I’ve gone from the Muslim and Jewish pig-free lands of the Middle East to Northern and Eastern Europe where folks can’t get enough pork-products and smoked meats. It’s the land of ‘the other white meat’, spuds and sour cream. In other words, if it’s creamy, fatty, and white, it’s eaten here in enormous amounts. But you would never know it by looking at the locals – crazy-tall Baltic beauties stroll around town with model-like spindly long legs and full flowing locks.
The Baltic nations are three of Europe’s fasting growing economies. Today – the gray, ugly, stoic times of Soviet rule are a thing of the past and these young countries are sprinting into the future with the help of those long legs of course. I was happy to see these colorful, artsy societies filled with young people and a culture that is, in many ways, more modern than other Western European nations.
I don’t know exactly what it is, but despite the toe-numbing cold temps and often gray days, I love Northern Europe. Northern Germany, Scandinavia, and the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania all make me smile. They are filled with beautiful green landscapes, thick forests full of birds and wildlife and charming old towns like the fairy-tale-looking medieval city of Tallinn, art nouveau Riga, and baroque Vilnius.
In the 20th century, all three Baltic nations suffered greatly at the hands of the Nazis and the Soviet regime. Between the two World Wars, the three small countries enjoyed a time of growth and independence. All this ended with a secret pact between Hitler and Stalin which carved up portions of Europe to be either controlled by Germany or the USSR.
After a brief and frightening rule by the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany occupied the Baltics during WWII, murdering hundreds of thousands of Jews and wiping out nearly the entire Jewish population of Lithuania which peaked on the eve of WWI at about 240,000. Back then there were about 100 synagogues in Vilnius and 6 daily Jewish newspapers. In just a three month period in 1941, 35,000 Jews were murdered in cold blood in the Panerai Forest just outside of Vilnius.
After the war, the Baltic States fell to the Soviet Union once again and the terror continued with a bleak time of repression. Thousands and thousands of Balts were sent to labor camps, deported and killed. These dark, sad times are chillingly depicted in Riga’s Museum of the Occupation and Vilnius’ very well done Museum of Genocide Victims which is housed in the former KGB headquarters complete with bone-chilling basement cells where prisoners were tortured and executed.
In August 1989, an estimated two million Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians (out of a total population of 8 million) joined hands in a human chain known as the “Baltic Way” stretching the 650 kilometers (370 miles) between Vilnius in the south and Tallinn in the north. It was a completely peaceful protest symbolizing the peoples’ solidarity and wish for independence. On November 9, 1989 the Berlin Wall fell. In December 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev signed the declaration condemning the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact’s secret protocol. Within six months, Lithuania became the first Soviet state to declare independence and just two years after this demonstration, the independence of all three Baltic states was recognized by most western countries.
- Vilnius is the home of Eastern Europe’s oldest University.
- Riga has one of the largest markets in Europe. It’s housed in 5 huge old Zeppelin hangars.
- Skype was developed in Estonia.
- The current Lithuanian president, Val Adamkus, emigrated to the Chicago area as a teenager, worked extensively for the U.S. government, and moved back to Lithuania after his retirement.