True Lithuania

Lithuania ethnic heritage itineraries

Many ethnicities passed by Lithuania over the centuries and many of them have left heritage here.

*Polish Lithuania. The remains of the centuries when Poles and Lithuanians were nearly a single nation.

*Russian Lithuania. Old Believer villages and the remains of two long occupations (Imperial and Soviet).

*Jewish Lithuania. Synagogues and homes of this craftsmen community.

*German Lithuania. What the German knights, merchants and townsfolk have left.

*Turkic Lithuania. It may be quite surprising, but two Turkic minorities (Tatars and Karaims) live in Lithuania since 15th century AD.

*American Lithuania. Heritage of 150 years of Lithuanian-American relations.

*The most iconic minorities. Both ethnic and religious.

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Polish Lithuania: Top 10 Sights

Lithuania and Poland regularly shared a king since 1385 and formed a united Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth between 1538 and 1795. While Vilnius is a historical capital of Lithuania, a 17th-18th-century linguistic shift caused many Vilnius area families to abandon Lithuanian language for a "more prestigious" Polish. Thus Vilnius became dear to Poles and many luminaries of the era were considered to be both Polish and Lithuanian (they are respected in both modern countries). Even today there are Polish-majority villages and towns in the area. Here are top 10 Polish sights (mostly in Vilnius and its surroundings):

1.Take a peaceful walk in hilly Rasos cemetery (Polish: Rossa) and read some Polish inscriptions on its pretty gravestones. Established in 1795 Rasos served at the period when Vilnius had Polish as its lingua franca. The heart of Poland's president Józef Piłsudski is among the famous burials. Another area is reserved for Polish soldiers (Polish-Lithuanian War and World War 2).

2.Descend into the cellars of Vilnius Cathedral, where Alexander (King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania) is interred (Vilnius Old Town). The bodies of Sigismund Augustus, Barbara Radziwiłł and the heart of King/Grand, Duke Wladislaw Vasa are nearby. Pre-registration essential.

3.Kneel at the Aušros vartų street to pray for the famous 1600s Virgin Mary painting hanging on the last remaining Vilnius Old Town gates (known in Polish as Ostra Brama). While the years of Soviet atheism diluted the tradition, pre-WW2 images and videos show masses of people praying there, many of them Poles.

4.Explore Šalčininkai area, the heartland of Vilnius region rural Polish culture, with 72% of its people ethnic Poles. It has an outback feel and there are no museums or plaques, however, numerous buildings date to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth era, such as Norviliškės ex-monastery and the ruins of Merkinė manor. Churches (with most masses in Polish) are the prime cultural centers in what is also the Lithuania's most religious area.

5.See the world-famous Divine Mercy painting now proudly hanging in its own minimalist church with alternating Lithuanian and Polish masses (Vilnius Old Town). This painting was inspired by visions of a Polish nun Faustina Kowalska (now a Saint) and its cult has hundreds of thousand followers, its copies hanging in Christian churches all over the world and it even has a statue dedicated to it in the Philippines. The former wooden nunnery where she lived now serves as a small museum in Anatakalnis borough of Vilnius (saved by local bureaucrats from a Soviet demolition).

6.Explore the recently rebuilt controversial Grand Duke Palace used by Lithuanian Grand Dukes and Polish kings during their stays in Vilnius. While its authenticity is somewhat dubious many plaques help one better understand the history of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Vilnius Old Town.

7.Visit a small Adam Mickiewicz museum near Vilnius University where he studied and created secret societies at. Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855), known in Lithuanian as Adomas Mickevičius, lived in times when a "Polish-speaking Lithuanian" was as understandable a definition as "English-speaking Irish" is today. After the two nations divorced Poles consider him a Pole while Lithuanians see him as a Lithuanian. Mickevičius's statue 100 m from the museum became the location of first major anti-Soviet protest in Lithuania (1988).

8.Visit the birthplace of the Polish president Józef Piłsudski at Zalavas manor (Švenčionys district). He was one of the last famous people to call himself "a Lithuanian" while not believing in independent Lithuania and seeking to re-establish the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth instead (which made him a controversial person in modern-day Lithuania).

9.Take a short drive into Vilnius suburbs to a wooden manor of Władysław Syrokomla (Lithuanian: Vladislovas Sirokomlė, 1823-1862), who, like Mickiewicz, wrote his poetry in Polish. The museum does its best to give info about the poet with what little memorabilia it has; it also houses a tourist information center of the multiethnic Vilnius district, offering tourists routes. The wooden building is somewhere in between of a humble peasant's home and an elaborate palace and such homes were common to the largely Polish-speaking 19th-century petit nobility (szlachta) of Lithuania.

10.See the real Issa valley from Czesław Miłosz (Lithuanian: Česlovas Milošas, 1911-2004) books north of Kėdainiai (near real-life Nevėžis river). Sadly the manor where Miłosz grew up was destroyed by the Soviets but a small museum dedicated to him exists. Nobel prize winner Miłosz may have been among the last famous persons to consider himself both an ethnic Pole and an ethnic Lithuanian.

Map of the top 10 Polish locations in Lithuania. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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German Lithuania itinerary: Top 10 sights

Prior to 1918 Germany ruled a part of modern-day Lithuania known as Klaipėda region (German: Memelland) while German merchants lived in Lithuanian cities. While the Soviet Genocide destroyed the Lithuania's German communities, plenty of German heritage sites remains to be visited in Lithuania.

1.Visit the central Theater square at Klaipėda Old Town and have your picture taken near its Annike of Tharau sculpture, originally erected in 1912 to represent a character of German poet Simon Dach (now rebuilt after Soviets had it demolished). Richard Wagner used to perform in the nearby theater and Adolf Hitler used its balcony as a stage for his speech in 1939 (days after his forces annexed the city).

2.Contemplate at Šilutė Lutheran cemetery and witness its once pretty graves, many of them German, uprooted and ravaged by the Soviet Russians. The cemetery has not been completely destroyed and leveled like the Lutheran cemeteries in Klaipėda and Vilnius however, making it an interesting replacement for the never-built memorials to the Lutheran victims of Soviet Genocide. Under the occupation, German minority of Lithuania declined from 4,1% (41,9% in Klaipėda region where Šilutė is) to merely 0,1% of the population.

3.Visit the Museum of Lithuania Minor in Klaipėda Old Town which describes the part of Lithuanian nation that formed under the German (Prussian) rule (adopting Lutheran faith and some German customs). Just like the local Germans, it was mostly destroyed by the post-WW2 Soviet Genocide. Museum of Lithuania Minor is thus the best location to find remnants of pre-WW2 Klaipėda Lithuanian, German and fusion cultures.

4.Think about the past German luminaries at the Thomas Mann memorial museum located in the famous poet's former summer home (built 1930) in Nida (German: Nidden). By this time Nida was already in Lithuania; however, Mann was so mesmerized by its beauty that he decided to spend summers here rather than in the still-German areas further south. German artists loved Nida as well and held regular meetings there (remembered by a small H. Blode museum not far away from Mann house).

5.Visit Klaipėda New Town, the 19th-century annex of the city with its multiple heimatstil buildings. The post office and massive barracks (now Klaipėda University) are the most impressive. One building in the area served as German (Prussian) royal residence during the Napoleonic wars (1807-1808), making Memel briefly a capital of Prussia.

6.Search for nice village/town Lutheran churches in the Klaipėda region, once frequented by the local Germans and Lutheran Lithuanians alike. We recommend the one in Juodkrantė that still offers a German mass. Also, Juodkrantė resort has a multitude of old German resort villas.

7.Visit the remains of the Klaipėda (Memel) castle (Klaipėda Old Town). Erected ~1250 by the Teutonic order this castle never fell in the seemingly eternal wars against the pagan Lithuanians. This castle is the reason why a German city developed on an otherwise Lithuanian soil. The ruins declined until 1990 but had a small museum established inside afterward and further renovations are planned.

8.Cross the lagoon to Lithuanian Sea Museum in Seaside Klaipėda. Its sea lions, dolphins, and Lithuanian shipping memorabilia have little to do with Germany, however, it is located in a 19th-century German sea fortress so you could witness another era of Klaipėda's German defenses. If you travel there by ferry and then continue on foot, you will pass by multiple cute German era villas that may be even more interesting than the fortress itself.

9.Spend a Sunday afternoon at Memel-Nord beachhead battery used by Nazi Germany to secure the city after they have annexed it in 1939 (Seaside Klaipėda). The former underground barracks are used as a small bowdlerized museum about lives of the German soldiers in WW2 Eastern front.

10.Traverse the Vokiečių (Lithuanian for "German") street in Vilnius Old Town, named so after Hanseatic merchants who lived there in the Medieval era. Mikalojaus side-street hides a small gothic St. Nicholas church, built ~1320. The oldest surviving Christian church in Lithuania, it served the merchants as Lithuanians were still pagan. After Germans converted to Lutheranism they built a Lutheran church (also nearby).

Map of the top 10 German locations in Lithuania. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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Top 10 American (US) places

The USA is far away from Lithuania but it has been important in modern Lithuanian history. The USA has always been the prime destination of Lithuanian migrants leading to it also becoming a kind of role model for newly-independent Lithuania in both 1920s and 1990s. While most American sites in Lithuania are modest, they still provide a pleasant surprise for an American visitor reminding the role of the United States (and Lithuanian-Americans) in Lithuanian history.

1. Quality works of American modern artists at Europos parkas (Vilnius suburbs) open-air museum date to 1990s when successful non-violent Lithuanian freedom struggle inspired the artists worldwide to give Lithuania something its Soviet-ravaged economy could have never afforded on market terms. Europos parkas was one place for such international collaboration, receiving works by US artists Dennis Oppenheim, Sol LeWitt and others.

2. A US media sensation back in 1995 the Frank Zappa statue in downtown Vilnius was erected by a group of avid Lithuanian fans merely 2 years after the famous singer died. The libertarian atmosphere of the 1990s Lithuania ensured that this initiative was swiftly greenlighted by Lithuanian institutions. Located not far from US embassy the bust became a popular tourist sight and its copy was later gifted to Zappa's native city Baltimore, Maryland in 2010 (where it now stands on a corner of Conkling Street and Eastern Avenue).

3. The remains of a crashed "Lituanica" plane in Kaunas War Museum (Kaunas New Town) remind of the symbolic and tragic journey by the two Lithuanian-American pilots from New York to Vilnius, pioneering the Transatlantic air mail and attempting to set a distance flight record (they crashed just several hundred kilometers before destination, becoming instant martyrs in Lithuania, having many streets renamed after them). S. Darius and S. Girėnas are also icons of Lithuanian Americans with multiple monuments constructed for them in the USA.

4. Vytautas Kasiulis museum (Vilnius New Town) exhibits the colorful works this Lithuanian-American painter bequeathed to Lithuania after his death. His story is similar to that of many Lithuanian intellectuals forced to flee from a likely murder by Soviets in the 1940s. Becoming refugees as young adults they mostly naturalized as US citizens but still remained loyal to the "lost homeland" of Lithuania.

5. The medieval halls of Kazys Varnelis museum (Vilnius Old Town) are not only the final place of rest for the optical art and collections of this Lithuanian-American painter-collector but also served as his final living space after he returned to Lithuania in 1998 when Lithuania was still poor but independent.

6. Kazimieras Žoromskis museum (Vilnius New Town) has the works of yet another famous Lithuanian-American painter who returned in the 1980s. He called his style to be "optical impressionism".

7. Basketball is likely the most ubiquitous American product in Lithuania, as evidenced also by the Basketball monument in Vilnius Soviet districts. Its postament serves as a hall of fame for Lithuanian basketball players, among them Lithuanian-American Pranas Lubinas, the "grandfather of Lithuanian basketball". Known in the US as Frank Lubin he also served as the captain of gold-winning US national basketball team in 1936 Berlin Olympics before returning to disseminate basketball knowledge in his homeland. Largely thanks to Lithuanian-Americans basketball became the Lithuanian national sport in the late 1930s and now is even called "Lithuania's second religion".

8. Mykolas Žilinskas gallery (Kaunas New Town) is named after Lithuanian-American collector who bequeathed his artworks to his native city Kaunas even though Lithuania was still under a Soviet rule back then. The gallery is now the Lithuania's prime repository of international art.

9. Fluxus collection (Vilnius Old Town) has been bought by Vilnius city in 2006. Fluxus movement, advanced by Jurgis Mačiūnas (George Maciunas) and also associated with Jonas Mekas, may have been among the largest Lithuanian refugee contributions to the American modern art. The collection was initially destined for Vilnius Guggenheim; as that project has been shelved, only a part of it is available at the Fluxus Cabinet of Contemporary Art Centre.

10. G. W. Bush plaque (Vilnius Old Town) with his quote permanently sealed on Vilnius City Hall is one of the most important locations a memorial for US president has been created outside the USA. The words "Whoever will choose Lithuania as its enemy has also made an enemy of the United States of America" just created that much euphoria in Lithuania as many believed that another Russian occupation would now become impossible. Lithuania was fervently pro-American back then thanks to relations to Lithuanian-Americans, one of whom Valdas Adamkus as its president (who holds the Guinness World Record for a person who lived the shortest in a country before being elected its head of state)

Map of the top 10 American locations in Lithuania. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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Russian Lithuania itinerary: Top 10 sights

Lithuania was ruled by Russia for 170 years in two occupations (1795-1915 Imperial and 1940-1990 Soviet). While such history and Russian-led persecutions of Lithuanians has created animosity, it also left many reminiscences of that era in buildings and culture as well as a sizeable Russian minority. Here are top 10 ideas for Russian sights in Lithuania:

1. Take a peek inside the old Orthodox churches of the Eastern part of Vilnius Old Town, historically (15th-18th centuries) a Russian Orthodox area: the white Caucasian-style cathedral, the Holy Spirit monastery, and the lavish Saint Nicholas church.

2. Visit the KGB museum (Museum of Genocide Victims) in the former KGB building in Vilnius New Town to learn about the Soviet genocide and persecution of Lithuanians and why the Lithuanian-Russian relations are now strained. The surrounding Vilnius New Town district was developed in Russian Imperial era.

3. Explore the mighty Kaunas Fortress (1882-1915), one of the largest Russian Imperial fortresses ever built and certainly the best-preserved one. It is not a single building - its forts still surround the Kaunas city. 7th and 9th forts serve as museums but abandoned ones such as the 6th one may be even more atmospheric. Additionally, you may peek into the fortress cemeteries (with many Russian names) and abandoned barracks (districts of Šančiai, Freda, Panemunė).

4. Follow the taste of many modern-day Russians to splurge at Druskininkai, the mineral water resort developed under Russian Imperial rule. Russian Orthodox church still stands at a prominent location where all the main streets converge and a large share of Druskininkai visitors are Russian-speakers.

5. Visit the Kaunas New Town, developed as the center of the Kaunas fortress. The Sobor (Russian Orthodox cathedral of the garrison) became Catholic after the Russian troops departed but it still has the iconic Russian style.

6. Seek for the crumbling off-the-beaten-path Russian Old Believer villages and their wooden churches in Aukštaitija (such as Perelozai in Jonava District municipality). After the Old Believers refused to adhere to Orthodoxy reforms in Russia and became persecuted there (18th century) Lithuania granted them refuge and even though many have migrated to cities most still visit their village churches and cemeteries.

7. Visit Visaginas, a Soviet-built town where 55% of people are Russians moved in from the Soviet Union in the 1980s. The Russian language is still the lingua franca there. ~15 km from Visaginas there is an earlier Russian-redeveloped town Zarasai. Redesigned in Russian Imperial era (19th century) on a then-popular semicircular layout it was named "Novoaleksandrovsk" after czar Alexander; today 23% of Zarasai locals are ethnic Russians.

8. Go to the Pushkin museum at Markučiai manor in Southern Vilnius. This wooden palace amidst park has never been visited by the famous poet. However, owned by his noble relatives, it represents the life of 19th-century Russian nobility in Lithuania well enough.

9. Travel to the walled Russian Orthodox religious community in Mikniškės (Russian: Michnovo), Dzūkija region.

10. Listen to Russian music at Basanavičiaus street of Palanga seaside resort in summer evenings. Businessmen of Palanga try to appease the older Russians who like the resort since Soviet times so there are also Russian restaurant menus and most workers of the tourism sector speak some Russian.

Map of the top 10 Russian locations in Lithuania. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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Top 10 minorities

These are the 10 groups of peoples with distinct regional, ethnic or religious identities that have influenced the Lithuanian nation the most and left the most heritage within Lithuania:

1.Lutherans. For centuries Lithuania was divided into two distinct sub-ethnic areas: the east, ruled by Poland-Lithuania and then Russia, remained Catholic, while the west (ruled by Germans) became Lutheran. That Lutheran Lithuania, or Lithuania Minor, was destroyed by the Soviet genocide after World War 2 and Lutheran percentages there dwindled from ~95% to under 5%. However, much heritage still reminds this unique community born at the crossroads of Lithuanian and German cultures. This includes red brick churches and buildings, talented metalworks and more. Lutherans make up 0,7% of Lithuania's population.

2.Poles. A centuries-old alliance and then federation between Poland and Lithuania caused many Lithuanians (~10%) to adopt Polish language and culture over generations. These "Poles-Lithuanians" greatly influenced the wider Polish culture, creating many great works of art and literature in Lithuania and beyond, as well as wielding massive political influence. Most of them had both Polish and Lithuanian versions of their names and, after the Polish and Lithuanian nations have completely separated after World War 1, it became often disputed whether they were "mainly Poles" or "mainly Lithuanians". During 19th-20th centuries many "Polish-Lithuanians" switched back to Lithuanian language and customs, but perhaps just as many opted for a singular Polish identity. As such, two Lithuanian municipalities (out of 60) currently have Polish majorities (the Poles are concentrated around Vilnius). Poles make up 6,65% of Lithuania's population.

3.Pagans. Lithuania was the final independent nation of Europe to abandon paganism. Some may claim it was never fully abandoned at all, as many pagan practices remained within now-Christian festivals. These days, however, thousands of people seek to restore the full pagan faith as well, starting the neo-pagan Romuva religion. They were extremely successful and Romuva became the fastest growing faith in Lithuania, quadrupling its followers between 2001 and 2011 censae. They have constructed prehistory-inspired holy sites (alkas) where they celebrate the once-dying-out festivals. Pagans make up 0,2% of Lithuania's population.

4.Samogitians. While Lithuania is divided into 5 sub-ethnic regions, Samogitia is the one that clings to its unique identity the most. Samogitian dialect is so distinct that it is sometimes considered a separate language, and a few Samogitians even claim "Samogitian" rather than "Lithuanian" as their ethnicity in censae. To others, Samogitians are the "best Lithuanians", as they were the only ones that even had their nobility speaking Lithuanian through all the centuries (rather than adopting more politically convenient Polish, German or Russian). Approximately 17% of Lithuania's population live in Samogitia, most of them natively Samogitians.

5.Jews. The numbers of Lithuania's Jews peaked in the 19th century when Lithuania was among the few lands of Russian Empire where they were allowed to freely settle. While later emigration and genocide have dwindled their numbers, the Jewish heritage in Lithuania is still impressive, consisting of some 80 synagogues and memories of key Jewish figures who have influenced the Jewish thought worldwide, such as Vilna Gaon. Jews make up 0,1% of Lithuania's population.

6.Karaims are a unique ethnoreligious group following a religion that includes some Jewish, Christian and Islamic practices. Their ancestors were brought in from southernmost reaches of Grand Duchy of Lithuania by grand duke Vytautas. Today however even in their original homeland there are just 1000 or so left, so the Karaim communities of Lithuania with their two kenessas (temples) have few counterparts in the world. While Karaim faith seems exotic, Karaim cuisine (kibin pasties) is popular among people of Lithuania of all ethnicities. Karaims make up 0,01% of Lithuania's population, numbering just around 250.

7.Lithuanian Americans. The USA was the favorite destination of Lithuanian migrants, especially during times of occupations. During periods of independence (1918-1940, 1990-) some Lithuanian-Americans have returned to Lithuania to help reestablish its economy and political system. They have wielded a disproportionate influence. Some have bequeathed their riches and works of art to Lithuania, creating numerous museums in Lithuania. Lithuanian-Americans have also popularized basketball in Lithuania. There are some 700 thousand people of Lithuanian ancestry in the USA. If they would all migrate to Lithuania, they would make up 19% of population

8.Russian Old Believers descend from Russian Orthodox people who refused to adhere to Nikon's reforms centuries ago. As a result, they became heavily persecuted in Russia and sought refuge in 17th century Lithuania. Heavily guarding their identity and "true faith" they established many out-of-the-beaten-path villages centered around pretty wooden churches in the Lithuanian countryside. Many now are empty, but their churches and cemeteries come to life once again when the Old Believers come from the cities for religious festivals. Old Believers make up 0,9% of Lithuania's population.

9.Muslim Tatars. As Lithuania was at its largest extent in the 15th century, it even ruled part of the Islamic world near the Black Sea. From there the Grand Duke Vytautas has brought in thousands of Tatars and hired them as soldiers. Over the centuries they have lost their language but not their religion, which has developed some unique characteristics. While Tatar numbers dwindled through assimilation, a few wooden mosques remained as an interesting addition to Lithuanian countryside. Lithuanians also enjoy the Tatar cuisine (čeburekai pasties, šimtalapis cake). Muslim Tatars make up 0,1% of Lithuania's population, of them some half with Medieval origins.

10.Soviet settlers. Arguably the most controversial community of Lithuania, the Soviet settlers are largely Russophone people sent to live in Lithuania by the Soviet Union (and their descendants). Being mostly urban, they add a "Russian" touch to Lithuanian cities, making the Russian music, festivals and media more popular. Some third of them emigrated after the Soviet Union collapsed, and the new generations tend to slowly integrate. Soviet settlers and their descendants make up ~6% of Lithuania's population.

Note: the list above is subjective and it is meant to serve just as an introduction of the key minorities of Lithuania. For an objective and extensive articles on all the Lithuania's ethnic and religious groups, please see the sections on Ethnicities of Lithuania and Religions of Lithuania.

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