November 16, 2007


I spent some days this past week in Vilnius Lithuania seeing the town. Some friends invited me to give a talk at the University. The city is an interesting mixture of decayed Soviet-era buildings and new investment since the country joined the European Union.

This is a boarded up church and an abandoned building.

In Vilnius you can feel the weight of European history. The city was occupied by Russia in 1655, Sweden in 1702, Russia in 1795, Napoleon in 1812, Germany in 1915, independent Lithuania for a brief time in 1918 followed by Russia, Polish self-defense, Polish army, Soviet, Lithuania and then Poland, and then Russia in 1939, Germany 1941, and Russia in 1944. The country gained its independence in 1990 and is now a member of the European Union and NATO.

This is a plaque on the central courthouse commemorating the visit of G. W. Bush, who said, Anyone who would choose Lithuania as an enemy has also made an enemy of the United States of America.

A friend took me for a long walk through the old city. We went through the small streets of 'Jeruzalė'. Vilnius once was comparable only to Jerusalem, Israel, as a world center for the study of the Torah, and for its large Jewish population. There were over 100 synagogues in Vilnius at the end of the 1800s. Here is a picture from the Choral Synagogue (right-hand side), the only synagogue in Vilnius to survive the holocaust.

The old city is dominated by Catholic and Orthodox churches. Peter the Great was baptised in Vilnius. There were signs written in Cyrillic, Hebrew, Latin and a kind of Belarussian Greek-Cyrillic script. Cosmopolitan Vilnius even has an Islamic community, the descendants of Tartars who came from the Crimean in the 14th c, and I have read that there are also Lutheran and Baptist groups.

The friend who gave me the tour told me about his wife's father. He was one of the Lithuanian nationalists who was taken prisoner by the Gulag and sent to a camp in Siberia. He was there for 9 years. After he returned he spent the rest of his life restoring the historical buildings of Vilnius. Wherever we would go my friend would say things like, This is the building where the Lithuanian state was declared in February 1918. My wife's father made the facade.

For lunch the first day I ate borscht followed by two zeppelins. A zeppelin is an air ship, or a ball of pork cooked in a prolate shell of potato dough.


At November 16, 2007 11:09 PM , Anonymous tim said...

you just made me hungry for a Zeppelin.

At November 17, 2007 7:10 PM , Blogger Papa Twister said...

My grandfather emigrated from Lithuania sometime around 1930. I have a picture of my great grandfather on my wall. He was a very religious Jew who lived most his life in Lithuania but did not identify himself as Lithuanian. He identified himself as a Russian. I have a picture of him on my wall but that’s all I know about him. He was cross-eyed. Did you see any cross-eyed Lithuanian Jews that looked like me?

At November 18, 2007 8:22 AM , Blogger Matt_J said...

Sorry, no, but I didn't know what I was looking for. Maybe I should go back and check as it would give me a chance to score some more zeppelins. There were two types of people on the streets-- Polish Catholics visiting a shrine and construction workers who I was told were swearing in Lithuanian and Russian. Plus I saw a bike commuter, some Soviet era heavy trucks and a few Ladas.


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