. In 1994, it was designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was one of the biggest countries in all of fifteenth century Europe as it also encompassed Ukraine and part of the USSR.

The magnificent Cathedral in the heart of the Old Town dates back to the fourteenth century when Lithuania finally became Christian as it was the last pagan country in Europe. The guide pointed out that the extertior sculptures at the top of the Cathedral all looked skyward toward God. (Think you can see them on the previous post on Vilnius. These are some I took that morning of the interior.)
Vilnius’ original church which became the Cathedral, was built in the thirteenth century by order of a king. When he died, the church reverted to its original use as a pagan shrine until 1387 when the structure became a symbol of Lithuania’s conversion to Catholicism. 
Paganism is a very important part of Lithuanian history as the country was proud to be the last ‘warrior state’ of Europe. Many countrymen agreed to be baptized because they then received a free woolen shirt which was considered to be very valuable. Some therefore even tried to get baptized twice! In the last census, 77% of the population said they were Catholic.

Sculpture of the Pagan Lady of the Forest:
The guide led us to the city’s main university which had been founded by the Jesuits in 1570 and mentioned that Lithuania has four times more universities per capita than most European cities.
Nearby was the traditional center of the former Jewish culture. An essential part of pre-war Vilnius was its massive Jewish population which made up nearly half of the city. Today, little remains of the Jerusalem of Lithuania, as Vilnius was once called which one had over 100 synagogues. We stood on a basketball court which was near a school; it was the former location of the Great Synagogue which dated back to 1661 and suffered huge damage in WW11 and its remains were blown up by the Soviet authorities.

Below: The nearby sculpture of the city’s most famous rabbinical scholar; notice he has no yarmulke on because the Soviets could then simply describe it as a sculpture of a Soviet old man. They actually said it was of Karl Marx!

There were no concentration camps in Lithuania. But, more than 90% of Jews were killed during the war, most of them shot in a nearby forest. The guide explained that others, mostly intellectuals, were sent to Siberia because they were considered to be likely protesters against the Soviet regime. Some were able to return in the 60’s but they were forced to build their lives from the ground up as all their homes, businesses and belongings had been confiscated.

Basketball is the most important sport and is considered to be the country’s second religion. Our guide was so sad that the national team had been defeated in the Olympics just the night before but took solace in the fact that Lithuania had been the first country to defeat the US’s Dream Team.

A map of the former Vilnius Ghetto where the Jews of Vilnius were imprisoned was on the side of a building. The wall marked the place where its only gate once stood.
Just beyond the former Jewish area was the gorgeous Astoria Hotel, located a minute's walk from the Town Hall.

We decided to peal off from the tour as we had limited time in Vilnius and weren’t able to view the sights that were important to us while on the tour.

Just past the Town Hall Square was St. Casimir’s Church, the oldest Baroque church in Vilnius and built from 1604-15. The church was long an object of persecution. Under the tsars it was converted into an Orthodox church and it contained an onion dome; during WW1, the occupying Germans turned it into a Protestant church and the Soviets subsequently made it into a Museum of Atheism. It was only reopened for public worship in 1989.

Hope you can see from these photos why we were so glad that we stopped in at the spectacular Jesuit St. Casimir's Church rather than staying with the tour!
A large crypt from the beginning of the seventeenth century was only discovered under the church's main altar in 1991. Beautiful bas-relief, black and dark blue pictures of the crucified and resurrected Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary as well as praying monks and calligraphy were certainly an added bonus at the church.

leaving St Casimir's, we then meandered through an intriguing archway and into a courtyard only to see another church. We had to peek through the glass at the interior as the Greek Church of the Most Holy Trinity was closed for renovations.

Amber shops were on every block serving as a lure to the throngs of tourists who wandered by.
Just one minute away was the Russian Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit and large monastery. Built in the seventeenth century, it was the only Russian monastery to operate during the Soviet era to serve the Russian Orthodox community. In front of the altar is a glass case containing the well preserved bodies of three Saints martyred in 1347.  During Christmas, their bodies are clothed in white; at Lent in black and red on all other occasions. However, on June 26, the bodies are believed to have healing powers and are left naked.

The first photo is just of the Church's entryway; the second is the front of the church. The following ones are of its stunning interior.

A view from behind the small altar:
Another minute's walk and yet another church; this one was St. Theresa's and was built between 1633 and 1654. How could we think of not wandering in here and gazing in wonder at the beauty of the interior?

The same street gently rose to the only remaining city gate known as the Gates of Dawn. In 1671 Carmelite nuns from neighboring St. Theresa’s built a chapel above the gates to house a holy image of the Virgin Mary. It was encased in silver and gold by local goldsmiths, leaving only the head and hands uncovered. From the street below, we saw pilgrims singing and praying in front of the Virgin. We arrived just in time to hear the pealing of the bells and to hear the faithful singing and praying in the open chapel.
We climbed up the narrow eighteenth century stairs that connect the chapel to the adjacent St. Theresa's Church through a doorway on the left and followed the sounds until we too were in the same spot many had been just a few minutes previously. Thousands of votive offerings decorate the walls. I felt so very lucky to be there.
We walked next to the Choral Synagogue, the city’s only remaining one for the small surviving Jewish community, which was located about a 20 minute stroll away. 

We didn’t realize that we had taken the stairs that led us to the women’s gallery as it had been, and perhaps still was, an Orthodox synagogue which meant the men below were separated from the women and children upstairs.

In the upper gallery, there were a considerable number of photos depicting what I could only surmise were likely synagogues and Jewish prayer halls from a previous era.

Just traipsing to our next spot and came across these gaily painted steps:
We walked over next to see the statue of Frank Zappa, the world’s first statue of the prolific Californian rock legend. It was created in Vilnius shortly after his death from cancer. A group of local artists wanted to test the limits of newly independent Lithuania’s proclamations of democracy and freedom and were pleasantly surprised when their idea for the statue was approved. The bust is the work of a local sculptor who is known for his many Soviet-era sculptures. In 2010, a new cast of the statue was donated to Zappa’s native Baltimore.
Next up for us was the Holocaust Museum, also known as the Green House, which was started by Holocaust survivors. Some historians believe that the largest Jewish population in the world lived in Vilnius from the eighteenth century on.
A poignant sign on the wall of the museum: ‘Everyday life in the ghetto was a fight for survival of the humiliated people who had no rights, who fought for their right to live, who tried to prove every day that they were human beings.’

In 1963, the Yad Vashem agency in Israel began a world wide project to present the title of Righteous Among Nations to Gentiles (non-Jews) who risked their lives to rescue Jews during the Holocaust. The names of the Righteous Gentiles are commemorated on the Hill of Memory in Jerusalem. A person recognized as a Righteous Gentile is presented a letter of commendation with the inscription “Whosoever saves a single life, saves an entire community. As of July, 2010, the title of Righteous Gentile had been awarded to 793 Lithuanians.

One of the most compelling stories was of the Japanese diplomat, Chiune Sugihara, who, while based in the city of Kaunas, issued transit visas to refugees without awaiting approval from his superiors. After he issued 1,800 visas, he received instructions from Tokyo to stop issuing more visas. He continued to stamp passports and issued 2,139 visas including ones for 300 children. When he returned to Tokyo after the war, he was fired from diplomatic service. He was recognized as a Righteous Gentile in 1984.
The binder below recounted the acts of violence against Lithuanian Jews on a month by month basis throughout the terrible war. Once I began reading it, it was impossible for me to put it down and to easily forget the stories behind the dry recitation of facts.
We walked next to the Museum of Occupation also known as the Museum of Genocide Victims. This is a shrine to the victims of Soviet tyranny, and the “genocide” in question refers to Lithuanians whose population actually increased during the Soviet occupation. The fact is that the museum overlooks the other mass murder directed from the former KGB and Gestapo headquarters between 1941 and 1944, against the country’s Jewish population.

During the first Soviet occupation from June 1940-1941, over thirty thousand people were persecuted but they were only the beginning of the story of occupation and loss that lasted 50 years in Lithuania. This experience is still alive in the memories of that generation and to others through the story of grandparents and parents. It has affected their fate and the fates of succeeding generations.
Partisan War: Partisans, known as Partisan Brothers, most of who were between only 20 and 30 had grown up in independent Lithuania, The heroic fighters for the country’s independence from 1918-20 were their role models. They were determined to defend their homeland as fiercely as their fathers had. They wouldn’t have managed to last for almost 10 years without the support of the local, mostly rural population. They supplied them with clothes, food, shelter and other necessary items. It was very difficult to keep up secret contact between the partisans and the messengers as more and more people agreed to become informants and assets of the representative Soviet structures while the partisan movement weakened.
The average fighting life of partisans was only two to three years. Even after their deaths, they were brutally displayed in order to frighten civilians. Their bodies were laid out in town squares, yards and farmers’ markets.

Located at the end of a hallway, a symbol of hope entitled "Joined by Freedom: Our heart is dedicated to the Unity of Our People, Love for Our Fatherland and Freedom." It was created using colors from Lithuania's national flag by students from the Vilnius School of Car Mechanics and Business in 2015.
The Soviet authorities ruthlessly suppressed the armed anti-Soviet resistance with especially brutal methods. More than 22,000 freedom fighters out of the more than 50,000 participants in the movement perished in battles. In the fight against the guerilla movement, the repressive institutions made much use of agent informers and special groups of provocateurs pretending to be partisans. From 1952-53, this activity dominated the Soviet repressive structures’ fight against the partisans. The terror was directed first of all versus the political, academic, cultural, military and economic elite of the state and their families.

Children, along with adults, also suffered the fate of deportation. No fewer than 39,000 children were deported from Lithuania from 1941-53. Some 5,000 children died in places of exile. This is one of the darkest pages in the history of the deportations of the people from Lithuania.
One room had photos of cemeteries of Lithuanians who had been deported to, and died in, Siberia and other far-off places in the Soviet Union. Some of their relatives were able to retrieve their bodies and bring them home to rest in Lithuania many years later.

Other rooms in the Museum documented the rise of the KGB beginning in 1954, the persecution of dissidents, the Iron Curtain and Gorbachev’s perestroika movement.

The Eavesdropping Room: The secret listening to others people's conversations was one of the techniques used by the KGB to control society. Four rooms in the museum/former KGB headquarters were used for this purpose.
I was lagging far behind Steven who had finished seeing the entire Museum at that point but he said he would take a break and rest while I continued down to the basement to view the KGB Prison.

The first sight was of two upright boxes that weren't much bigger than two lockers side by side. They were used for prisoners newly brought in and kept there in total darkness for up to three hours until duty officers processed their papers. Others were also shut in there to prevent them from communicating with other prisoners taken for interrogation. Prisoners could only stand in there until after Stalin’s death, when conditions improved marginally and a seat was added. 

I shut myself nearly in for a few moments to try and get a sense of what it must have been like. I can tell you it was scary enough even though I knew I could escape right away.
Cells, like the one below, which were in use right up until the late 1980s, held 15-20 people each and had no furniture in them until 1947. Detainees slept on the concrete floors with their clothes on while the lights were kept on 24/7. The windows were barred and the window panes were either painted or glazed over with frosted or grooved glass. The walls were painted often but not for the sake of cleanliness or beauty. Multiple coats of paint were applied to cover the writing made by prisoners. Tests carried out in 1995 and 1996 revealed the cell had 18 coats of paint.
A post war cell with photos of some of the prisoners:

Conditions in the cells improved from the 1960’s to the 80’s compared to the post war years. Then, there were only three confined to a cell and each prisoner had his own bed with linen and a locker.

Padded Cell: This was one of the grimmest places in the prison. The straightjacket on the back was wall was used for those who resisted or were deranged from torture. The padded and soundproofed walls absorbed their cries and shouts for help. This one was fitted in 1973 but there were five similar ones listed in the prison records.
The Execution Chamber: More than a thousand people were killed in the execution cell in the basement of the KGB building between 1944 and the early 1960s. One third of the prisoners had been sentenced to death by Soviet courts or so-called Courts of Three for participating in anti-Soviet resistance. Bodies were buried in mass graves almost in the center of Vilnius
During architectural excavations carried out from ‘94-‘96 and again in ’03, remains of 724 were unearthed. They were reburied on October 8, 20014.  
The burial places of people shot after 50 years when the death penalty was restored in the Soviet Union are still unknown. It is supposed there are still several undiscovered mass graves within a 30 km radius of Vilnius.
Exercise Yard just outside the Execution Chamber:
We spent close to three hours at the museum. What a haunting time it was learning about the experiences of people who suffered at the hands of the Soviets for 50 years. Something I read while visiting the Museum and hope to remember: “Lithuania is working for its future remembering the price of freedom and independence.”

On the long walk back to the hostel, we couldn’t resist stopping in at the Church of the Apostles Saints Philip and Jacob which was celebrating its 800th Jubilee!

We also passed by the Lithuanian National Museum with Gediminas Tower and Castle Hill in the background:
A full almost nine hours later, we got back to Cathedral Square and the Palace of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania where we had started the day with the tour guide right across the street from the hostel. Steven said he only wanted to see just one more church before calling it a day. Ha ha! I should have known better!
We arrived at St. Anne’s Church just as Mass was being celebrated like the previous evening in the Cathedral. We decided to stay through Communion as there were only five people attending Mass. The chapel was built in the sixteenth century; interestingly, the church has no foundations but rests on alder logs. 

Attached to the church was the Bernardine Church and Monastery where Mass was also being celebrated in the small chapel. Of course we had to go here too! The religious order came from Poland in 1469. As it was built on the edge of town, it was fortified with gun ports.

Though Lithuania’s earliest history dates to pagan times, Steven and I sure felt that there were more churches in such a concentrated area of the Old Town than we had ever seen before and that is sure saying something! I bet you won’t believe it but there were many more churches that we did not see!
Opposite St. Anne’s on the far side of a small river is the first suburb outside the fortified city walls. This slightly scruffy but up and coming district, once dubbed the Montmartre of Vilnius because of its arty population, has designated itself as the Independent Republic of Uzupis. On April 1, the appropriate day of their declared independence, border patrols are set up and passports must be shown to their fake policemen. Their antics have been tolerated to such an extent that the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has opened up diplomatic relations with them. Sounds like a more extreme version of the People’s Republic of Boulder, doesn’t it?! 
I encourage you to look at the tongue-in-cheek Uzupis Constitution that we saw on one of the neighborhood’s streets and had been translated into English and several other languages. It certainly provides for some ligh-hearted reading after some of the heavy material earlier in the post!

This Angel Statue at the intersection of two streets in the central square of the district is a symbol of the republic.

After we very slowly made our way back toward the hotel because we were so beat after such a lonnnnnnnnng day of sightseeing, we collapsed into chairs at an Italian restaurant and ordered pizza. Rarely have chairs and the sight of food prepared by others been so welcome!
Isn't it great that after such a long day, the love of my life is still smiling at me?!


  1. Wow, Lithuania sure has had its issues. Did't realize that it suffered until recently. Loved the Constitution. You don't need to go to church for weeks since you visited so many on this day. Lil Red

  2. Wasn't the Constitution an absolute hoot! Nice comic relief after so much serious stuff. You have to know by now how much we love exploring religious institutions of all faiths when visiting new cities as they shine a light on their people and history.


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