A history lesson in the Genocide Museum

  • 2009-02-18
  • By Justinas Vainilavicius

The padded room is one of the most disturbing in the museum.

VILNIUS -  The Lithuanian Independence Day on Feb. 16 is the best excuse to have a history-related trip to the museum. I decided to visit the Museum of Genocide Victims 's though I found that it does not have much to do with the independence from the Russian empire achieved 91 years ago. The museum is instead dedicated to events that happened more than 20 years later.
 Located in the central Gedimino Avenue, just in front of Lukiskes Square, the building is eye-catching. Built in the 19th century to serve as a court, it continues to perform the same duties today in addition to housing a museum.

However, the gap between the historic roots and the modern day holds a horrific history, which still haunts the place with shadows from the past. All the frontal bricks of the building have been engraved with the names of people who were tortured to death in this building. It served as Vilnius headquarters for both the Nazi Gestapo and Soviet NKVD, and later KGB.

Partisan resistance against the Soviet regime is what the ground floor is about. Here visitors see an exhibition dedicated to people who fought for freedom in a country where World War II was far from over, even though it was over in other parts the world. The remnants of the life rebels led in the woods are displayed here.  It is amazing how passionate and full of hope the people were despite terrible Soviet actions against them and the terrible conditions of life in the woods. The partisan war lasted until the late '50s, as people long hoped help from the West would finally come.

The second floor features exhibitions on Lithuanians' deportations to Siberia and their imprisonment in Soviet prisons and labor camps, as well as the behind-the-scenes KGB work. The museum is rich in visual material, including photographs and interactive screens with videos in a number of languages.

The most entertaining 's and frightening 's part of the museum is the basement, which used to hold a KGB prison. Everyone opposing or resisting the regime ended up here. The ones who were sent to the prison while Stalin was in charge experienced the worst the regime could offer. Those who arrived afterward were treated in a more "humane" way, as they could sleep on beds and were not thrown for hours into the solitary confinement cells where they had to stand on a small platform above ice-cold water. If they did not balance they would fall into the water or on the ice in winter.

Another dreadful cell is the one with padded walls, where prisoners deranged from torturing were held in straitjackets. One of the cells is dedicated to the clergy, who were regular inhabitants in the prison and were always under close scrutiny.

While the partisan war continued, prisoners were usually accused of being part of, or related to, the resistance movement. Later people fighting for human rights and freedoms were regular prison inhabitants. The Soviet regime tried to suppress even the most insignificant forms of freedom of expression. The guide pointed out that the walls of the prison were repainted about 20 times, in order to cover the messages and poems the prisoners wrote on the walls.

Fortune turned her back on more than a thousand people who were killed in the execution chamber, which I reached by crossing the small inner prison yard where inmates used to enjoy fresh air. The guide's precise description of how executions were carried out made me shudder with revulsion, and even touching the wall made me desperate to find a place where I could wash my hands.

I was happy to emerge from the chilly hallways of the building. The terrible weather did not help with the return to my comfort zone 's and did not help forget those 20,000 people who fell while fighting superior forces or those hundreds of thousands deported to Siberia in cattle cars. It is a depressing place, but definitely worth a visit.
More info www.genocid.lt