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


  1. So did you enjoy Baltic countries? Are you going to come back? We are always waiting!

  2. Yes! It was an amazing time, they were very much enjoyed. I will visit again, I almost thought about going to Poland earlier this year, when I was planning on visiting Lviv, Ukraine.