Hip Image Cloaks Lithuania's Past
| VILNIUS, LITHUANIA
Ask people in Vilnius where Lenin and Stalin have gone, and you get a variety of theories.
Some say their massive statues were melted down when, along with Soviet rule, they were overturned in Lithuania seven years ago. Others are convinced they were sold to collectors of Soviet icons.
"I'm sure they were bought by a capitalist," says one taxi driver. Faced with skepticism, he calls a friend on his radio to double check. "Defected, gone to the States," is the self-assured reply.
The truth is that the capital's huge metal statues lie in a yard behind an industrial warehouse. A man of the generation that saw beatings, jailings, and other manifestations of totalitarianism, warehouse director Romualdas Deksnys, doesn't want the monuments on their feet again. "They awaken dark memories," he says. "It's best not to let them stand now."
In Lithuania, whose people see themselves as victims of Soviet and Nazi occupations, the past invariably invokes disturbing feelings.
Some Lithuanians practice denial, such as pretending the statues don't exist.
Others dwell on history and try to uncover the real truth, such as the Lithuanians' own role in wartime atrocities against Jews, which are leading to the first prosecutions. The younger generation tends to be more lighthearted, preferring to make fun of institutions and think more about the future.
While the statues of Lenin and Stalin lie quietly in their graveyard, new, wacky icons have arisen, such as the bust of Frank Zappa erected in 1995. This homage to the late American rock star, known for his irreverence, has earned Vilnius a reputation as one of Europe's more hip towns. So, too, have the plentiful cafes that display a distinct slant toward Western pop culture. Noteworthy is Betmenas (Batman's), where a life-size figure of the comic-book hero appears to have crashed headfirst into the countertop.
The older generation is less sanguine about Lithuania's past, particularly its occupation by the Soviets in 1940, the Nazis in 1941, and the Soviets again in 1944. This small city has its fair share of landmarks to commemorate atrocities, including a Genocide Museum, two Jewish museums, and a Holocaust Memorial.
The decimation of the Jewish population takes on special relevance today, with the first war-crimes prosecution in any former Soviet-ruled country. The man in the dock is Lithuanian Alexandras Lileikis, who emigrated to the United States after World War II but was later stripped of American citizenship. He's accused of ordering the murder of tens of thousands of Jews during the Nazi occupation.
The prosecution is taking place only after strong international pressure on Lithuania to admit its citizens weren't only victims. Locals took part in killing the overwhelming majority of the 100,000 Jews who lived in Vilnius, once a world Jewish center.
Victims of the Soviets are remembered at the Genocide Museum housed in the former KGB detention center. Former inmates such as guide Juozas Aleksiejunas tell visitors of the torture cells where they were interrogated. "What happened is always in my head," he says. "I cannot escape from it."
Such a reliving of the past was endorsed by Violeta Palclunskaite, who as a baby survived the Holocaust hidden in a wardrobe. She works as a guide at the State Jewish Museum. "These museums help people come to terms with things," she says.
"There were so many years when the real story couldn't come out. Now we must tell and retell it," says Ms. Palclunskaite.