Tag Archive: Baltics

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.


3 weeks down, 49 to go: A Reflection

Yes, this is my 3 week reflection. I haven’t even been gone a month and I am already reflecting. This is a completely random post, so dear friends and family, I can forgive you for having zero desire to read it. I’m currently writing from a pub called La Birra Pub in Vilnius, Lithuania. I have a week to relax here, so I’m hoping the weather gets a bit warmer so that I will actually want to leave the pub to go see things. I chose this particular pub, not for the free wi-fi (of which there is none, but I’m really wishing they had), but for the fact that they play football (soccer) apparently non-stop. It’s actually a little odd that they have “mood music”, think Luther Vandross and Mama’s and the Papa’s yet are playing France v Serbia on the television.

Anyway, some of the more interesting things I have seen/heard in Eastern Europe:

  1. The Baltics all have cricket teams. I shit you not. My couchsurfing host in Tallinn is an assistant coach for the Estonian National Team. I am currently staying at one of the many apartments of one of the co-captains for the Lithuanian National Cricket Team. The even more hilarious thing about it is that I was staying at a hostel in a tiny town called Siauliai (pronounced something along the lines of Shoo-lay or Shau-lay depending on who is saying it) and a pommy was talking to one of the Lithuanian staff members about countries where sports are rather obscure but they still do really well internationally (eg. Volleyball in Poland. Apparently no-one knows they have a team but they came second in the world championships. Go figure.) and he asked said staff member if Lithuania has a cricket team just as I was walking out of the kitchen. I was actually able to confirm that they do. I was also able to confirm that it’s made up primarily of expats. It’s still bizarre to me.
  2. Kebab shops all over the friggin place. None of them have pide, so I haven’t tried them, but I’m interested in testing the quality and seeing if they are actually run by Turkish or Lebanese people.
  3. Homogeneity- These countries have less diversity than Montana when I was growing up. Admittedly, Montana has much more diversity there now than when I was there (still not a whole lot in comparison to some places), but when I was growing up the population was predominantly white and you’d see Native Americans around with the VERY occasional African-American or Asian person. You definitely didn’t see anyone from say…India. This place puts Montana’s homogeneity to shame. I think I’ve seen 2 Asians the entire trip and they’ve been travellers as well. Even most of the travellers here are white. All the kids are blonde haired and blue eyed, the women are long limbed, gorgeous with high cheekbones and the men are all very distinctively Eastern European looking, even if they aren’t always attractive.

Things I’ve learned

  1. I’ve learned more about German and Soviet Occupation in the Baltics than I ever would have learned had I not travelled here. Seriously, I now know more about occupation in the Baltics than I do in Western Europe, which I learned about every year in school.
  2. I seem to be significantly better at making friends with men than with women. I don’t get it. Yes, I’ve made friends with girls on my trip, but I’ve got about 3 or 4 times the number of men I’ve hung out with/chatted to/made friends with over girls.
  3. You cannot go anywhere without meeting an Australian. If I don’t meet one in Belarus I’m going to be significantly disappointed.

Things I miss:

  1. Peanut Butter. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to get peanut butter in these countries? I have to go to a special grocery store to find it and it’s about $5 a jar. Then I have to cart it around everywhere. Totally worth it to be eating extra crunchy Skippy.
  2. My wardrobe. Seriously, I have an extensive wardrobe. I miss my clothes, my shoes, and most importantly, I miss my Madam Sin dresses. And my shoes. So many beautiful shoes over here and because I have no space for them, I can’t buy them. Plus I didn’t budget for shoes. I really really really miss my wardrobe.
  3. Being able to call and talk to friends or my parents at non-bizarre hours and not having to worry about the cost because I have a ridiculously good phone plan in Australia. I’m working on prepaid here and have to pick up a new SIM card every country and unless I want to spend ridiculous amounts of money on it I don’t get to call home much and have to wait until both my parents, or my friends, and myself are online to use messenger or skype.
  4. Being able to sleep with 4 pillows. Staying with couchsurfers and at hostels, I’m usually lucky if I have 2 pillows. I miss sleeping with an unnecessary amount of pillows. Spoiled little brat, I’m aware.
  5. Western toilets. The further east I go in these countries the more public toilets I see that are squat toilets (holes in the ground). Thank goodness I have years of practice not sitting on public toilets while I use the loo. Still fairly disgusting though. Plus I disapprove of having to pay to use a hole in the ground simply because there is a door to give me some privacy.

Things I love:

  1. Seeing things I’ve never before seen and learning all sorts of new stuff. Enough said there. You can read the blogs for that.
  2. The food. It’s everywhere, there’s a lot of it, generally speaking it’s fresh. How I haven’t put on 10 kilos is beyond me. Though speaking to Ivo on Skype today there was definitely some criticism about putting on weight and having some extra body fat. Thanks honey. I’ll cut back on the food and up the alcohol intake.
  3. The people watching. They wear some ridiculous clothes over here, the men and women both are quite beautiful generally speaking and the beer is good so I can sit at a bar and watch the world pass by.
  4. The beer. Most places produce their own beer, and even the mass produced and the darker beers are good. Give it a couple of months when I’m down in Southeastern Europe and I’ll probably be saying the wine.
  5. And last, but certainly not least….the Freedom. I have no schedule here. With the exception of a couple buses or trains (which are flexible) and some things that have been planned for me, I have no obligations to be in certain places at certain times. I don’t remember the last time I was this calm or refreshed, and apparently it shows. I even went three weeks without having a single nightmare (usually I have 4-6 every week). Yes, I am getting a bit antsy because I am a complete workaholic and feel the need to go to work and really want to go to and miss work and have some source of income, but it’s still been great.

So there you have it, my three week reflection. Not a lot to reflect on yet, but the fact that I am on an amazing trip, am lucky enough to be able to take a trip like this, I’m lucky enough to be able to travel to such beautiful places in the world does not escape me and I reflect on that constantly.

Next up: Lithuania!

What I’m reading now: Amidst Latvians During the Holocaust- Edward Anders

What I’m listening to now: The same playlist at the random soccer pub that I’m sitting at.