By Katherine Vargas
Coming into this program, I knew little to nothing about this region’s history. And even now, I still have only captured but a sliver of it. But this sliver is a crack on the sidewalk that has been stepped over by the people themselves. The common trend is the need for a continuous paint job over the cracked cement. The suppression of memory is evident on all streets in different ways. Whether you turn left or right, there is something bound to have been dug deep into the city’s core. So deep enough, that it is forgotten.
On our very first tour of the first destination of our trip, we were taken to see the remnants of the Jewish life that once flourished in Vilnius. Our tour guide, Ilya, took us inside what seemed to just be a building with some shops. But once we walked in, we saw that by the staircase stood a faded wall with Yiddish writing on it. It was what once was a storefront’s façade. One of the very last glimpses of what used to be. What struck me the most was how the locals would walk right past it without even a single glance at the wall. It made me wonder if they even really thought about the significance of the wall or would they even care if it had not been preserved. Would anyone protest the demolishment of this glimpse into the past?
Walking around the city itself was a demonstration of the lack of presence the remembrance of Jewish history in Vilnius. When in fact, pre World War II it had a huge population. Ilya took us around to see a couple of Jewish monuments. Key emphasis on a couple. We saw a building that used to be a Jewish hospital. There was no sign or plaque notifying the public of this information. To any passerby, it was just another empty building. And these few monuments were in very obscure parts of the city. One was on the very furthest corner of a park and behind it was a street to park cars on. The other was next to a school under a huge tree, which kept it in a shaded area. With all the free space, you wonder why there wasn’t a monument in the center square of the town. Ilya was able to provide us with small nuggets of the Jewish people’s history. It was almost like a scavenger hunt to go out and find the small pieces of memory that remained.
Our second tour guide was a very young woman named Martyna. She took us on a general tour of the city and we got to see very beautiful buildings and learned quirky facts about Vilnius. At one point in the tour, we were on a bridge, which used to be the site of two Soviet Era statues. They had been recently taken down and replaced. This could be seen as an act of Lithuanian nationalism to take down their enemy’s doing.
The following day, we visited two museums. We went to the Holocaust Museum (Green House) and the KGB Museum which is the secret Soviet prison underneath the courthouse. The Green House Museum was a very small and simple house. Aside from our group, there were probably five other people in there at the same time. It was clear that there wasn’t much funding going into the museum. Later that same day, we went to the KGB Museum, which had plenty of visitors and emphasized the lost lives under the Soviet rule. In comparison, the KGB Museum was grand and its informative exhibits were of higher quality than those of the Green House.
The narrative which Vilnius openly presents to its people and visitors is the one in which the Soviet Union plays the role of the Big Bad Wolf. In this narrative, Vilnius is one of the three little pigs (the Baltic States) and gets hunted down by the Big Bad Wolf. However, there is an alternate ending to this story, which is rarely retold as the only ending of the story. In this end, the little pig is not so innocent after all. Vilnius hides one of its darkest memories and keeps it out of sight. This is the memory of the Jewish lives that were lost in the hands of their own Lithuanian neighbors. This is the story of Paneriai Forest. This is the site at which 72,000 Jewish men, women, and children were massacred and pushed into enormous grave pits piled on top of one another. (Snyder). The perpetrators were not only the Germans, but the Lithuanians themselves as well. The Lithuanians who committed these atrocious crimes had been eager to go and kill off the Jewish people to use them as a scapegoat. They had been fed the lies that the reason for Soviet invasion was due to the Jewish people living in Lithuania.
Looking around the forest was surreal. It was impossible to imagine that seventy-four years ago in the same place we stood, stood the Jewish people waiting in line to be murdered.
This is the narrative that never gets told. It is a difficult subject to discuss, but it is imperative to do so. By dismissing the matter, you are dismissing the value of the lives that were lost. Keeping them a hidden secret is keeping the true history away from public eye. An important part of improving and moving forward is to come to terms with the past. There won’t be a step forward until the history is told in its full entirety. Every footstep that vanishes is another step backwards.