Remembering the Past in Lithuania
As I talked to my cousins and their friends in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, something struck me. As I talked excitedly about the partisans who fought in Lithuania’s war of independence from 1944–1953, I asked them if they knew the names of their leader’s that I considered heroes. They did not know many of them, if any. Don’t get me wrong, they are very smart people. I realized them not knowing about this part of their history was by no means an indicator of their intelligence, but rather an indicator of what the schools in Lithuania are teaching. Growing up a Lithuanian-American in Chicago, I attended Maironis Lithuanian school every Saturday at the Lithuanian World Center(A story for another day). Lithuanian-Americans are considered by many Lithuanians to be more patriotic than Lithuanians living in Lithuania. Throughout our extensive history lessons, we never learned about the partisan fighters. While learning enormous amounts of knowledge about the Lithuanian glory days, when Grand Dukes Vytautas and Gediminas led one of the largest kingdoms in the world, very few lessons were dedicated to the young men and women who bravely died in the forests in Lithuania fighting for freedom. An avid history buff myself, I only learned about these fighters when I joined a Lithuanian boy scout troop dedicated to them. While many people like to focus on the parts of their history that are filled with triumph and pride, it is extremely important in this topic to learn about the not-so happy times as well. To put this war in context, when the Soviet Union invaded Lithuanian again at the end of World War II, 50,000 young men and women fled to the forests, believing they would fight it out until the United States and the West liberated them from the iron grip of Communism. That help never came, yet the partisans fought on. A trip to the former KGB prison on the main street in Vilnius should tell someone everything they need to know about the bravery of these freedom fighters. On the outside wall, names of fighters who were killed there were carved in the stone foundation. Some of these men were as young as 18 years old, tortured, killed, and forgotten in the confines of a prison far from their homes in the countryside. This carving, for most of the victims, is the only way they will remembered. Being a 19 year old, it really struck me how these heroes gave their lives for a cause that was greater than them. Here in America we consider our soldiers heroes(with good reason). Yet in almost all wars they fought we had a strong chance of winning. It is easy to be a patriot when you have a military that can take over countries in 24 hours. The freedom fighters in Lithuania knew they wouldn’t win, yet they fought on. They faced one of the strongest militaries in history, yet they did not bow down to a government so against their values. A government that tried to destroy their language, religion, history, and even their own families. That to me is the ultimate bravery. It is one thing going into battle with the hope of victory. To me, it is amazing to go into battle knowing it would probably result in death. By 1953, 30,000 of the partisans were dead with similiar Soviet casualties. This was one of the largest guerilla wars of the 20th century, yet the country these people died for doesn’t even honor them by learning their stories in school. From talking to friends in Lithuania, they did learn about the partisans, yet not extensively. It should be a topic that is as important as any other in Lithuanian history. Some may say their fight did not have a lasting impact, but those people are wrong. Latvia and Estonia today have high ethnic Russian populations, while Lithuania has a comparatively low minority at around 6%. This is because no Russians wanted to settle in Lithuania due to a fear of retribution. The least we can do to remember these men and women is educate ourselves on them. It is a travesty that we have not done so as of yet, both in America and Lithuania. In a country that is always searching for heroes and things to take pride in, they need not look far. Go into one of the many ancient forests in Lithuania and you may find a small, forgotten monument to these fighters. Imagine what they went through, and how they died for the very freedom that you enjoy today.