Thursday, July 14, 2011

An American in Vilnius

Today ends my one week excursion to Mykolas Romeris University in Vilnius, Lithuania, to teach in a human rights program. This was my second trip to the beautiful city, the last time being October 2008 when the State Department sent me here to speak about the presidential elections and American politics.

Lithuania is a beautiful but tiny country of 3,000,000 people with rolling hills and dairy farms that remind me of Wisconsin and upstate New York.. It is one of the three Baltic states along with Latvia and Estonia. It is east of Poland, south of Latvia, and north of Belarus. It is an ancient country dating back 1,000 years when at one time it ruled from the Baltic to the Black seas. It was gobbled up by Germany and Russia, achieving independence in 1918, only to be taken over by Russia during WWII. It endured Russian occupation until its independence in 1991.

Lithuania is now a stable western-European style democracy. It is a member of NATO, the European Union, and the Council of Europe. It is a progressive, free society. Vilnius, the capital, is a stunning city. Once known as the Jerusalem of the North, it had a large thriving Jewish population until Hitler liquidated them. Between Hitler and then the Soviet KGB, Vilnius and Lithuania faced brutal oppression. The Old Town of Vilnius is rich with beautiful old churches and ornate architecture. It is simply a pleasure to walk the streets and see the people.

Lithuania has been in my heart for years. As an undergraduate I took three semesters of Latin. My teacher was from this country. She was the smartest person I ever met and my all-time favorite professor. Reportedly she knew more than three dozen foreign languages.

After 2008 I was asked to return and teach. I came this summer to join faculty from France and Lithuania to teach students in human rights. The students came from Lithuania, Belarus, France, Ukraine, and the United States.

The joy of teaching here is the contact with so many people from around the world. Experiencing their perspectives on America (we are less relevant to them than we think), understanding their struggles, and seeing how different generations view issues such as human rights.

Human rights here are important in a society that had them suppressed for so long. I visited the KGB museum–stood in cells where people were executed. I stood in the spot were executions took place and which, when the Soviets left in the 1990s, they tried to hide by destroying records, painting over blood, and cementing over human bones.

Americans complain about government. They think their liberties are abused. They whine they want change. The protest about taxes and injustice. They need to visit Lithuania. This is a country that is stable and did not shutdown–contrary to what happened in Minnesota.

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