Sorry for the long delay . . . life got in the way, and I just haven’t had the time to blog for a while. But, I’m back again and talking about my second day in Vilnius, Lithuania.
Today I decided to take the city’s free walking tour, which took us around the main areas of Old Town. The guide recounted the city’s history, including the horrific events that happened during World War II.
When Nazi troops entered the city, they rounded up all the Jewish people in the area and conducted a mass execution. More than 21,000 Jews died during this raid.
Following Nazi Germany’s occupation, they decided to clear out poor, uneducated Jews and herd the more affluent Jews into a ghetto. However, they needed to clear an area out for the new ghetto, so they staged an attack on German troops then pinned it on unsuspecting Jews. This event gave the Nazis a reason to evict Jewish residents from their homes with only the clothes on their backs. In the process, the Nazis managed to kill between 5,000 and 10,000 people.
The remaining 20,000 Jews were put into what became known as the Vilnius Ghetto and separated into Large and Small Ghettos. After two years, less than a 1,000 Jews survived. Many died from starvation and disease; others shipped to concentration or extermination camps in Poland; even more were simply taken to the forest and shot.
The more we learned about Vilnius and Lithuania’s history, the more amazed we were to see how the city thrives today. Not only have they survived the Holocaust, but they have also endured multiple sieges and occupations throughout the years by the Soviet Union, Poland and other neighboring entities.
It’s no wonder that Užupis, a neighborhood that celebrates art and creativity, formed and officially declared itself an independent republic in 1997. The Republic of Užupis began its life as a dilapidated area abandoned by the Jewish who were forced into the Ghetto and overlooked by the Soviets. Squatters and the dregs of society took up residence in the buildings. But, the area also called out to artists and bohemian looking for freedom.
Now they have their own flag, declaration of independence, currency, anthem and president. It’s not quite certain whether all of this is serious or a social commentary, especially when Užupis Day falls on April first. But, the ideals they uphold are really inspirational given the dark history that surrounds the city.