KaunasAugust 6 in Lithuania
Kaunas is known as Lithuania’s city of museums,which made my choice to spend a Monday there somewhat ironic, luckily it is also another surprisingly charming and beautiful Eastern European city. Compact and easily walkable, it has a nicely preserved old town, a number of green parks and, due to it having been the first capital of the Republic of Lithuania from 1919-39 a number of very impressive administrative buildings and cathedrals. What drew me here was reading that it had just recently been announced as the European capital of culture 2022, which from past experience is always a good sign that somewhere is worth a visit.
My hunch wasn’t wrong, despite the huge amount of renovations going on to spruce the city up and make it look the part, the place proved to be very cool and relaxing after the craziness of Riga. It also helped that the hostel was very chill, which allowed me some early nights and some planning time for the next legs of my trip.
Monday was spent exploring its nooks and crannies, wandering the old town, crossing the river to take the furnicular to a view point looking over the city from the opposite bank and exploring the parks, one of which contained an old soviet theme park. The theme park is still somewhat functioning, with a surreal mix of rusted, broken down or dilapidated rides and more recent, but by no means more impressive, add ons. My favourite had to be repurposed electric wheelchairs, which had been converted into bumper cars with kids careening around the paths barely being able to reach the handlebars.
I had a choice on Tuesday to either stay in the City and hit up the museums or to head out of town to the Ninth Fort. I took the second option, which I’m very glad I did. The Ninth Fort is located an hours bus trip away and is one of a circle of forts that were built prior to WW1 by the Russians at the cost of $500 million in todays dollars and, which collectively made up the Kaunas Fortress. Seeing as it subsequently took the Germans a total of 11 days to take the city, the money may have been better spent elsewhere. However, what it is most famous for is being the site of a succession of brutal prisons and concentration camps, first by the Lithuanian Republic, then the Soviets and finally the Nazi’s who used it as an extermination camp, mainly for political prisoners, but also Jews and Russian POW’s. This was not a concentration camp, the only reason for people being taken there was to be killed. In total over 50,000 people were murdered in less than 3 years by being shot, stabbed or beaten, unlike other camps where gas chambers were built to ‘sanitise’ the operation. A single breakout of 62 prisoners in 1944, before the final liquidation, where the only survivors and witnesses to the horrors inflicted within. Once the Soviets were back it was once again used as a prison camp and staging post for the deportation of ethnic Lithuanians to Siberia. Today, it forms the basis for a spectacular, beautiful and very moving museum and is towered over by a fantastic 40m high brutalist communist sculpture erected in 1984, which is an appropriately awe inspiring and amazing sight.
Right next to the sculpture is a large green field, which is where 50,000 people are still buried and is marked by a simple memorial and a number of simple plaques from European cities where some of the murdered originally came from. One of my favourite rooms in the museum though was one devoted to those who harboured and protected enemies of the Nazi regime. Hundreds of portraits and a sentence describing their heroics, it was incredible moving and, surrounded by so much misery and horror, a fantastic and uplifting reminder of the personal courage and fortitude displayed by so many in the face of such overwhelming fear and brutality.Read more