Vilnius & Lithuania: Now & Then
Vilnius, the capital of the Republic of Lithuania, is easily accessible from North America. We flew there via Frankfurt, but there are direct flights from other European gateway cities. It is a very attractive city of about 500 thousand people, in a country with a population of 3.5 million. The present Jewish population of Lithuania is less than five thousand, the majority of whom are pensioners.
The "Old City" section of Vilnius is well preserved and is a major tourist destination. English is widely spoken and we always felt very comfortable and welcome. Our Hotel — The Shakespeare, where we stayed in the "Oscar Wilde Room" — was as nice as you could find in any other major center.
At the time of my grandparents' emigration, Lithuania was a part of Czarist Russia. Following the First World War Vilnius and its regions were occupied by Poland and the rest of the country achieved a period of independence. In 1940, Lithuania was annexed (without any warfare) by the Soviets and became a part of the Soviet Union. In 1941, after Germany broke its treaty with the Soviet Union, the country was invaded by Germany and the Red Army was pushed out of Lithuania with the help of Lithuanian troops and insurgents.
The Soviets invaded Lithuania again in 1944 and this time there was extensive fighting in Vištytis. Lithuania became a part of the Soviet Union until it again achieved independence in 1991. There were insurgents fighting the Russian occupation from 1944-45 until the mid 1950s. They are well spoken of as "independence fighters" in a presentation we visited at the KGB Museum in Vilnius. However, our guide Ruta Puisyte advised us that among the insurgents there were Nazi collaborators who chose this life to avoid the harsh treatment they would have received from the Soviets. There was a general amnesty in the mid-1950s and the armed resistance ceased at that time. Lithuania became a member of the European Union in 2004.
As descendants of people who were victims of discrimination, we were curious to see how minorities are treated in Lithuania today. As it happens, visible minorities seem to make up a tiny portion of the current Lithuanian population, and we were not able to make any direct observations.
We did do some reading into the matter. As an EU member, Lithuania's official policy is that it is a tolerant society where people of different backgrounds are welcome. However, some reading material that was left in our hotel room suggests otherwise. An article in a business/tourist English language magazine called Vilnius Monthly (Issue #4, 2005) included an article entitled "Attitude," by Henrikas Mickevicuis. The article contains the following quotes:
"Last year saw a sustained assault on Jews and homosexuals in the daily media. Since February 2004, controversy endured following the publication of a series of articles in the second largest daily newspaper. Similarly, Jews and homosexuals were assailed in electronic forums. State officials and law enforcement authorities did not endorse the outbursts, nor did they react critically enough. Law enforcement officers appeared ill-prepared to deal with hate and discrimination cases."
On Persons with Mental Disabilities
"Opinion polls show that every other Lithuanian would prefer to isolate individuals suffering mental disabilities. It is widely believed that mentally disabled people are dangerous to others and that restrictions on their rights can be justified. This antiquated view contradicts modern perceptions where EU and member state policies seek to eliminate large residential institutions and replace them with more open and flexible care in the community. In Lithuania, more than 6,000 mentally disabled persons are segregated from society in grim facilities from which most will never leave."
Here is a quote from another article in the same publication, entitled "Refugees and asylum seekers in Lithuania," by Ray Vysniauskas:
"Lithuania began accepting refugees in 1996 and the number of people being integrated into Lithuanian society keeps growing from 30 in 1999 to 404 in 2004. From 1997 to 2003 there were 1800 asylum seekers processed in Lithuania, and as is the case throughout the world, the majority of these were women and children — In all, 4,855 people have been processed and 3,003 have been deported."