Through a friend of mine in Kaunas, I got invited to spend this weekend in a small village in the Lithuanian countryside. Have I mentioned before that all Lithuanians seem to have a village — the village they or their parents or their grandparents grew up in? And that they head off to “their” village on holidays, in the summer, any time they want to get away? It’s true. This weekend I finally get to experience what it’s like to go to the village. While I’m gone, I’ve posted several “daily photos” that are favorites of mine and which I saved for just such an occasion (meaning, it’s been a busy week and I haven’t had time to write full blog posts in advance). Enjoy!
Category Archives: Lithuania Travels
Confronting the Past
Prior to World War II, approximately 200,000 Jews lived in Lithuania — most of them in the city and region of Vilnius. About 95% of Lithuanian Jews were murdered during the German occupation of Lithuania in 1941-1944. Paneriai, a village located 10 km outside of Vilnius, was the site of the murder of at least 100,000 people by Nazi forces and Lithuanian collaborators. Of those murdered at this place in the pine forests were 70,000 Jews, 20,000 Poles, and 8,000 Russians (mostly local), as well as Soviet soldiers taken as prisoners-of-war and local Lithuanians. There has been difficulty in Lithuania in coming to terms with the Nazi German occupation and the mass murder of Lithuania’s Jews. It much too complicated to address in a blog post, but these are a few of my opinions on the subject, along with some photographs from my visit to Paneriai a few weeks ago.
Some Lithuanians collaborated with the Nazis in mass murder; this does not mean that all Lithuanians are fascists but it is a fact. In my opinion, accusations of this kind and the denials of any collaboration or making excuses for collaboration by the other side serve only to foster continued anger and intolerance and display a lack of historical understanding. Confronting the past requires a lot of courage, honesty and compassion — it is not accomplished by blanket accusations or denials.
Suffering is not a game of one-up-manship. There was an almost complete destruction of Lithuanian Jews during World War II. Lithuanians suffered greatly under Soviet occupation, experiencing oppression, deportation and death. Recognizing that the Holocaust was an extreme form of assault on a people (called genocide, a term invented to describe the attempt to eradicate a population) or that some Lithuanians participated does not devalue Lithuanian suffering — or any other people’s suffering. Constantly trying to prove that one’s suffering is greater or that it justifies other actions or that there are excuses for attacking other human beings leads, in my opinion, to a lack of compassion and blindness to one’s own ability to inflict suffering. It also, once again, displays a lack of understanding about the complexity of history.
I usually avoid making any comments on this topic because it only leads to attacks by one side or the other. At the same time, walking through a forest where at least 100,000 people were murdered reminded me that avoiding conflict is exactly how Europe got into World War II and mass murder in the first place. Sometimes speaking out, even if it means taking flak, is the right thing to do.
Kaunas was a trading partner with the medieval Hanseatic League and each year holds a Hansa Days festival. This year, Kaunas hosted the International Hansa Festival with participation by 100 European cities. We were in Kaunas on the first two days of the festival. For some reason, I didn’t take many photos of festival scenes but we saw a lot of people in various medieval costumes and heard a bit of medieval music. The streets were filled with street food and crafts vendors, as well as crowds of tourists. The report from local friends in Kaunas and an American who came from Vilnius about the festival — lots of fun!
My Favorite: Gothic Churches
I’m not a big fan of Baroque church architecture. I think it’s overblown and overdone. I love the simplicity of Gothic and Romanesque churches with sweeping arches. Fortunately some still exist, even though many have Baroque additions such as altars. We visited several good examples of Gothic church architecture over the last week: Vytautas Church in Kaunas, St. Anne’s Church in Vilnius, and a church in Palanga (built in 1907 but in the Gothic style).
My parents’ visit provided a good opportunity to visit several places I haven’t been to in Kaunas, including the Čiurlionis Museum and the Resurrection Church, a large white church sits at the top of Žaliakalnis overlooking Kaunas. Resurrection Church was begun in 1922 in honor of Lithuania’s independence. The structure was completed but the interior was not finished before the World War II. The occupying Nazi German army used it as a storage facility and it was a radio factory during Soviet times. The interior has since been completed and the roof-top deck offers sweeping views of Kaunas.
Old-Timey Village Life
I haven’t been to Rumšiškės, the outdoor ethnographic museum, since the early 1990s. We stopped for a visit on Sunday afternoon and wandered through the houses and farm buildings — all built between the mid-18th to early 19th centuries and moved to the museum for exhibition. I had hoped there would be people in costume recreating village life, but apparently that doesn’t happen every weekend. But we still enjoyed walking about in the sunshine and seeing the different styles of buildings. One of the best things about the experience was listening to the frogs in the pods.
My parents particularly enjoyed eating Lithuanian food during their trip — and they tried a wide variety of foods from several different restaurants. For Lithuanian food, we ate at Žalias Ratas in Kaunas; Belmontas, Bernelių Užeiga and Savas Kampas in Vilnius; and the restaurant at Rumšiškės. I may have missed a couple of things, but I think that this is a complete list of dishes that they tried.
- Crepe-style pancakes
- Varšės blynai (thick pancakes)
- Žemačių blynai (potato pancakes filled with meat)
- Cepeliniai (pork-filled mashed potato dumpling)
- Kepta duona (fried bread)
- Šaltibarščiai (cold beet soup)
- Mixed vegetable salads made with sour cream or mayonnaise
- Pork tenderloin, pork cutlets, and pork meatballs
- Marinated salads: shredded cabbage, shredded carrots, shredded beets
- Koldunai (dumplings) with mushrooms
- White farmer’s cheese with caraway seeds on bread
- Kibinai (pork-filled pastries) in Trakai
The Cheesemakers’ Home
I’ve been hearing about the Cheesemakers’ Home since I arrived last fall, so I put it on the list of places to visit with my parents. Located in the village of Dargužiai, 50 km southwest of Vilnius, the Cheesemakers’ Home is a small cafe serving locally made cheeses along with salads and soups. It’s a cooperative of sorts — four small farms raising sheep, cows and goats to produce the milk and one French-trained cheesemaker to produce the cheese. I can’t express how wonderful this place is. The setting is rustic and lovely and the food is delicious. We had the carrot soup with a chunk of soft cheese in the middle, the carrot and beet salad and a selection of cheeses. I can’t wait to go again.