Inspiration can come in so many ways and perhaps there’s no better source than the places we visit, the people we meet and the stories we discover along the way.
Every place has a story to tell and on a recent trip I found that Lithuania was no exception. It is a country teeming with forests, parks and nature reserves. Where beautifully serene lakes meander along the countryside caressing the banks of small, charming villages.
Yet so much of Lithuania’s past is a story of turmoil and defiance. It was the last country in Europe to be converted to Christianity and the first to declare independence from the Soviet Union after decades of occupation.
As I explored I was left with the distinct impression of a proud people, a people of culture and tradition, a people whose fighting spirit would not be vanquished.
Stories of courage can inspire us all and here are two that I discovered on my travels.
The Hill of Crosses
It’s a sunny, late May afternoon and as I walk along the paved path the Hill of Crosses slowly comes into view. It’s one thing to see it in a photograph, quite another to witness it in the flesh.
Just imagine hundreds of thousands of crosses, all sizes and shapes, made from every material from paper and plastic to metal and wood. Each cross with a story to tell, a testament to the will of a people who refused to be cowed into submission.
The origin of the hill is unclear. Some say it began as a way of commemorating the death of soldiers lost in battle at the hands of the Russian army, those whose bodies could not be found. Other accounts suggest that it began after the 1831 uprising against the Russian tsar.
Whatever its beginnings the history of the hill over the ensuing years would be turbulent. Soviet forces would raze the mound destroying all in their path, again and again. Yet with each act of destruction the spirit of the people grew more defiant. The crosses just kept coming.
Today the Hill of Crosses symbolises resistance and hope. Each cross a reminder that no matter how oppressed the Lithuanian spirit would not be silenced. It is a message that carries on for generations to come.
Chiune Sugihara – a man of courage and conscience
Strolling along the banks of the River Neris in Vilnius I came across a lovely, peaceful grove of japanese cherry blossom trees just a short walk away. At the entrance to the grove was a monument, a tribute to a Japanese man, Chi(y)une Sugihara.
‘Who was he?’ I wondered and my curiousity was piqued.
I later discovered that Chiune Sugihara was a Japanese consul who worked in Kaunas, Lithuania from 1939 to 1940. When he arrived in Lithuania in August 1939 little did he know that days later the German army would be moving into Poland.
Over the ensuing days thousands of Jewish refugees (mainly from Poland) were queued outside the consulate trying to secure Japanese transit visas. That was their only hope of escaping the cruelty of the Nazis.
Sugihara would receive strict instructions from his superiors in Japan not to issue the visas but took a stand in defiance. Instead he began writing visas, hundreds of them, day after day.
By the time Lithuania was finally occupied by the Soviet Union and the consulate ordered to close its doors he had issued over 2000 transit visas.
His brave actions meant that thousands of Jewish refugees were able to make their escape securing onward passage to countries like the U.S.and Australia.
Given the possible ramifications to him personally why would a senior member of the Japanese consul disobey a direct order? Why put himself at risk when, some would say, it was really not his problem? It would have been so easy to do as he was told, to ignore those lining up outside his door.
But for Sugihara, getting involved was a necessity and perhaps he said it best:
‘I took it upon myself to save (the refugees). If I was to be punished for this, there was nothing I could do about it. It was my personal conviction to do it as a human being.’
The memorial in Vilnius was erected in 2001 as a tribute to him and his brave actions. Today it serves as a reminder that even in the face of evil human beings can find a way to make a difference.
Today, thankfully, we may never encounter the challenges of those who lived through those times. We may never be faced with making life and death decisions.
But perhaps these stories can inspire us to live more courageously, to try to be better people even in our ordinary day to day interactions. Perhaps these stories are a reminder that the possibility of courage is alive in us all.
Have you been inspired on your travels? Let me know in the comments.