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BH in Vilnius: 1

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My Polish sleeper drew into Vilnius at eight. I had had the compartment to myself: the night had been uneventful, the frontier checks quick, and the bed comfortable. I found a taxi with a phone number on it, the driver found me an ATM, and I went on to my hotel, a small place, cheap, clean and good, near the university. I had a bath and breakfast, and was fresh for the day. I thought I’d start with the university, a series of gothic and early Baroque courtyards. It was quiet and beautiful, enlivened by groups of students resting after their last exam the day before. The ticket seller at the gate recommended the library, and sure enough it had a splendid ceremonial hall, the former catalogue hall, with a Baroque ceiling and displays of old books. They had selected and showed a great range of important European writers, but it must be admitted always in fairly late editions. As a temporary exhibition they showed miniature books, little things 3 inches by 2 inches, ranging from breviaries to children’s verse, again in many languages. Outside this room and to the left was a door marked “catalogue”. And boldly I opened it. Here was a roomful of index cards and computers, and a pleasant-looking lady. So boldly I greeted her and found we both spoke French. I asked how they were getting on with transfer of card entries to software, and she said well, given the limited finance. Would I like to see ? Nobody with any sense makes such an offer, as I said yes at once and sat down at a terminal. The software catalogue was highly accessible, and on my naming English History the librarian took me into a good set of pages, but with rather a large range. We had established that the classification was Universal Decimal, the old Dewey (which the world owes to the USA), so I asked for 942, and drew a splendid collection, with a weight on the twentieth century, much of it British, but with studies in French, German, and Lithuanian, and German versions that I didn’t know existed of important British work on Hitler and the postwar period. Some reference led us to talk of pre-Norman England. The librarian had supposed it to be Celtic, but I told her of the Anglo-Saxon, Jutish, and Viking invasions and settlements. I apologised for taking her time: she was very kind, and said she had enjoyed my visit.

This took me to five minutes to noon, when I went to see the medieval church that is now within the university. It was some kind of prize day, with families holding bunches of flowers. I stayed for the organ rendering of the academic festival overture (well played) and then slipped out.

I had a light lunch on the cathedral square, then walked (too far) to the museum of the Genocide. This fills the interrogation and holding cells of the Soviet secret police. When the USSR retook Lithuania from the Nazis, many Lithuanians formed resistance cells, and set up armed groups of partisans in the woods. These the secret police ruthlessly hunted down, using torture to get names of other resistance workers. Also, all clergy were suspect, and many were rounded up and interrogated for confessions. Such museums as this are not common. I have seen the ministers’ prison in Sighetul Marmatei in northern Romania, and tomorrow shall see the Riga’s museum of the Latvian resistance. Those were years of horror.

Ben Haines, in Latvia

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