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Report 1962: Poland and the Baltics--Finding Roots
By Sharonov from Illinois, Summer 2011
Page 5 of 9: Lithuania
We met our group in Vilnius, after one day on our own. As usual, the group is predominantly female, average age about 60, and for the most part healthy and active. One lady walks with a cane and is very slow; this is unusual for OAT and a little annoying as we always have to wait for her. Other than that, she is very intelligent and a former professor. Our independence is now severely curtailed, but also so is our "work" in finding transportation, etc.
Lithuania is not as prosperous as Poland, which we could immediately ascertain simply by driving in from the airport. But that's understandable, as they were under the thumb of the Soviets for longer. We are now in the "2nd" world. And the Lithuanians know it, which is why so many of them have left for Ireland, Canada and other first world places that will take them in. There's been a huge Brain Drain in all the Baltics.
We spent most of the time in Vilnius' Old Town. Old Towns are always much more interesting, even though they contain many more souvenir-type shops. This one is no different, with umpteen choices to buy amber. I never was too excited about amber, but I guess I never saw the possibilities. The jewelry here is exquisite.
The list of mandatory things to see in Lithuania includes the capital, Vilnius, maybe Kaunas, and definitely Traka,the Curonian Spit. and the Hill of Crosses.
In Vilnius we had a tour of the former KGB headquarters/prison, with a lecture by a a Lithuanian journalist. The prison was very depressing, with many cells left exactly how they were, rooms where prisoners were summarily shot, and one rather interesting torture room. In this room, the floor was sunk about six inches, and there was a circular platform in the middle that was maybe seven inches high. Our guide explained that the room would be filled with ice water, and the prisoner would be stripped to his or her underwear and made to stand on the small platform for days at a time. I shiver just thinking about it!
The lecturer was very interesting. He explained that when Lithuania was taken over by the Soviets, a strong attempt was made to stamp out Lithuanian culture and language. Russians were "reassigned" to live there, so that now only 45% of the population is Lithuanian. He talked for over an hour about the occupation and how things have changed since joining the EU. Lithuania got money from the EU, some of which has found its way into Lithuanian politician pockets.
Trakai is a restored private castle in the middle of a lake. Very pretty. In Trakai live a group of people that I had never heard of -- the Karai. They moved here from the Crimea hundreds of hears ago and still speak their own language and live in their own little culture. They look like some Armenians I know and their religion only believes in the New Testament. No Jesus.
The Curonian Spit is a long, skinny tongue of sand that stretches from northern Lithuania down into Russia. Half of the spit is in Russia itself. We walked along a beautiful beach looking for amber. The sky had such beautiful, fluffy clouds and even though it was a little cold, it was a beautiful time.
The hill of crosses is a strange place. The hill itself is saddle-shaped and not terribly high, and some time ago people started putting up crosses. Now there are something like 50,000 crosses of all size stuffed on the hill. You walk up a pathway and, if you want, you find a place to stuff your own cross. Naturally there's a shop selling crosses and several independent vendors with tables full of crosses and other tschochkies.
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