To say that the couple hours spent in Lithuania’s Museum of Genocide Victims was sobering would be quite an understatement. It was an incredible collection and exhibition; it was tremendously moving. And there were parts which were more than a little spooky.
The museum is housed in part of the building which formerly served as the KGB’s operation headquarters in Vilnius. It had served as a courthouse and military headquarters for other occupying forces in the prior years and a prison as well. That role – a prison – is one it would continue to operate as for decades during the era of Soviet rule. Today the façade is mostly the same, though with a small addition. The stones on the front of the building are now marked with the names of those who were tortured and killed inside. It is a stark reminder not just of the number of people who were killed but also how young many of them were and that, in many cases, families were destroyed together.
Inside the museum are several exhibits split across three floors. Part of the exhibit covers the unarmed resistance to Soviet rule in the region.
Another section goes into detail about the deportation process. Hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians were deported or killed in the first half of the 20th century. And it isn’t that large nor populous a region to begin with. The devastation that these actions brought on the region was immense. There are stories recounted of the efforts some made to be repatriated, only to then be deported again.
There is a section devoted to the internal spying KGB members conducted against those who lived in the region. Nearly all activity was monitored in one way or another. Several “listening rooms” were set up in the building to allow KGB operatives to tap in to the phone calls of nearly everyone. The equipment still in place when the building was abandoned was reasonably modern for the early 90s, I suppose, though there was clearly an old-school vibe to much of it.
Yet another portion of the exhibit – in the basement – allows visitors to explore the prison cells as the prior inhabitants did. Guard posts and other bits were left intact and walking down the narrow hall and exploring the individual rooms left quite an impression on me. I think the worst part was looking in the cells and thinking, “at least there is a decent amount of space,” until I read the placard which noted that each cell would often hold 15-20 prisoners at a time. It was nowhere near reasonable.
Visitors are also able to walk out of the cell block into the recreation yard. It is a tiny outdoor area in a central courtyard with more cells built in the space. No room to move or exercise; just a bit of fresh air and high walls. Adjacent to the yard was the execution room. The walls are still pock-marked with bullet holes. This was, by far, the most disturbing part of the exhibit to me.
It was a great way to spend a couple hours, but also one of those visits I wish I’d never had the opportunity to make. Not because I’m sad I saw the results, but because it is quite a shame any of it happened in the first place. If you’re in Vilnius for any stretch of time it is hard for this not to be a “must-do” part of the trip.
More stories available from the Baltic Beers trip, too.
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