Friday, May 2, 2014

The Red Prison

We’ve reached the three-month mark, and during our time here Jane and I have wandered along most of the streets of central Šiauliai.  Last weekend, we set out for Trakų gatvė, in part because we hadn’t yet explored that quarter of the city, and also because it had been home to a sizable Jewish ghetto.  There, we discovered an unusual building, one that bore the marks of a prison of some type (see photo #1, above).  A prominently displayed plaque on site refers to the “occupation regime” of 1940-1990 and alludes to the unfortunate inmates of this facility (see photo #2).  I'm pretty sure žiauriai kalinami means Jewish prisoners, and politiniai kaliniai means political prisoners. 

We saw a sign over a door that refers to the interrogation of persons accused of crimes (see photo #3).  Evidently, there is some kind of museum-like exhibit inside, where, according to an Italian journalist named Francesco Lo Piccolo, “they keep prison memorabilia in a showcase:  knives made out of lighters; shoes hiding mobile phones; blowpipes to send messages outside; jailbreak schemes.”  There is at least one website designed to promote cultural tourism that lists the Tardymo Izoliatoriaus Muziejus—oddly translated as the Museum of Isolator of Investigation—as one of Šiauliai’s tourist attractions—though when we made inquiry at the Tourist Information Office, we were told that there is no museum at the prison.

We noticed that while the building clearly is old, the razor wire running along the top of the enclosure is shiny, as if it were brand new (see photo #4). That in turn made us suspect that the facility still is in use—for real criminals, presumably, rather than for Jews, political prisoners, and sundry dissidents.  We went home and did some serious Googling, and we can report that this facility is in fact open for business as the Siauliai Remand Prison, and here's what we have learned about it. 

First, we know that it was built in 1911, thanks to a grant of 17 hectares of land from the tsarist government—yes, Lithuania was still part of Tsarist Russia at that point. We know, too, that the facility originally consisted of cells for 150 inmates, plus “hospital, kitchen, bakery, church, pharmacy, doctor's office, toilets and bathrooms.”  Administrative offices and apartments were included in the prison complex.  Bathing facilities and a laundry room were “located in a separate red-brick two-storey building.”  The church and the prison (!) were consecrated on December 4, 1911. 

There was a mortuary on site.  On the brighter side, there also was a school, with training provided in several trades and crafts, including carpentry, shoemaking, binding, blacksmithing, and various skills related to farming.  In fact, the prison managed a small farm and a library, not to mention a 16-17 person orchestra.  All of this is reported in the official website of Šiauliai Remand Prison—here.

Interestingly, the official history, like the plaque on the exterior wall of the prison, dwells on the abuses of the Soviet occupation (e.g., “Lithuanian people who didn’t suit the Soviet government were imprisoned here”), while soft-pedalling or ignoring some of the grimmer details associated with Nazi Germany, which occupied Lithuania in June of 1941.  Websites that exist to document the Jewish experience, such as this one, provide a compensatory perspective.  It is perhaps enough to know that there were 8,000 Jews in Šiauliai at the beginning of World War II, and that fewer than 500 survived the Holocaust.  Leaders of the Jewish underground were routinely incarcerated here in what was known informally as “the red prison.”

Evidently, the treatment of persons accused of crime continues to be an issue, one that has been the source of tension between the Lithuanian government and the European Union.  Both Great Britain and Ireland have refused to extradite defendants to Lithuania for fear of mistreatment.  The United States Department of State, in its country report for 2011, expresses concern about overcrowding in Lithuanian prisons, and the Šiauliai Remand Prison is singled out for being particularly deficient in this regard.  According to the report, there were at that time 708 inmates in a facility designed to accommodate 452 at full capacity.  In fairness, I should hasten to concede that the United States also has a serious case of prison overcrowding.

A slightly more pointed Google search brought to light the account of the aforementioned Francesco Lo Piccolo, who toured the Šiauliai Remand Prison in 2012.  Afterwards, he reported that he had the feeling that he “was in a movie about Nazi concentration camps, in Dachau or in a Stalinist Gulag.”  The razor wire that keeps prisoners inside and which had piqued our curiosity made an impression on Lo Piccolo, also; “I did not like it,” he writes, adding that he was accompanied on his hike across the prison courtyard by the “frantic barks” of vicious dogs on long chains.  Eight inmates are assigned to each cell in this facility, where they spend 23 hours of every day, waiting for weeks, months, or even three years or more, “because in Lithuania the pace of justice is what it is:  slow, exhausting, terrible.”

It seems that there has been some renovation of the physical plant in recent years.  That’s encouraging.  And yet, Lo Piccolo says that he was shown a photograph of a cell taken in 1990, just prior to the declaration of independence, and when he compares it with his memory of what he witnessed on his tour, “I don’t see a great deal of difference.”  Plus ça change?




  1. What remains after the Holocaust of Jewish life in Siauliai? Are there any functioning synagogues 60+ years later?

  2. Synagogues in Lithuania? Evidently there were at least 25 in 1902. Now there are two. "Today there are just 5000 Jews in Lithuania, 80% of whom live in Vilnius" (Lonely Planet guide). Kaunas and Siauliai were other centers of Jewish culture. I'm pretty sure that there were more Jews than Christians in Siauliai during the 1920s. In a day or two, I will publish a post on the Chaimas Frenkelis house, built by a Jewish industrialist in the early 20th century. It was a different world then. FYI, everyone named Littwack or Littvak is descended from a Lithuanian Jew. Final tidbit: in the ancient city of Trakai, there is an oddball group of Jews that was brought in (from Crimea or Turkey, as I recall) to provide security. They are Jews, but they were able to get the tsarist regime in the 19th century to recognize them as ethnic Turks, which saved them during the holocaust. We plan to spend a day in Trakai next month. There are still a handful of them. They are called Karaites.

  3. Wow, it takes your breath away. Columbus doesn't have a large Jewish population by any means, but the latest estimate is 22,000. I wonder if any of their origins are Lithuanian.

  4. I'm sure a lot of them have Lithuanian roots. One of the enduring issues in this country is the question of how much help the Nazis had in their assault against the Lithuanian Jewry. The Soviets had their own reasons for emphasizing the extent of nationalist Lithuanian collaboration with the Nazi regime. In recent months, we've heard similar sounds from the Kremlin about the "fascist" government in Kiev. It's a way of undermining the credibility of local authorities.

  5. I think this could be the prison where the Nazis held my great grandfather in 1941 for several days of torcher till they eventually shot him. He was the Rav at the time. (Ref Archick Bakst)