The street is full of people, many of them standing with folded hands and looking up to the town gate. The Gate of Dawn is the only remaining gate of Vilnius’ old town walls. Apparently it escaped destruction because of the image of St. Mary. You can see it from outside as it hangs in a room on the second floor above the gate. The small room in front of that holy image is so crowded that there is usually a queue to get in upstairs. In a hurry, the pious stop in the street to offer a prayer from below the gate, in view of the image of Mary.
The huge Church of St. Therese next door, a Baroque dream in pink and gold, is equally crowded. During mass (on a weekday morning!) the throng of worshipers is spilling out into the street.
Unable to get into the church on two consecutive days, we pick some other of Vilnius’ many sights. After all, the whole Old Town of Vilnius is a UNESCO World Heritage site, with its castle hill, its dozens of churches and historical houses and the labyrinthine university.
On the Jewish heritage trail
Following the map of a leaflet on „Jewish heritage in Vilnius“, we don’t find the old printing press listed. Since the leaflet was devised, it has been replaced by a new building anyway. Instead we discover a recently rebuilt part of the city ramparts and the Subačius Gate, all of which was torn down by Russian troops in 1801.
The Jewish Heritage trail also leads us to the Small and the Large Ghetto of Vilnius. Here, 11,000 and 29,000 Lithuanian Jews, respectively, where housed in just a few blocks before being deported to concentration camps in 1943.
There’s not much left to see here, however, and a visit to the Vilnius Holocaust Museum actually gives more information about Vilnius’ Jewish past. In the 19th and early 20th century the town was a major centre of Jewish reform movements, Yiddish and Hebrew studies, and Jewish culture. Of about 220,000 Jewish inhabitants of (today’s) Lithuania, 90% were killed by 1945.
More dark memorials
Surprisingly, the similarly-called Museum of Genocide Victims in the former KGB headquarters barely mentions the 200,000 murdered Jews. This museum is about Lithuanians deported or killed during the Soviet occupation (1939-41) and Soviet period (after 1945).
In order to suppress Lithuanian nationalism, not only anti-Soviet guerrilla fighters and so-called collaborators but also large parts of the elite were either killed straight away or deported to work camps and industrial or agricultural settlements in Siberia as far as North Yakutia on the shores of the Arctic Ocean – where many died, too. In total, about 130,000 Lithuanians were deported by the Soviets, and many more killed, imprisoned, and tortured.
The museum’s aim is clearly to foster post-Soviet Lithuanian identity, but apparently it will take another while before that sense of nation is strong enough to include its Jewish victims in the national remembrance.
Martyrs of orthodoxy
At least with the Russian Orthodox minority, Vilnians seem to be getting along well even after the end of Soviet rule. Some of the most important churches in the town’s architectural ensemble are Russian Orthodox, such as St. Nikolaus or the Church of the Holy Spirit.
Here, the three city patrons of Vilnius are buried: Antonius, Johannes and Eustaphios. They were martyred in 1347 for defying Grand Duke Algyrdas order to return to paganism after a brief (and on the part of the rulers, tactical) spell of Christianity. The martyrs were canonised by the Orthodox patriarch, and their remains rest in the center of the church. By chance, we had, the day before we visited, met the artist who carved the wooden canopy over the martyrs’ tomb.
So, did we like the Old Town of Vilnius?
Although it was quite cold and rainy during our visit to Vilnius we thoroughly enjoyed the Baltic capital. Beautiful sights, nice coffee shops and friendly people. We will be back for sure. Not least because there is a convenient bus connection from Berlin.