We started our encounter with a drift through Kaunas, situating ourselves in relation to the geographies of its history, specifically some of the more radical ones.
From hippies to ecologists; the story of a local movement.
Jurga Jonutytė, Lithuanian philosopher and activist, told us about the youth movement in Kaunas in the 1980s. The movement called Atgaja made its founding assemblies on the benches in the town hall square, and lead to the semi-squatting of an abandoned building, which came to function as a kind of social centre and a convergence point of a very diverse ecological movement, until in 1994 the movement was divided by substantial disagreements (about homophobia and nationalism among other issues). The house was evicted in 1995.
The Kaunas youth movement did not come out of nowhere. It drew on two main sources, namely the hippy movement and the punk movement. The first punk wave in Lithuania started in the early 1980s in the capital city Vilnius, and this youth rebellion was allowed to survive and even thrive, perhaps because many of its protagonists were the children of the nomenclature.
The Lithuanian hippies had their heyday in the years after the Prague Spring of 1968, as a rebellion against the stifling state communist world in which they lived. We were told that the Lithuanian hippy movement was the first time in the post-war period that people mixed between different ethnic groups: Lithuanian, Jewish, Russian, Polish…
It was in this context that the brief Kaunas Spring of 1972 happened. Here the self-immolation of the 19 year old Roman Kalanta resulted in riots, with the participation of hippies and communist youth and many others. The Kaunas Spring was harshly repressed, and some of its participants escaped the city, and lived incognito in the Lithuanian forests and countryside until the Perestroika of the late 1980s and even beyond.
Jurga told us that some of the ’72 rebels that stayed in Kaunas later joined the ecological movement of the 1980s. Here young people to radical actions to block cargo and tank ships and sabotaged a factory which was polluting the largest river in Lithuania. This movement eventually came to work with a European Youth for Action network and participate in the development of ecotopias with environmental activists from Western Europe. We were told of the strange experience it was for Lithuanian activists to do actions along with their Swedish comrades. While the Swedes were expressing their opinion on the site of the road, the Lithuanians put their bodies on the line and blocked the traffic: where they came from it was clear, that one had to block things to make a difference.
Opposite the now reconstructed fortress of Kaunas – a ruin turned into a monument of national pride – lies the old Jewish hospital, derelict and crumbling. Richard Schofield, photographer based in Kaunas, told us of some of the struggles to maintain the Jewish heritage and the memory of what happened during the period of the war.
Kaunas was long a very multi-ethnic city, with large Polish, Russian, and Jewish populations, and a relatively small Lithuanian population. In the Russian census of 1897, the Jewish formed the largest group within the city, with 35%. It was within this community that Emma Goldman was born in 1869 in the Jewish working-class neighborhood Slabodkė (now Vilijampolė).
With the war, 95% of approximately 210,000 Lithuanian Jews were killed, including 35.000 in Kaunas alone. This was the highest death toll in the Holocaust in any country. The Holocaust in Lithuania was not merely a crime committed by the occupying Nazis; many local volunteers, police and paramilitaries participated in events such as the June 1941 Kaunas pogrom.
In the Soviet period, the victims of the holocaust were simply remembered as “local inhabitants”, and few were persecuted severely for their participation in the genocide. Today only a few thousand Jews live in the country, and the Lithuanian participation in the holocaust is still downplayed by many Lithuanians and by the state.
The Green House
We ended our drift in the ex-squat “the green house” which has been an important social centre for many people in the last months. The folks from the Egzilis collective told us about the infoshop, the free shop, variety of events and attempts to connect with the inhabitants of surrounding area, as well as the parties and the ways the house and the people created a space where new radical subjectivities could be formed.