The Heroes of Kaunas

Beloved Lithuanian pilots Steponas Darius and Stanislovas Girėnas died on 15 July 1933, just 650km short of completing the longest nonstop transatlantic flight at the time. Two days after the duo set off from New York, 25,000 people gathered at Kaunas airport for their triumphant return. They never arrived. Their orange plane Lituanica crashed in Germany; see the wreckage in the Military Museum of Vytautas the Great. After being embalmed, then hidden during Soviet occupation, the bodies came to rest at Aukštieji Šančiai Cemetery in 1964.

Kaunas-based Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara (1900–86) – with the help of Dutch diplomat Jan Zwartendijk – saved 6000 Jewish lives between 1939 and 1940 by issuing transit visas to stranded Polish Jews who faced the advancing Nazi terror. When the Soviets annexed Lithuania and ordered that all consulates be shut he asked for a short extension. Dubbed ‘Japan’s Schindler’, he disobeyed orders from Tokyo for some 29 days by signing 300 visas per day, and handed the stamp to a Jewish refugee when he left. Sugihara House tells his life story, and features video installations and stories of those he managed to save.

The small Museum of Deportation & Resistance documents the resistance spirit embodied by the Forest Brothers, who fought the Soviet occupation from 1944 to 1953. Led by Jonas Žemaitis-Vytautas (1909–54), somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 men and women went into Lithuania’s forests to battle the regime. The museum staff estimates that one-third were killed, and the rest captured and deported (in total 150,000 Lithuanians were sent to Soviet territory during this time).

One of the most desperate anti-Soviet actions was the suicide of Kaunas student Romas Kalanta. On 14 May 1972 he doused himself in petrol and set fire to himself in protest at communist rule. A suicide note was found in his diary.