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Sunday, October 30, 2016

Tales from the Crypt

My daughter stands in Cathedral Square, in front of the Vilnius Cathedral and the Cathedral Belfry

It is a national symbol of Lithuania and one of Vilnius' most popular tourist sites, but it's taken us almost six months to visit the Cathedral of St. Stanislav and St. Vladislav, better known as Vilnius Cathedral (Vilniaus Arkikatedra). But then again, when you're going to be here for another 18 months or so, there's really no hurry to see everything. The cathedral stands on a site originally used for the worship of Perkŭnas, the god of thunder in Lithuanian paganism. The first wooden cathedral was erected in 1387-88, though there may've been a church here as early as 1251. Over the centuries the cathedral was destroyed and reconstructed several times, until finally taking its present classical form (and following its original Gothic floor plan) in the late 18th century. Soviet occupiers closed the church in 1950 and considered converting it into a garage for the repair of trucks, before opening it as as a warehouse, art gallery and concert venue, beginning in 1956. It was returned to the Catholic Church and reconsecrated in 1989. Despite appearances to the contrary in the photo below, the Cathedral Belfry does not tilt ala the Leaning Tower of Pisa; that's just my camera trying to squeeze as much as it can into the frame:


The entrance to the cathedral is by way of a large Classical portico:


Stucco sculptures on the facade above the entrance depict a bird being sacrificed:


A statue of the evangelist Luke with a bull flanks the front door on the southern side of the church:


A look back at the belfry before going inside the cathedral. We bought our tickets for the crypt at the counter inside the belfry, but didn't go up the stairs to the top of the tower. This is something we're saving for another (clearer) day:


The interior of Vilnius Cathedral is suitably impressive, though by this point we've seen a lot of houses of worship and it's becoming difficult to distinguish one from another. A mural from inside the early 17th-century Valavičius Chapel, dedicated to a family of local governors and bishops:


There are two highlights of a visit to the Vilnius Cathedral. One is the baroque cupola, colored marble and frescoes and magnificent stucco figures of St. Casimir's Chapel, a Baroque beauty created by Italian artisans from 1623-1636. The chapel is dedicated to a prince of the Kingdom of Poland and Grand Duchy of Lithuania, who shunned the luxuries of royal life to devote himself to a life of prayer, before dying of tuberculosis at the age of 25. What I didn't realize at the time (thanks to my guidebooks not mentioning it) is that the saint is depicted on the altar in the chapel as having two right hands (in addition to the standard single left one):





The High Altar of the cathedral was fashioned from gold and silver in the 1620's. The panel depicts the Last Supper and Christ Washing the Disciples' Feet:


The other highlight of a visit to Vilnius Cathedral is the (mandatory) guided tour of the crypts, the resting place of many prominent Lithuanians, including the remains of two Grand Dukes and two wives of Sigismund II Augustus, the last descendant of national icon Gediminas:



The most prominent resident of the crypt is (was?) Vytautas the Great. This sarcophagus was created in the period between the two World Wars, during a time when the newly-independent Lithuania was looking for national heroes. It was made to keep the bones of Vytautas, but remains empty as his remains have remained (puns intended) elusive:


There are coffins that are still occupied, like these ones belonging to latter-day bishops:


One of the oldest surviving frescoes in Lithuania dates from the 14th century and was discovered in the crypts in 1925. Amber poses next to a reproduction...:


...while the original can be glimpsed through a door panel, reflected in a mirror:


My wife and daughter whisper to each other, taking advantage of an acoustic quirk of the vaulted ceiling in the crypt:


Leaving the cathedral and facing Gediminas Prospektas:


It had rained while the three of us were inside touring the crypt. A rainbow was waiting to greet us as we returned to the outside world:


The oft-photographed (and suitably creepy for Halloween) Three Muses statue, posing for the tourists atop the Lithuanian National Drama Theater on Gedimino prospektas:


Though we are unapologetic carnivores, Amber, Shu-E and I do like to go vegan every once in a while. Dinner on Saturday evening was at Vegcafe, where I enjoyed a dinner of bhaji and rice, washed down with a minty lemonade:





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: