I ducked into Kaunas for the night. This is a fairly large city by Lithuanian standards, and architecturally the place comes down rather firmly on the Soviet side of things. I wasn’t there to pull any aesthetic inspiration off of those dirty brick buildings, although there is a nice little old town part of this otherwise depressing city. Mainly, I wanted to wake up in Kaunas, so that I could go out to IX Fort in the morning.
My hotel stay was unusual. Normally I don’t care to single out a particular place because experiences differ from guest to guest and mine is but one
of any number of impressions. But this place, the “Apple Economy Lodge” is one of those worth mentioning. It is a training-hotel, and all the employees there are students who are looking to enter the hotel and restaurant industry. It was a cheap stay, around $35.00 for the night, so already in advance I was not expecting anything other than a bed and maybe a functioning light-switch. While I didn’t in fact get a whole lot more than that (the shower was cold-water only, and I wasn’t feeling all that grimy), the people there were exceedingly friendly and helpful. This bodes well for Lithuania’s service industry, this purposeful training of staffs to an industry standard. Many of Lithuania’s neighbors and former Soviet peers are as yet unfamiliar with the concept.
The Kaunas IX Fort rightfully takes its place alongside of the more famous extermination camps as the site of some of the worst atrocities that people have perpetrated on other people. It is a miserable place, a prison, a mass-execution site; it is a place of despair. The museum is a much newer facility, and is located below the fort on the hill. I was the only visitor to the place during my stop. The cashier’s window was staffed by a wilted pair of ancient women. A gaunt old woman followed me around the lower museum at a distance, whispering furiously. Periodic sibilant sounds would echo and bounce their way over to me from my fervently whispering shadow. My initial thought was to just stay out of her way to the best of my ability. Suddenly, it dawned on me that she must be praying. I then glanced over at her a few times, and it occurred to me that she must have some sort of more direct, personal connection to the place than does the casual museum employee. With that realization, her intermittent hissing noises transformed in my ears from bewildering to somehow comforting, appropriate.
Here is the official link to the museum. It offers a far better explanation of IX Fort than I could manage for you. My synopsis is that it was used by the Soviets, the Nazis and then again the Soviets. Hitler’s crowd was far more immediately brutal and murderous during their brief tenure at IX Fort, but they certainly do not have exclusive claim on all the pain and heartbreak slathered onto the walls around here, or for the blood that trickled away among the angry stones and horrified soil.
If you have the stomach for it, I recommend the book “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin”, written by Yale University Professor of History, Timothy Snyder. He carefully details the waves of devastation that both of those fellows wreaked in an area spanning Poland, the Baltic States, Belarus, Ukraine and western Russia. He calls this area the “Bloodlands”, and it is revolting the atrocities that were inflicted on the hapless residents in this wide expanse of death. The Kaunas IX Fort is but one of many sad locations featured in Snyder’s account.