My novels are in essence about international relations and their political machinations. I’m a firm believer that many of today’s troubles in the field of international relations are caused by parties who don’t understand, or aren’t willing to try to understand, the other party’s point of view.
I believe that a study of a nation’s cultural history would a go a long way in helping each party to appreciate the other party’s(ies’) position, thereby ameliorating the horrors of war exacted on thousands, if not millions, of innocent people – people who neither start nor want wars.
With this in mind, I am pleased to introduce Kieran Weyers who has kindly agreed to guest blog for me. Kieran is a keen photographer with a special interest in the political and cultural histories of the former Soviet Bloc countries. An avid reader and writer on these topics, he finds that his frequent travels to these locations afford him the opportunity to merge his twin loves of history and photography.
So here is Kieran’s first of three blogs on the tribulations of Lithuania, a country caught in the crossfire between the warring ideologies of the Allied Powers, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in the middle of the 20th century.
(Old Town, Kaunas, Lithuania’s second city © 2018 Kieran Weyers)
LITHUANIA: An unfortunate history of human cruelty 1940-1953
During my visit to Lithuania throughout the summer of 2018 I found myself visiting the cities of Vilnius, Šiauliai and Kaunas and exploring the recent history of the country. The Old Town of Vilnius is like you never left the 1930s Lithuania. It’s like entering a time-warp to the past. With the Yiddish etchings still visible; it was a sad reminder of the potential for human cruelty.
The apex of cruelty occurred between 1939-1953 where Lithuania had the misfortune of being ruled by three dictators – Antanas Smetona, Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin. This however was not a matter of Good vs. Evil governed by the serendipitous universe but an example of the banality of evil; the bureaucratic machinations which we can only reflect upon as cruel and unusual with the beauty of hindsight. It was the people that suffered at those banal hands.
It is an incredibly small nation which lies on the Baltic; even smaller than Ireland in population. But for a period of time the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was the largest empire in Europe. The country may seem small in scope, in nature and in world news but it is no shrinking violet. If you enjoy a trip to Lithuania the way I did – you will see a rich and beautiful culture populated by proud people with a unique language and idiosyncratic way of life. It is easy to pigeonhole Post-Soviet States as “the East” or “Russian” or even conflate Lithuania with Poland or some other Post-Communist Eastern nation – do so at your peril. So, let’s begin my tour of a nation with an unfortunate history of human cruelty.
PART I – Šiauliai 1939-1953
I arrived in Ryga and after a few days in Latvia I took a bus to Radviliškis; this is a town where I have many friends and family. It is tiny in comparison to the towns in Britain, France and Germany.
(c) 2018 Kieran Weyers
Radviliškis sits in the Šiauliai County. It is a small town with a lot of character. The tall spruces engulf this tiny town and there is a lot of agriculture and beautiful azure lakes just a short drive away as you head towards villages such as Kurkliai (literally means Grasshopper/Cricket). But within the presence of such beauty looms a dark heart. It was within this town that the entire Jewish population were massacred.
It started with the deportation to the local forest of all 300 Jewish men who were murdered by Nazi Recruits and Lithuanian White Arm-banders. The remaining women and children were taken to the ghettos of Žagarė later liquidated. I wandered out into the Durpunas Forest where the massacre occurred in 1941. The wind whistled, and the forest was giving off hints of autumn with its fallen, brown leaves on the ground but it gave no indication that ever such a moment of chaotic hatred happened. I was saddened to imagine what a post-War Lithuania was like, with a lack of eye witness testimony, where truths became fictions and fiction became truth because nobody Jewish was fortunate enough to survive the killings and give their voice to the events.
I should give a brief breakdown of how the country came to be occupied by the Nazis. In 1939 Hitler gave an ultimatum. Juozas Urbšys was the diplomat that had received the ultimatum to give up the Klaipeda region (which Germany had lost after World War I). This was in March 1939 and was some six-months before Hitler’s famous invasion of Poland. It would seem that while Hitler was undergoing an Anschluss, taking back the Sudetenland and ruffling Chamberlain’s feathers; people forget that he had in fact been carving into Lithuania.
The ultimatum was accepted on the 23 March 1939 and the Klaipeda region was granted back to Germany. The Soviets soon followed suit and issued their own ultimatum carving up the territory in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. So, that by 1940 the country was occupied by both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. This would come to a head in 1941 when the German army invaded the Soviet Union and the liquidation of Lithuanian Jews was underway. Juozas Urbšys – the proud patriot would eventually live to see a free and independent Lithuania in 1991.
My second post in this series will look into the infamous Šiaulia Ghetto under Nazi occupation between 1941 and 1944.
© 2019 Kieran Weyers