We were standing in front of the wall-sized collage of blown-up black and white photos of the faces and bodies of killed partisan fighters displayed in village market squares all over Lithuania in the late 40s and early 50s.
My students and I were at the end of our tour of the basement KGB torture chambers of the Museum of the Center for Genocide and Resistance. Victoria, an Inuit from northern Canada let out a wail, interrupting our tour guide’s monotone explanation. It was a wail, not a cry, but a wail of despair that rose spontaneously and uncontrolled from the depths of Victoria’s soul.
The wail echoed loud and unrestrained in the closed underground chamber, reverberated against the thick stone walls. Tears poured down her beautiful high cheekbones and she did nothing to hold them back.
Victoria’s response was utterly appropriate. A shock and a reproach not only to the brutal decade of fighting that took place in Lithuanian after World War II had ended for the rest of Europe, but also to the brutality of all of us who are capable of standing before the photographs of the faces of young men and women who had died for their country’s freedom without responding.
Our group had obediently submitted to being led around the horrific torture and interrogation cells of the KGB prison by a young, flip, ill-prepared, and strangely pro-Soviet tour guide, a young Lithuanian twenty-something dressed in a tight white short skirt patterned with splashes of large red roses, red leather flats, and a white blouse. As our guide had sashayed from cell to cell, making statements like, “And here is padded cell where bad prisoner kept…” we politely listened.
I led Victoria out of the prison chambers and upstairs into the Genocide Museum. I held her until the sobs stopped wracking her body. I was surprised by how strong Victoria was. She was a compact woman, not tall, but sturdy and muscular, yet shapely, more curves than straight lines.
“I walk the land here in Lithuania,” Victoria said, brushing the tears from her almond-shaped dark brown eyes, “and I can feel the struggles of your people coming up from the earth, up through my legs, and into my heart. This is land that was fought over. Land people died for. And I can feel it with my whole body. Our people are very compassionate, you know. Like your people, we are bound to our land.”
We stood like that a while, beside a plexiglass wall of semi-transparent, ghost-like images, small post card sized mug shots of some of the thousands of prisoners incarcerated here in years following the second Soviet occupation in 1944. These were the faces of the young men and women who had fought in the resistance — half of whom had been between the ages of 16 and 22.
“I don’t believe what that tour guide said is true,” Victoria said in her lilting manner of speech. The rhythms of Victoria’s native Inuttitut broke through her English. “I don’t think all those people died for nothing. These people sacrificed,” Victoria said, stressing the word sacrifice, “for their people and their land. It is much like what we Inuit have been through.”
Our group had followed our guide’s swinging hips over to the cell used for solitary confinement. She’d leaned into the heavy metal door, crossing one slender ankle daintily over the other, and had said, “This is where they put prisoner who would not talk.”
“Who were these prisoners?” Marion, an older student with a Lithuanian mother from the Klaipėda region, had asked with a gentle eagerness in her voice, as though prompting the guide into revealing information she was sure she’d been holding back.
“Freedom fighters,” our guide said matter-of-factly.
“Who were the freedom fighters?” Julia asked, blue-eyed with a mess of wild strawberry blond bushy hair tied back sloppily and charmingly in a bandanna.
“Young people from the villages, ages 16 to 30, who joined the armed resistance,” our guide continued merrily, “but they all died. So, in that regard the resistance was a failure because the Soviets killed them all. They lost.”
“How many of them died?” Julia asked.
“Oh, some 20,000,” the guide said.
This is where I felt I had to step in. Like a watchful mother in the playground observing her toddler getting pushed over in the sand box, I had been waiting to see if I ought to step in and intervene and set the record straight. Up until this moment I’d been biting my tongue, allowing the tour guide to do her job, and allowing my students to make of it what they will. But this last casual comment had put me over the edge.
I was angry. I was always angry when people breezily tarnished the memory of the freedom fighters. They were dead; they could no longer speak for themselves. Those who remained put their own spin on the partisans’ story.
“Some would argue that the freedom fighters’ fight was not lost at all,” I said, gazing steadily at the tour guide, who had the audacity to smirk at me, “because the work they did with the underground press and their ideals and their perseverance was passed on to the next generation who continued the underground press in the form of publications such as the Chronicle of the Catholic Church of Lithuania, which led to emboldening the public into speaking out and which finally led to the independence movement that began in 1988.”
The tour guide fixed her narrow brown eyes on me and said nothing, as though humoring me by allowing me to ramble on without really listening to what I was saying.
“Some might consider it a philosophical argument,” I continued, “whether the resistance was a failure or not.”
The tour guide stood there with her small hand wrapped around the handle to the solitary confinement cell. She reminded me of the Soviet Intourist tour guides who’d taken our high school groups around Lithuania on Soviet propaganda tours in 1983 and 1984 when I’d traveled to Lithuania with students from the Lithuanian Gymnasium in then West Germany. Those women, like this one, were meticulously groomed, tight-lipped, hard, and did not question the party line.
The tour guide and I stood there staring each other down, holding our own ground, yet both smiling pleasantly. For the first time I began to give credence to the conspiracy theories that I’d heard over the years regarding the Center for the Study of Genocide and Resistance. Gossip that the center was less interested in preserving history than in destroying it.
Gulag tourism is a growing industry in the post-Soviet world. These days one can take tours of actual Siberian gulags where millions of Russians, Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Finns, Germans, Jews and many other ethnicities were worked to death or died of starvation. One can take a bus around the desolate ghost city of Chernobyl. Or visit Grūtas Park and meander through the park’s wooden boardwalks flanked by Lenins and Dzerzhinskys and other communist leaders standing placidly in the pine forests, as though they were retired gentlemen enjoying a day in the countryside, and not the henchmen of one of the humanity’s most cruel experiments.
What is the point of this type of tourism? Is it to come and gawk at the misery of others? Or is it to reflect and to remember? What is the responsibility of the tour guides who lead the groups into a tour of hell? To educate? To indoctrinate? To honor? Or just to get the tour over with? And are these tour guides properly prepared to lead us into Dante’s inferno? Have they had the appropriate training? Do they know their history? And how dare they were bright floral prints when taking people on a tour of hell?
I remembered my guide to Auschwitz. She was a young Polish woman in her twenties. This guide wore her straight brown hair in a severe chin-length cut. She was dressed in a prim white cotton blouse and knee-length brown skirt and simple flat leather shoes. She looked as though she herself had stepped out of the 40s.
I could not have had a more appropriate guide for the experience. This young woman was serious, respectful, introspective. She led us through Auschwitz, speaking gravely in whispers, as though she were a funeral director and not a tour guide. She told me that she had been a tour guide at Auschwitz for four years and that this is what she did every single day. When she first started working there she spoke with Auschwitz survivors to get a feeling for the experience and those conversations had changed her for life.
“Every Pole born after Auschwitz,” she confided to me, “is born into a bottomless sadness.”
In one of the barracks we stopped in a long corridor that was set up with expositions showing what life in the barracks had been like for the prisoners.
On the corridor walls there were long rows of black and white photographs of prisoners. On one side of the corridor there were photographs of female prisoners. On the other, male prisoners. I walked along the side of the corridor that held the women’s faces first and gazed at each one for a long time.
Mostly I read defiance in the young women’s eyes, and hope, and self-confidence, and a seeming lack of awareness of being singled out as “other.” I particularly remembered one young woman’s face. She looked as though she were in her early twenties. She looked like someone I knew or had known. She looked like she was the type of girl who had a life, a cocky brown-eyed girl with short brown hair tousled as though she’d been out dancing all night; she struck me as too full of spunk to die young. I checked the dates. Almost all of these young female prisoners were dead within three months of having their picture taken. The only exception were a handful who lived four months, a few more, but ultimately they all died here, in Auschwitz.
I reached the end of the corridor gazing into the women’s eyes and then turned and faced the eyes of the dead men. Here I saw a different spirit. There was bottomless fear in the eyes of the men—in one photograph after the next. Gone was the sassiness, the defiant looks the women’s eyes radiated out at their captors. Very seldom did I come across a relaxed, calm face, like I had among the women. I only found one young man’s photograph that held a defiant look.
From Auschwitz our group was brought by bus to Birkenau where people were murdered even more efficiently. Our guide ended our tour in the toilet building. Here, each morning 6,000 people had to use 600 toilets in five minutes time. Our guide explained the rules of the one toilet visit allowed in a prisoner’s day and paused for us to take it all in.
“The goal of the concentration camp was to humiliate a person,” our guide said, “to take away all of one’s dignity, one’s humanity, and to leave a person alone, without love.”
At the end of our tour, our guide thanked us all for coming to Auschwitz. Then she turned on the heels of her flat leather shoes and walked away, across the fields of Birkenau. Watching her back disappear across the fields, reality blended with fantasy, and she became for me one of those young women with eyes of defiance in the photographs. Or their continuation. She belonged to this place. Her story had become the story of the lost millions. She lived to tell it. This is what she did every day. I caught up to her and thanked her again. She briskly nodded her head in acknowledgment and hurried off to greet her next tour.
Laima Vincė, a New York native, is a Lithuanian-American non-fiction and children’s book author, Fulbright scholar in creative writing at Vilnius University, journalist, memoirist and translator. For more information about her work, visit her website at www.laimavince.com and to order her acclaimed memoir “Lenin’s Head on a Platter” go here. Two translations she did of Lithuanian authors can be found here and here.
Views expressed in the opinion section are never those of the Baltic Reports company or the website’s editorial team as a whole, but merely those of the individual writer.