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New Europe

Day Ninety-two: Vilnius

Museum of Genocide Victims 
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The Museum of Genocide Victims in Vilnius. Once a boys' school, this was adapted for torture and interrogation. The commentary tells me that the block I'm standing on would have been surrounded by freezing water.
Michael Palin - New Europe'Aren't you in danger of changing one master, Moscow, for another, Brussels?'
He grins, bleakly.

'Moscow was involuntary.'

We talk about national stereotypes and I ask him how Lithuanians see their Baltic neighbours.

'Well, there are Russian jokes about Estonians being very slow, and we call Latvians horse heads.'

He chuckles.

'Which is very offensive as far as I know.'

'And the Lithuanians?'

'Er... well, for some reason we eat terrible food. Our national dish is called cepelinai, Zeppelin. It's pork fat covered with potato stuff. Very bad for your stomach.'

'Anything else?'

'Well, people like to whine a lot here. "Things are very bad... blah blah blah." But the Latvians do the same, the Poles do the same. I mean all post-communist nations like to whine.'

During the Second World War, Vilnius was occupied three times, first by the Soviets in 1939, then by the Germans in 1941 and after the failure of Hitler's invasion of Russia, the Soviet troops returned in 1944. Some 30,000 Lithuanian partisans, often students, farmers and teachers, took to the streets and the forests to fight for their country's freedom. Many were imprisoned and tortured in the basement of a big neo-classical building in the centre of the city, which is now open to the public as the Museum of Lithuanian Genocide Victims. Little has been changed. A few display boards, some photographs and background information, but apart from that the flag-stone floors are cold and draughty, the spy holes in the thick doors reveal grey, bleak cells. The occupants were generally political rather than military prisoners. Two archbishops of Lithuania and two bishops were brought in here, one of whom was later shot.

A factual, unemotional commentary, in good English, describes the function of the various cells, the most chilling being what they call 'the ice-pool cells'. A lowered concrete floor would be filled with ice-cold water, from which the only refuge was a small eighteen-inch-square block. Prisoners, wearing only their underwear, were made to stand on the block for hours until sleep overtook them and they fell into the freezing water. There is a padded cell, with puffy, swollen walls that look like ripe bruises, at one end of which hangs a black straitjacket, arms akimbo.

'The walls absorb their cries and shouts for help,' adds the commentary, dryly.

Apart from the callousness of the brutality here, most shocking to me is that the building where it all went on, once a courthouse, once a boys' school, is in the very heart of the city. Surely the most unbearable torture must have been the sight of life going on, people bustling backwards and forwards, bent over bags of shopping or hand in hand with their children, yards away but completely out of reach. In the fifty years that this grim prison existed, only one man ever escaped.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Ninety-two: Vilnius
  • Country/sea: Lithuania
  • Place: Vilnius
  • Book page no: 220

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