Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Last day in Eastern Europe ~ Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Our trip has focused on the past history of Eastern Europe, and the current ways of remembering and interpreting the past.  It exposed us to the revival of Jewish life, and it helped us engage with both Polish and Lithuanian people. By immersing ourselves within the cultures we enjoyed ourselves and had an eye-opening experience.  This was accomplished throughout the trip, even on the very last day.

Lenin shrunk down to size
Our final day started off with a powerful lesson about the Lithuania's experience under the control of foreigners.  First, under Soviet communist control from 1940-41, followed by German control for the following 3 years, and then once again under communist rule until 1991.  Across from our hostel is a building that housed both the Gestapo and the KGB (Soviet secret police).  After Lithuanian independence, the new government established the building as the national “Museum of Genocide Victims.”  

Once inside we learned about the cultural oppression, arrests, deportations, imprisonment, forced labor, and executions during the Soviet occupation.  Going through the well-documented museum--including the prison and torture cells in the basement--was painful and distressing, and we were all emotionally drained by it.   

The only way Frank Zappa ever
reached Lithuania.

What a relief it was to be outside in the free air of 2014 Vilnius!  We had a much needed, mood lifting visit to the Frank Zappa statue where Dylan Lerner presented on why Zappa was an attractive figure of rebellion for Lithuanian youth during Soviet times.

After the presentation we divided into two groups.  Half the group joined Prof. O’Sullivan for a visit to the Lithuanian Museum of Contemporary Art.  The art displayed was surprisingly similar to American contemporary art with many surreal paintings and strange creations. 

What does it mean?  What does it mean?

One room contained furniture, portraits, and paintings, but everything was duplicated, causing us to question our eyes.  Another room was pitch black, except for the light shining from the vintage film projectors lined up against the wall, creating the unique sound of spinning film canisters.  This kind of contemporary art challenges our views of reality and normalcy.  Having started the day at the former KGB headquarters, we were pleased to see the progress of a generation of liberated people free to paint and create and break from conformity.

The other half of our group accompanied Prof. Myers to meet two special people.  After first enjoying a delicious lunch at a Hari Krishna vegetarian restaurant, we met the people we were looking for at The Green House, the Jewish Holocaust museum of Lithuania.  

getting the "real" experience of hiding in an attic

The first was a feisty and politically radical elderly woman named Rachel.   She sat us down and told us how her father, a judge in Vilnius, placed her and her mother on a train to central USSR on the day before the German invasion.  Although they faced great hardship, the Lithuanian government-in-exile helped them spend the years during the war in safety.  The fact that they were Jewish was not considered a problem - in fact, Rachel's school classes were in Yiddish.  We asked her what she thought of the KGB Museum of Genocide Victims. 

Rachel in the front center, Sebastian in the back left

Before she was able to answer, the second person we had been looking for appeared, a 20-something Austrian named Sebastian volunteering at The Green House.  “Lithuanians suffered genocide,” they both said, “and it occurred when Jewish Lithuanians were murdered by other Lithuanians.”  While they do not deny the horrible 50-year Soviet oppression of Lithuanians, they object to labeling it genocide.  Most important, they protest the lack of acknowledgement by Lithuanians that they played a major role in slaughtering Lithuanian Jews.  Sebastian compared the situation in Lithuania to his native Austria.  He described the effect on him when the Austrian politician Kurt Waldheim's wartime collaboration with the Nazis was revealed.  Rachel challenged us American citizens to be more skeptical of official and media reports about current events, and she urged us to respond to injustice, even if it makes us unpopular. 

The rest of the day was free for shopping, packing, more eating, and fun.  We had our farewell group dinner at a pizza parlor, and the students presented the professors with tokens of appreciation.  Some of us went out with our new Lithuanian college student friends, but it was generally a quiet and relaxing evening.  Our two weeks together were coming to an end.  The tragic events we studied on this trip resonated deeply with everyone.  It was inspiring to see the rebirth of Poland and Lithuania and the continued vitality of the Jews in those lands. 

We feel fortunate that we had such an amazing and dynamic learning experience.  This trip transformed how we look at the past.  It has helped develop our critical thinking skills, and put us on the path toward being global citizens.  
on our journey together

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Grutas Park ~ Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Good as a scratching pole, too. 
We left at 10 a.m. in the pouring rain to Grutas Park. By the time we got there the rain was just a drizzle.

Grutas Park is a bizarre creation, a theme park devoted to Lenin and the era (1941-1990) when the USSR imposed communist rule onto Lithuania.  So how come the first thing we saw when we walked in was a llama?

cute bears in an awful cage

Imagine a family-oriented park in the country complete with a few farm animals lolling around the pasture, a zoo with cages of fowl and mammals, a restaurant, picnic tables, swings and other simple playground equipment good for 3-8 year olds.

Soviet-era music resonates
through the trees from old
prison watchtower.
These are set alongside a black-topped path through the woods alongside a stream.  Every few yards appear the actual statues of Lenin, mostly, but also other Soviet leaders and heroes and “ideal types” (Soviet partisans, well-muscled and attractive farmers) that had been placed in public spaces in Lithuania and nearby Baltic states. 

huge Soviet partisans

Written explanations (in Lithuanian, Russian, and English) give a short biography of the person’s life and the achievements that merited the statue-making, acts like “ordered the deaths of 5,000 Lithuanians in such-and-such forest in 1956-1960” or “responsible for sending 30,000 to imprisonment in Siberia” or “committed acts of genocide.”   (Genocide?  Did the Soviets commit acts of genocide in Lithuania?  Hmm. . . . More on that tomorrow.)

Stalin and Jackson
There were also several inside exhibit rooms alongside the path with explicit displays of Soviet-era art work, uniforms, medals, souvenirs, and other items upon which were imprinted pro-communist symbols or messages.  One exhibit displayed world and local newspaper articles reporting Soviet oppression, criminal trials, and violence from diverse perspectives.  There were copies of horrific photographs that the communist regime would put on display, showing the fate of Lithuanian resisters who had been caught. 

Here’s the idea behind the combination family-fun-learn-about-communism-outing:  the little kids play and see the animals while Mom and Dad and teenagers absorb lessons about the cruel and despicable Soviet rule.  We were both little kids and adults at Grutas Park. 

The bus ride there and back, in our cozy and comfy bus, was an occasion for catching up on much-needed sleep!  Leonardas stopped at the side of the road so we could buy wild strawberries and blue berries from the sellers.  He got us around a clogged street by driving down the left-hand side of the highway and then moving back just in time.  

Back in Vilnius, we had free time.  Some went souvenir shopping in the on-and-off rain, some ate, some stayed in the hostel and wondered where everyone else was.  Vilnius was nearly closed-down at the end of its national holiday.  Us, too. 
soccer ball with the colors of
the national flag of Lithuania

That night most people hung out in the common room and watched the World Cup. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Vilnius learning and fun ~ Monday, June 23, 2014

Fruma's shop in Vilnius, circa 1935
After breakfast we had a Jewish Heritage Tour of Vilnius with a pre-arranged guide named Jurate.  For the next three hours we walked through quite a bit of the older part of Vilnius, because Jews comprised more than 30% of the urban population and could be referenced at all major buildings.  

Sights included the one remaining synagogue, the location of the walls of the smaller and bigger Jewish ghetto, and the first Lithuanian monument dedicated to Chiune Sugihara.  Jurate seemed to have more energy for walking and touring, but we were brought to the town square where we broke for lunch.  

Lithuanians take great
pride in their coffee designs.

disquieting facade of a Vilnius theater company
 As usual, we all scattered to restaurants that served our favorite cuisines.

One group of students joined Dr. O'Sullivan for authentic German food.  Who knew you could find this in Vilnius?  Students enjoyed it very much.

outside of the only remaining historical synagogue in Vilnius
Although our walking tour had ended, our exploration of Jewish heritage in Lithuania continued with a visit to the “Center for Tolerance,” Lithuania’s Jewish State and Holocaust Museum, which contained a lot of information on the history of Lithuanian Jews.  There was an exhibit of 20th century paintings, and beautifully crafted silver ritual objects like candelabras, goblets, and spice boxes.  The museum also demonstrated the plight of the Lithuanian people under both German and Soviet rule.  Some of our students noted that, despite the dark period of the Holocaust, the museum's very existence is a testament to the will of the people to survive.

This museum was a great preparation for that night's event.  Prof. Myers had arranged a meeting with the leaders of the Vilnius Jewish community and some college students. 
can you believe these are doors to the university?!
We met at the Jewish Community Center, an attractive, well-guarded building topped with a large white statue of Moses.  We were greeted and served an assortment of cookies, chips, cheeses, coffee, and wine.  Amit, the president of the organization of Jewish college students in Lithuania, opened with a powerful speech declaring that the center was most important to the study of Lithuanian Jews because "it is the living part of the culture."  We were then greeted by a woman named Faina, the head of the Jewish community of Vilnius and Lithuania.  She told us her personal history and the responsibilities of her organization, one of which is to educate Lithuanian non-Jews about the Jewish historical experiences.  We then met Shimon, the community's executive director, who was one of the first beneficiaries of the JCC’s establishment after the Soviet era.

gone in no time
Amit then divided us into small groups and assigned one of her college student friends to each group.  We all made introductions and spoke about ourselves.  After about ten minutes, the Lithuanian students moved to the next small group.  As a result, we had individual welcomes from each of the students and had the chance learn about each other.  As thanks for arranging the meeting, Amit presented Prof. Myers with a  grafo sakotis (tree cake), a Lithuanian favorite.

Our meeting concluded around 8 pm, but the socializing was by no means finished. We dispersed for a quick dinner, and within an hour, many of our students met the Lithuanian college students for an exclusive tour of Vilnius night life.  Since it was the evening of the national holiday and the college students had just completed their final exams, they were eager to party all night long.  Some of our students happily joined in them, parting at different hours – some after the sun rose in the morning, just in time for the next day’s activities.   
our hostel's dog ~
at least he was alert the next day!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Trakai, Ponary, and our first exposure to Vilnius ~ Sunday, June 22, 2014

Walking toward the island castle in the mist
Our new bus driver arrived promptly, and we loaded our luggage and headed toward Vilnius in the rain.  Leonardas won our hearts by turning on a Russian music video (after 20 minutes we begged him to turn it off), allowing us to eat in the bus, entertaining us with creative driving maneuvers, and talking animatedly in Russian with Prof. O’Sullivan throughout the trip.  He also agreed to let us spend one hour in the Trakai Castle, while he went and fetched us the famous local main-dish pastries, kibinai.

From here you can see them making kibinai

The Trakai Castle was built on an island in the 14th century by a Lithuanian grand duke.  It had glorious red stone walls, drawbridges over moats, and turrets.  The Soviets restored it as a gift to Lithuania after World War II, and it is a popular tourist destination.  Some rooms had exhibits of Victorian-style china, coins, and purses, while others contained paintings.  We raced through the rooms and squeezed up the narrow flights of stone stairs.   Our visit to Trakai was over far too soon.  We gathered at the bus stop and welcomed Leonardus and his precious booty, kibinai stuffed with lamb, pork, chicken, or cheese.  

Just outside of Vilnius we stopped at Ponary, or Panierai. 
one of the Jewish memorial stones
Making our way through the rain we went into a little museum and were greeted by an old and eloquent guide who pointed to the museum exhibits and told of the horrendous events that occurred here.  Panierai was a village alongside a rail line, and nearby were large pits built by the Soviets for oil storage.  The Germans used the site for mass murdering 100,000 people here and using the pits as mass graves.  Later they tried to hide their crimes by forcing prisoners to cremate the dead.  About 70,000 of the victims were Jews from Vilnius and the surrounding areas, many who had been imprisoned into the Vilna Ghetto.  The rest were soldiers and civilians who were non-Jewish Lithuanians, Poles, Romani, and Russians.  We stopped at the stone memorials and sculptures honoring the victims.  It was melancholy and beautiful, the forest and grass damp from the misty rain.  A moment of grace occurred when a moose appeared on a path between the trees nearby the students.  Noticing us, it disappeared into the woods.

Back on the bus, it was a short, quiet ride to the capital city.  The hostel was not yet ready for us, so we left our luggage and walked into Old Town Vilnius.  The air was cool and clean, and people were playing games in the midst of the street shut off from the traffic.  We could see that we would enjoy our last four days of our trip in this pretty and lively town.

fried onions, sour cream, and butter on top
of potato dough and a bit of stuffing

That night we had a group dinner featuring the national Lithuanian dish, cepelinai.  It’s sort of like a dumpling, but with moist, thick, bland outside, and inside is a mystery meat (or, in the case of the vegetarian version, a mystery cheese).

Perhaps the 2.9 million Lithuanians love it, but let us just say that for most of us, it was the first and last time cepelinai will pass our lips.

An Užupis wall tile commemorating a poet, writer,
 and diplomat from these parts who refused to identify
himself as either a Lithuanian or a Pole

And, to top off the day, we went to yet another cemetery.  It was in the charming section of Vilnius known as Užupis.  Prof. O’Sullivan’s friend Aurimas took us on a tour of this artsy neighborhood which has declared itself a separate, independent republic.  “Everyone has the right to be unique,” “Everyone has the right to be unhappy,” “Everyone has the right to love and take care of the cat,” and “Everyone has the right to celebrate or not celebrate their birthday” are among the 39 articles of their constitution.

Wire, ceramic, tile, and stone sculptures are placed between the trees, on the buildings, and in the square.  We loved their quirky humor.

Aurimas insisted that the pretty, wooded cemetery established in the 19th century was not a site to miss. It appeared strangely normal, filled with graves of people who mostly lived and died like they were supposed to.

We returned to the hostel.  Some students stayed up to watch the World Cup, others collapsed onto their clean beds.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Good news in Kaunas, Lithuania ~ Saturday, June 21, 2014

Dear Readers: Today’s post will include events that are definitely more upbeat!  No mass graves, no cemeteries, and we will focus on Jews who lived and the non-Jews who saved them! 

Oh, did we mention that our bus driver (who was supposed to be with us until airport drop-off) abandoned us last night?  Perhaps we depressed him with our sad itinerary.  He would have been happy with today’s activities.  But without him, we had to trudge MILES through rainy and cold Kaunas, up steep hills and down uneven cobblestone streets.  (All this is true). 

Kaunas Choraline Synagogue
In the morning, after enjoying presentations from three different students, we walked to the synagogue.  We merely looked at the impressive outside, and Prof. Myers talked about the determination of the Orthodox Jews to preserve their traditions. 

Like true scholars eager for knowledge, we marched through the streets and up a steep city hill, the drivers of the buses and cars amazed at our energy.  At the top was a lovely park-like neighborhood where we eventually found the former Japanese Embassy, currently the Sugihara Museum.  It had also been the home of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul to Lithuania in 1939-41, his children, and his wife, Yukiko, who played an important role in the saga.   

a life-saver

Defying orders from his superiors, he issued about 5,000 (numbers vary) travel visas to Polish Jewish refugees fleeing war-torn Poland.  With these documents, they traveled through the USSR on the Trans-Siberian Railway and reached safety in Asia.  Photos, documents, and maps decorated the rooms of the museum.  We also watched a very inspiring film with testimonies of those saved by Sugihara.   

Kaunas Jewish community members

Prof. Myers had arranged a meeting with members of the Kaunas Jewish community who met us at the museum.   One was a survivor, and despite her persecution at the hands of non-Jews, she is actively involved in interfaith fellowships.

Others were involved in social-welfare tasks of the community or planning programs.  Each spoke to us in a different language, and it’s a good thing Prof. O’Sullivan could translate the German, Lithuanian, and Russian! 

We ate lunch in Old Town Kaunas.  What are our lunches like?  Typically, everybody scatters in groups of 2 – 4 to the nearest restaurant (no such thing as fast food in Poland or Lithuania), attempting to decipher the menu and not irritate the waitresses too much, and then, when the food finally arrives after agonizing minutes, everybody inhales the meal in the effort to meet back at the promised time.  Invariably, some people are late, and after much sighing and checking of watches, the entire group takes off to conquer the next challenge.

This next activity may sound hellish, but it wasn’t.

Driftwood devil
We went to The Devil’s Museum.   This is a private collection of carvings, sculptures, paintings, pottery, and items that portray the devil from different cultural traditions.  They varied from the comic to the horrific in multiple artistic styles and materials, filling four floors of the building.

Lietuva means Lithuania, and notice the basketball logo.

Gathering together afterwards in the lobby, Rauhman taught us about Lithuanians’ obsession with basketball. 

"The King's Fairy Tale"

Jeremy followed with an exposition on the Lithuanian musician and painter Mikalojus Čiurlionis (choor-lee-o-niss) – and then most of us walked across the street to the Čiurlionis Museum to view the work of the artist himself.    The paintings were exotic, haunting, abstract, and beautiful!

We were not allowed to take photos, but we found this online image of one of the paintings we liked:  

After a day devoid of tragedy, we were exhausted.  We ordered pizza into the hostel for dinner and went to bed early.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Suwalki and western Lithuanian Jewish memorial sites ~ Friday, June 20, 2014

The gravestone of a learned Jewish man 
Our day began with an early departure from Gizycko.  We drove eastward into the small town of Suwalki, rich with history, where we found the pre-war Jewish cemetery.  While we waited at the gate for the key to enter, a local boy from a nearby home approached us in the rain and very excitedly shouted “Hello!” and ran back inside. He repeated the process every few minutes, delighted to have company.  Adam provided us with a history of Suwalki from its first Christian settlers until its current state. In the last hundred years, Suwalki has been the possession of Germany, Russia, or Poland.  This cemetery contains graves of seven different religions.  The Jewish one was the most in ruin – it was destroyed by the German army in World War II.

Running in the rain towards the wall 

We accessed the Jewish cemetery, which was mostly an overgrown field, by walking through its neighboring Russian Orthodox cemetery in the down pouring rain.

The wall of broken tombstones 

We huddled under rain ponchos and umbrellas behind a wall plastered on both side with fragments of Jewish gravestones that appeared to have been harvested from the ground and combined into one massive memorial.  The Jewish section also contained a memorial to the Holocaust victims but there were no post-war graves.

Jonathan quietly thinking "I could climb this." 
After we left the cemetery, we made our way to the border.  Our first stop in Lithuania was in the small border town of Kalwarija.  Here, with the help of some of the town’s locals, we managed to find the old Jewish ruins with only one photograph and no address.  These were three abandoned and ruined buildings, at least one of which had been a synagogue in a once-lively Jewish community.  It was a dark reminder of the events that the Jewish people faced at the time, and there does not seem to be any chance that the Jews will return to Kalwarija to renovate it. 

Now it was time for a brief lunch break and an exchange of currency.  We learned that ATMs dispense large bills that restaurant cashiers are not able to break.  They demonstrated remarkable patience as many students placed their orders and walked outside in search of smaller bills.

The beautiful bend 
Our next stop was in the nearby town of Marijampole.  Here, we searched for the memorial at the mass grave in the bend of the river.  We relied on our maps to reach the monument, but were unable to find it until a woman in her house came outside in curiosity.  Prof. O’Sullivan spoke with her in Russian. Before we knew it, this kind woman was walking us down the monument and leading the way. It was a short hike down the hill.  Professor Myers read a first-hand account from a witness of the mass murder of about 7,000 Jews and 1,000 people of other backgrounds.  They were rounded up by the German Einsatzgruppen (soldiers of the assassination squads) who arranged for Lithuanian high school and university-aged students to carry out the murders.  We all found it so disturbing that the murderers were people our age!  It was hard to be in the place where so many had been massacred.  Prof. Myers translated the message on the memorial stone, and we gazed around at the lush grassy area, dotted with cottages, along the beautiful river bend. 

Kaunus Old Town Square 
Our day concluded with a drive into Kaunus, the former capital of Lithuania that contains many tall and nice buildings.  After settling into our hostel, we embarked on a short walk to Old Town. In the city’s main square, which is home to many old churches, we learned town’s historical significance before our group dinner.  This was our introduction to the Lithuanian cuisine, which included a main course of a chicken breast stuffed with a grilled plum, vegetables, and for dessert a delicious vanilla ice cream with a raspberry topping.

This very long day included beautiful scenery, two cemeteries, ruins, a solemn mass grave site, and the big city of Kaunus.  We slept well in preparation for the next day’s full tour of the city.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Church pilgrimage, fortress, and boat ride ~ Thursday, June 19, 2014

We woke up to Corpus Christi day – a Catholic occasion for honoring the body of Jesus – and so of course we had to go to the nearby pilgrimage site called Swieta Lipka and learn about the local traditions.  There were hundreds of people who came, and several masses scheduled throughout the day, with overflow crowds outside the church each time. 

The baroque Cathedral was awe inspiring, a true religious marvel depicting the devotion of its faithful in physical form.  Its walls were illuminated by a wide range of color, and adorned with intricate architectural designs.  One inside wall included elaborately positioned angels with trumpets that moved in time with the notes of the Cathedral organist (see video tab). 

The service was more musical and engaging than the one we’d seen in Warsaw.  Altar boys led a procession into the church with priests holding silver containers containing smoking incense.  The lovely voices of the choir resonated through the high-arched interior, and the priest chanted melodically.  Again, the sermon and prayers were entirely in Polish.  Then the entire group of clergy, choir, and altar boys, followed by the congregation, formed a procession that wound around the front of the church into the town. 

At several stopping points, the priest enacted a ritual that used holy water and tree branches, and after he moved on to the next site, people took the little branches and moved on.  

We, too, eventually moved on to a restaurant adjacent to the town square.  We are getting quite expert at de-coding Polish menus, however some of us are still surprised by what the waitress brings! 

This is how horror movies start.
We spent the afternoon in a 19th century fortress in Gizycko which had been built by an earlier Prussian king and named after his Minister of War, von Boyen.  The fortress was also used in World War I and II and is still intact.  There were other tourists there, and one stranger took the opportunity to photo-bomb Krystle as she posed next to a tunnel. 

The unique aspect of the fortress design is that it is placed between the two lakes next to Gizycko and it is shaped like a 7-pointed star; if the intruders penetrated to the center of the fortress, they would be completely surrounded by defenders at the points of the star.  The perimeter walls are actually reinforced by man-made hills.  It seems impossible to penetrate, and yet Prussia/Germany continually lost battles there.  We enjoyed walking on the paths, hiking through the dense trees along the edge, and exploring the empty buildings. 

First group's route 

Despite being in the fortress, we lacked military discipline and soon unintentionally split into three separate groups that lost each other.  One group ended up in the low fortress center trying to find a way back up, while the second group – trying to find the third group – went the opposite direction and meandered through dark tunnels in search of a path to the light.  The third group possessed the only map and easily reached the exit and spent some time wondering what happened to the others. 

Afterwards, we went for a relaxing boat ride on the Gizycko lakes and canal.  The boat had a large upper deck with rows of benches, tables, and a snack bar.  We watched sailboats, fishermen, and kids waving from the shore.  Some of us slept while others talked non-stop.  After landing, we again split into smaller groups in search of food and other entertainment. 

Calm waters