Friday, July 18, 2014

Somber Sunday: Last Day in Lithuania

Given some of the sights we were to see, it was only fitting that the day dawned gray and drizzly. On our way back to Latvia from Palanga, I had planned one stop of cultural and historical significance, but by looking in our Baltic countries' guidebook, Bryan found two more historically significant sites. Adding another stop of personal significance in Latvia (plus a ballet performance in Riga that evening!) meant we had a full and thought-provoking day.

Our first stop was a tad difficult to find - the GPS initially led us into the parking lot of a factory, but once we found the correct location, we were grateful we had. Plunge is a small city which had  a substantial Jewish population for many years. Tombstones in the old Jewish cemetery indicate that the earliest Jewish inhabitants were in the area already in the 15th century. In the 1930s the town had six synagogues. Tragically, upon the Nazi occupation of Lithuania, a total of 1,800 Jews from Plunge were executed. We visited the spot where this tragedy occurred, and where a fitting memorial has been built. It was difficult not to cry while visiting the memorial, as the people - men, women, children of all ages - killed in cold blood were innocent individuals whose only crime was being of a certain religion. A formerly lovely peaceful forest became an unintended resting place for human being murdered by other human beings. Even more sadly, such tragedies occur still today in situations where one group (based on religion or ethnic group or political beliefs) decide to kill members of another group. This is a very difficult for many people - including me - in the modern first-world to wrap their mind around.
These useful signs usually helped us find our way in both Latvia & Lithuania.
On the left - mass grave, on the right - names of all the victims.
One of several wood sculptures depicting the horror
Many people don't have a good understanding of the horrors that the Baltic countries experienced during much of the 21st century, having to live through a Soviet occupation for a year from June 1940 to June 1941, then through the Nazi occupation from July 1941 to the fall of 1944, then the Soviet occupation which lasted for far too many years, ending only in the early 1990s. (Note: the dates I use are a bit approximate, as I'm using the ones which Latvia specifically experienced, but the dates for Lithuania and Estonia are very similar.) However, there are not necessarily that many overt reminders of this history to be seen while traveling around the Baltics. But, when an American traveler does come across local history in a place like Plunge, s/he is reminded of how fortunate the United States has been to not have experienced either a war on its land recently or the terrors of totalitarianism.

We continued our exploration of the Lithuanian countryside by driving toward the small city of Telsiai. Nearby is the village of Rainiai, where on the night between June 24 and 25, 1941, between 70 and 80 Lithuanian political prisoners were tortured and murdered by Soviet forces. These prisoners had committed "crimes" such as owning a Lithuanian flag or belonging to the Boy Scouts, or they had been arrested for being active in politics or similar transgressions which were not acceptable to the Soviets. In 1991 a small chapel was built in memory of the victims. There is more information available about the Rainiai massacre online, including on Wikipedia, but I do not suggest perusing while eating lunch - the details are truly gruesome, which is why I am not even including a link!
The final stop in Lithuania was one of the country's best known sights - the Hill of Crosses near Siauliai. The majority of Lithuanians are Roman Catholic (whereas before WWII the majority of Latvians and Estonians were Lutheran), and the Hill of Crosses has been a holy site for many years, dating back at least until 1831. During Soviet days authorities had tried to remove new crosses, and even bulldozed the site several times. Each time, however, people kept coming and bringing more crosses.
My previous visit was with some family members way back in the early part of this century - 2002. It was interesting to see the changes the area had undergone, as it's been made more tourist friendly. A decade ago I remember driving right up next to the hill, and parking in a small dusty lot. Now there's a visitors' center with restrooms, a parking lot (which, naturally, quite a few visitors do not use, because there is a fee - so many cars and even buses park on the side of the road), and a paved walkway (complete with small lights for those who chose to make their pilgrimages at night) leading you to the hill.
Naturally, the hill itself has more crosses than when I last visited, but it is as bizarre as ever. Maybe Catholics have a greater appreciation of it, but I find it slightly kitschy and tacky - crosses are piled everywhere. However, it's clear that for locals this is an important site. During the short time we visited, we noticed three young women in long white confirmation dresses coming to place crosses or rosaries at the Hill. You can spot one in the first photograph.

After a lunch break, we made our way back into Latvia. A stop at the famous Rundale Castle was not in the cards, instead a quick stop in a cemetery outside of my father's birthplace, Jelgava, was necesssary, and then we continued on our way to Riga.

That evening we attended a ballet performance at the Latvian National Opera House. A performance in this historic and gorgeous venue is a must for anyone visiting Riga for the first time! Tickets for the opera are no longer the great deal they once were, but tickets for ballet performances are still very reasonable for those us visiting from places like the States. Our tickets were about $14; here in the D.C. area a ticket to a movie in most theaters will run about $11 or $12. For this particular performance, the least expensive tickets, which sell out very quickly, were only 4 Euro or just over $5.
The performance, "Tris Tiksanas" (Three Meetings), featured three new choreographies set to modern music by Latvian composers Peteris Vasks, George Pelecis and Rihards Durba (of which Vasks is by far the best known). I cannot say that I loved any of the pieces, but the dancing was good (when that actually happened - one piece featured far too much running!), as was the music. One piece had the piano on stage, so I enjoyed watching the musicians play while the dancers danced. The music for another piece was featured vocals by three women with fantastic voices in addition to the instrumental music.

Judging from the audience at the ballet, one would think that 85% of Riga's population is female, and that the few men have nothing dressier to wear than a pair of jeans. However, an arts event - particularly one in the beautiful opera house - was a good way to begin a week in Riga and relaxing way to end the day.


  1. The hill of crosses has left a lasting impression on me - just another (but more physical?) demonstration on the resiliency, determination and grit of the Baltic peoples. The aspect that struck me as touristy was the sale of plastic crosses at the base of the hill...

    1. I agree that the Hill of Crosses definitely does demonstrate that with its history. I was maybe a bit harsh in what I wrote, and it seems none of the photos I posted adequately portrayed the actual piles that one sees in many spots on the hill. You probably visited before this visitors' center and pathway were built, as now the selling of crosses, rosaries, souvenirs and tschotkes happens near the center, which is a good stroll away from the hill - in that aspect the hill does look nicer now than it used to.


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