The first person I ever met from Lithuania is Faigie Libman.
Faigie was one of two Holocaust survivors to accompany my cohort on the March of Remembrance and Hope study trip to Germany and Poland in 2010. I do not think that a day goes by that I do not recall that trip in some way. It is forever etched upon my conscience and my heart.
Last weekend, my friend Claire and I made a pilgrimage to Lithuania – an adventure rightly considered, to use Chesterton’s term for inconveniences embraced with the right spirit.
When our overnight bus from Lublin to Vilnius did not come, Claire and I were not about to turn back. We boarded the first bus we could to Warsaw and stayed awake a few hours until there was a Warsaw-Vilnius bus. However, we learned that this bus would require passengers to change buses in Kaunas, Lithuania. As Kaunas was closer to our planned destination that evening, we decided we would simply disembark there.
With the unexpected stopover in Kaunas, I realized we would have time to visit the Monument to the Victims of Fascism and that I would have an opportunity to mourn and pray, to honour Faigie and the memory of so many whose lives and deaths have deeply influenced the orientation of my life, studies, and work.
Faigie was seven-years-old when she saw the Nazi in charge of the Kaunas ghetto, Helmut Rauca, face-to-face. She will never forget the date – October 28, 1941. Rauca was standing on a mount with a dog, a whip, and was wearing white gloves. (To this day, Faigie has never owned white gloves.) During a sort of ghetto “census”, Rauca was arbitrarily dividing the people and, on that date, he divided Faigie’s grandfather and aunt to one side and Faigie, her parents, and her grandmother to the other. Faigie’s grandfather and aunt were two of the 10,500 Jews rounded up and shot in a single day on October 29th at the Ninth Fort.
It was forty years before Faigie, who miraculously survived and made it to Canada, began to speak about the Holocaust. What prompted her? In June 1982, she was reading the newspaper in her North York home when a headline shocked her to the core: “North York Man Albert Helmut Rauca to be Sentenced for Nazi War Crimes.” The man who had murdered her family members had been living just streets away from Faigie in the same suburban neighbourhood. He was the first Canadian citizen to be charged with Nazi war crimes and was extradited to Germany but died in prison before trial.
Claire and I took local transportation and got off at the highway bus stop across from the Ninth Fort Museum. We were the only visitors there. Inside there were many photographs with captions documenting the crimes perpetrated by fascists and communists.
Outdoors we walked along solemnly and beheld this sign that reads: “THERE NEAR THIS WALL NAZIS SHOT AND BURNED PEOPLE.” What a meagre memorial, I thought. Germany has fancy and expensive monuments erected in cities like Berlin but doesn’t seem particularly invested in contributing memorials to the sites where Nazis actually murdered people.
According to Atlas Obscura, “In 1991, the Jewish community of Kaunas unveiled three massive steles designed by Alfonsas Ambraziūnas. The current Jewish population of the entire country of Lithuania stands at 3,200.”
After this, Claire and I went to the Kaunas station from which we took a train to Šiauliai. During the ride, I continued reading George Weigel’s biography of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope. It was during the Tertio Millennio Seminar, when Weigel showed us the new documentary, Liberating a Continent: John Paul II and the Fall of Communism, that I first learned of the Hill of Crosses in Lithuania.
And since seeing those evocative images and learning of John Paul II’s Apostolic Journey to the Baltic countries in 1993, I longed to visit.
“I’ve been waiting for this day, dear brothers and sisters. And now I thank God to be here with you to meditate on the mystery of the Cross of Christ and the treasure of truth and light that it contains.” – Pope John Paul II
We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you.
Because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.
“Ave Crux, Spes Unica. [Hail Cross, our only hope.] The world is in flames. The conflagration can also reach our house. But high above all the flames towers the cross. They cannot consume it. It is the path from earth to heaven. It will lift one who embraces it in faith and hope.” – St. Edith Stein
“Thank you, Lithuanians, for this Hill of Crosses which testifies to the nations of Europe and to the whole world the faith of the people of this land.” – Pope John Paul II
After our time at the Hill of Crosses, Claire and I took the train to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. We checked into our AirBnB and then ventured out for a snack.
The following morning, we attended Mass at the Vilnius Cathedral. I love attending Mass in different languages. Now I can add Lithuanian to the list that has so far included: English, Latin, French, Spanish, Bikol, Arabic, Italian, Portuguese, Polish, Inuktitut, German, Icelandic, Greek, and Czech!
Next, we made our way to the Divine Mercy Sanctuary, a shrine dedicated to the Divine Mercy devotion, originated by Saint Faustina Kowalska. In my Polish Heritage class at KUL, I learned about this shrine that houses the first Divine Mercy image painted according to how Sister Faustina saw Jesus in her visions. As we entered the church, a Polish Mass was concluding and the congregation began singing, “Jesus, I trust in You” in Polish. Claire and I laughed to ourselves that, even though we don’t know Polish, it still sounded as sweet as a mother tongue to us!
Next door is the Dominican Church of the Holy Spirit.
Our last stop in Vilnius was to the Gate of Dawn and the Chapel of Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn.
Our weekend pilgrimage was a beautiful occasion to contemplate the mysteries of our faith and the beauty of Catholic culture. Thanks to God for that! And thanks to Claire for her friendship, for being a fellow pilgrim, and for taking all of these great photos!
Peace and prayers to you as we enter into Holy Week.