Man patinka Lietuva

I like Lithuania – a visitor's point of view


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10 Years since University Summer School in Kaunas and I remember it well

After several visits to Lithuania starting in 2005 I decided it was time to brush up my knowledge of Lithuanian culture and improve my language skills (my weekly language lessons in England were useful but I wanted to immerse myself on a day-to-day basis).

I applied to Vytauto Didžiojo universitetas  in Kaunas (VDU), found myself a flat on K.Donelaičio street and and headed off for a four week course. I was one of three “oldies” in the first couple of weeks with a veteran called Greg from America and a lady called Renata from Canada.

Greg had a flat next door to me, so that was nice, and the 30 or so Erasmus students from Poland, Germany, Czech Republic, Italy, Austria, Turkey, Latvia, and Russia, were kind to us as well.

The Summer School generated some publicity in the media although at that stage none of us could speak enough Lithuanian to make sense of a radio interview.

Apart from the language lessons – after taking a test I scraped into the intermediate class based on my tuition in England, although it was still a challenge – we visited various cultural sites including Vilnius, Trakai, Anykščiai, Rumšiškės and Druskininkai.

Apart from that there was the day-to-day life; trying to understand when you actually cross a zebra crossing, discovering the area heating wasn’t working for hot water, and lifts never seeming to work – it was 60 steps up to my apartment and several floors at the university to the language lab.

The shock of Greg having his lap-top stolen out of his hands as we sat in the street  in a wi-fi-zone. (The police officer we reported it to laughed when he found out where I was from “So all our criminals haven’t gone to the UK then?”).

I’ll never forget seeing a bride dunked under water in a lake by her bridesmaids. I was already in the lake fully clothed so didn’t have my camera to hand.

Each day I attended lessons which were interspersed with lectures, the language laboratory, and films. These were quite dark, mostly about life in occupied Lithuania.

I remember in particular the “The Children at the American Hotel‘ about teenagers who wanted to be rock’n roll stars attending a concert by rock band Ant and others surrounded by armed soldiers. It didn’t end well for them!

There was one humorous called “Nut Bread” and one about musicians in Bremen

Dievu Miskas” (Forest Gods) was about a prisoner’s life but the most horrific was “Vilnius Getas” about life in the jewish ghetto during the Nazi occupation. I was so moved by these last two I bought copies to bring home.

The last one we saw was a moody psycho-drama called “Whisper of Sin”. 

Much as I love Vilnius I also enjoyed my time in Kaunas. Walking up Liberty Avenue (Laisvės alėja), the longest pedestrian street in the city, to the blue church  of St Michael the Archangel (Orthodox in early Russian times – which is why some locals still call it the “garrison church” or Sober from when it served Kaunas Castle garrison – then Catholic, then a storehouse in soviet times, then back to Catholic). And at the other end a statue of the pagan god Pan. Entirely appropriate considering Lithuania was the last European country to convert to christianity! 

Enjoying the coffee shops and the local cafés – the Reval, the Metropolis, the Brothers,  and one called the crazy house and all the restaurants had free wi-fi.

I ate a lot of cold beetroot soup – šaltibarščiai – and Balandėliai, cabbage leaves with a meat filling, (which is just like the Ukrainian Goluptsi I enjoy at church in England when I meet my Ukie friends). It means pigeon as the folded cabbage leaves look like one.

In Lithuania they also use it to refer to couples as love-birds!

We certainly enjoyed our food and the local beers – especially Švyturys made in Klaipeda.

And there was lots to see in Kaunas itself: the beautiful Town Hall called the “White Swan, and the beautiful church of St Peter and Paul and the nearby seminary.

There is also world’s only Devils’ Museum founded by Antanas Žmuidzinavičius . The museum contains a collection of more than 3,000 devils: creations of fine and applied arts, souvenirs and masks not only from Lithuania but from around 70 countries

Vytautus the Great War Museum in Unity Square where veterans held parades around the square and clock tower on Sundays. The square has statues of people involved in the 19c revival of lLithuania

Thunder House was not far way and reminded me that that’s where the old border with Prussia used to be.

Kaunas castle (which was being refurbished at the time) and used to be the home of the Russian garrison in the days of the Empire.

It’s a medieval castle  and evidence suggests that it was originally built during the mid-14th century, in the Gothic style. Its site is strategic – a rise on the banks of the Nemunas River near its confluence with the Neris River.

The Kaunas hotel 55 Bar (named after the strength of home-brwd vodka or Samahon) where I used to go and listen to a singer with his guitar.

Trips to the local Rimi  store (like Tesco) and the big Akropolis hypermarket, all within walking distance.

And everywhere there were statues. Some quite bizarre ones among the more serious sculptures.

We also visited some more memorable places – in a battered old bus with no air-conditioning (which explains why I jumped in a lake fully clothed when I got the chance) which had the habit of breaking down on distant highways – some of which I have already posted about.

Among our trips were:

A visit to the local linen factory, near the burned out barracks. Linen is big in Lithuania and I have several linen scarves I brought back (and I like linen blend shirts too). You can see the proprietor in traditional dress who made us very welcome with some snacks of cheese and Gira, the fermented rye bread drink, as she described the process of producing linen.

The 9th Fort at Kaunas and the  museum that was the office of the Japanese Consul who was Lithuania’s own Schindler. These were two contrasting examples of what happened in occupied Lithuania.

To Vilnius to Uzupis and the Hill of Three Crosses – both places I already knew quite well from my trips to Vilnius.

And trips to the famous spa town of Druskininkai (to drink the foul-tasting water among other things) and Gruto Parkas to see soviet sculpture at its best(or worst depending on your taste).

The horse museum in Anykščiai (Arklio muziejus) with all the wooden carvings, traditional crafts, old dwellings and a chance to actually sit on a horse.

The outdoor ethnographic museum at Rumšiškės with the amazing wood carvings.

And let’s not to forget the International Party!

When our graduation party arrived it was a sad day. Although happy to be going home I knew I would miss my fellow students and the support of the wonderful staff at the VDU.

I have been back since with my colleague and I would recommend a visit any time.

 


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The Devils’ museum in Kaunas

The first time I heard the expression pusė velnio (half a devil) when I asked someone how they were I realised that devils in Lithuania have a whole different relationship with people than we are used to. They are seemingly not all bad and evil.

There is a museum in Kaunas -Žmuidzinavičius Museum – which celebrates them in fact.

It is said to be the only museum in the world dedicated to collecting and exhibiting sculptures and carvings of devils from all over the world. The collection was started by artist Antanas Žmuidzinavičius(1876–1966), and a memorial museum was established in his house after his death.

In 1966, the devil collection consisted of 260 sculptures but visitors began to leave their own devils as gifts to the museum. In 1982, a three-story extension was built to house the expanding collection and, as of 2009, the museum’s holdings had grown to 3,000 items.

Most of the devils are sculptures in wood, ceramic, stone, or paper. Others are masks or paintings on silk or canvas. The devils, collected from all over the world, are diverse in style.

Some of the devils are art objects but other devils have been incorporated into usable objects such as pipes and nutcrackers.

Many of the items represent folk myths and others express modern political ideas. For example, one sculpture depicts Hitler and Stalin as devils in a dance of death over a pile of human bones. (Source: Wikipedia)

I visited and took several photographs when I was there ten years ago (not realising photography wasn’t allowed but the attendant let me off when I apologised).

There are also some framed cartoons which would not be considered politically correct these days but I did learn that in Lithuania Sky Blue is associated with homosexuality!

 


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Veterans paraded in Kaunas outside war museum in Unity Square

When I was living for a few weeks in Kaunas (attending VDU for a Language and Culture Summer School in 2008) I noticed that on certain Sundays a group of army veterans, wearing pre-war uniforms, solemnly paraded outside the Vytautaus Magnus War Museum in Unity Square.

I took several photographs of them marching and afterwards – although one or two of them had to be persuaded to pose for me. I also caught up with a couple of them in the nearby coffee shop opposite my flat where they were more relaxed.

This was ten years ago so I wonder how many of them are still around and whether or not they still parade. It was nice to see little bit of history.

I also realised that the clock tower had a set of bells and through a contact got permission to go up and watch them adjust the clock mechanism.

The clock tower includes the Liberty Bell, a gift from Lithuanians in America, and copied from the Philadelphia liberty bell. It was installed in 1922 and was rung for the first time on Independence Day 1922.

The 35-bell carillon in the tower of the was completed in Belgium in 1935 and installed two years later. Bell music from the tower was first played in 1937.

 


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Sculptures everywhere in Lithuania

Maybe my eye is drawn to them or perhaps Lithuanians love statues, but there are plenty to see – even ones in Vilnius that talk to you! (I haven’t included the shop signs I posted about earlier).

First are a couple of my favourites in very contrasting styles: The Easter Island like statues of the Three Kings (there is no engraving on the statues to indicate a name or who sculpted them) near the cathedral on the walk down to the river and the Green Bridge and the animated orator as you turn right at the top end of  Pilies g. near the back entrance to the university and the bell tower on Šv Jono g.

 

The others are mostly from Vilnius with some from Kaunas and Druskininkai.

 

 


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How Basketball, the Olympics and the Grateful Dead Forever Changed Lithuania

Lost Postcards

The Other Dream Team is a 2012 documentary that illustrates the importance basketball has played in Lithuania’s history and culminates in their participation in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.

Last week the Lithuanian Men’s basketball team was knocked out of the group round at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. They wouldn’t continue to the semi-finals and had lost out on a shot at a 2016 Olympic medal. I watched my husband come home from work looking absolutely defeated at the news. I knew most other Lithuanians, which had undoubtedly watched the match, were experiencing a similar feeling. While other countries might just be disappointed in the loss, basketball is the pride and joy of Lithuania. So much so that it is called the “second religion” of the small country and there is nothing bigger than competing in the sport at the Olympics.

Basketball became popular in Lithuania during…

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The 9th Fort at Kaunas – a place of evil

At the end of the 19th century the city of Kaunas was fortified and by 1890 was encircled by eight forts and nine gun batteries. Construction of the Ninth Fort (its numerical designation becoming its name) began in 1902 and was completed on the eve of World War I. From 1924 on, the Ninth Fort was used as the Kaunas City prison.

Later, during the years of Soviet occupation, 1940–1941, the Ninth Fort was used by the NKVD to house political prisoners pending transfer to the Gulags.

During the Nazi occupation, the Ninth Fort was used as a place of mass murder. At least 10,000 Jews, most from Kaunas and largely taken from the Kovno Ghetto, were transported to the Ninth Fort and killed by Nazis with the collaboration of some Lithuanians in what became known as the Kaunas massacre.

On October 29 1941, by the order of SS-Standartenführer Karl Jäger and SS-Rottenführer Helmut Rauca, the Sonderkommando under the leadership of SS-Obersturmführer Joachim Hamann, and 8 to 10 men from Einsatzkommando 3, murdered 2,007 Jewish men, 2,920 women, and 4,273 children in a single day at the Ninth Fort, Kaunas, Lithuania.

Not all the killings in Lithuania took place at the Ninth Fort. The German unit assigned to kill Vilnius jews was Einsatzkommando 9 of Einsatzgruppe B assisted by Lithuanian police battalions. On 23 July 1941 a Lithuanian auxiliary known as the Ypatingas Burys (special burial)unit marched columns of Jews from Vilnius to the nearby Ponary Forest, where an escape tunnel was recently discovered..

Jews were taken there in groups of between 12 and 20 to the edge of pits, where they had to hand over valuables and clothes before they were shot. Some 72,000 Jews from Vilnius and elsewhere were murdered at Ponary (as were about 8,000 Poles and Lithuanians).

However the Ninth Fort was a special place. It wasn’t a concentration camp; jews were taken there solely to be killed. It was a place of mass murder. Jews from as far away as France, Austria and Germany were taken there to be executed.

In 1943, the Germans operated special Jewish squads to dig mass graves and burn the remaining corpses.

In 1944 sixty or so prisoners managed to escape as you can read here in this terrible account of life in the prison.

That year, as the Soviets moved in, the Germans liquidated the ghetto and what had by then come to be known as the “Fort of Death”. The prisoners were dispersed to other camps.

After World War II, the Soviets again used the Ninth Fort as a prison for several years. From 1948 to 1958, farm organizations were managed from the Ninth Fort.

In 1958, a museum was established in the Ninth Fort. In 1959, an exhibition was prepared in four cells, telling of the Nazi war crimes carried out in Lithuania. In 1960, the discovery, cataloguing, and forensic investigation of local mass murder sites began in an effort to gain knowledge regarding the scope of these crimes.

S1031624S1031614I visited it in 2008 as part of my cultural and language studies at university in Kaunas. It was awe-inspiring and chilling. Never to be forgotten. The cells with sleeping platforms two-deep and the crude heating system. The special punishment cell. Lots of reminders about the depths to which human beings can sink.S1031634 S1031628S1031633 S1031631 S1031626

The memorial to the victims of Nazism at the Ninth Fort in Kaunas, Lithuania, was designed by sculptor A. Ambraziunas. Erected in 1984, the monument is 105 feet (32 m) high. It is an amazing sight – like an alien landscape – and with only the naked eye you don’t realise that there are anguished faces carved in the stone.S1031611 S1031612 - Version 2 S1031613

The mass burial place of the victims of the massacres carried out in the fort is a grass field, marked by a simple memorial written in several languages which reads, “This is the place where Nazis and their assistants killed more than 30,000 Jews from Lithuania and other European countries.

In 2003, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the genocide of Jews in Lithuania, seven bronze bas-reliefs, created by the famous artist Arbit Blato in 1978 for the victims of the Holocaust were revealed in the courtyard at the Ninth Fort. They were donated by Arbit Blato’s widow Regina Resnik – Blat  “Arbit Blatas, who so often painted his closest friends, the great artists of this century, has consecrated his work as a sculptor to anonymous masses: the victims of the Holocaust, those millions who found no tombs for their tortured bodies, but who will live forever in his panels of bronze.S1031617 S1031618 S1031619 S1031620 S1031621 S1031622 S1031623

There were concerns in 2010 that there were fewer people attending the annual commemoration ceremony and no-one from the government or academics who were receiving grants to research the holocaust although the Mayor of Vilnius and foreign diplomats attended.

On April 11, 2011, the memorial to the victims of Nazism was vandalized — the memorial tombstones were knocked down, and white swastikas were spray-painted on the memorial. On the adjacent sidewalk, the words “Juden raus” (German: Jews Out) were inscribed.

I can’t help feeling that Lithuania has yet to come to terms with what happened to the Lithuanian jews (Litvaks) and their part in the massacres.

At one time Vilnius was regarded as the Jerusalem of the North. Before WWII there were 100,000 jews in Vilnius,45%, of the population. Now there are very few jews living there.

There were Lithuanians who helped jews escape. Some of these, described as “righteous among the nations“, are honoured at the Ninth Fort. S1031630

Amongst those recognised was the japanese consul Chiune Sugihara, sometimes described as Lithuania’s Schindler.S1031627

He helped jewish families escape soviet occupation by distributing visas to travel to Japan and then on to further destinations.


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The Japanese Schindler in Lithuania

The story of Japanese Consul Chiune Sugihara has already been told. I took these photographs in 2008 at the museum in Kaunas his memory.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We were taken there as part of our Language and Culture Summer School activities.

On the same day we also visited the 9th Fort which played a key role in Hitler’s programme to wipe out jews across Europe.