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2004-05-12

Travel to Lithuania, 4: Workday 

From the restaurant of the Monday work lunch, I watched affable people walking by on the still rainy street. Right below the window, a series-5 BMW with Lithuanian number-plate was parking. When I told the story about the mix of different buildings to our Lithuanian host, he agreed and said that the situation in Vilnius, the capital, was different – there, there was large demand for urban property, whereas in Kaunas a significant number of buildings up for sale did not find buyers.

Finally, I spent a dinner with English-talking Lithuanians, and some of my ignorance was mercifully lifted.

When the professor once visited Austria, he said, he had explained to an Austrian professor the glorious past of Lithuania, which in old times had been a large empire. The Austrian had replied: “That’s just like here, this country also once was a large empire. But I think that today people live better.” We laughed light-heartedly. Ten minutes later I found the witty remark of the Austrian professor quite shallow. There is no causal relationship between his two correct observations. People are better off because of economic and political progress, not because small countries are inherently more benign than big countries. It’s the condescending ways of the West is what it is.

Back in Vienna I had read about the fate of the Jews in Lithuania. After the First World War they had represented almost twenty percent of Lithuania’s population, Vilnius was called ‘the Jerusalem of the North’. Over ninety percent of the Lithuanian Jews perished during the Second World War, a higher percentage than in any other country, they were systematically murdered by the Nazis and by their willing Lithuanian henchmen. Being an Austrian, eventually I did not confront my hosts with this topic over dinner. Neither had I felt strong enough to visit the ninth fort of Kaunas, where thousands of Jews were brought from their death row, the ghetto of Kaunas, to be executed. In the ghetto, a Jewish academic had tried to develop a pedagogy to prepare children for imminent certain death. In the course of the political dinner discussion the topic was touched only briefly by my Lithuanian colleague, who said that Lithuania had always had twenty percent foreigners – during the second world war the minorities were changed: before there were Jews and Germans, afterwards Poles and Russians.

The old decrepit buildings right behind the façade of the main boulevard are spooky, especially at night. On my way to the restaurant, I had walked by a dead pigeon lying on the pavement that looked small and fragile with its wings folded. The blood that had dripped from its neck was still liquid.


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