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Sunday, May 22, 2016

A weekend of contrasts

As the title of post hopefully suggests, we experienced two contrasting sides of Lithuania this weekend. Yesterday (Saturday) the brighter side of life in Vilnius was on view, as we spent a relaxing afternoon simply wandering about. Just down the road from our temporary quarters is the monument to Frank Zappa, one of the two coolest things about Lithuania (the other is its historical status of being the last pagan country in Europe). The statue, the first of Moon Unit's father put up anywhere in the world, was created by a sculptor whose previous works had been of Lenin and other comrades. As for the connection between Zappa and Lithuania, as far as I know there isn't one:

Unusually for this family of carnivores, lunch was a vegetarian treat at a restaurant on Gedimino prospektas called Radharanė. The kofta, deep fried paneer-spinach balls, with basmati rice and salad (and washed down with strawberry lemonade), almost made me change my dietary convictions:

Yesterday was International Street Musician's Day, and seemingly on almost every corner in Vilnius' Old Town there were performers doing their thing - from child violin prodigies to earnest folk musicians to hard rock groups doing covers of Rage Against the Machine songs that were probably recorded before they were born (my gawd, am I really that old now?):

With generally good weather apart from a brief spot of mildly heavy rain, and people out enjoying the music on the cobblestone streets, this was European living at its finest, I thought, as I sat back with a beer at an outdoor cafe, watching the party bike pedal by and making mental notes of sightseeing spots to visit on future weekend outings:

But though it's an undeniably beautiful continent, there's also a dark side, a region the soil of which has been thoroughly soaked in blood and suffering over the centuries. And the worst moments in European history occurred in the not-too-distant past. Lithuania is no exception, and today (Sunday) the three of us made a sobering pilgrimage to Paneriai, a short train ride from Vilnius. The outing nonetheless kicked off on a lighthearted foot, with my daughter being amused by an odd statue next to the station platform, and our my excitement over our first train ride in Lithuania:

The tickets were cheap (only €0.60 each, about 70¢), and the train was clean, modern and punctual. The ride itself took only eight minutes, and yet as we got off at the unmanned Paneriai Station, we were already in the countryside. Our destination was 960 meters (0.6 miles) away, along a quiet, tree-lined road:

The scenery of the rural road made it all the harder to believe that Paneriai was the site of the Ponary massacre which took place during the Second World War. It was here that around 100,000 people were murdered by the Nazis (and a squad of Lithuanians) between June 1941 and June 1944. 70% of the victims were Jewish, with the rest including Poles, Soviet POW's, Roma and about 500 Catholic priests. We entered the Paneriai Holocaust Memorial (free) and approached the first of two monuments to the victims of the massacre, topped with the Star of David (and erected only in 1991, after Lithuania had freed itself from Soviet occupation):

The rear of the monument has one of the few English inscriptions in the memorial, with everything else being in Lithuanian and Russian (I did pick up an informative English-language pamphlet at the on-site museum). Vilnius had a thriving Jewish community, one of the largest in Europe, prior to the German invasion of the Soviet Union, but it was almost completely wiped out by the Nazis and their local collaborators:

The other main monument had been put up in 1948.  Marked with a Soviet star, it's dedicated to the "victims of Fascist terror" (pointedly ignoring the fact that the overwhelming majority of the dead here were Jews). At the time the killings began in 1941, Lithuania (along with Latvia and Estonia) was part of the U.S.S.R., having been annexed by the Soviets a year earlier as part of the secret protocols of the notorious Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and the victims were considered to be Soviet citizens:

The Paneriai Museum is small, but it tells in graphic and moving detail the horrifying story of what happened in these once-peaceful woods, with informative English captions. Most heart-wrenching was the description of the cold-hearted executions of children. The museum tells a story that needs to be told so that nothing like what happened there should ever occur again:

From the museum, we walked around the grounds of the memorial. After the Soviet takeover of Lithuania, the area was intended to be the site of an oil storage facility, and the Nazis took advantage of the pits that had been excavated for the purposes of storing oil tanks to dispose of the bodies of those they had executed. In this pit were stored the victims' clothing, footwear and personal belongings:

As the Red Army approached in the late spring and early summer of 1944, the Germans were desperate to hide the evidence of the crimes they had committed. Slave laborers were used to dig up the corpses and then burn them in order to eradicate all traces of the massacre. This is one of the pits where the bodies were incinerated:

This was the biggest of the massacre pits. As the Lonely Planet Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania guidebook describes the process:

The Nazis lined up their victims 10 at a time and shot them in the back of the head, allowing the corpses to simply fall into the pits. Several hundred people a day could be killed in this way. The bodies were then covered in sand to await the next layer.

The executions were carried out by the Einsatzkommando 9 SS killing unit, overseeing the work of the Lithuanian Ypatingasis būrys special platoon:  

Amber gives a clearer idea of just how large this pit was:

My daughter looks at the pit where prisoners from the Vilnius Jewish ghetto, including hospital patients and medical staff, the elderly and children from orphanages, were shot to death. I debated whether or not Amber should visit a place such as Paneriai, but in the end I decided that she was at the age where she should no longer be shielded from the terrible things that human beings do to each other, that she needs to become aware of what can happen when people give in to their fears, hatreds and prejudices, and blindly follow demagogues (sound familiar in this election season?). Throughout our visit, she maintained a respectful silence, and when I asked her several times how she was feeling, she said that everything was fine. I noticed, however, that she didn't spend much time in the museum:

Another pit that was used to burn corpses. It was also the site where 80 prisoners from the burner's brigade were kept. Beginning in February 1944 they started to dig a 30 meter-long (98 feet) underground passageway. On April 15, 1944 12 of the prisoners were able to escape by using the tunnel:

A memorial to Lithuanians killed in 1941 and erected in 1991. The large stone that can be seen in the background is a memorial to Red Army soldiers who were starved to death at that site in 1941:

There were only a handful of other visitors at the Paneriai Memorial this afternoon. The woods were quiet, save for the sounds of birds. It seems like it would be a nice place for a leisurely stroll through the forest, and it was hard to believe that here had been the site of so much death and suffering a mere three-quarters of a century ago. 100,000 people...:

A cross and memorial to the Polish victims who died here. Although Lithuania was an independent nation during the period between the two world wars (1918-1939), Vilnius was actually under Polish administration during that time, only being returned to Lithuanian control after the Soviet conquest of eastern Poland in 1939 and annexation of the Baltic republics in 1940. Even today there are more native Polish-speakers than Russians in Lithuania, a situation very different from neighbors Latvia and Estonia, where the ethnic Russian population in those countries numbers more than 25%:

This final memorial stone is dedicated to a typographer who promoted a banned Lithuanian-language journal. He and his family were executed in August 1941. The train tracks are visible in the background:

Behind the sign is a canal where doomed prisoners waited their turns to be killed:

After visiting the Paneriai Memorial, we caught the train back to Vilnius, had lunch in a cafe inside the train station, did some shopping at a supermarket across the road and then took a bus back to our neighborhood. We were back in the present, and life quickly returned to normal. Europe today (Lithuania included) is a prosperous and peaceful place, its residents enjoying a standard of living and quality of life that attracts people from all corners of the globe. A unified Europe has made a great deal of progress since the horrors of Nazism and, more recently, Communism came to an end.  But the scars remain, and they need to been seen and to be remembered. In the weeks and months to come, I hope to enjoy many of the sights of this beautiful country. But at the same time I don't intend to shy away from the memorials and monuments to the atrocities of the not-so-recent past. Lithuania, in particular, has several sites dedicated to the horrors not just of the Nazis, but of the Soviets as well. May we never forget, so that what happened will never be repeated, neither here nor in any other part of the world...






Sunday, May 15, 2016

First steps

Vilnius, Lithuania. We've been here since the sixth of May, and this weekend is the second for us in this so-far-charming Baltic capital city. I've put in a full week at work, my daughter has done the same at her new school and my wife has already become a regular patron at one of the local supermarkets. The embassy here is much smaller than the consulate in Shanghai, and the workload in the consular section is a lot lighter - the number of applicants processed in a fiscal year in Vilnius is roughly equal to the number of applicants visiting the Shanghai consulate in a day-and-a-half during the peak visa season at the latter. On the other hand, while I'll be interviewing far fewer visa applicants, the smallness of the section means I'll be assuming far more responsibilities than I ever did in China, so there's going to be a lot to learn in the coming weeks and months. 

As for astute observations on the country, culture and city, you're going to have to wait - I've barely been a week in Lithuania. In fact, as we're living in temporary quarters on the compound, I didn't even leave the embassy grounds during the workweek, meaning Amber and Pamela have seen more of the city than I have as my daughter goes to school and my wife does the shopping. Last Saturday (the day after we arrived), my supervisor kindly took us to a tea room for lunch and showed us around the neighborhood, while the next day our social sponsors introduced us to the Old Town section of Vilnius. Thanks to their efforts (as well as many others at the embassy), our transition to life in a new city and country has been going relatively smoothly, helped immensely by the fact that Lithuania appears so far to be a genuinely pleasant place to live. On that last note, however, check with me again next February, in the middle of a long, dark and cold Balkan winter, to see if my first impressions are still holding up.

This weekend was the first opportunity for the three of us to strike out on our own. As any visitor to Vilnius should, we began our explorations in the city's Old Town, one of the largest in Europe, and only a fifteen-minute walk from our living quarters. It wasn't long before we found ourselves on the cobblestoned Pilies Street, lined with outdoor cafes and offering a view of Gediminas Castle in the background. It certainly doesn't get much more stereotypically European than this:

We settled on a place called Forto Dvaras, offering "traditional" Lithuanian dishes. Designed to look like a rural cottage and serving a tourist clientele (the table behind ours was being used by a group of Italian men, who were later replaced by a Russian quartet), the food nonetheless wasn't bad. I ordered a plate of pork dumplings, which were remarkably similar in taste and texture to the Chinese variety, though with the added touch of cottage cheese:

And, of course, there was beer. I ordered a SVYTURYS Baltas, a satisfying wheat offering from the oldest operating brewery in Lithuania. Judging from the ubiquity of the name seen around town, I have the impression that SVYTURYS is one of the bigger brands in the country. I understand Lithuania has a thriving craft beer industry, so I hope to become more adventurous as I get more familiar with the suds market here:

Pamela was far more adventurous, bravely finishing the sickly sweet honey mead she ordered at the end of her meal:

After lunch, we continued walking along Pilies gatvė. Lithuania is one of the best places to purchase Baltic amber, and we've already come across several shops selling jewelry and other items made from fossil resin produced by pine trees which grew in Northern Europe about 50 million years ago, a fact which greatly pleases my daughter:

Pilies Street leads to Cathedral Square (Katedros aikštė), which marks the center of Vilnius. The square is dominated by Vilnius Cathedral and the 57 meter-high (187 feet) belfry. This was also the site of the wall around the Lower Castle, which served as a bastion against the crusades during the 13th century (Lithuania was the last European country to convert to Christianity, a fact that earns it bonus points from me. I'm looking forward to discovering evidence of the old pagan traditions). As it was already late in the afternoon (time seems to move at a different tempo in this part of the world), we didn't go inside either the belfry or the cathedral. What's the rush? We're going to be here for the next two years:

Our life in Vilnius has apparently gotten off on the right foot, thanks to my wife, who discovered the "miracle" (stebuklas) tile in the center of the square. The tile marks the spot where the Baltic Way ended in 1989. For those of you not old enough to remember (unlike your humble blogger), this was a protest against Soviet rule in which over two million people joined hands in a human chain stretching more than 650 kilometers (404 miles) from Tallinn (the capital of Estonia) to Vilnius. Local legend says that turning around three times on the stone will ensure your wish will come true, as the girls happily tested the theory:

The eastern end of Cathedral Square is dominated by a large statue of Grand Duke Gediminas, erected in 1996, six years after Lithuania declared itself free of the U.S.S.R. As Wikipedia describes him:

(Gediminas was) credited with founding (the Grand Duchy of Lithuania) and expanding its territory which, at the time of his death, spanned the area ranging from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. Also seen as one of the most significant individuals in early Lithuanian history, he was responsible for both building Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, and establishing a dynasty that can be traced to other European monarchies such as Poland, Hungary and Bohemia.

As part of his legacy, he gained a reputation for being a champion of paganism, who successfully diverted attempts to Christianize his country by skillful negotiations with the Pope and other Christian rulers.

On the basis of that last paragraph above alone, Gediminas sounds like an interesting character, and I hope to learn more about him as I further delve into this country's history:

The 48 meter-high (157 feet) hill, known as Gediminas Hill, rising behind the square was the site of the 13th-century Gediminas Castle, and the spot where Vilnius was founded. There is a convenient funicular train, but it's an easy walk to the top of the hill, from which there are excellent views of Old Town, as well as the more modern part of the city off to the north. We left the restored ruins for exploration on another occasion:

A European crow, which looks more like a PWA (Pigeon With Attitude):

With evening upon us (not that you could tell, with Lithuania's late-setting spring/summer sun. Of course, the opposite will be the case come winter, but we'll deal with that cruel trick of nature when the time comes), we headed home, along the commercial Gediminas Avenue (Gedimino prospketas) and through a local park, passing rooftop statues dubbed "creepy" by Amber and statues dedicated to local heroes:

Our Sunday was not quite as adventurous as the previous day's outing, due to the morning's rainy weather and a desire on our part not to do too much, too quickly. We had lunch at a neighborhood Chinese restaurant, where Pamela was surprised by how good-tasting the food was. We then took an after-meal stroll through the area. To my surprise, many buildings in Vilnius are blighted by graffiti, but unlike in American cities, here apparently there is little to worry about. As it was explained to me, the graffiti is a carryover from Soviet times, when spray-painting on walls was one of the few outlets of expression, being relatively tolerated by the authorities:

This, however, appeared to have been sanctioned by somebody:

Our walk took us to a spot with a panoramic view looking toward the commercial center of Vilnius:

The streets in our neighborhood are not that confusing, but should we get lost, this new Russian Orthodox Church can serve as a landmark to guide our way home:

First impressions of Vilnius for the three of us have been overwhelmingly positive. The Old Town is very atmospheric and the cost of living is very reasonable, especially for a European country and despite the 21% VAT (lunch yesterday at the restaurant on Pilies Street came to less than €30, while the fare at the Hong Kong restaurant today was under €20 for the three of us). Crime rates are low, and the weather since we've arrived has been very pleasant - even though it rained heavily in the morning, the sun still came out this afternoon (again, check back with me in the winter on the subject of sunlight and weather). Though much smaller than China, Lithuania has a lot to offer, and I intend on seeing a lot of both Vilnius and the rest of this country during the time we'll be here.