If these walls could talk

Belinda Jackson enters the grisly monument where scores of Lithuanian freedom fighters lost their lives.

If you were to list your top 10 travel experiences, chances are a museum dedicated to genocide wouldn't rate a mention. Yet every year, thousands of travellers visit the likes of Hitler's concentration camps or Nelson Mandela's former prison cell and, in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, the Museum of Genocide Victims (aka the KGB museum) is high on the local tourism board's "must-see" list.

Set in Vilnius's legal district, just off the city's most chic street, Gediminas Avenue, the entrance to this 19th-century building is low-key. Just a plaque and an open door. There's no sense of what's inside.

You should visit Lithuania's fairytale castles and towering cathedrals but not all touring is glamorous and relaxing. The museum, its granite-block walls bearing the names of massacred resistance fighters, makes no apology for its content - but don't we travel to learn?

The day I visited was warm but the foyer was chilly and damp, its thick stone walls cold. I stepped inside and straight away the museum's message was made clear: "This exhibition ... shows how Moscow, with the help of local collaborators, destroyed gradually the sovereignty of the state, ruined the system of state power and administration, implemented communist ideology and deported and imprisoned people".

Life in 20th-century Lithuania seems a recurring nightmare: after a century under imperialistic Russia and brief German occupation in World War I, the little Baltic state, which borders Poland, Belarus and Latvia, was invaded by the Soviet Union in 1940 and the deeply committed Catholic country was declared a Soviet Socialist Republic. Almost 11,000 people were arrested in one year, many dying of hunger or going insane.

It then became the front line in the war between the Soviets and Hitler's Germany. Independence was declared in 1941 but then, after barely a breath of freedom, Germany abolished the provisional government and incorporated Lithuania into the Third Reich. Still, there was no hope. As Hitler's grip loosened, the Soviets re-entered Lithuania in 1944, dragging it into a nine-year Partisan War, during which 22,000 partisans, or freedom fighters, were killed. More than a thousand were murdered in the bleak execution chamber in this building's basement.

The classical whitewashed structure served as the office of the KGB and the head of the invading government, with administration offices from street level up. From street level down, the area is divided into rows of cells that housed the victims of these wars. Incredibly, the last prisoners were released in 1987, most protestors of the "Russification" of Lithuania. The country finally declared independence in March 1990 although Russian troops didn't leave for another three years.

Black-and-white snapshots of those who disappeared are pinned to courtyard walls outside, their names printed below. The walls are also lined with photographs of freedom fighters in their winter camouflage clothes - soiled white overalls that matched the harsh, snowy landscape - and their poems. One is inscribed: "For a lasting memory, Adelyte{aac}. You will recall me some day, when I am not in this world. Vytantas."

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This late afternoon, there were perhaps a dozen people in the museum - including a young Asian traveller, a silent couple, and a quartet of cheerful Germans calling out to each other as they moved between the displays of guns, letters, knives and grainy photographs.

By far the most shocking of the photographs was the collage of faces of dead patriots, whose bodies lay in lines. The pictures were blown up larger than life to better depict the tortured features. "The sight of the dead bodies of partisans dumped in town squares remains in the memories of the postwar generation," reads the inscription.

There was no justice: those who refused to eat were force-fed. Those who were hungry were starved to death. Prisoners were crammed in cement cells either in the dark with the windows painted over or with a bright, bare bulb that was never switched off.

The museum's padded cell, water-torture chamber and solitary confinement room appeal to our fascination with the macabre.

The water-torture room is a concrete cell with a concave floor and a small pedestal, just large enough for a person to stand on. The prisoner would stand for hours until they lost their balance and fell into the icy water around them.

As I looked at these grim cells, I suddenly realised it had been many minutes since I heard the jolly Germans. I stopped and listened. Silence. I checked my watch. The museum had been closed for 15 minutes.

I felt my heart thud and I started to stride back up the corridor. Past the water torture cell. Past the solitary confinement cell. Past the padded cell with the frayed, greying straightjacket pinned to the wall. Panic overtook me and I started to jog as a thousand ghosts rushed up behind me.

My skin prickled. I ran down the empty corridor, my shoes thumping on the concrete, until I reached the peeling staircase. I leapt up, two stairs at a time, to come face-to-face with a small, moustached man with a briefcase, who stared at me a moment, then walked to the front door. I needed to talk to someone, to touch someone living, but he looked back at my banal question, shook his head and continued, wordlessly, out the door and into the warm evening. I followed, leaving the ghosts behind.

 The writer was a guest of MyPlanet Australia.

TRIP NOTES

The museum

The Museum of Genocide Victims, 2 Auku Street, Vilnius, is open daily except Mondays. Admission is 4 litas ($2.20, free on Wednesdays, September to June) and an additional 4 litas if you want to take photographs. See genocid.lt.

Getting there

Scandinavian Airlines flies daily to Vilnius from Australia via Copenhagen and Stockholm with selected partners, phone 1300 727 707, see flysas.com.au.

Staying there

Reval Hotel Lietuva is the top hotel in Vilnius, see revalhotels.com.

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