It is early September in Vilnius, and the first hint of Fall is in the air. I have only been here for two weeks, but I've been told that the weather is at its most perfect during this time of the year. After evenings of wandering in Old Town Vilnius under a warm clear sky, I am inclined to believe it.
The evening of September 11, this year, happened to be one of these perfect late-summer moments, which I enjoyed in a truly unique place - the Hill of Crosses outside of the small city of Siauliai. A member of Seimas (parliament) from the region, Dr. Egidijus Vareikis, had organized a special dedication of two crosses erected in memory of the victims of the 9/11 tragedy. He had invited members of the American Embassy in Vilnius to make the trip out to Siauliai for the dedication, and Edgaras (one of the local interns) and I were happy to go.
The Hill of Crosses is a landmark unique to Lithuania and the people's rich history of Christianity. It dates back many hundreds of years to when people first started planting crosses on the small hill outside of town, as prayers and symbols of hope and remembrance. The number of crosses grew over the years, as did the place's legendary and holy status. In Soviet times, from the 1950s to the 1970s, the hill was bulldozed on several occasions by the Soviet government. People were arrested for planting crosses on the site, but small symbols of hope still appeared.
Today there are no restrictions or organization of the site whatsoever. The hill is covered in more than 100,000 crosses, of all sizes. Many are wonderful pieces of artwork, handcarved or painted, and a few are towering monuments of Christian faith. In the sprawling collection of crosses and crucifixes, a single wood-plank pathway makes its way up one side of the hill and down the other. From this path you can see small walkways, like game trails, worn into the landscape by thousands of people searching for a place to plant their contribution.
For anybody who travels here, regardless of religious faith or background, it is a moving experience. It is a intimate place, a look inside the heart of the Lithuanian people, which made the 9/11 event particularly special. The two very large memorial crosses had been set at the absolute top of the hill, on either side of the main trail. On the side of each there was placed a small plaque, announcing to any curious person that these crosses were for the United States, to remember their terrible loss. For me - standing in a place dedicated to people who have suffered for so many years, in a country that has experienced astonishing tragedy - the idea that these people cared enough to erect these monuments, which tower over their beautiful sanctuary, was truly humbling.
The ceremony was short and sweet. As the sun set, about 30 people gathered along the path, facing a microphone at the hilltop. Dr. Vareikis spoke a few words and a Father from the local parish gave a prayer, blessing the crosses with holy water. I was then asked to address the group, and stepped forward to thank them. In a few short sentences I tried to convey the feeling of thanks and humility that I felt, and to the few people who spoke English I hope that the message got across. After I was done speaking, a musician took the podium to play a song he wrote for the occasion. He strummed an acoustic guitar and Lithuanian words rang out in a true American country music style. It fit the ceremony very well.
Edgaras and I hung around just a little while after the ceremony was concluded, to thank
Dr. Egidijus Vareikis for inviting members of the America Embassy, and to shake hands with many others who had attended. A local television news station even asked me for a short interview, and I got a second opportunity to express my thanks to the people of that region (in English, for what it was worth). We took a final walk around the site, snapping photos for my and Edgaras' Facebook pages, and we were ready to go.