2005年 06月 01日
My Lithuanian friend Edita is from a small town which is located north in Lithuania. I visited her hometown several times in the special occasions like Christmas, Easter and a summer holiday. The population of the town is around 500 people. There is one small grocery store and nothing more. People there are self-sufficient for food. They grow vegetables, berries and fruits and keep cows to supply milk and chickens mainly for eggs. In the village there is a wide two-story building once used for school students as a dormitory. They stayed there during the summer and picked apples in the apple garden as labor service. But nowadays it is just an abandoned house. Before the main industry here were dairy products but not anymore. During the Soviet era Moscow decided and ordered Vilnius what to do. Therefore under the Soviet Union the social system worked better and everybody had a job. There were 2 more shops in the town and there was much more of liveliness in the town. Just looking at a fact book Lithuania looks like climbing up the ladder but at the flip side of the coin small villages which are less important for the central business are being forgotten and it doesn’t reflect the figures in the reports.
Furthermore young people are lured by big cities and it accelerates the rural exodus. For example Edita’s youngest sister Simona, now 14 years old, told me that the life in the village was nothing but boring and wanted to live in Vilnius. There is a great contrast between city life and country life hence I understand why youngsters like her want to live in the city. As a consequence only old people will be left in villages and the villages are dying out gradually.
People in the West tend to take Lithuania’s joining the EU as a sign of being successful to transfer the country into being a member of the developed countries away from poor communism. But some people, especially old people, feel that the life in communism was better than now according to what I heard. On the other hand my friends from Vilnius University are playing an active roll in the business world. They are energetic and very positive about changes. I wish people like them are going to lead Lithuania and I’ll be very glad to see the country be glorious!
2005年 04月 19日
I luckily had chances to spend religious holidays with a Lithuanian family. One of the occasions was on Christmas in 1998. Edita, my best Lithuanian friend, invited me to spend Christmas with her family living 120 km away from Vilnius to the north. They celebrate Catholic Christmas. On the Christmas Eve people are not allowed to eat meat. In the traditional way 12 dishes are prepared and instead of meat they eat various sorts of marinated sardine, fried fish and salads and so on with bread. Unlike in Sweden they don’t eat ham but chicken or something else, and when the date changes to the next people are allowed to put meat into their mouth. By the way marinated herring in Lithuanian is called “silke” like “sill” in Swedish. I found some other words sound similar between these two languages. Those countries located close to each other, so no wonder to find similarity in the languages even if they belong to different language groups and the countries were separated by the iron curtain until recent history.
Talking about the people I should not forget to tell the facts of them. The population of Lithuania is about 3,600,000 people with 40.1 years as median age as of July 2004. The population growth rate is – 0.33%, and the net migration rate is – 0.71 per 1,000 people. When I was in Lithuania the population was said to be more than 3.7 million, so the figure shows that Lithuania is shrinking.
Lithuanian people are proud of their culture and ethnicity. To learn about the culture an open air museum called Rumsiskes is a good place. You can regard it as “Skansen” in Lithuania. It is located 80 km away from Vilnius and exhibits on the 18-19th century architecture, traditions, crafts and the way of life of different ethnographic regions of the country. I visited there a few times with my friends. According to what I heard the museum had amazingly already existed during the Soviet era when the ethnicity was totally denied by the Russification.
Among the exhibits there was a compound of gulag from Siberia. Once I met an old lady who experienced the life in a gulag. She was explaining of the life there to visitors at the site. According to her she was sent to Siberia with her family. The day when they were waiting for a railway wagon her father was separated from the family. Then he gave her his wedding ring by hoping the family could get together again. That was the last time she saw him. Later she heard that he was shot dead soon after they arrived at Siberia. He was working for the government. She thought that was the reason why the family was captured and sent away. The way of her talking was modest and didn’t say any jeremiad against Russian. That’s why we were more deeply touched by her story.
To talk about the Lithuanian language, first I would like to compare it with the Latvian language. My curiosity about the Lithuanian language leads to the Latvian language, too. During this term I’m also taking a Latvian course in a Medborgarskola. Through the history Latvian was influenced by German and quite a lot of German words are taken into Latvian. Lithuanians and Latvians can communicate with each other to some extent in each language, but the languages are not so close for them to understand everything. The Latvian teacher said that the distance between the two languages is like Swedish and Danish.
This is a story of my linguistic experiment. When I was staying in Lithuania I traveled to Latvia a few times. I encountered several occasions when I had no common languages to communicate with the local people. Once I visited a town whose name was Kuldiga, 3 hours by bus to the west from Riga, where there was the widest waterfall in Europe. I had no idea how to get there from the bus terminal then I hired a taxi. The driver was a middle-aged man. The problem was that we had no common language. He spoke only Latvian and Russian and I could understand none of them. So I tried to communicate with him in Lithuanian. He asked me where I was from in Latvian then I answered in Lithuanian like “I’m from Japan but now I live in Lithuania”. He was interested in me as a Japanese who spoke Lithuanian. We could make easy conversation like this in Latvian and Lithuanian. He was a kind man and for half a day he guided me in the town not only to the waterfall. The waterfall, the key of this travel, was very wide according to a guidebook. Actually it was very wide but its height was only 30cm. I was expecting it like Niagara Falls so it was a kind of disappointing. The guidebook with a picture focused only on the falling water and didn’t show the fall itself was good enough to fool readers that it was like Niagara. Anyway the guidebook said “the widest” so it didn’t tell a lie.
Lithuanian has 7 cases, numerous tenses and 2 genders. But there are no articles. The spelling and the pronunciation are straightforward. Ordinary Lithuanians don’t like to hear that people misunderstand Lithuanian is from the same branch as Russian. Lithuanians always shoot Russian down that they can master the Russian language in 3 days, and vice versa. On the other hand some Lithuanians say that Russian is too difficult by implying Lithuanian is completely dissimilar to Russian. No matter what they say I think that the languages are similar more or less. Because the Russian students in the same Lithuanian class learned the language much faster than anybody else.
Lithuanian is the principal language of Lithuania. Other languages used in Lithuanian include Russian, Belarusian, and Polish. Until the Second World War Yiddish was also a culturally and socially important language.
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union Russian was the most important language and people who were students during the era can speak Russian as a matter of course. Other languages as English, French and German were treated as the same. English was not prioritized at that time. My Lithuanian friends around 30 year-old or older learned Russian at school. My best Lithuanian friend Edita can use Russian as a native speaker but didn’t learn English at all. Instead she learned French. I found that some Lithuanians are fluent in German. Children who were born after the regaining of the independence started to learn English instead of Russian. Nowadays Russian is not compulsory at school and even if they can choose Russian many of them don’t show an interest in the language any more. Some of my young Lithuanian friends around 10 to 20 years old can speak Russian since they learned verbally while playing with Russian neighbor kids but they can’t write or read. They are exceptions and most of the current Lithuanian children don’t understand Russian at all. This shows the reality that Lithuania is no longer a part of the Soviet Union and is trying to go outward to the West.
2005年 03月 10日
Ninth Fort stands in the suburb of Kaunas, the second largest city of Lithuania. The city lies only 100km to the west from Vilnius. The fort was built ninth in a series of forts constructed by Russians to defend the western border of the empire in the late 19th century. The fort fell into the hands of Germans during the Second World War and it turned into a death concentration camp where more than 30,000 Jews from Lithuania and other European countries were killed.
I visited Ninth Fort once with my Lithuanian friends in 1998. We had to hire a guide to enter the building. It was all gray concrete and chilly inside. We followed the guide listening to her explanations like “At this spot there was a crash with arms between prisoners and guards” and “In the fort’s history the only one escape was made from this window”, etc. I could easily imagine the scenes with the help of the oppressive atmosphere there. From outside we can see the wall of the fort where prisoners were forced to stand with their backs against it and got shot to death. Behind Ninth Fort we can see a residential area a few hundred meters away and it was expanding toward the fort. To my eyes the view of the gray building with dark history behind and the peaceful residential block seen in one canvas was a kind of mismatch.
On July 7, 1944 the Red Army returned. Lithuania was reincorporated to into the USSR and that resulted in the deportation of 250,000 Lithuanians to the Siberian gulags. During my stay in Vilnius I was sharing an apartment with an Australian woman whose name was Kristina. Her parents were Lithuanian who fled to Australia to avoid the deportation. At that time many Lithuanians abandoned their homeland like her parents. Her parents never returned to Lithuania again, but she came back to see her origin. I saw many Lithuanian second generation people from USA and France coming back to Lithuania like Kristina. It was interesting to see the phenomenon that parents abandoned the country but their children returned.
Despite over 4 decades of forced Soviet assimilation Lithuania never lost its identity. On May 14, 1972 19-year-old Romas Kalanta set fire to himself and committed suicide in the public gardens in Kaunas. This incident sparked the first protests against the Soviet rule. On March 11, 1990 the Supreme Council declared the restoration of Lithuanian independence, and on 17 of the following month Moscow imposed an economic blockade. On January 13, 1991 Soviet troops made inroads into Vilnius. The civilians tried to guard their parliament and TV tower, and that resulted in the loss of 14 unarmed civilians’ lives. The center of Vilnius was inundated with the Soviet combat vehicles and soldiers. My Lithuanian acquaintance recalled the day was like chaos.
On February 12 Iceland became the first country to recognize the independence of Lithuania. In August the Soviet troops left the buildings they had been occupying since January, and Lenin’s statue was removed from the city center. On August 31, 1993 the last Russian soldier left the country. Like this Lithuania’s democratization proceeded, and on May 1, 2004 Lithuania became a member of the European Union.
2005年 03月 02日
Traku Street meets at right angles with Vokeciu Street and the street was the border of two Jewish ghettos. Vokeciu means German and the name is derived from German merchants who had settled on the street. In the period of Nazi occupation there existed two ghettos, one small and one big, facing each other on each side of Vokeciu Street. In the small ghetto around 11,000 Jews were packed in and they were intelligentsia, workers and handicapped people. In the big ghetto there were around 30,000 people and they were mostly craftsmen. The massacre started in the autumn of 1941 and the small ghetto was totally perished on October 21. Nazi authorities left the people alive in the big ghetto for a while, since they were beginning to lose against the Red Army and they needed more workforces to support their economy. In September 1943 the big ghetto was finally liquidated and many of the Jews were killed and others were imprisoned in concentration camps. The one who conducted was Nazi SS but they were not the only ones. Lithuanian police and sometimes even local people helped them, too. A few years ago I read an article about Lithuanians who were accused of helping the Nazi to exterminate Jews. Since the holocaust a long time has passed but the past is still waiting to be liquidated in this present time.
My residence was just outside of the big ghetto. It’s hard to believe that only 6 decades ago Jews were forced to live in the area only a few blocks away from my apartment, and they couldn’t get out where I could get in and out freely now. There are a lot of old buildings which remain from the period but most of them have been renovated and it is hard to find out there were Jewish ghettos in the area. Unfortunately almost no Jewish cultural sites or homes of renowned Jewish personalities are remembered. One synagogue in Vilnius out of 105 synagogues in the whole of Lithuania remains now. Only the signs on the wall of buildings tell there used to be Jewish ghettos. If you walk in the area you might step into Zydu(Jewish) Street or feel strange to see the sign of Ligonines(Hospital) Street where there is no hospital. They are small traces of Jewish Vilnius.
While I was a student of Lithuanian Studies I heard that there were Jewish Studies held by Vilnius Yiddish Institute during the summer. When I visited the synagogue an old man who looked after it told me that a lot of students from all over the world come to Vilnius to learn Jewish culture and history. As he said Jewish Vilnius still mesmerizes people even though the culture has been totally destroyed now, or that’s why people become interested to seek the traces of the lost heritage.
At that time the summer course of Jewish Studies cost only US$500 and I wondered if I would take it or not. Then I didn’t. Instead I chose to spend the same amount of money to travel to other Baltic States. Now I found that the cost of the tuition fee skyrocketed to1339 Euro. I really regret that I didn’t take the course while it was still cheap.
2005年 02月 20日
For hundreds of years Lithuania and Poland have been indispensable to each other in the history. The primary religion of Lithuania is Roman Catholic and the people are very religious. But actually it was the last country in Europe which converted to Christianity and that was finally led by the marriage of the Lithuanian grand duke Jogaila and the Polish crown princess Jadvyga in 1385. Once the Lithuanian-Polish allies extended from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, but Lithuania became weakened gradually and that resulted in entering the Commonwealth with Poland. It’s just an aside but I read a story that Lithuanian people tend to boast to foreigners about the fact that once their country owned land from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. That was not a lie. I heard that, too!
In 1795 the Commonwealth was cut up by a partitioning between Russia, Austria and Prussia, and Lithuania became a part of Russia in the end. Tsarist rule brought censorship and Russification, and public use of Lithuanian was banned. National uprising occurred in 1863 and then thousands of Lithuanians began to emigrate to escape tsarist persecution. Among them was the father of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
The Lithuanian Council proclaimed the Republic of Lithuania on February 16, 1918. But on October 9, 1920 Poland annexed Vilnius and the capital was moved to Kaunas, the second biggest city of Lithuania, where it remained for almost 20 years. That’s why there are still lots of Polish people, like my former landlady whom I mentioned in the first chapter, living in Vilnius.
When we talk about the history of Lithuania we cannot avoid mentioning Jews, because until the Second World War there was the biggest Jewish community of the Eastern Europe Region in Vilnius. The date when Jews began to settle in Lithuania goes back to the 14th century and Vilnius became the center of Jewish culture and scholarship in due course. But after the Soviet Union brought Vilnius back to Lithuania from Poland in 1939, German Nazis occupied the country between 1941 and 1944 and 240,000 Jews were killed during the period. It was as much as 94% of the pre-war Lithuanian Jewish population. No other Jewish community in Nazi-occupied Europe was so comprehensively destroyed and presently only 5,000 Jews remain in Lithuania.
Vilnius was once called “Jerusalem of Lithuania”. In the old town of Vilnius there were Jewish blocks and they were changed into notorious ghettos where all the Jews were packed in to be carried away and killed later. In the next chapter I’ll write about Jewish Vilnius.
2005年 02月 10日
Lithuania has changed a lot in these 5 years. I walked around the center of Vilnius with my friends. They took me to a big shopping mall, kind of Åhléns type of department store, whose name is Europa which didn’t exist while I was staying in Lithuania. Then we went to the old town. I was expecting to visit my old favorite café near Vilnius University where I studied the Lithuanian language. The café had an historical court yard and the history goes back to the 16th century. I used to go to the café and in the summer I had a tea break there nearly every day. But I found that the café had disappeared and a new Italian restaurant was open there instead. Furthermore the supermarket I used to buy daily food went out of business.
Like that many of the shops which were familiar to me have gone. On the other hand I noticed that there were new coffee franchise shops and pizza chains expanded. The number of tourists has increased incredibly. The streets were flooded with tourists from Russia, Poland and other European countries. No wonder I couldn’t find any vacancy in hotels in Vilnius during the New Year holiday when I searched on the internet, though there would be no problem because I ordered a private room in my good friend’s place. Surprisingly I could even find guidebooks in Japanese in ordinary bookshops and tourist spots. It was not difficult at all that I found just after a half-day walk on the town that Lithuania was developing so quickly and the capital inflow into Lithuania from the West increased quite much. Five years of absence made the differences more clear to my eyes.
Six years ago I rented a room of an apartment in the old town which was owned by an old Polish woman. She had been staying in Vilnius since Vilnius was only one of the towns of Poland during World War Tow. She spoke only Polish and Russian and understood a tiny little Lithuanian. It was a little difficult to communicate with her. At the beginning I told her that I didn’t understand Polish and Russian at all then she responded to me with an angry tone “Why can’t you speak Russian! You are in Lithuania now!” Once she asked me where Japan was on the map. She had only an atlas of Europe and asked me to point to Japan. She was a person of a good example from the Soviet era. She was a little too old to adjust herself to the new era and lagged behind the current of the times. Her world was limited within Europe and she was still living in USSR in her mind. This time I visited this old apartment but a new lock which wasn’t there before was installed to the entrance door and I couldn’t go in. So I never knew if my old landlady was still living there or not.
2005年 02月 03日
At that time the world was at the end of the so called Cold War between the Soviet Union and the USA, and the whole Eastern world was still behind the iron curtain, though it had been becoming open little by little by glasnost policy which was started by the then Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev during the1980s. The information of those countries behind the curtain was so scarce and it was hard to know how ordinary people were living. It is in my nature to be curious more about something especially when it’s hidden. I thought I would read Russian at university, but my teacher advised me that there would be no job afterwards even if I study it. I was so realistic and followed his word to change my way to study English and economics instead.
After my studies I started working in Tokyo as a sales representative. My life was nothing related to Russia or it was rather very domestic. Everyday I visited my customers for sales and was out on the town for market research. My only international activities were to travel in the Asian region both privately and on business and exchange letters with friends living in other countries. While I was spending days like this I happened to start exchange letters with two Lithuanian persons. That was the start of my Lithuanian fever. I visited them at the end of 1997 and I totally gave myself up to the Lithuanian people and the country. In September 1998 I was in Vilnius the capital of Lithuania to start studying the Lithuanian language and the culture at Vilnius University for one year.
I would love to write about the past and the present of Lithuania by tying up with my experience in the following chapters.