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Sunday, September 11, 2016

Going to hell in Kaunas

The memorial to the victims of Nazism at the Ninth Fort in Kaunas, Lithuania

Things are back to something approximating to normal at work (at least for the next few weeks), meaning it's possible to leave the cozy confines of the one-hour zone around Vilnius and see some more of the rest of our host country. So we took the opportunity of a gorgeous weather forecast (sunny skies, temperatures in the mid-20's Centigrade) to revisit Lithuania's second-largest city, Kaunas. Back in late June, my family and I spent the weekend in Kaunas' Old Town (smaller than Vilnius', but charming in its own right); this time we stayed in the area around Vienybės Aikštė (Unity Square), more "modern" in the sense that many of the buildings there date from the early-mid 20th century.

Sunrise on Saturday morning. The days are getting shorter as summer comes to an end.

Kaunas is less than 90 minutes by car from Vilnius, so we arrived at our first stop there, the Museum of Devils (Velnių Muziejus), early in the afternoon on Saturday (following Amber's morning swimming class in Vilnius and lunch at a restaurant along the freeway):


The Museum of Devils is just that, a showcase for the 3000-plus devil figures collected over the years by the late landscape artist Antanas Žmuidzinavičius. The displays attempt to link devils to their places in Lithuanian folklore, but it's really just a fun collection of creepy masks and figurines. My daughter enjoyed the experience:





Some of the works are more serious in nature, like the erotic piece above or this sculpture below depicting Hitler and Stalin as demonic creatures bringing pain and suffering upon the Lithuanian people, illustrating how most in this country place the evils of Nazism and Communism on an equal footing (more of that would come later in Kaunas):


"The devil frequently appears in the shape of a man...as a young nobleman, a hunter, a priest or a German..." Or a German? Lithuania's establishment as an independent Duchy in the 13th century frequently brought it into conflict with German Teutonic Knights, who were trying to force Christianity on Europe's last pagan holdout:


This painting wouldn't look out of place on an Iron Maiden album cover. The last time we were in Kaunas, the band had just played a concert there, and it seemed half the men on the streets on Old Town were wearing T-shirts featuring Eddie's visage:


There were also depictions of demons from around the world. Here Amber checks out a tengu 天狗 mask:


Across the street from the Museum of Devils sits the MK Čiurlionis National Museum of Art (MK Čiurlionio Valstybinis Dailės Muziejus), housing an extensive collection of the works of one of Lithuania's greatest artists and composers, Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis:


No, I'd never heard of him, either, even though I was living in Tōkyō 東京 at the time the first major international retrospective of his art was held at the Sezon Museum of Art:


Despite our ignorance of the artist, Amber and I were both impressed with his output, much of which has dreamy, romantic overtones to it:



The only disappointment for us was that the adjoining exhibits on Lithuanian folk art were temporarily closed:


Locating a pokestop on Putvinskio gatvė:



Following the visits to the two museums, we checked into the Park Inn by Radisson. My daughter was pleased with her accommodations as she had her own room, which included a bunk bed:


After a short rest, we returned to the far-from-mean streets of Kaunas for a leisurely stroll. The view facing north from the hotel - that Soviet-looking structure on top of the hill is a church (more on that later):


Just behind the hotel in the opposite direction stands the majestic St. Michael the Archangel Church (Šv Archangelo Mykolo Rektoratas; 1893), originally a Russian Orthodox Church but now a Catholic house of worship. Due to massive roadworks, the church currently resembles an island in a sea of gravel and fencing (not to mention closed as we walked around it):


The three of us then proceeded to head west along the 1.7 kilometer-long pedestrian street Laisvės alėja (Freedom Avenue), a pleasant stroll past cafes, shops and stalls selling arts and crafts as well as snacks:


This dance group was doing its thing to updated versions of American big band favorites. What was surprising was where the performance was taking place, for engraved on paving slabs behind the small stage (and thus out of site in the photo) is the name "Romas Kalanta" and the year "1972". More on him later:


Vytautas the Great:


For dinner we dined on Indian and Thai food at Moksha, where I had pepper lamb on basmati rice, while Shu-E and I both washed down our meals with local craft beers (my daughter had two banana chocolate milkshakes):



Amber takes a break on the way back to the hotel after dinner while the sun slowly sets over Laisvės alėja:



The following morning (Sunday, the 11th of September) was another beautiful day. I took a walk after breakfast while the girls relaxed in their rooms:


I made my way up a flight of stairs to visit Christ's Resurrection Basilica (Kristaus Prisikėlimo bašničia), which took 70 years from the time of its construction to finally be consecrated in 2004 (it was used as a radio factory during the Soviet era). The interior is just as the white and airy as the exterior suggests. Being a Sunday morning a service was in full procession when I popped my head in to have a look, so I didn't take any pictures; also, it was too early to go up to the terrace for what should be a great view. I'll be back:


We checked out around ten and hit the road, with one very important stop to make before returning to Vilnius - visiting the poignant Museum of the Ninth Fort (IX Forto Muziejus), 7 kilometers north of the city and dedicated to the darkest chapter in Kaunas' history:


Erected in 1984, the memorial to the victims of Nazism stands 32 meters (105 feet) high and is mesmerizing in the sheer tastelessness of its Soviet design, evidence that it wasn't just crimes against humanity that were committed in the Soviet Union:




It's easy being snarky when standing in front of monstrosities like this one, until you remember it's a memorial placed by a grass field where the remains of up to 50,000 people - 30,000 of whom were Jews from Lithuania and other European countries - are buried, victims of the massacres which took place in the nearby fort. And then the awful reality of this place sets in as you realize that devils don't just exist in the realm of folklore:


Amber aptly described the memorial as another one of those beautiful European locations where terrible things happened in the past:


In the bunker-like church of the damned, displays cover the deportations of Lithuanians by the Soviets...:


...and the destruction of Kaunas' Jewish community by the Nazis:


Romas Kalanta (see above) committed suicide in a public act of self-immolation in 1972 in protest against Soviet rule, which led to a series of violent clashes. In death he became a symbol of Lithuanian resistance:


Museum displays such as these highlight how in the eyes of many Lithuanians life under the Soviets wasn't much better than under the Nazis, and how modern-day Russian-language media can be so cluelessly vile:


As disturbing as the displays in the bunker are, mankind's barbarism is bared for all to see in the Ninth Fort building itself. The fort became a prison after World War I, and was used by the NKVD after Lithuania was first occupied by the USSR to house political prisoners before they were transferred to Gulag labor camps. The Nazis then used the fort to kill Jews, in particular those from Kaunas' Kovno Ghetto in what became known as the Kaunas massacre. It returned to being a Soviet prison again after the Germans were driven out of Lithuania, before becoming a museum in 1958. The old cells are cold, dark and wet:



Some members of the ill-fated Convoy 73 (French Jews transported to Kaunas) scrawled their names and hometowns on the walls before meeting their ends at the hands of the Nazis:


In 1943, knowing that the war was eventually going to end in their defeat and fearing that they were would have to answer for their crimes, the Nazis forced groups of Jewish prisoners to dig up bodies and burn the corpses in an effort to hide the evidence. 62 of these laborers made a successful escape from the fort on December 25, 1943:


Some displays cover life in Kaunas' Jewish ghetto, and its eventual liquidation:




Chiune Sugihara 杉原千畝, the Japanese consul based in Kaunas who saved an estimated 6000 Jews by issuing them transit visas in defiance of his own government. There is a museum dedicated to him in the city that I'd like to visit before our time is up in Lithuania:


One wing of the fort covers just the military history of the Ninth Fort before it became a prison, much to my daughter's relief:



The girls walking away from the fort:


Amber and I took a walk on the grassy top of the fort. Here, Amber looks at the gate through which the corpse-burners made their Christmas Day escape:




The Museum of the Ninth Fort was a somber end to our weekend in Kaunas, but a place that has to be seen, a reminder that while Americans have Pearl Harbor and the September 11 attacks to remember, much worse has happened in other parts of the world (not to overlook, however, what befell the Native Americans). Lithuania never fails to amaze - so much suffering having taken place in a land of so much beauty. 

Last time it was Iron Maiden, this time it's Suzi Quatro. Banners announcing her upcoming appearance could be seen strung across streets as we drove through Kaunas. 





















 








































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