Decided I wouldn’t force it, but would travel if I woke up in time. Was at the train station by 9:30.
I arrived in Siauliai at noon and rushed to the bus station. Took the bus to Joniskis, got off at Domantai (fourth stop). Overheard the bus driver telling a young man that it was his stop as well. I promptly introduced myself- he was also going to the Hill of Crosses.
We walked the two kilometers from the bus stop to the hill in a light snow. Yuki is from Japan, but studying in Denmark for the year. He is traveling the Baltics for his autumn break.
We started at the information center, got a sandwich from a vending machine. I met an Israeli couple there and thoroughly impressed myself with my ability to converse with them in Hebrew.
The hill was smaller than I imagined, but nevertheless consumed by crosses.
The first crosses were erected in memory of insurgents lost during the two great Polish rebellions of the 19th century: the November Uprising of 1830 and the January Uprising of 1863.
The number of crosses reached over 400 after WWI, as custom dictated that a cross was to be planted for missing loved ones in lieu of a proper burial.
Naturally, the number of crosses increased substantially during WWII.
The disappearance of thousands into Siberia and Soviet Gulags made for a sizable addition to the hill.
Alas, the communist decree of atheism as state policy led to the removal of all crosses from the hill (1961). Thus, putting up crosses became a means of religious defiance in addition to nationalist.
After the fall of the Soviet Union the number of crosses began to multiply infinitely as pilgrims from around the world started to visit the hill en masse. There are over 100,000 crosses on the hill as of 2006.
In 1993 a visit by Pope John Paul II inspired him to bestow Lithuania with the appellation ‘Country of Crosses’ and also to call for the construction of a Franciscan Friary near the hill.
The building was exceedingly plain, but the view of the hill from behind altar was spectacular.
The walk back provided for a couple more incredible views.
Yuki and I walked frigid back to the road where we took the 3:00 bus to Siauliai.
The city of Siauliai has glorious beginnings, but an otherwise inglorious past. In 1236 Siauliai was host to the Sun Battle in which the Samogitian inhabitants unexpectedly obliterated the invading Livonian Brothers of the Sword. As a result, the remaining Livonians were incorporated into a branch of the Teutonic Order and would not again function as a sovereign entity until the emergence of the Livonian Confederation following the collapse of the Teutonic Order at the Battle of Grunwald in 1410. A sundial was erected in 1986 to commemorate the 750th anniversary of the battle and the de facto founding date of the city.
Siauliai has served as a regional center in different capacities since the 16th century. Unfortunately, the city was bombed into oblivion during both World Wars and lost all vestiges of her old town- except for one. The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul was built in the early 17th century and has since held the title of highest steeple in all of Lithuania.
The interior is nice, relatively plain.
Cold and exhausted, I was determined to make the 5:30 train home. First, I had to visit the Chaim Frenkel Villa.
Built in 1908 by Jewish manufacturer Chaim Frenkel, the residence completely eviscerates the general perception of the shtetl Jew.
Frenkel started as an ordinary leather dresser, but by the early 20th century he was known as the ‘King of Leather’. His leather factory was one of the largest in the Empire. It was the largest supplier of footwear in interwar Lithuania.
His efforts led Encyclopedia Britannica to describe Siauliai as the ‘the world center of leather’ in their 1911 edition.
In recent years the villa was repurposed into an exhibit of the culture, art, and Jewish heritage of Siauliai.
Down the street stands the since abandoned leather factory.
Opposite the factory is a statue of the man himself.
Adjacent the factory stands the synagogue that Frenkel built for his employees.
Surely there was more to see in regards to Jewish history, the population was predominantly Jewish in the early 19th century. But in light of the weather and absence of a family connection (save for some extended Brenner relatives), I was ready to go.
FaceTimed on the train with Dad and Sarah Minion- she is road tripping across the South and was kind enough to grace my family and city with her presence.