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Sunday, October 23, 2016

A Somber Sunday Reminder

The Holocaust Museum in the "Green House", an annex of the State Jewish Museum

On an appropriately gloomy Sunday morning (cold, gray and drizzly), I paid a visit to the Holocaust Museum (Holokausto Muziejus), located in a small house noted for its green color. Up until the Holocaust, Vilnius had been home to large, influential Jewish community. The Jewish population of Lithuania stood at 160,000 on the eve of the Second World War, comprising 7% of the total Lithuanian population. Vilnius (then under Polish administration) was a center of Jewish learning centered around the customs of the Litvaks, as Lithuanian Jews are known in Yiddish. In fact, 45% of the city's prewar population of 100,000 was Jewish. The Litvaks were noted for their rigid interpretation of the Talmud, Jewish laws and traditions, as well as for their intellectualism. The Nazis and their local allies decimated this community, and today fewer than 4000 Jews remain in Lithuania.

The approach to the Holocaust Museum passes by a memorial to Chiune Sugihara 杉原千畝, the Japanese Vice-Consul in Lithuania who saved the lives of 6000 Jewish refugees by issuing them transit visas which allowed them to travel to Japanese territory, against orders from his government and at the cost of his diplomatic career. The graffiti on the wall in the background is an unfortunate, tasteless eyesore:

There's also a memorial to Jan Zwartendijk, the acting Dutch consul in Lithuania in 1940 who defied his government and worked with Sugihara in issuing transit visas for 2400 Jews:

The Green House. While visiting the Tolerance Center three months ago, I had overheard a visitor complaining to one of the staff there that the Holocaust Museum was a "joke", so I wasn't sure what to expect this morning. What I discovered is that the museum is anything but that. Sure, it's small and not housed in a modern structure with all the interactive components we've come to expect of modern museums. But this same simplicity serves to make the displays all the more moving:

The women in this photo with light circles around their faces were the only members of this family to survive the war. The younger woman in the first row is still alive at 94 years of age, living in Vilnius and active in the local Jewish community:

The cold efficiency of the German cataloging of their actions:

Pre-World War II Vilnius was known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania:

The decree forcing Jews to wear a yellow Star of Zion on their chests, following the German invasion of Lithuania in 1941:

A display on the atrocities that took place in nearby Paneriai:

"The pits are always open and the bullets are always ready for the Jews":

Altogether, the Germans and their Lithuanian collaborators murdered around 35,000 Jews in the Paneriai Forest from July-October 1941. Two ghettos were established to hold the remaining Jews in Vilnius:

An exhibit on those who resisted the Nazis:

Sadly, of course, the ghettos and labor camps were eventually liquidated, and few were to survive:

"Jewish refugees seeking transit visas outside the Japanese consulate in Kaunas...":

Modern-day Russian propaganda directed at Lithuania likes to point out the collaboration of locals in the extermination of the Jews. However, in the years following the expulsion of the Germans from Lithuania by the Red Army, the Soviets ruthlessly destroyed most of what little remained of Jewish Vilnius and refused to acknowledge the uniqueness of the suffering of the Litvaks during the war:

Of all the photographs on display at the Holocaust Museum, this is the most haunting:

The Holocaust Museum is small, and it only takes about an hour to see everything within, which might explain why the above-mentioned gentleman didn't seem impressed with it. But I found it to be a sobering, yet worthwhile experience.

You may've noticed that no mention has been made so far of my wife and daughter. That's because I visited the museum on my own this morning (it's only a short walk from our apartment building). For Shu-E, being the product of a China-centric education system while growing up in martial law-era Taiwan, it's difficult to grasp the extent of the horrors of the Holocaust.  For Amber, having already visited Paneriai, Dachau and the Museum of the Ninth Fort in the space of only a few months, enough is enough at this point (though the three of us will probably see the Anne Frank House when we go to Amsterdam next month). So I made no mention of what I saw when I returned home.

Life goes on. And so we went into Old Town this afternoon, first having lunch at the aptly-named Meat Lover's Pub, where a hefty T-bone steak washed down with a couple of craft beers served to remind that not all is wrong with this world (next time we visit, I'll try the horse burger):

Taking a stroll along Stiklių gatvė after lunch, we came across a shop called Dom Bow Ties, specializing in, you guessed it, bow ties. Not knowing how to properly tie one of the damned things, I passed on the opportunity to purchase one of their hand-made bow ties; I did, however, find a standard silk necktie to add to my wardrobe:

The impulse shopping continued as we went into a cafe across the street to have coffee and cake, and walked out with a bottle of Sintaro Sino, a semi-sweet cherry wine produced in Lithuania:

Not to be outdone, our daughter insisted she needed a new pair of mittens, which were duly procured from a nearby outdoor market:

This afternoon was a reminder of how fortunate we are to be living and working in Vilnius, and of how even on a chilly day such as today, Old Town can still work its magic. However, in Europe the terrible past is never very far from the comfortable present. On the way home we passed this sign reminding us that the Great Synagogue once stood on this site. The synagogue was built in 1572, and had an Italian Renaissance interior. The Soviets, of course, bulldozed the building in the 1950's while in the process of destroying what was left of the Jewish quarter after WWII:

In its place is this forlorn park, a reminder that only ghosts remain of the cafes and artisans' workshops that once made up Jewish Vilna:

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Here Come the Calvary

Sunrise from our living room window. This was taken just before 8 o'clock, an indication of how the daylight hours are getting shorter

Jesus Christ - a name I often mutter when I'm left dumbfounded by someone or something, but one I don't usually give much thought to otherwise. I don't consider myself a religious or spiritual person, especially when it comes to those faiths of the Judeo-Christian or Islamic variety, but I do like the idea of pilgrimages - the notion of taking extended walks in order to visit places of worship appeals to one like me who enjoys a good trek in the hills or woods. One of these days, for example, I'd like to tackle the Shikoku Pilgrimage 四国八十八箇所 in Japan, with its 88 temples associated with the Buddhist monk Kūkai 空海 (health, money and time permitting, of course). So when I discovered that Vilnius has its own version of the Calvary, the Verkiai Calvary (Kalvarijos), I wanted to give it a try. With the wife and child preferring to stay home on a chilly (4°C/39°F) and overcast Saturday, I figured this afternoon would be as good a time as any, and made the 15-minute drive to the starting point after lunch.

Not having attended many Sunday school classes in my youth, I had to look up the significance of the Calvary on Wikipedia:

...a set of religious edifices imitating Jerusalem, often constructed on hills. It functions as a sanctuary of the Passion of Christ where Mystery places are held before Easter, often with miraculous images of Our Lady of Sorrows and sometimes the relics of True Cross.

I was also able to locate an informative website in both Lithuanian and English on the Vilnius Calvary, plus there's a short article on Wikipedia. From these sources, I learned that the route was laid out in 1662-69, largely destroyed by Soviet authorities in 1962 and reconstructed in 1990-2002, and so, having done my research, I was ready to begin the "trek". The short route is well-signposted, along with directional arrows and the occasional bilingual stone explaining the connections to Jerusalem:

The first stop, with its representation of the Last Supper inside, is indicative of what most of the small chapels on the route look like:

In the final throes of fall foliage, the woods were magnificent to walk through:

Jesus gets arrested in stop IV:

Stop V represents crossing the Kidron Valley. It looks more like a guard booth on a small bridge:

Some of the stops along the route take the form of gates, like VI - "Disciples Flee Jesus before the Gate of the Town":

The shrine below, resembling a barn cut in half, is actually three stops in one, IX-X-XI:

The basement (stop X) contains a statue depicting Jesus imprisoned at Caiaphas' Palace:

The two-story chapel is home to XIII (downstairs) and XXI (upstairs). The gate to the latter was closed, but the former had a modernist-looking painting showing Jesus chatting with Pilate, a nice change from the style of most of the artwork along the route:

XV ("At Herod's) seen through XIV ("The First Time at the Iron Gate"):

XXII - "Jesus Takes His Cross":

XXIV: "Jesus Meets His Mother":

XXVI: "Veronica Wipes Christ's Face with her Veil":

The route eventually leads to the Church of the Discovery of the Holy Cross, home to XXXII ("Jesus Dies on the Cross"). A child's christening was taking place as I went inside to have a look (that's XXX - "Jesus Stripped of His Garments" - next to the steps leading up to the main door of the church):

I don't know if today had any special significance, but there were a lot of people tending to the graves of loved ones this afternoon:

A rather gruesome-looking sculpture encased in glass sits outside the church:

XXXIV - "Jesus Laid in the Sepulcher":

XXXV - "The Finding of the Holy Cross" and the last stop on the Verkiai Calvary. Note the crude crosses in front of the painting:

I call this selfie "Uncle Fester in the Graveyard on a Chilly October Afternoon":

Looking back at the church from the cemetery before beginning the return trip to my car. Many of the names on the gravestones are Polish, a reflection of the fact that the city was administered by Poland from 1920 until the Red Army returned it to Lithuanian control in 1939 (and then taking over Lithuania in the spring of 1940):

For the most part the Vilnius Calvary is a fairly straightforward walking trail. Going at a leisurely pace, it took me about 2½ hours to complete the route. My attitudes regarding Christianity haven't changed a bit, but I was struck by the devotion that went into laying out the course, both back in the 17th century and again after the restoration of independence. Lithuania may have been the last European country to adopt Christianity (with paganism never completely going away), but today at least 77% of the population is Roman Catholic, and several public holidays are overtly religious. Churches can be seen all over this country, and during the Soviet occupation Christianity served as a way to express dissent (see the Hill of Crosses). In the same way I've been fascinated with Buddhist and Taoist temples and Shintō shrines, I find it hard to resist popping inside a Christian church to have a look around. Which means you'll probably be seeing a lot more posts like this while we're here in Lithuania.