Grutas Park – a Museum of Falsification of History

Last weekend I was in Druskininkai, in the South of Lithuania, and of course I wanted to visit nearby Grūtas Park (Grūto parkas in Lithuanian), a sculpture park of Soviet monuments and a museum about the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. I decided to walk the 8 km to the park, and despite getting a bit lost a few times, it was a beautiful if strenuous walk through the snow-covered forest, along peaceful frozen lakes.

Grutas Park watchtower trainWhen I finally reached Grūtas Park, I discovered that it is less of an organized museum and more of a hotchpotch of relics from the Soviet era, from the grand statutes which dominate the park to books and posters. The idea behind surrounding the park with a fence and Gulag-like watchtowers may have been to recreate the feeling of being in a Soviet labour camp, but it doesn’t really work when there are a children’s playground and souvenir shops inside.

On a walk through the park you will encounter all the famous faces of Communism, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin plus several hitherto unknown Lithuanian communists as well as the obligatory pioneers and brigades of proud and strong labourers.

Grutas Park Stalin

Grutas Park Lenin

Grutas Park mosaic pioneers

Grutas Park Soviet soldier

Grutas Park colourful window

As I was reading the descriptions and summaries in front of the artefacts, I began to notice that without any prior knowledge of 20th century history, I would get the impression as if Lithuania had always been an independent nation which was viciously attacked by the Soviet Union in 1940, then nothing had happened between 1941 and 1944, and in 1944 the Soviet Union had oddly attacked Lithuania again, enslaving all of its people. There were no Communists among Lithuanians. Those who were, were traitors. Or Jews, which apparently is incompatible with being Lithuanian.

The plaque about “Underground Soviet Partisans” for example details how they were controlled by Moscow, how brutal they were, it states that they were made up of “Soviet activists, Red Army men, escaped prisoners of war and some inhabitants of Lithuania (mostly of Jewish nationality)” – as if the Jews in Lithuania were not also Lithuanian citizens, and oddly confusing religion with nationality. The partisans are described as “saboteurs” – but nowhere in the lengthy text does it mention once whom they actually fought.Grutas Park Soviet partisans That was of course Nazi Germany, the Wehrmacht and the SS. The few Jews who managed to escape the ghettos and concentration camps alive and then took up arms to fight the Nazis in Eastern Europe are heroes in my eyes, but are turned into menacing monsters by the makers of Grūtas Park. (To anyone more interested in the Soviet partisans, I recommend the book “If Not Now, When?” by Primo Levi.)

A very strange depiction of history indeed. I found it most curious that the period from 1941 to 1944 was almost always omitted or glossed over, as if nothing important had happened between the two Soviet advances on Lithuania. Yet these years were the height of World War II.

The true course of events was that as everywhere in Europe in the early 20th century, some people in Lithuania identified with the idea of socialism. From 1918 to 1919, Lithuania was even briefly a Socialist Soviet Republic. In 1920, the Soviet Union under Lenin recognized Lithuanian independence. Vilnius was however still contested and fought over between the Soviet Union, Lithuania and Poland. From 1926 on, Lithuania was ruled by an authoritarian, nationalist regime which had come to power in a coup d’état. The Soviet Union and Germany famously agreed to carve up all of Eastern Europe in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and most of Lithuania, except for the coastal region around Klaipeda, fell to the Soviet Union which annexed it militarily in 1940.

In 1941, Germany broke the Pact and attacked the Soviet Union and also occupied Lithuania. They immediately began to carry out the Holocaust there, murdering 90% of the pre-War Jewish community of Lithuania, often with the help of the Lithuanian locals (something which you won’t read anything about at Grūtas Park). The war between Germany and the Soviet Union ensued. When the Red Army advanced towards Lithuanian territory in 1944, it did not attack Lithuania because Lithuania no longer existed as a state. The Soviet Union fought a war against Nazi Germany which had previously attacked it and which was executing a genocide. Judging by the information in the plaque referred to above that “native people didn’t support soviet partisans”, Lithuanians in the 1940s preferred the Nazis over the Soviet Union, which says much more about the Lithuanian population of the time than about the Soviet partisans.

One of the most famous Lithuanian books is “Forest of the Gods” (Dievų miškas in Lithuanianby Balys Sruoga who spent two years at the Stutthof Concentration Camp when Germany had occupied Lithuania. In the last pages of that book, he is left behind to die from weakness on one of the death marches with which the Nazis evacuated the concentration camps when the Soviet Army was advancing. Balys Sruoga only realizes that he will survive when he hears the advancing tanks. Soviet tanks.

I do not wish to belittle the brutality and oppression of the Soviet Union in any way, but putting things into context goes a long way towards preventing the creation of erroneous national myths. If one has any desire to prevent them, that is. Eastern Europe suffered most terribly during the 20th century from its location between Germany and the Soviet Union. Nobody wants to deny that. But seeing oneself as the victim of Soviet occupation, blaming it entirely on other nationalities and religions and at the same time refusing to accept one’s own nation’s complicity in nationalism, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust is not a fruitful way of dealing with history. It is not even the truth.

(C) for all the photos: Andreas Moser, 18 February 2013

About Andreas Moser

You will most likely find me in the forest, next to the lake, reading a book. Just follow the cigar smoke!
This entry was posted in History, Holocaust, Lithuania, Military, Photography, Politics, Travel, World War II and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Grutas Park – a Museum of Falsification of History

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  3. jpetros says:

    i think the key point behind this ”museum” is to demonstrate life under the soviet government(1944-1990), not to educate the population about WWII. But you are right, Lithuania lacks a proper Holocaust museum.

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    • If the point is not to educate about WWII, then why do they have signs about WWII? And why do those signs accuse Jews of committing horrors against Lithuanians without mentioning the horrors Lithuanians committed against Jews?
      Saying “the museum is not about Jews” is a very weak response to a sign about Jews. Saying “it’s not a museum” is an even weaker response to a place full of historic exhibits and information about old stuff.

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      • Vilenskas says:

        Since it was me who tried to explain some misunderstandings, i probably should react or something. My response was weak as weak is my english (unlike your lithuanian), simply it doesn’t change the fact that this is not an actual museum, and the exhibition (or, say, this all “thing which is not a museum”) is not about Jews (certainly) and not about WWII (certainly). Nor about WWI. As for a “sign about Jew” i don’t see any sign about Jews and didn’t comment it. If that part of the sentence (in brackets) is that sign that mislead you (or if there are some others) then call the owner and tell what a proper english text must be. This is a private Park and not about Jews or WWII. These are elsewhere (and they are not parks).
        The point of my reply was to explain, and if you want to fix something you can do that without any publicity. Otherwise it looks like you’re trying to cavil is some sophisticated british way… ;) . I simply don’t like such things :) . Nothing personal :) .

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      • jpetros says:

        come on, calling that place a Museum as very generous, they have a zoo.
        FYI I’n not denying that the lack of actual history is not complimentary, If anything, its pathetic.

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  4. RADIUS says:

    Dear Andreas, thanks for your very solid, objective perspective. There is little to add here. Anti-semitism, unfortunately was and still is a common-sense in many parts of the world. In Germany it is meanwhile branded as a sign of lack of culture and lack of education. In other coutries, it is still widespread even among the educated elites (simply look to Hungary, how hungarian surprematism, xenophobia and antisemitism slowly re-emerges as national paradigm).
    I once had a PhD student that came from Vilnious to my group, she was professionally and scientifically very well educated and in general a very social and easy going and open-minded person. When, however she understoud that our sons first name is Leonard, she looked shocked and said: But this is a Jewish Name !!! When my wife said that a Jewish mother always gives her kids Jewish names, she turned very pale. I guess it was more that she suddenly felt catched red-handed as a dormant anti-semite, rather than fearing a mixed Jewish-German company. I have to say that although after her PhD she moved to the UK to mary a rich banker, we are still in good contact and occasionally even do jokes about the Jewish issue. I think we both learned a bit from this: She understoud the Jews are not always smelling of garlic and onion, and I learned that Anti-semitism (like other xenophobia as well) very often a very fragile building. Usually they are based on ignorance, rather than on real bad experience with other nations, cultures or faith.

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  6. Vilenskas says:

    Hi.
    In my childhood I lived at Savanorių, by the way :) . It’s pity that you didn’t like this exhibition, it was intended to be a fun and not a museum. That English text sticks out, it probably is some sort of
    short summary for ignorant foreigners (various people come there, maybe some were questioning the owner and he decided to put up this text). There is nothing about WWII because there are no sculptures
    left, nor they were created during the war. As for Lithuanian Jews they deserve the separate museum, and this museum is in an appropriate place in the capital, not in the woods. With appropriate expositions
    inside. The site in Paneriai now also looks like it should look, unlike it was during Soviet times.
    The park is some sort of sculpture “warehouse”. The topic is a “mood of soviet times”, sort of parody, and this is a “key point”, not those things that you were talking here. I think there is a description in their website and in the “inyourpocket.com” guide.
    The bunker of soviet partisans also is in tact in its original place, don’t know how much of it is authentic because during all soviet times it was within military territory, the fake bunker was installed outside it (as a mandatory for Comsomol to visit :) ) .
    So every-thing has its right place, it looks as if you was somehow misled.

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    • I understand that it’s not the purpose of Grutas Park to educate about all details of Lithuanian history, but I see the danger of making some statements (as in the English text at the park quoted in the text) without putting them into a wider context. Not everybody will go there with background knowledge and people might walk away with a wrong impression of what really happened here in that very bloody mid-20th century.

      Regarding Savanorių, I can tell you that it probably still looks exactly the same as in your childhood. :-)

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      • Vilenskas says:

        From the crossroad Savanorių / Žemaitės towards Kaunas nothing has changed :)
        Regarding that text i don’t know what is its context, i.e. where it is put up and why. The park is not about history, it’s an exhibition of the useless sculptures, everything else is additional and serves to create the mood. Not the mood of the war, but the mood of daily life, +/- 1950 – 1980 .

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  7. german by blood says:

    I think alot of blood was lost in the 1900, my grandmother and mother survived the war in germany and told me many of the thing that happen before the war , during the war and after the war. I remember growing up we not allowed to watch HOGANS HEROS which was a popular comedy here in u.s., about pow in germany, she said there was nothing funny about what happen in the war. I never really understood why she felt like that! Growing up we never went to church but it was alway instilled into us that there was nothing worse than hating an person based on religion I never gave it much thought until after my mother and grandmother passed, I had gotten all my grandmother personal property , I found out that my mother and grandmothers name wasnt Jung but Klein, I found out that the person who i thought was my moms dad wasnt, and items of Judaism . What a blow to find all this out at the age of 45 and nobody to answer all my questions, I cant even find the town they were from “schonwaldau in the goldberg region” due to so much changing from the wars. I think that my mother and grandmother hid alot of what happen during the war and when they passed it went with them, So any little items still left from the wars should alway be kept as a reminder for the people the cant speak of it!

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    • Olaf says:

      “schonwaldau in the goldberg region”

      Sounds eastern, could now be Czechia or Poland or something like that.
      You tried google?

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  8. Dovid Katz says:

    Defending History’s take on Gruto parkas is here : http://defendinghistory.com/gruto-parkas-near-druskininkai/45588

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    • jpetros says:

      Hi Dovid, huge fan, love the good work you do in my home country.
      I never noticed those anti-semitic signs in the park. thank you for pointing it out.

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  9. chartlaie says:

    Very good approach, and Lithuania with this park is just an example how facts are not mentioned, while others are, thereby creating the false impression of truth.

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  10. Sarah says:

    Reminds me a bit like the Bulgarian History Museum in Sofia- The dates ~1940-1945 are curiously absent.

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    • Since I have been living and travelling in Eastern Europe, I am beginning to think that the EU should look less at economic factors when admitting new members, but whether they have come to terms with their past and accept the responsibility to not distort it.

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  12. K says:

    I have not been to Grutas park, but i think those signs there, and what you call antisemitism originates from a feeling of historical unfairness and general western public opinion about ww2. Ofcourse every nation thinks that they have suffered more than others, but it looks like that the world entirely forgot about the victims of soviet regime at world war 2 and after it. There is countless books about the terrible conditions of hundreds of thousdants of our people in soviet Gulag labour camps, traveling to exile months in closed cargo vagons, only half of passengers usualy made a journey, just to face cold, hunger, and forced labour till death. Our brighest people (teachers, officers, good farmers, doctors, writers) selectively have been either killed or exiled to gulag camps. Every school kid hears stories about how some women and men have to cut trees bare handed in siberian taiga, sleep in non-heated huts at -40 degrees, and picking beans from soviet officers shit, just not to starve for 10years, all that because he or she was doctor/peope/enginner ergo – potential threat to socialism. THIS IS OUR HOLOCAUST. THIS IS WHY 1941 and 1944 are mentioned so much there. German occupation was just an relaxing break from soviet terror for most people. Still – we have never accepted nazi regime, lithuania was THE ONLY BALTIC COUNTRY THAT FAILED TO ASSEMBLE SS DIVISION.
    Ofcourse jews have suffered the most in the german occupation period, but those years just before and after the war are most inportant to US. Yes we are that self-centered, just like you.

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    • I am not self-centered at all, I would say, because I don’t remember ever dwelling on the suffering of Germans. In fact, whenever Germans start talking about that, I tell them (and thus myself) about the historical law of cause and effect.

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  13. andreas kuck says:

    in wahrscheinlich jedem litauischen museum findet man die geschichte der sowjetischen unterdrueckung, der deportationen nach sibirien und der waldbrueder. oft auch noch hinweise, wie die litauischen juden den sowjetischen sozialismus herbeigeseht haben (museum birzai).
    eine diskussion ueber die litauische beteiligung am holocaust existiert (suziedelis: http://www.birzai.de/birzai-litauen-geschichte/besetzung-1941.html oder englisch hier http://www.lituanus.org/2001/01_4_04.htm), ist aber fuer die breite bevoelkerung nicht interessant.
    fuer das verstaendnis der litauischen juden halte ich das buch von alex faitelson (Im jüdischen Widerstand: http://www.birzai.de/litauen-bücher/151-jüdischer-widerstand-in-litauen.html) für wichtig. es hat mir viele fragen beantwortet.
    als gedenkstaette fuer den holocaust in litauen halte ich das IX. Fort in kaunas fuer geeignet. hier ist die aufklaerung schon differenzierter. im museum ueberwiegt die litauische sicht der geschichte, besatzung, deportation, waldbrueder. im fort selber ueberwiegt das andenken an die ermordeten und die leichenbrenner.

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  14. andreas kuck says:

    der film defiance mit daniel craig ist in dem zusammenhang auch interessant

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