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Sunday, July 24, 2016

The hill is falling! The hill is falling!

I can see our house from her...oh, never mind

The local news this week has been somewhat alarming. No, the Russian army isn't preparing to roll across the Belarusian border, nor is the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant about to make like its cousin in Chernobyl. No, according to the Baltic News:

...geologists say that the Gediminas Hill and, therefore, the Gediminas Tower on top of it, can collapse in the very heart of Vilnius due to landslides caused by melting snow after especially cold winters, and from tropical rains which now attack Vilnius from time to time during the current heat wave.

Other reasons given for the instability include theft of stones from the hill's reinforcements, the vibration of tree roots in winter and the tunnel built by the Nazis during World War II (though it was filled in with soil after the war). The situation is apparently serious enough that the country's culture minister has called for the municipal government of Vilnius "to declare an emergency situation over the disintegrating hill of Gediminas Castle", though the local government's Emergency Situations Committee has determined there are no grounds for declaring an emergency, an assessment echoed by the National Museum of Lithuania, which sits at the foot of the hill at issue. 

So what does one do when faced with the possibility of one of the city's most iconic sights being closed in the near future? You hurry up and visit it at the earliest possible opportunity, that's what. But not before first having a salmon-and-cream cheese crepe at the Pilies kepyklėlė bakery on Pilies gatvė:

Returning to Pilies gatvė after lunch, Gediminas Hill and its iconic red-brick tower immediately come into view:

The hill stands 48 meters (157 feet) high and was the location upon which Vilnius was founded. Overlooking the junction of the Neris and Vilnia rivers, settlements and forts have been built on the site since Neolithic times. A red-brick building has sat atop the hill since the 13th century, but the current structure has its origins in 1419 when, according to legend, Grand Duke Gediminas, while on a hunting trip, had a dream of an iron wolf howling from the hill. The duke's pagan priest interpreted the dream as a sign that a strong fortress should be built on the site. The original tower was one floor higher than the 20 meter (66 feet)-high building that occupies the hilltop today. The walls fell to ruin when the Russians occupied the city from 1655 to 1661, but were restored in 1930 to house the Upper Castle Museum. Further restoration work took place in the 1950's:

48 meters isn't a great distance to climb, but seeing as my wife is averse to most forms of exercise, the three of us made use of the funicular to the top of Gediminas Hill. Note the tarp covering part of the hillside:

The museum inside the castle contains the usual history exhibits, including scale models, as well as armor and weapons:

Another exhibition covers the Baltic Way, when two million people joined hands in a human chain that spanned 676 kilometers (420 miles), starting in Vilnius (Lithuania), going through Riga (Latvia) and ending in Tallinn (Estonia). It was held on August 23, 1989, the 50th anniversary of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact which sealed the fate of the three Baltic republics as independent states in the spring of 1940. The Baltic Way was also a stunning show of defiance against the Soviet Union, and seven months later Lithuania would declare its formal independence from the U.S.S.R.:

The 360°-views from the roof of the castle are impressive, particularly those of Vilnius' Old Town:

The Lithuanian flag flying freely and proudly from the top of the castle:

A look back at Gediminas Castle & Museum as we started to head downhill toward Cathedral Square:

At the bottom, and taking an ice cream break:

Strolling along Pilies gatvė again, which on weekends is lined with souvenir vendors and street musicians, at least in the summer months:

According to Lonely Planet, "Lithuanian folk art is alive and well" in the folk artists' workshops scattered around Old Town. Senųjų Amatų Dirbtuvės is a combination store/hands-on workshop affiliated with the Fine Crafts Association of Vilnius. We picked up a few keepsakes to place on our rapidly-diminishing shelf space at home:

Amber turns away after reading a sign explaining the history and location of Vilnius' WWII Jewish ghetto:

Sunday (today) was also a day of vistas, albeit limited ones. While Shu-E was attending a party, my daughter and I broke out the bikes for the first time since they were delivered to our apartment in Vilnius. The two of us rode over the bumpy cobblestones of Old Town, dodging tourists and vehicles, to reach a lookout point close to Amber's school. The sky wasn't as clear as it was yesterday, but it felt good to be back on the bikes. Mine needs to have its gears checked, but hopefully we can get a few more rides in before the sun disappears and the streets get covered in salt:

With my wife still at her party, my daughter and I ended our day at Boom Burger, where the burgers are kind of cheesy (and required the use of a fork and knife to consume), but the beer is local and micro:

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Back in Vilnius

The view from our balcony

If you've been following this blog, then you know we've been back in Lithuania for a week now since our Independence Day (U.S.)/Statehood Day (Lithuania) trip to Munich. This weekend has been a quiet one, since both the embassy doctor and a local pediatrician diagnosed my daughter on Friday afternoon as suffering from a non-aggressive strain of enterovirus. She's feeling better, though stomach troubles have understandably affected her appetite. Still, the worst appears to be over and now that she's on the upswing (happily playing Animal Jam on her computer all day), I did venture out on my own this afternoon following lunch to see one of Vilnius' Jewish heritage sites. The Tolerance Center (VVGŽM Tolerancijos centras) is only an 8-minute walk from our apartment, and is housed in an attractive old building that once served as a concert hall and a theater:

The Old Town of Vilnius was once home to one of the world's most vibrant Jewish communities (during the years between world wars the city was under Polish administration and was called Wilno). But Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, spelled the beginning of the end. 35,000 Jews, about half of those in the city at that time, died at the hands of the Nazis and their local collaborators in the first three months following the fall of Vilnius. The remaining Jews were herded into two ghettos, which were, of course, eventually liquidated. Only 6000 Jews in Vilnius survived the war (94% of Lithuania's Jewish population of that time didn't). 

Today about 5000 Jews live in Lithuania, with 80% of the community concentrated in Vilnius. The Tolerance Center is administered by the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum, and is one of its three main branches. Here, the focus is on Jewish culture and history in Lithuania and Vilnius over the centuries, before the Holocaust exacted its terrible toll. I began my tour on the third floor, which focuses on traditional Lithuanian Jewish art:

Pride of place in this exhibit goes to this copy of the Marc Chagall painting, Vilnius Great Synagogue, Interior (1935). Chagall was born into a Lithuanian Jewish family living in what is now modern-day Belarus:

Other Jewish artists are also featured, however, such as this self-portrait by Léon Zack, hanging next to a larger portrait of his wife:

A video installation shows film of life in then-Wilno from 1938 or 1939. Watching it, one can't help but wonder how many of the movie's subjects, depicted going about their daily lives and unaware of the horrors that would soon descend upon them, were able to see it through to the end of the war:

A view looking toward Old Town from one of the museum windows: 

The second floor has more displays from the world of the Litvaks:  

Looking down on the first floor, which currently features an exhibit of works of the Cubist sculptor Jacques Lipchitz. There were a couple of English-language guided tours being led through the exhibits while I was visiting the museum today:

The second floor is also where you will find a series of panels in Lithuanian and English, with each one covering a different aspect of the Jewish experience in Lithuania:

The focus isn't only on the past:

That last panel leads to the most moving displays, that of the experiences of Lithuanian Jewish children who survived the efforts of the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators to exterminate them and their families. In some cases, it was because they were sheltered by friends, neighbors and even strangers:

The less-fortunate ones did not make it through the "children actions":

And it was here, in this simple alcove lined with photographs of some of the younger victims of the Holocaust, that I could no longer maintain my composure:

It was also in this part of the Tolerance Center that I overheard a middle-aged woman complaining (in accented English) that these displays were meant to make Lithuanians feel better about their actions during the Nazi occupation of the country, to which her male companion (presumably her husband) strongly disagreed. I had to (silently) side with the gentleman, for I felt the purpose of this particular exhibit was to celebrate those children who survived, especially as many of the panels in the room included photos of their progress into adulthood. These museums seem to provoke strong feelings, as when I first entered the Tolerance Center I came across another middle-aged man complaining (in English) to the ticket seller that the Holocaust Museum (a separate facility also managed by the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum, and which is even closer to our apartment) was a "joke".

I haven't visited that latter museum, and it might be a while before I do. Last week my family and I traveled to Dachau to see the infamous concentration camp. Since our arrival in Vilnius in early May, we've been to Paneriai and the Museum of Genocide Victims. And in recent years on my own I've visited the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, not to mention the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Too much of man's inhumanity to man isn't good for the soul, so when I returned home from the Tolerance Center I suggested to Shu-E that she and I go for a walk into Old Town:

Which is how my wife and I ended up at Senamiesčio Krautuvė, an atmospheric little shop selling many traditional Lithuanian foods. We bought some turkey dumplings, a few tomatoes and, for me, a caramel ice-cream bar for the walk home. You can see the store's sign on the right in the photo below:

And so I'll end this post with a few random pictures taken this weekend. Treasure life and avoid evil messages and, in particular, those who deliver them:

The plaque explains why the street is called "Iceland Street". Although I should point out that the United States first established diplomatic relations with Lithuania in July 1922 and never recognized the country's forced incorporation into the Soviet Union in 1940

One of the more interesting examples of the graffiti plaguing Vilnius' streets

The view from our living room. These spires are especially striking on a late summer evening when the sunlight hits them directly
OK, I admit I don't know what this Old Town statue signifies. If I ever find out, I'll post it here