Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Hill of Crosses: Commemorating Suffering, Survival, and the Human Spirit in Siauliai

 Another installment from Dr. Windy Petrie, Associate Professor and English Department Chair at Colorado Christian University, who was a Fulbright grantee to Lithuania in 2006.

During my time in Lithuania, I had the opportunity to visit the northern city of Siauliai to speak about American Woman Writers for the 50th anniversary celebration of the Humanities at the university there.  After my speech, one of the professors who teaches there took us to the Hill of the Crosses.  I had no idea what to expect from the name, and, frankly, even if I had, the site, and the sight, would still have completely blown my mind. You drive a ways out of town, then down a little side road, and a spreading clump of hills come into sight. When you get out of the car and walk up to them you see that these hills, these mounds, are entirely composed of crucifixes, one piled atop another, and you try to imagine just how many must be there to create such height, such breadth, and you can’t conceive what the total number must be. Or at least I couldn’t. And then you start imagining how each cross placed there was placed by an individual, who made the trip from near or from far, each for a personal, individual, reason.  And you really, really, can’t conceive of that.

This place is truly amazing. It is thought that the tradition might have begun when the town was founded in 1250 AD, although existing records mention them in the early 1800s, possibly due to a local rebellion against the presumption of the czar in the 1830s. People brought crosses in honor of those who had been lost in the fighting at that time, and have continued to bring them during all local and national struggles for liberty since then. It has also served as a site for Christian pilgrims for many years now. It's no wonder that these hills, representing to an extent the collective protest, faith, and hope of the people, grew so large during the Soviet occupation (and grew larger after each Soviet dismantling via bulldozing, blockades, and intentional flooding) and continues to grow today.

Lithuania has had a very complex National history, having been claimed by nearly all of the regional powers at one time, or another, in its long history. Russia, Germany, Poland, and I believe even Sweden, have all staked a claim to Lithuania and its people in the last 500 years. Even Napoleon occupied Vilnius during his losing bid to invade Russia. Lithuania has remained, through it all, a very independent people. Think of it: they were the last people to accept Christianity in the whole of Europe. They fought off the German Teutonic Knights for what I believe ended up being more than a century. More recently, Lithuanians engaged in clandestine, guerrilla warfare with the Soviets for decades after WWII. And they were the first Baltic nation to claim and secure independence in the early 1990's.

As a non-violent means to defy the Soviets during their occupation of Lithuania, the Hill of Crosses became a historical monument to the human spirit. For hundreds of years, individuals have been bringing crosses of all sizes, some taller than a man and others smaller than a key, made of every imaginable material from precious metals to scraps and rags, to express faith and loss in times when such expression was forbidden. 

After the breakup of the USSR, the Hill of Crosses gained worldwide fame. Pope John Paul II visited the sacred site in 1997, and declared the Hill an international site of devotion. At that time, it became known not only a spiritual symbol of Lithuanian tenacity, but a contemporary shrine. When I visited, I saw many new additions to the Hills, bearing labels from all over the world.