Forty five percent of the population of Vilnius, Lithuania was Jewish prior to the start of World War II.
And now? Less than five percent.
The city of Lithuania, as modern and beautiful as it is now, can only be seen through the lens of history. The differences are staggering, and bring the horrors of the Holocaust right up to your face, even for those of us born afterwards, who never experienced it or the isolation of the Cold War that came after. Sometimes it’s easy to forget about the Baltic states, or rather it just doesn’t occur to us to think of them at all; they are small, they are far removed, they have little impact on us. With current events involving Russia, however, the Baltics are just as significant now as they ever were and as world citizens we should be more knowledgeable about these small but significant states. Lithuania was an extremely interesting jumping off point because while the three states were affected in similar ways by the Holocaust, the Russian occupation, and Soviet work camps, Vilnius was by far the most impacted by the Holocaust and it is a very significant part of their history because it greatly altered the look of the city today. I took the free walking tour of Vilnius… these tours are offered in all the major Baltic cities and are hit or miss depending on your guide, but for me in Vilnius it was an invaluable look at the history of the city through walking through the different neighborhoods. Below you can see the last remaining synagogue in Vilnius. There used to be 105.
Vilnius first had a Jewish ghetto before most of the Jews were sent to concentration camps and killed. The city is beautiful, with wide streets and old buildings, but a glimpse at the city’s history shows that it is still wrapped up in the past.
There’s much more to Vilnius than it’s history, though we’ll return to that later. For example, did you know that the city has an entire district that has established its own constitution? They used to have their own army as well– but with less than 15 people in the ranks, they eventually disbanded. Below you can see the sign as you walk into the area of the city. It’s just over the river from old town, and it has some silly rules– artists and such created the area more for fun than anything else, it seems.
The angel stands guard over the area. There is a fountain beneath her, and rumor has it (AKA our guide told us) that originally on the anniversary of the founding (April 1) the fountain would run with beer. Thanks to the economic downturn, that’s no longer the case.
Vilnius has an astonishing number of churches. In the top of the arch below you can just make out a tiny chapel– it’s a place of pilgrimage for many Lithuanians and even Europeans, though personally I don’t know enough about it to know/ remember why.
Interestingly I learned that the USSR was quite atheist (I had no idea) and one of the churches in Vilnius was actually used as a museum of atheism or something of the sort during the occupation. Next to the church below, at the statue, marks the point where a line of people holding hands stretching the length of the Baltic states from Vilnius to Talinn. Known as the Baltic Way, or the Freedom Chain, began. The peaceful protest occurred in 1989 and was designed to both advocate for independence as well as show the unity of the Baltic states. Remember, it wasn’t all that long ago that these states were a part of the USSR, a fact that they are very conscious of in today’s world given current events. For some, the last Russian troops left just over 20 years ago, and many can still remember it.
Vilnius is a pretty small city… very walkable and pretty flat, unless you climb the hill to overlook the city. There’s a cable car, too, but climbing is free– just make sure you are wearing decent shoes so you don’t slip! It’s very doable and the path is paved but it’s still steep. The views of the city from the top are really great.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget when you are in a city how much of a country can be wilderness. Not so here! The trees are really prevalent around Vilnius. Below you can see the tower, atop the hill we climbed.
It’s just as easy to forget when wandering old town that there is a busy area just across the river that is bustling with commerce and life. The new area of the city might not be as historically interesting, but it’s an important part of the present and future for Vilnius. As an introduction to the Baltics Vilnius exceeded all expectations and I wished I had had more time to explore this gem of a city and country. Many people asked me how I ended up traveling around the Baltics, and the simple answer was that I had wanted to explore somewhere new, and had always been interested in the history of the area. It is less touristed than western Europe, but becoming more known and touristed and I wanted to see it before the big tourism boom hit. Truthfully, though, I knew very little about the Baltic states before going and had looked forward to learning much more. From wandering through the exhibits at the Museum of Genocide Victims to listening to a Lithuanian guide share the history of her city, it was so easy to be transported back in time to experience the city. For Lithuania, the past, their history and establishment, is so much more recent than it is for us. For an American, as I can only truthfully speak to my own experience, it is easy to take our history, independence and rights and freedoms for granted. For many Lithuanians, they remember a time when they were not so lucky.