Abandoned By The World – Sestokai, Lithuania: A Forgotten Frontier (Travels In Eastern Europe #63)

The morning arrived that I was due to leave Lithuania for Warsaw. My trip was almost over, except for this final train trip. I was surprised to discover that only a single train traveled between the two cities each day. This had to do with geo-politics. A more direct route between the two cities would have gone through the city of Grodno in Belarus. I could have gone this way, if I had an inordinate amount of time on my hands, wanted to chance getting shaken down by Belarusian border guards and purchase an outrageously expensive visa.

Belarus was not in the European Union and was not likely to be anytime in the future. Thus, I would have to take a train to Sestokai, a small town close to the Poland-Lithuanian border and then make a transfer. Almost all of Lithuania uses the old Soviet railway gauge which is broader than the standard European gauge. Thus, one train would take me from Vilnius to Sestokai and then another one from Sestokai to Warsaw. The line that ran from Sestokai to the Polish border opened just two years after the Soviet collapse. So many things are new in the old world of Eastern Europe. For some reason, I imagined Sestokai as a large railway interchange teeming with activity. That turned out to be far from the truth.

Unexpected Nightmares – The Night of Day
I got to the Vilnius Train Station well ahead of time. I did not want to miss the only train that could take me to Warsaw in time for my flight back home the next day. Soon enough we were headed through the Lithuanian countryside. It did not take long before we were at Kaunas, the second largest city in the country. I knew Kaunas, but not from a prior visit. I had seen a terrifying photograph taken in Kaunas during World War II while visiting the site of the infamous Wannsee Conference in a suburb of Berlin. This was where the Final Solution – the planned extermination of the Jews – was planned. An exhibit about the Holocaust in Lithuania contained a photo from what is known as the Kaunas Pogrom in late June of 1941. It was taken during the Lietukis Garage Massacre. In the photo, a man was swinging an iron bar at someone lying on the ground. There was the blood and bodies of Jewish men who either lay dying or were already dead. Soldiers were gathered around watching.

The horror - Lietukis Garage Massacre in Kaunas

The horror – Lietukis Garage Massacre in Kaunas

The photo was utterly terrifying. I froze in horror and looked at it for a long time in stunned disbelief. The one thing I remember besides that image, was that it was taken in Kaunas. This memory was a shock to my system. Looking at Kaunas through the train window, nothing hinted at this brutally dark past. It was not fair to judge Kaunas by a photo taken in the city seventy years before in entirely different circumstances, just as it was not fair to judge this city from a train window either. I began to have strange, paradoxical feelings. Ever since that first, fleeting glimpse of Kaunas, I have longed to explore the city, prove that horrific picture wrong by experiencing beauty and kindness there. To find a bright, transcendent light to burn away all that darkness. Unfortunately, light and darkness also can cause blindness. Knowledge of history is a wonderful thing, until you realize that it can lead to unexpected nightmares. I will have to come back to Kaunas, if only to prove history right or wrong.

Crossing Over – Isolated Anxiety
After Kaunas I began to get anxious. I knew the train would stop soon, but I had no idea what was to come. This moment of anticipation heightened my awareness. The train soon came to a dead stop at what had to be Sestokai. There was a small brick station, several sets of train tracks going in either direction and hardly anyone else around. I struck up a conversation with a Welsh couple. They were just as confused as I was. Where was the Polish train that would take us on to Warsaw? The place was nearly deserted. Standing on a platform with no train in sight, it felt like we had been abandoned by the world. There was something cinematic about our situation. Isolated travelers, thrown together on the frontier of a foreign country, having no idea what might come next.  It is moment’s like these while traveling that I feel most vulnerable. Conversely, it is also in such moments that I rely on hope and trust. What other choice was there? We would just have to wait.

An Isolated Anxiety - Sestokai Train Station

An Isolated Anxiety – Sestokai Train Station

We were supposedly in the heart of Sestokai, but whatever town there seemed to be of no consequence. Nothing notable could be seen. This was a strange hinterland. It felt like a border outpost, but was not quite on the border. It was of great importance to travelers, but there were very few to be seen. The railway station looked like it belonged to a forgotten era. It had a provincial, time standing still look about it. Sestokai only enjoyed its notoriety because of a quirk in the European railway gauge system, a relic of the Cold War. In a sense I was standing, not just on a platform, but one of those bizarre fault lines that are a legacy of the Eastern Bloc and Soviet Union. I imagine that as Lithuania becomes more intertwined within the European Union and westward in outlook, Sestokai will become increasingly marginalized. By the looks of it, the place had always been close to that point.

Leaving Lithuania

Leaving Lithuania (Credit: Gediminas)

Leaving Lithuania – An Unknown Fear
The Welsh couple and myself were at the point of wondering aloud to each other whether another train would come for us. That was followed by rhetorical questions about whether we were even in the right place. None of us knew a word of Lithuanian so there was little use in entering the station to ask. Besides, none of us wanted to leave in case the train suddenly arrived. After what seemed like an eternity, but was in fact less than thirty minutes, a train slowly pulled up to the platform. No one signaled or gave us any hint that this was our train, we just got onboard. As the train began to slowly head west towards the Polish border I relaxed. We were on our way to Warsaw. Leaving Lithuania behind made me sad. When, if ever, would I return? This is a fear I always have when leaving a country or at the end of a trip. Is this the last time? I have no way of knowing and that is one of the main reasons I keep on traveling.

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