Vilnius Museum of Occupation

So… Vilnius. Capital of Lithuania. I ended up spending a week here as I was heading to Minsk on June 9 and didn’t have time/couldn’t be bothered going down to Poland. I had intended to use Vilnius as a base of operations and doing short day trips around, but the weather was so crappy for most of the trip that I couldn’t be bothered. Plus, thanks to an anonymous generous benefactor (AGB), I had a free place to stay and someone to hang out with on occasion.

Anyway, my first night in Vilnius, the weather was decidedly shitty and cold, but I spent it drinking a bottle of wine and eating olives with aforementioned travel buddy from the previous post. I enjoyed the evening, though I think that may be because I was fairly insulting and rude, which I hadn’t had the pleasure of being for a while (sorry Eric, really bad habit, though you did deserve some of it :P).

Unfortunately, the weather didn’t clear up the next day, which was a real shame, because AGB was going to surprise me/try to kill me by taking me skydiving! I think he just wanted to see me scream for my life and wet myself. Anyway, we went to the skydiving centre and they said sorry, we aren’t going up today because the weather isn’t cooperating and as they only do weekends I never got the opportunity. AGB was busy the next day and couldn’t do the following Saturday before I left for Belarus. Oh well, next time.

The rest of the week was spent in rather blissful relaxation. Though I think I should have gotten a mani/pedi with the money I saved on not paying for accommodation for the week. I actually ended up spending the week randomly sightseeing (aka wandering aimlessly) and drinking in pubs, café’s and chocolate bars while people watching. Not a bad week overall. I did go to the occupation museum, which was actually quite different from the other occupation museums that I had been to. While the other occupation museums covered the Nazi occupation as well as Soviet occupation (Nazi occupation only lasted a couple of years, compared to the decades of Soviet occupation), this museum really didn’t say anything about Nazi occupation and gave very vague directions on how to get to a Jewish museum which explained more about Nazi occupation. After further research and visiting these museums I have come to the conclusion that Lithuania is either very embarrassed about its role in Nazi eradication of Jews or is still anti-Semitic (or would be there were enough Jews left to be anti-Semitic).

While Estonians and Latvians for the most part tried to have very little to do with Jewish massacres (obviously there were anti-Semites who took part, but it wasn’t a majority), Lithuanians were fairly more anti-Semitic and played a much more willing (and successful) role in eradicating the Jews in the area. Unfortunately, I never was able to find that Jewish Holocaust/Nazi occupation museum, because I think it would have been extremely interesting (and sobering) to see it.

Anyway, back to the Vilnius Occupation Museum. I ended up spending a good two hours in this museum. It was rather large and had a very detailed and excellent exhibit. The exhibits (as far as I could tell) were in Lithuanian, Russian and English. They had detailed exhibits on the occupation, they had an entire floor of the building (previously used as Cheka, Nazi and KGB headquarters) as an exhibit of the prison in the basement (not sure they had to refurbish most of it, I think a lot of it was original) and access to the exercise yard and execution room.

I’m going to do a comparison here. Might be a bit unfair, but it’s my blog, so if you don’t like it, comment. I visited the KGB museum in Tartu, Estonia, which was in the basement of the building used as KGB headquarters during Soviet occupation. The bottom floor in Tartu was used as a prison and was an extremely sobering experience. It was disturbing to see where these prisoners slept, were kept in isolation, were punished, etc. Frankly, it was nothing compared to the prison I saw in Vilnius. As I said, this may be unfair as Vilnius is at least 4 times larger than Tartu and presumably has always been larger. I wasn’t allowed to take photos in the one in Vilnius unfortunately, so I can’t show you what I’m talking about. It was sobering. It was shocking. I found my mind wandering to thinking about other things to try to block out what I was seeing. You can’t block it out though.

It was about 20 degrees Celsius outside but this basement was freezing. I was cold wearing a jacket and scarf. There were interrogation rooms, which weren’t much different from the rooms prisoners slept in except there was a table and stools. I imagine when it was a working prison there were probably also items used for torture in there. The solitary confinement rooms were small, though decidedly larger than the ones in Tartu. There was at least room for a person to lie down (assuming they could stomach the cold as they were stripped down to their underclothes) and a place for them to relieve themselves but it could not have been enjoyable, being stuck in a small, cold room with no opportunity for exercise whatsoever. At least the regular prisoners were allowed 15 minutes or so a day to walk outside and see the sun.

There were also rooms where prisoners who misbehaved were punished. Not punished via whipping or solitary confinement (though I suppose they were alone so maybe that counts?) but they were forced to stand on a small metal stand about as big around as a bar stool. This metal stand was raised about a foot off the ground, but it was in a dip in the floor that apparently during the summer was filled with cold water and during the winter was ice. If the person lost balance or fell asleep they fell into the water or onto the ice. It’s a type of torture I’d never actually heard before. The display didn’t say how long prisoners were stuck there for, but I imagine it was long enough to be sufficiently painful.

You can also go into a separate basement room which was used to execute people. An American/Lithuanian charity helped to pay to have it excavated and refurbished so that people could see it. I should probably get the name of the group. Anyway, the entire (seemingly soundproofed) area made up of a couple of rooms was redesigned so that you walked on plexiglass and saw sand underneath with stuff found in mass graves and in the room. I was grateful for this. I had a hard enough time coping in the room as it was, I don’t know how well I would have coped knowing I was walking on the same floor that had seen hundreds of people murdered, knowing those people had been thrown in the back of a truck and then tossed into a mass grave a few kilometres away. Needless to say, I didn’t stay there long.

I’m not really sure how to wind up this blog, or even if I should really post what I’m thinking before I leave Belarus (welcome to the Iron Curtain). I’ve learned about the Holocaust in school, not so much about Soviet occupation, but I learned plenty about that here in the Baltics where they were most affected by it in Europe. You look at the number of deaths by both regimes, the type of control they asserted, the atrocities they committed and you can’t help but wonder, “which was the lesser of the two evils?” I suppose it depends on your economic position, whether or not you were Jewish, whether or not you agreed with the basic ideologies of either of the regimes (for instance, a Latvian man disagreed with killing Jews but otherwise agreed with Nazi ideas), and how secure you were in the knowledge that you were going to die of natural causes.

I wasn’t brought up to hate people. The church I grew up in didn’t say I was better than anyone else, didn’t preach against gays, I was never taught to be racist or disagree with bi-racial marriages or told that socio-economic problems are the fault of the Native Americans or Mexicans or African Americans who may be in the majority of lower socio-economic areas for whatever reason. I may not really like people that much but I could never imagine persecuting, torturing or killing anyone because they disagree with me, or because they have more money than myself or because they are from a certain background.

I was asked by someone, who shall remain unnamed,  in discussing my opinion that people are to be treated equally “if some known neo-Nazi’s walked into a restaurant that you owned, would you let them eat there?” Yes I would. I disagree with their beliefs, I think their beliefs are vile and repulsive, but if they haven’t committed any crimes, if they are out and about walking free and have the same rights as everyone else and they are going to pay their bill then I have no right to deny them at my restaurant just because of their beliefs. What kind of person would that make me? No better than them, that’s for sure.

Basically, I just can’t imagine how people could have committed the atrocities that they did. Throw someone in jail for murder or robbery or assault. But for disagreeing with communist ideas, or the government or for not hating someone? I just can’t understand it. I understand WHY, but I don’t understand HOW governments could have instituted these policies or how people could have sat by and watched or actively participated in murder and torture. I don’t understand how they STILL can, because let’s face it, it obviously happens.

I think it’s important that people learn that these things happened, that these things STILL happen. It’s important that we educate ourselves on these topics because it’s through education that we learn what really matters and what needs to be changed.