Vilnius Report

by Rodrigo von Horn
Submmited by Citizens of Europe Team on Wednesday, 6 June 2012
THURSDAY, May 17th
 
The programme started with getting to know and remember one another. The participants gathered in the Artoteka room, which was used as a base for the workshop. It is situated in the old town and enjoys a relaxed atmosphere. In the evening, the programme was presented. Participants were asked to jot down their initial impressions of the city to be put up on the wall. Dinner had to be arranged earlier than the planned movie screening took place. The introduction to the context in Lithuania was given by an American scholar writing a book and a PhD thesis on social memory of the 1970s in Lithuania, in particular after selfemulation of Romas Kalanta, who became a symbol of resistance among the young people. Amanda Swain presented the context and the movie 'Children from 'Hotel America'', which portrays the life of young people in the 1970s as an important demonstration takes place. The historical memory of Kalanta remains an important and interesting case study of dealing with the Soviet past, since the commemoration is typically organized by Kalanta’s subcultural contemporaries, rather than state-sponsored events. The introductions to each other continued informally after the programme was over.
 
FRIDAY, May 18th
 
Friday was devoted to the memory of the Holocaust in Lithuania. Since places that tell elaborate stories in multiple ways (using visuals, texts and multimedia) are lacking in Vilnius, creative ways to facilitate learning had to be found. Foreign tourists are often puzzled to see that commemorative plaques in Vilnius are often written in Lithuanian and Yiddish, thus not understandable to nearly all tourists. The participants were divided into three groups, which included several locals, and given a short introduction to Holocaust in Lithuania before allowing them to discover places of memory on their own. The foreign participants could use their tourist status to spontaneously ask people on the street about places of memory, what it stands for and how they felt about it (street interviews). This collection of vox pops informed the visitors about the perception of this memory today, which not surprisingly, appeared to be mostly non-existant, with some exceptions. Local participants were given an opportunity to exchange knowledge about Holocaust memory in Lithuania and guide the visitors. The aim of this exercise in urban space and memory was meant to put participants into Vilnius citizens’ “shoes.” Three groups had a task to photograph, interview The memory sites focused on the victims of the Holocaust, usually in a rather formal and depersonalised way (the participants did not have a chance to witness memory practices, such as annual reading of the names of Holocaust victims or special exhibitions). There was hardly any mentioning of perpetrators, including local collaborators. Later that day the participants visited the Holocaust Exhibition of the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum. They were guided by an Austrian volunteer working with tourists there, looked at the documents displayed there, and met the founder of the museum, Ms. Rachel Konstanian, who shared the story of establishing the first Holocaust museum in the USSR. The museum is funded by the state and various other sources, they actively exchange information with similar museums abroad. The museum is often visited by school pupils. However the location of museum is often not known even by the local residents. It is not visible from the street and the museum sign is very small and hardly noticeable. After lunch, the participants had a chance to meet experts and time witnesses. Due to logistic reasons there was only one day for this panel discussion, and experts whose stories belonged to the Saturday topic were present as well. The panel consisted of Ilja Lempertas, a historian and tour guide specializing in Jewish heritage tours, Ph.D. student Tomas Vaiseta, representing youngest generation of historians and Bronislovas Burgis, a university professor who was born to Lithuanians in exile in Siberia, but, despite discrimination against children of exiled persons in the USSR, found a way to pursue a career in education by making compromises with the system  Following that, the participants presented their activities and impressions. locals and gather impressions and information, which at night served as a basis for group presentations and discussion starter.
 
SATURDAY, May 19th
 
On Saturday the participants were taken on a tour on several objects in the city space that represent the 'inscriptions' of Stalinist ideology in city space. On the way, the participants observed other buildings representing Soviet architecture of various periods, including the now closed Lietuva cinema, the civil registration bureau, the former house of trade unions, now an entertainment area with a flea market around it (selling many vintage objects from ex-USSR). Participants also had a chance to observe typical Stalinist architecture on the so-called ‘scientist street’ as well as the Green Bridge, which is one of the highly ideologically charged monuments from Soviet era, still raising many debates, as well as regular acts of vandalism. The tour culminated in Lukiškės square, representing the Stalinist idea of control of urban spaces. The participants had a chance to get acquainted with the space and meet two experts of contemporary urbanism, Jekaterina Lavrinec and Julius Narkūnas. They explained the contemporary debates about how these spaces should be restructured and used and described alternative practices in whichboth of them engaged in re-activating this contested public space. After free time and lunch, the participants visited the Museum of Genocide Victims. Despite the title, the museum focuses on the victims of Stalinism. The museum used to be a prison and reconstructs the atmosphere of intimidation, similarly to the Stasi museum in Berlin. The museum is currently a subject of international controversy, as it uses the term 'genocide' more liberally than it is generally established, referring to exile of large groups of Lithuanians, torture and killings of anti-Soviet activists as genocide. Confronted with this controversy, the museum recently included a small exhibition on the Holocaust instead of modifying its name. The museum is very central in commemorative culture: it faces one of the main streets, with names of victims written on the wall, and has a memorial next to it. Lukiškių square is close to the museum, and there are plans to redesign the square and to commemorate the victims or the resistance to Lithuania's annexation to the USSR. Following the visit, the participants had an opportunity to exchange their ideas and impressions informally in groups and all together.
 
SUNDAY, May 20th
 
The programme ended with a concluding discussion, evaluation and debate, summarizing all the days and findings. Overall, the workshop was enriching to local and visiting participants, as the mix allowed raising untypical questions and (re)discovering the memory culture in Vilnius. The visitors often observed that memory is strongly focused on victims and to some extent resistance (presented in the two museums). The organizers planned various creative and interactive activities, which allowed the participants to discover and discuss various aspects of memory culture.
The aim was to cover various aspects of commemoratio culture, practical and theoretical issues that are being raised within Lithuanian society in the past two decades, and Vilnius in particular. While Stalinism and Soviet period in particular appears to be over-represented within the dominant discourse, the topic of Holocaust is increasingly visible and becoming difficult to ignore. One of the main problems is that Jews were not/ are not considered part of Lithuanian society. It is often stated that it happened to “them”, whereas Stalinism happened to “us”. Small initiatives are trying to challenge that binary through education, media and artistic practices. Slightly more expressed focus was on urban space than in other cities (at least explicitly). We wanted to show, and see for ourselves, what kinds of signs, simbols, traces of memory, commemoration, and history we can find being, feeling, and experiencing the streets. What is there? What is not there? Do plaques, monuments, sculptures have any effect on us? Or do we ignore them like any other artifact that constitutes the urban fabric? Do more artistic, vernacular, spontaneous instances of art, graffiti, writings on the wall capture our attention and makes us think/remember/
care? These were the questions and intentions of choosing one of the tactics throughout the Vilnius workshop.

 

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