Have you ever been somewhere or read a book about a certain period in history and realized: if I had been been born in that place at that time, I would not have survived those circumstances? I would be one of the nameless, countless victims of that regime, that war, that disease, that circumstance.
Lithuania — in fact, every Eastern European country I have visited — solicits that realization from me.
John and I arrived in Vilnius, the capitol of Lithuania, early yesterday for a weekend visit with Audrius and Jurga Tulekis and their children, Ugnius, 22, and Jone, 14.
Audrius and Jurga are lovely people and time with them is simultaneously soothing and stimulating as both are very bright, well-educated people who enjoy intelligent conversation about politics, economics, history, etc. in their country and ours.
Yesterday, they shared some of their country’s more ancient history with us as we visited the remnants of a 14th century castle.
Audrius and I climbed to the top for a great view of the city.
Today, we visited a less distinct building constructed in the 19th-century with a sordid history in the 20th century. It’s now a museum, unofficially known as the KGB Museum, but from 1941 to 1944 the Nazi Gestapo occupied the building. The Soviets took over in 1944 and used the building as a KGB headquarters and prison until 1991.
Some 50,000 Lithuanians waged a guerilla war against the Soviet regime from 1944 to 1953 in a valiant effort to regain Lithuania’s independence. After approximately 22,000 were killed in the attempt, more than 1,000 in the KGB prison in Vilinius, the guerilla war ended and the resistance became more subversive until Lithuania regained its autonomy in 1991.
The prison is a stark reminder of the Cold War and bears morbid testimony to the suffering of those who opposed a totalitarian regime.
A tour includes a visit to interrogation rooms, holding cells, a water torture chamber and the execution room in the basement where prisoners were shot. Needless to say, it emits a palatable, dark vibe.
A sign in front of the museum, sums it up rather well. “Out of this building came the evil thoughts for the extermination of residents and persecution of the otherwise minded.”
I was relieved to leave the building, an “otherwise minded” woman born in a different time and place under vastly different circumstances — blessed by an accident of birth. The afternoon sunlight felt like a warm bath, cleansing me of the stench of an old oppression.