Monday, July 7, 2008

The Center of Europe, Part 8

To find evidence of the animosity Lithuanians feel for their former Soviet overlords, you needn't look farther than the city of Siauliai (pronounced show-LAY) and the nearby Hill of Crosses.

This is a flat land, and it doesn't take much to be called a hill. Back in the 14th century, for defense against invaders from the west, a wooden castle occupied this little hump. After the uprisings of 1831 and 1863, local people began to erect crosses on the hill where the castle once stood in memory of those rebels who were killed or lost. By 1900, more than 100 crosses stood on the hill, and the people regarded it as a sacred place, the hill of the Crosses and Prayers.

In 1961, Soviet authorities destroyed the hill. The people rebuilt it. And it was bulldozed again. And the people rebuilt it. Every time it was destroyed, it was re-erected. Then the occupiers diverted the sewage from the city into a stream that flowed past the hill and transformed the area around it into a stinking marsh. This made no difference.

On Sept. 7, 1993, Pope John Paul II visited the Hill of Crosses. He ordered a crucifix to be sent to the hill from the Vatican and a monastery to be built within view of it.

Today, tourists are encouraged to buy crosses from vendors lined up in the parking lot, and hundreds of thousands of crosses adorn the hill. It is a tourist attraction, but the crowds that ascend and descend it are muted by the spectacle. It is still a sacred place, and always will be.

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