Lithuania: June 14 – 16 2019
Lithuania, a country of 2.9 million, is the southernmost country of Europe’s Baltic states, and a former Soviet bloc nation bordering Poland, Latvia and Belarus. Lithuania is said to be in a geographical centre of Europe. 90% of Lithuania’s are Roman Catholic. The Lithuania language is the most ancient language in the world. The national bird of the country is the stork, and we saw many of them and their nests during our bus trip.
Our first stop in Lithuania was to the Hill of Crosses. Over 200,000 crosses, in various sizes and materials, adorn the remote pilgrimage site. For over two centuries, Lithuanians have trekked to this sacred hill to honour loved ones.
Legends and fables exist as to how this holy place began, and it is believed the site first appeared around 1850. Building and placing a cross became a way for the people to secretly mourn their relatives, as the tsar limited religious expression. During the Soviet era, religion was still banned and the Hill of Crosses was off limits. But more crosses continued to appear. In 1961, the Soviets bulldozed and burned the entire site. It was destroyed four more time over the years, but these devote people rebuilt it each time, in the darkness, even knowing it was dangerous. When Lithuania regained their independence in 1991, religion was practiced freely and openly.
Pope John Paul II visited the site in 1993 and celebrated a Holy Mass to 100,000 people.
The website for the Hill of Crosses states they “welcome tourists so they might better understand the local community’s difficult past, learn of its unshakable faith, and feel hope for the future.”
Visitors are also invited to purchase and place a cross on the hill to honour someone living or deceased, and I did just that. When my now 92 year old Father was 18, he was working in a forestry camp in Northern Ontario. Thousands of Lithuania’s fled their country during the war in the 1940’s and several hundred ended up in my Dad’s camp, where we was directed to teach them English. He has always spoken of these wonderful people and so it filled my heart to place a cross honouring him in Lithuania.
Joe also honoured his late parents as well as the two brothers he lost when we lived in Kelowna. The site and our crosses, made for an emotionally charged morning.
Vilnius, the capital city of Lithuania, is known for its amazingly intact, medieval Old Town. It also has Gothic, Renaissance and baroque architecture scattered about.
We tried a Lithuanian favourite dish called Cepelinai or nickname ‘Zeppelins’ because of their shape. Kind of like a giant pierogi with a thicker skin and a bit slimy, but good. Another favourite is mushroom soup in a bread bowl.
Baroque Church of St. Peter and St. Paul
St. Anne’s Church Gothic architecture.
Vilnius is full of battle scars. At one time it was nicknamed the ‘Jerusalem of the north’, but its Jewish community was largely destroyed in WWII. At 3 o’clock in the morning on June 14, 1941, mass arrests of Lithuanian citizens began. Entire families of Lithuanians and Jews were deported to Siberia; more than 30,000 in one week. Another 100,00 people were sent between 1945-52. 190,000 or 91% of the Lithuanian Jews were killed when they were sent directly to nearby camps; one of the highest total mortality rates of the holocaust.
We arrived in Vilnius on June 14, as Lithuania was remembering this anniversary as the Day of Mourning and Hope in honor of those who died in exile. There was a small service near our hotel and a woman was reading out the names of some of those lost.
We toured the former headquarters of the KGB, a museum dedicated to thousands of Lithuanians who were murdered, imprisoned or deported by the Soviet Union from WWII until the 1960s. Our tour guide had worked in the building for decades so was very knowledgeable. A bit of an odd duck, there were times when we weren’t sure if he was kidding or not. His demeanour released some tension of the tour, and created it at the same time.
The prison cells and execution yard. Messages from those awaiting execution remain are still etched into cell walls. Between 1944 and the 1960s, more than 1000 prisoners were shot or stabbed in the skull here.
I lighten these pictures up so you can see inside the cells. They were actually very dark and dingy.
Memorial plaques honouring the dead tile the outside of the building.
Our tour group took an afternoon trip to the red brick, Trakai Castle on Galve Lake. The castle stands majestically alone on an island, completely surrounded by water. Very picturesque! It is no wonder Trakai Castle is one of the most photographed places in Europe. This Gothic Palace was built by Lithuanian Dukes and was once their residence.
We visited the Palace Museum and extensive display of medieval exhibits.
Although Lithuania was filled with reminders of the horrific history, it’s beauty shines through. These friendly people are resilient and are carried by their strong faith.