Welcome to our travel blog. We are Tabitha and Nic. In 2011 we 'retired' in our early 40s and set off to travel the world. We spent our first year in South America and have been lucky enough to make two trips to Antarctica.

Our blog is a record of our travels, thoughts and experiences. It is not a guide book, but we do include some tips and information, so we hope that you may find it useful if you are planning to visit somewhere we have been. Or you may just find it interesting as a bit of armchair travel.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Vilnius - the darker side

Genocide Victims' Museum, Vilnius
Whilst we love visiting the nice parts of a city, and Vilnius does have a lot of those, we are firmly of the view that, to even begin to properly understand a place, you also have to see some of the darker side.

By that, I don't mean seeking out neighbourhoods where you're likely to get mugged, or such like, but rather I mean taking the time to find out about the less pleasant aspects of their past.

In Lithuania, that involved discovering more about the various occupations of the country, and in particular, a visit to the Genocide Victims' Museum.

By it's nature, this is obviously not the most pleasant of posts, and it has some disturbing photos, but it is an important part of Lithuania's still relatively recent past.

Genocide Victims' Museum, Vilnius

Lithuania has had a rough time of it over the centuries, with repeated invasions and occupations, and the last century was no exception to that.

After years of Russian occupation, it seemed during the years of 1918-20, that Lithuania was finally regaining its independence as a sovereign state, but even then, Poland had laid claim to Vilnius, and the national leadership was far from being a democracy.

Ring worn by Partisans as ID at meetings, Genocide Victims' Museum, Vilnius

As the century developed, the Soviet Union and Germany both started claiming parts of Lithuania. Hitler and Stalin agreed their Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact, and in the process divided up Eastern Europe between them, with Lithuania being allocated to the USSR. After the Soviet Union invaded Eastern Poland, they freed Vilnius from that occupation, but insisted on having tens of thousands of troops stationed in Lithuania as part the enforced 'treaty of mutual assistance'.

Act of Independence, Genocide Victims' Museum, Vilnius

With Russian troops already in the country, Lithuania was effectively powerless to resist, when on 14 June 1940, the Soviet Union issued an ultimatum to cede power once again. The next day, the Soviet Union annexed Lithuania. The people did resist, and a year later the radio announced that the People's Revolt, with the aim of re-establishing an Independent Republic of Lithuania, partisan troops fought the Russians, who retreated, and a provisional government was formed. During the five day revolt, from 23-28 June 194, some 700 or so rebels were killed.

Unfortunately, whilst they managed to dislodge the Russians, their place was quickly taken by the Germans. The Third Reich abolished the provisional government, and on 5 August, a three year period of German occupation began, which would include the persecution and murder of the country's Jews.

Genocide Victims' Museum, Vilnius

When that occupation came to a end in 1944, it still did not bring about freedom, as Lithuania was once again occupied by Russia, and remained part of the USSR until the Act of Re-establishment of Independent Lithuania was signed on 11 March 1990.

During those fifty years of occupation, a grand looking building on the very normal looking Auku Gatve, was used by the Gestapo and KGB for the imprisonment, torture and execution of mostly Lithuanians but also a sizeable number of Poles, and anyone else who didn't suit the regime of the day.

Genocide Victims' Museum, Vilnius

The Third Reich, during the three years they were in Lithuania, killed over 240,000 people, around 200,000 of those being Jews. Only around 8,000 Lithuanian Jews survived Hitler's persecution.

A further 29,500 people were imprisoned and deported to concentration camps, and another 60,000 deported to Germany for forced labour.

During the Soviet occupation, some 200,000 were arrested, interrogated and imprisoned. 132,000 were deported, with 28,000 dying during deportation. Around 21,500 Partisans and their supporters were killed, and a further 20-25,000 prisoners.

Interrogation Room stamp, Genocide Victims' Museum, Vilnius

Over 1,000 are believed to have been killed here in this building on Auku Gatve between 1944 and the early 1960s. The building is now the Genocide Victims' Museum.

It isn't the only place that sits as testament to some of the atrocities that took place in Vilnius, and I'm not sure that I would call it a Genocide Victim's Museum, as that is probably not the main focus, but it is definitely worth a visit.

Genocide Victims' Museum, Vilnius

The upstairs rooms have been given over to information about the occupations, the deportations, and the way that this building was used over the years.

Some of the exhibits about the administrations and individuals involved in the occupations are a little heavy on the facts, but you don't have to read everything, and many of the displays are really well done. It was interesting to read about the life of deportees, and how they found it difficult to return even after Stalin's death.

There is some interesting information about how the KGB would spy on people, including a set up of the Eavesdropping Room.

The Boxes, Genocide Victims' Museum, Vilnius

Passing down into the basement levels, the atmosphere turns from museum into something more like a memorial. This was the prison, and a lot of what is down here has been left exactly as it was when the Russians moved out, including a number of different types of cells.

The first cells that a prisoner would have encountered were The Boxes. They were placed in isolation in these tiny spaces for hours on arrival.

The ones pictured are the nicer ones that were installed after Stalin died, where they can at least perch on a small ledge; prior to that, they were so small that they would have had to stand.

The Padded Cell, Genocide Victims' Museum, Vilnius

The Padded Cell has padded and soundproofed walls. Whilst one might associate padded cells with protection in outdated hospitals for the mentally ill, these are more likely to have been use for torture, and perhaps those driven to a state of madness by that torture.

The Water Cell, Genocide Victims' Museum, Vilnius

The Solitary Confinement In Water Cells had a tiny plinth that the individual was forced to stand on, while the floor around them was filled with icy water - or likely just ice in the winter - which they would fall into should they lose their balance or fall asleep.

The Execution Chamber, Genocide Victims' Museum, Vilnius

But the really exceptional room here is one floor further below ground. The Execution Chamber.

The treatment this part of the visit was, in my opinion, excellent. The floor and part of the wall have been covered in glass to protect them, and a few items of belongings found in a mass grave have been added.

The Execution Chamber, Genocide Victims' Museum, Vilnius

But of course the point of this place isn't what was in it, but rather what happened here. As I said above, over 1,000 are believed to have been led down to this chamber and executed. The bullet holes remain clearly visible.

A slightly macabre, but even so still tastefully done aspect, is the video reconstruction of a person being brought in for execution. It does bring into sharp reality what this place was.

Many of the victims were buried in mass graves, some of which have been discovered in Tuskulenai. They undertook research on 724 of the bodies recovered, and the following is an excerpt from that report, as taken from the Museum's website:

"Most of the executed, that is 685, or 97 per cent, died from various injuries to the scull: 492 sculls had one bullet hole, 110 two holes, 31 three, 13 had four shots, four had five holes, and two sculls had six. Various sizes of ammunition were used (5.6–9mm,) with the bullet usually entering through the back of the scull and exiting through the top of the head or the face.

“Apart from evidence of shooting, other forms of injury were found: 118 instances of wounds inflicted by a blunt object, 106 instances of piercing, and four of deep cuts or splitting.
“Blunt, indeterminate objects caused shallow injuries. There is evidence that in some cases the head was squeezed between two flat, hard surfaces.

“Four-sided daggers caused the most piercing injuries. They show that the victim was struck while lying down and the dagger penetrated the head. Cut and (or) split scull injuries were caused by small axes."

Memorial, Genocide Victims' Museum, Vilnius

Visiting places like this is not an enjoyable experience - we're not 'dark tourists' who go to sites specifically for the purposes of seeing where terrible things occurred. But I do believe that, in order to understand what has made a place, and people, what they are, it is necessary to look at events like those that occurred here.

Names of some of those who died, Genocide Victims' Museum, Vilnius

And equally, how are we ever supposed to learn from the awful things that people have done in the past, and make sure that they never happen again, if we don't take the trouble to learn about them.

This place certainly makes you stop and think, and I believe that is a good thing.

Memorial Art, Genocide Victims' Museum, Vilnius

Nic commented that in many ways, he wonders if Stalin may have been worse than Hitler. Perhaps not in terms of numbers, or in the outrageousness of his plans for domination and genocide, but in the calculating and cruel way that he sought to achieve his own ideals, and dealt with anyone who resisted him.

1990 Protest Rally against USSR occupation, Genocide Victims' Museum, Vilnius
Memorial to the deported, Genocide Victims' Museum, Vilnius
Images of killed Partisans and those who sheltered them (left) Items made by Partisans (right)
Genocide Victims' Museum, Vilnius

Items made by Partisans, Genocide Victims' Museum, Vilnius
Genocide Victims' Museum, Vilnius
The Eavesdropping Room, Genocide Victims' Museum, Vilnius

Genocide Victims' Museum, Vilnius

Genocide Victims' Museum, Vilnius

Genocide Victims' Museum, Vilnius

Prison Cell, Genocide Victims' Museum, Vilnius

The Execution Chamber, Genocide Victims' Museum, Vilnius

Image of Vilnius Jewish Ghetto, Genocide Victims' Museum, Vilnius

Image of Women lined up to be shot, Genocide Victims' Museum, Vilnius
Image of killed Partisans, Genocide Victims' Museum, Vilnius
Art by Partisans, Genocide Victims' Museum, Vilnius
Art by Partisans, Genocide Victims' Museum, Vilnius
Art by Partisans, Genocide Victims' Museum, Vilnius

Memorial Art, Genocide Victims' Museum, Vilnius

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