Travel Guide Lithuania-KGB Museum a Sad Reminder of Vilnius' Past
The KGB Museum Is A Must-See Destination For Travelers Heading To Lithuania
The building on the corner of Aula street in downtown Vilnius appears to be like so many others in the revitalized Lithuanian capital, a cheery century-old building that has been spruced up with a fresh coat of white paint. But a closer look at the sunny white building reveals something quite different. Names have been etched onto its walls, a makeshift memorial to the thousands of political prisoners that were held inside its walls.
For much of the 20th century, countless Lithuanians who entered the building on this quiet tree-lined street never returned home. From 1940-1991, the KGB used the western wing of the building to store prisoners, interrogate suspects, murder dissidents, and plan mass deportations of Lithuanians to Siberia and other parts of the Soviet Union.
Today, the building houses the Genocide Victims' Museum—more commonly referred to as the KGB museum—a respectful and sobering exhibition that outlines Lithuania's traumatic history. In the basement of the museum houses the actual prison where thousands of Lithuanians were held and executed. Guided tours of the prison are available from former prisoners, who recount with chilling detachment the horrors that they witnessed there.
The small Baltic country seems to have gotten the worst of the conflict that engulfed Europe throughout much of the last century. Lithuania was first annexed by the Soviets in 1940. After a brief period of independence, it was then occupied by Nazi Germany only to have the Soviets regain control in 1944. Despite an ever-changing enemy, local partisan fighters engaged in a futile struggle against the country's occupiers well into the 1950s. The last partisan was killed in combat in 1965.
The first floor of the museum is dedicated to the local militias who fled to the forests in
the hopes of someday seeing Lithuania regain its independence. Photo displays show the
militias living in the woods, relying on local farmers who surreptitiously gave them
supplies, and earning the occasional moral victory in what appeared to be a lost cause.
There is also a tribute to the hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians that were exiled to Siberia, the Arctic Circle, and Central Asia. More than 70 percent of the deportees were women and children. Cases are filled with the refugees' common household items--photos, shabby clothing, postcards, and whatever else they managed to hold on to while working in hard labor camps.
Visitors can also walk through the KGB offices, which have been kept intact. The spying agency kept rooms full of surveillance equipment used to monitor average citizens as a means to maintain their iron grip over the country.
The Soviet's hold over Lithuania eventually weakened. In 1990, Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to declare independence. In 2004, the country joined NATO and the European Union. An exhibit in the museum chronicles the events leading to Lithuania's sovereignty, allowing visitors to leave the upper portion of the museum on an upbeat note.
That sense of optimism quickly dissipates upon descending into the basement prison, which at one time housed more than 50 prison cells. The first things you see after entering the KGB prison are the "holding cells", which are so small that at first you don't even realize that they are cells. This is where prisoners were kept when they first arrived in the jail, forced to stand perched on a ledge in a claustrophobic room smaller than a broom closet.
Compared to the holding cell, the prison cells that held the general population seem downright luxurious. While they were meant to house two prisoners, the Soviets would pack more than 20 men into each of the narrow cells.
Perhaps the most unnerving part of the prison is the padded cell. Inmates who were suffering from dementia, often brought on by torture, were stored in this room lined with 10-inch think padding to protect prisoners from hurting themselves and to help muffle their screams. A strait jacket hangs on a coat rack in the back of the room and blood can still be seen on the padded walls.
Beyond the cells lie the water torture rooms and execution chamber. The water torture rooms had submerged floors that were flooded with ice-cold water. Inmates would be left for days in bare feet, with only a tiny metal platform available to escape the freezing water. In the execution room, a glass floor has been installed to reveal the excavated remains of victims.
Although the tour through the museum is harrowing and at times stomach-churning, it has become one of the most popular tourist sites in Vilnius. By displaying what took place there in frank and uncompromising terms, the museum hopes to ensure that what took place there will never forgotten.
Sadly, not everything from that era will be remembered. Throughout the basement, there are locked rooms that contain the bones of people who were buried in mass graves. The museum is storing their remains until they can be identified and given a proper burial. Unlike the victims that have their names inscribed on the building's facade, the names of these victims will likely never be recovered.
The Genocide Victims' Museum does its best to reveal the atrocities that took place within its walls, but it's the unknown horrors behind those closed doors that resonate the most.