Bye-Bye Baltics

by Rich Landesberg

Our great Baltic adventure is drawing to a close but we are ending on a great note.

Parliament briefing

The morning was spent at the Lithuanian Parliament.  The new building is bright and airy with windows all around for people to see their elected representatives at work.  We also toured the old Soviet puppet Parliament.  It has no windows and is decorated in dark tones.  There was no room for light in that totalitarian society.  It was at this building–20 years ago this month–where average citizens barricaded themselves inside and out to resist armed Soviet troops and tanks intent on returning Lithuania to Soviet rule.  Many were wounded and killed but average Lithuanians liberated their country and made it into the young democracy that thrives today.

After lunch, we headed to the US Embassy.  Typically, in most cities in the world, the embassy is ugly and looks like a fortress.  No exception here.  But the diplomats we met were warm, welcoming and wonderful to talk with.  Six embassy officials took time from their busy day to answer questions about relations with the European Union, how the embassy works, and a brief on the Foreign Service.  After the panel, they all stayed around for a bit to chat one-on-one with our students.  I think a number of students are now considering jobs with the government.

The evening was a time for high culture.  We headed to the beautiful Soviet era opera house to see Madame Butterfly, the first opera for many of our students.  It was a wonderful performance with great staging.

Tomorrow morning…back on the plane and heading to Rome.  As soon as we  get there, we’ll hop on the train for Florence.  I can almost taste the gelato.

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Lith-O-Mania

by Rich Landesberg

And the adventure continues…

Last year, the temperatures here in Vilnius were in the single digits when we visited in January.

Concert hall across from our hotel

This year, temps are just above freezing and ice has replaced snow.  We are all slipping and sliding but still standing.  And we are really enjoying our final Baltic stop.

 

Our first full day in Lithuania, Sunday,  started on an emotional note with our visit to the KGB Museum.  This is an unassuming building on a main street where people went in and were never again seen alive.

Inside a KGB prison cell

Many of those people were the age of our students.  This was also the home of the Nazi SS before the Soviets took over for good toward the end of WW II.  Our students learned that you could be thrown into the basement cells for many reasons…or no reason at all.  If you were lucky, you spent a few days in a small cell with a few other people and maybe faced interrogation.  If you were unlucky you were tortured (in later years, the Soviets stopped calling it torture.  Subjecting prisoners to sleep deprivation, cold water for long periods or worse was merely considered interrogation).  Any “enemy of the people,” even those innocent but accused by jealous neighbors, could wind up in that basement.  We stood in the cells.  We stood on the spot were many were executed.  We heard from our guide how his grandfather was killed and his grandmother imprisoned there.  We will never forget and we hope the world will always remember what happened there.

 

And what happened there is still going on just a few hundred kilometers down the road in Belarus.  We spoke with some academics from that country that so few Americans know about.  One of them was heading home for a visit and to accept an “invitation” from the police to chat about a recent protest.  He fully expects to sent to jail for at least two weeks.  But he won’t be silenced.  Our discussion with the Belorussians led to a lot of introspection:  would we question our government,  risk our personal freedom,  for an ideal that would serve the greater good?

Monday was also an emotional day though it started in a magical way.  Our first stop was to the old castle at Trakai.  Despite the rain and gray sky, the castle was still a beautiful sight to behold and we got to walk around and look at the place where many medieval movies have been filmed.  Our lunch was at a traditional Karaim restaurant where we ate traditional food.  From there it was on the orphanage.

 

 

It is hard to explain what it is like at this orphanage that we visit each year.

Dr. Morgan looks on as I play with my new friend. How do I tell my wife that this is her present from Lithuania?

They are not poor but that they are lacking in visitors and they jump and climb on us throughout the hours we are there. The kids were great and we were the audience for the “world premiere” of their new show.  They had us from “sveiki.”  We had to check our students when we left to make sure they weren’t hiding any kids to take home.  It was a wonderful and moving afternoon.

 

 

Sam joins the show

New Friends

 

 

You really CAN see Russia from here…

by Rich Landesberg

Estonia is in the midst of campaigning for Parliament with elections scheduled for March.  Billboards are all around and, in a quick glimpse from a bus, one candidate seemed to closely resemble Sarah Palin.  Sorry, I wasn’t quick enough to grab a picture but it did provide inspiration for the title of our excursion to the northernmost  Baltic state, on the border with Russia.We started our time in Tallinn by heading directly to the main square in old town.  Still decorated with a huge Christmas tree, the square looks like something Disney might create…except that this is real and people have lived here for centuries.  After a little lunch,  Dr. Morgan pointed out some of the more important sites and their significance to our study of the European Union.

It was relatively warm in Estonia.  Most days, temperatures were just above freezing with one day  with temperatures in the 20s.

First glimpse of the Old Town Square

Last year when we brought students here, it was 20 degrees colder.  We were thankful for the “warmth” and really loved the beauty of the light snow that fell everyday, giving the ground a nice, bright, white coat.

Our first morning was spent at Tallinn Technical University for a fascinating series of lectures about the EU. Our host was an American professor, Dr. Siobhan Kattago of Tallinn University (she teaches Political Philosophy in the Department of Philosophy).

Outside Tallinn Tech. Dr. Kattago is to the left of Dr. Morgan. The statue (mascot?) name is unknown.

She recruited her colleagues at Tallinn Technical to speak with our students in their brand new facility that reflects Estonia’s place in the 21st Century.  We were welcomed by Peeter Muursepp,  the equivalent of the dean.  Dr. Kattago, and John Sullivan–a Texan who has lived in Estonia about 15 years–took turns teaching our students.  Our students were tantalized by the option of a global academic program taught in English and some may  be contemplating coming back for a semester or for graduate studies.   Vitali Khaynacki–a student from Kiev, Ukraine who attends Tallinn Technical–joined with our students and made their time in Tallinn very special.  In addition to great conversation, Vitali showed our group a local student hangout with great–and cheap–pancakes.

Friday was spent exploring the city with an insightful guide.  Not only did we get to walk all around town in the lightly falling snow but we had the opportunity to explore some of  the tunnels that surround the city, some of which have been here for more than 500 years.  These tunnels were originally built to allow escape from the walled city if it was attacked by the Swedes, the Danes, the Germans or any of the others who historically set their sights on Riga.  In more recent times, the Russians used the tunnels for civil defense.  After the Russians left, the homeless moved in.  In the past few years, the tunnels have been excavated and turned into a living museum.

At the Mexican restaurant in Old Town, Tallinn

Our day ended with a look at the city from some beautiful vistas and then lunch in town.  Some of us wound up in a Mexican restaurant where we could have Mexican food as reinterpreted by Americans, exported 6,000 miles and reinvented by Estonians.  Yes, something gets lost in the translation but the food was really good.  We passed on having a Lone Star with lunch. The afternoon was free for exploration or study.

Most of the students used at least some of the time to prepare for the midterm.  On Sunday morning, our last morning in Tallinn, students gathered in the hotel bar (closed at that hour) to write essays in answer to mid-term questions about the European Union.  There was time left after the exam to grab lunch, shop, or take one last walk around this beautiful city.After lunch, it was time to get to the airport for our flight to Vilnius via Riga.  We got to Vilnius after eight PM, had some typical Lithuanian food in a local pub, and called it a night in anticipation of our first full day in the last Baltic nation we will visit.

 

 

 

Lithuania

We are here since last night…all safe and sound

Never Again

by Rich Landesberg

It’s an experience that can’t be captured in a 140 character tweet.  It can’t be captured via text message.  And there are no capitalized three letter expressions, no emoticons, that can tell you what it was like in the Rumbula forest in Riga in December, 1941.   On our last day in Latvia, we walked through the deep snow in the forest to the site where tens of thousands spent their last day on earth.

Our day started like so many others, with a fascinating lecture.  A former member of Parliament and an American born Latvian spoke to our students.  One of the speakers is among only two or three people in the world licensed to practice law in both the USA and Latvia.  Listening to these folks, one can be very optimistic about the future of Latvia.

But it was the past that hit us so viscerally on that afternoon.  We took a tour of Jewish Riga, a tour that took some imagination to understand, because so few Jews remain after Hitler’s “final solution” found its way into the Baltics.

Site of the largest synagogue in Riga,

We visited the remains of the largest synagogue in Riga…set on fire by the Nazis on July 4, 1941, the building destroyed along with the people purposely trapped inside it.  Near the site is a monument to those non-Jews who helped their Jewish neighbors at great personal risk of being killed or deported to concentration camps if they were discovered.

Monument to the "Righteous"

The monument to what the Yad Vashem holocaust history museum calls “The Righteous”  shows the names of those people, written on concrete beams, holding up a wall that was rapidly collapsing on the Jews of Europe in the 1930s and 40s.

We toured the Jewish ghetto area, someplace that didn’t exist until the Nazis overran Latvia.  When the Germans arrived in Riga, Jews were forced from their homes and into the ghetto.  When Hitler decided that European Jews should be moved east, the Riga ghetto became their home.  The Jews of Riga were killed to make way for other European Jews.  They were killed in the Rumbula forest.

Students at the edge of the Rumbula forest

It was cold the day we visited the forest.  Maybe as cold as it was in late November and early December of 1941 when the Jews of Riga were marched out there.  They were told to put their shoes in one pile, coats in another, pants and skirts in that pile over there.  Then they were shot, their bodies falling into mass graves.  By the time the killing was done, more than 25,000 men, women and children were buried in Rumbula forest.  And even their deaths were to become victim to the Nazis, their bodies dug up years later and burned in an effort to hide this crime.   We walked silently through the cold, still forest.  We walked to the site of a memorial to those murdered there.  And in our own way we quietly paid tribute.


Before the war, 93,000 Jews called Riga home.  When the city was liberated by Soviet troops in 1944, there were 164 Jews in Riga.  While the Nazis killed the Jews of Latvia, the Soviets went about destroying any memory that they had ever existed.  The Jewish cemetery that the Nazis desecrated, the Soviets destroyed and turned into a park.   One small Soviet era monument stands in the Rumbula forest, with no mention of the Jews who died there.

 

 

But there is hope for the Jewish community here.  About 10,000 people in Riga identify themselves as Jewish.  With the help of a lot of American money, there is now a working synagogue in Riga.  We were lucky enough to tour it and hear how this once vibrant community is making a very modest comeback. 

Our students got to experience a part of history where first hand accounts are rapidly fading.  And they all felt, on a very gut level, that this kind of thing should never happen again.

 

“So all forests aren’t like this,
I stand and shriek in Rumbula-
A green crater in a midst of grainfields.

Every man who has entered me
Becomes my tongue,
My flame.
You come in me and shriek!

-Ojars Vacietis


For some more information about the Rumbula forest murders, this web site (where the poem was taken from)  provides excellent background:   http://www.rumbula.org/rumbula_homepage.shtml

Next:  a summary of Estonia as we move on to Lithuania

Student Posts

On our last day in Brussels, students were assigned to write a brief blog post answering this question:  how would you explain the European Union to an American?

If you click on the tab above marked “students” you will see their unedited responses.

 

At a lecture in Riga

 

 

We are in Tallinn…

And everyone is safe and sound