One of the more sobering places I visited in Vilnius is hard to just put in a throwaway sentence. To understand it requires some knowledge of the history of the Baltics. Time for some education! 😉
One of the sadder aspects of Vilnius’s history – of Lithuania – and indeed its fellow Baltic states Latvia and Estonia, is its occupation by foreign countries. This is common in many European countries, though not always as tragic and as well documented as during the 20th century. In the 14th century Lithuania was the largest country in Europe – reaching as far south as present-day Ukraine. However, this split up over time with wars and deals – affected by Poland, Sweden, and Russia. And then World War II happened.
World War II
It began with Russia occupying and annexing it after its agreement with Germany in the second World War. Then when Germany declared war on Russia, they charged through the Baltics, and occupied parts of the country as well. Finally Russia came in again as the German troops retreated, and right up until the 1990 it was considered an occupied (some say illegally) Soviet state.
During World War 2, 80,000 Jews from Vilnius were executed by the Nazis. Today, just 0.5% of the city is Jewish. Russia also took many of the citizens out of the city and moved them to gulags and work camps in other parts of Russia – a common effort throughout the Baltics, and they were replaced by people from other parts of Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine and other Soviet states.
The infamous building
As such for a long period of time there was much fear and suspicion among the people of Vilnius. To add to this, a particular building was responsible for much of the injustice, persecution and horrors that occured. During the German occupation it was the Nazi SS headquarters, and later the KGB building. Today it’s known as the Museum of Genocide Victims, or the KGB Museum. Bricks around the outside of it have the names of people believed to have been executed inside, and is definitely worth a visit to understand the horrors.
I ventured in, mildly unnerved already, my memory of my visit to Auschwitz still fresh in my mind. It starts with a history of what I’ve just discussed, with exhibits of equipment, guns, and restored offices of the KGB on display. Upstairs is more of this, showing the uniforms, the medals, the parties and staff members, and then an eavesdropping room, with equipment used. Photos of even kids being used by spies – who would suspect the family sitting in the park was actively spying on you!
But it all becomes very real when you head to the basement. Contained within are the old prison cells used. The rooms for torture, the hidden bunker with guns for keeping an eye on the street (totally missed that while walking past outside!), the yard for exercise, and finally – the execution room. All done very clinically quick – with a video example of how they would bring in the prisoner, end their life, slide their body onto a chute to a truck, and hose down the floor after. Another place that if in the city – it’s terrible, but it’s worth seeing if it helps to understand the history even more.
The Baltic Way
The three Baltic states – Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – all becoming part of the Soviet empire, wanted independence again, and believed the occupation of their countries to be an illegal use of secret protocols from the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. 50 years on to the day, on August 23, 1989, in order to illustrate solidarity and to draw international attention to their desire for independence, and their plight, approximately two million people joined hands in protest. In a remarkable demonstration of the human spirit of people coming together, they linked to form a human chain spanning over 600km across the three states, which would become known as the Baltic Way or Chain of Freedom. Within six months from the date of the protest, Lithuania became the first to declare independence…
On March 11, 1990 Lithuania became the first Soviet state to declare independence, and Iceland the first country to recognise them as having done so. Estonia and Latvia would follow in declaration of independence within the year. The last Soviet troops left in 1993, and Lithuania joined NATO and the EU in spring 2004, as an independent, democratic country.
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