True Lithuania

Šilutė Town

Šilutė (pop. 20 000) is likely the most intact town of Lithuania Minor and therefore northern East Prussia. Its 2,5 km long tree-lined main avenue was largely spared from the mass Soviet demolitions that ravaged the Kaliningrad Oblast and the churches of Klaipėda.

Šilutė is now regarded to be the unofficial capital of Lithuania Minor since the pro-Lithuanian Klaipėda Revolt captured it but not Tilsit/Tilžė in 1923. While the 1918 declaration calling for the unification of Lithuania Minor and Lithuania Major was signed in Tilsit the later 1923 act of actual unification was signed in Šilutė.

Šilutė became a single entity only in 1910 with the unification of the four villages (Šilokarčema, Žibai, Verdainė, and Cintijoniškės, or Heydekrug, Szibben, Werden, and Cynthionischken if you prefer the Germanized names). As such, the town has multiple centers. In the east, the main street begins at the former market square of Šilokarčema, still an extensive rectangular open area surrounded by pre-war buildings. 1911 yellow truss bridge over the Šyša river and the late 18th-century Šiultė manor are nearby. A new addition in the area is the Wall of Šilutė history (Klaipėdos street), where the history of the town is displayed as a series of public artworks.

Large buildings at the former Šilokarčema main square. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Main Lietuvininkų street goes eastwards from there, connecting Šilokarčema main square to the main square of Žibai. Laid in the 19th century the thoroughfare still reminds of those days. Large 3-floored detached art nouveau buildings are partly hidden by its linden and chestnut trees. Among these buildings stands the Lutheran church dedicated to Martin Luther, completed in 1926, known for its interior murals depicting 104 famous historical personalities, among them Biblical figures Noah and Moses, Šilutė's local luminaries H. Scheu and T. Eicke, Roman Emperors Justinian and Constantine, founders of the reformation M. Luther and J. Calvin, and secular people such as S. Kierkegaard and Dante Alighieri. Unfortunately, the church is closed outside of mass.

Žibai main square is of irregular layout and a national romantic red-brick building now housing a vocational school (1909) is arguably its most impressive one.

The main square of the former Žibai village. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Going further east you will reach the railroad, before World War 1 a trunk route from Karaliaučius/Koenigsberg to Klaipėda/Memel, both still part of Germany at the time. Modest 19th-century station building still exists north of the main street but in 2011 the last passenger services to Klaipėda have been canceled.

Beside the railroad, south of the main street stands a red-brick Holy Cross Roman Catholic church (1854). Built in a romantic style more typical to the Lutheran architecture of the area it is much smaller than its local Lutheran counterpart. This indicates the relative size of the two communities in the pre-WW2 era. Like the rest of Lithuania, Minor Šilutė used to be overwhelmingly Lutheran, both Lithuanians and Germans adhering to that faith.

Lutheran communities were largely destroyed by the advancing Soviet armies, this genocide barely mentioned in the history books even today. The extensive Lutheran cemetery in a forest beyond the railroad serves as a powerful compensation for the never-built memorials. Overgrown and eerie, it has no single grave left undamaged and unransacked by the Soviets. Their metal fences are bent, most inscriptions hardly legible, crosses swaying and never visited as most relatives of the deceased have been murdered or exiled decades ago, leaving nobody to care for what was once a nicely landscaped area of an East Prussian provincial town. And yet unlike most other Lutheran cemeteries in Lithuania's cities and towns this one was not demolished (except for the graves of German soldiers), its hundreds of interesting gravestones and a funeral chapel still available for all to see.

A grave with a cross in Šilutė Lutheran cemetery left between existence and destruction, like hundreds of its neighbors. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

While the main street is interesting and worth a stroll, the districts north and south of it are largely dating to the Soviet occupation.

Šilutė is the hub of the Nemunas Delta region, known for its annually submerged floodplains, bird migration paths and the prime location for boat related activities in Lithuania.

Šilutė wall of history near Šilokarčema main square. This particular scene says that in 1944, merely seven locals remained alive and in Šilutė after the Soviet forces occupied the city. The current inhabitants of Šilutė are largely descendants of those who populated it after the war and have no relations with the pre-war Lutheran inhabitants of Šilutė. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

English tourist map of Šilutė.

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