“There is no way I’m going into the Devil’s Museum until I have coffee,” I said to Rich. “Keep your eyes peeled for someplace — anyplace — that’s open.”
This was not looking likely. We were in Kaunas, Lithuania, which we’d chosen as a stopover on our roundabout way to Warsaw. The direct rail route would have taken us through Belarus, which required visas (and a taste for danger) we did not possess. Googling cities safely inside Lithuania, I came upon Kaunas and the city’s singular attraction that’s earned a spot on so many weirdest-in-the-world lists: The Devils' Museum. That clinched it. Days later we were on Satan’s doorstep in a neighborhood devoid of coffee houses.
“So this is hell,” Rich said.
But wait! Two blocks away an open door beckoned. Putvinskio 48 turned out to be a cosmopolitan restaurant that was only too happy to provide us with foamy cappuccinos, slivers of apple pastry, and the translation services of the owner’s daughter, Diana, who happened by as we struggled to order. Clarification of the menu quickly morphed into a lively conversation ranging over her current veterinary studies in Ireland, things to see in Kaunas, and what to order when we returned that night for dinner.
The Devils' Museum wasn’t nearly as convivial. The staff looked depressed and no wonder, surrounded by 3000 images of the Prince of Darkness, many of which will be showing up in my nightmares for years. The original collector was Antanas Žmuidzinavičius, an artist born on Halloween, 1876. By an odd coincidence, two friends marked his thirtieth name day with gifts of Beelzebub statues; one, a prominent priest, urged him to start collecting. Fifty years later Žmuidzinavičius owned 260 diabolical images, and friends presented him with thirteen place settings of custom-designed Satan-themed china. In 1961 he donated his collection to the State, and additions continue to pour in from fans of the Evil One and people wanting to divest themselves of demonic souvenirs that no longer seemed quite so amusing when they got them home.
That evening, we refreshed our spirits with a return visit to Putvinskio 48, where we enjoyed some of the best food we’ve had in the Baltic States.
But Kaunas is so much more than the Devils' Museum and artistic beet soup. The next day we visited the Atomic Bunker Museum, located six meters below an old factory on the outskirts of town. We arrived to find a deserted industrial complex, an open door marked Atominis Bunkeris, and a very long stairway going down. We knew we were in the right place when we passed a banner that said, “Better be an informer for Trip Adviser than the KGB.”
Marius, our engaging young guide, waited in a vast underground room lined with Soviet paraphernalia and proceeded to describe each item with a collector’s enthusiasm. “This is the desk of KGB leader! Here is secret exit to tunnel; it ends near supermarket!” Various side rooms displayed cameras cunningly hidden in belts, handbags, cigarette packets, and coat buttons; plaster models of body parts showing the grisly effects of radiation poisoning; and the museum’s pride and joy, the gas mask collection. The tour was fascinating, and at the end of it, Marius gifted us with a gas mask.
“I love it,” I said, pulling it on. “Do you think it’s my color?”
“It really brings out your eyes,” Rich said.
Seeking another stopover on the next phase of our journey to Warsaw, I ran across a reference to the Wolf’s Lair in northern Poland. WWII buffs will remember this was the Eastern Front military headquarters where Hitler spent 800 days and narrowly survived an assassination attempt by one of his officers. Film buffs will remember that officer was played by Tom Cruise in Valkyrie.
Hitler chose the spot for its inaccessibility, and as we discovered, it is still one of the least convenient places to reach in all of Europe. It took Rich days to work out a route. We caught a train to Suwałki just across the Polish border, then a bus to Elk, a town famous for celebrating Opposite Day, in which everyone says the reverse of what’s true. This is supposed to occur January 30, but evidently they were willing to make an exception in our case. We had a tight connection, so we leapt off the bus and tore into the Elk train station, gasping, “Two tickets for Giżycko.” The clerk slowly wrote down a time three hours later. “Isn’t there one now?” She shook her head. A fellow passenger said, “Yes, there is one, but it leaves in one minute. You will never catch it.” Dashing down the stairs, we raced through the underground tunnel and stumbled up onto the platform just as the final whistle blew. We shouted incoherently at the conductor who, astonishingly, waved us on, taking out his radio and asking the engineer to hold up the train a moment. So that’s Elk: the best and worst stop ever.
From Giżycko, we took a train to the small town of Kętrzyn, where we hired a taxi to take us the last few kilometers. All I could think of, as we drove through the quaint villages, was that it was from these sweet, old, peaked-roof houses that the SS collected the fifteen terrified girls who served as Hitler’s food tasters at Wolf’s Lair. For 800 days they ate his food and waited to see if it had been poisoned. Afterwards, Margot Wölk recalls, “We used to cry like dogs because we were so glad to have survived.”
And that, I think, is why we visit places like the Devils' Museum, the Atomic Bunker, and Wolf’s Lair: to remind ourselves that some of us, somehow, manage to survive even the darkest times. And that those times eventually end. Today, Wolf’s Lair lies in ruins, the colossal bunkers blown up by the Nazis as they fled before the Red Army in 1945.
So there Rich and I were, invading Hitler’s top secret hideout. Was it worth the fuss to get there? You bet. For one thing, you can’t help but have profound thoughts in a place where great evil has been perpetrated. For another, I somehow felt that all of us on that site were helping — as we say in California — to cleanse its aura. We brought normality into a place where it was once in very short supply. Every culture has exorcism rituals, and perhaps in this age of world travel, tourism offers a new way ordinary people can help banish the demons of the past.
Not to keep you in suspense, Rich and I have now arrived in Warsaw. To date we've covered 3420 km / 2125 miles, mostly by train. Highlights have included zany Amsterdam, the German city of Lübeck on the edge of the Baltic Sea, the Stockholm disaster, the new foodie mecca of Helsinki, Finland, futuristic Estonia, and a kookie visit to Riga, Latvia. We headed south to Šiauliai, Lithuania, where history — and great chocolate — were made. Vilnius — and the tiny Republic of Užupis — taught me about miracles. To follow our adventures as they unfold, subscribe to my blog, like my Facebook page, and keep checking the map of our journey.
8/19/2016 12:29:58 pm
I like the idea of tourism bringing normality into a place where there was once very little. Great reason to travel if ever there was one :)
8/19/2016 03:58:27 pm
So true, Polly! I've been known to complain about places that are so overrun with tourists that it changes the atmosphere, but in the case of the Wolf's Lair, it was a definite improvement!
8/19/2016 03:37:36 pm
Even if we don't comment on each post, know that we are there in spirit enjoying each adventure with you!
8/19/2016 04:00:54 pm
Thanks, Jackie. Good to know you two are enjoying the adventures as they unfold.
8/19/2016 05:49:39 pm
We visited the Wolf's Lair on our recent cycling trip. We were told we could order lunch. When we tried to do that our Polish guide was told, "no food for large group, you can have tomato soup with noodles and drink." Think tomato soup watered down with spaghetti and a coke. We noticed others eating off menu and decided we would have been better off not saying we were a group of 30. Then on our tour our guide was gracious enough to have brought mosquito repellant. In late June, they were thick in that forest. She showed us plastic leaves in the trees that were used to hide the wires of communication and electricity which also showed just how much the trees have grown. Hard to imagine the evil that lived in that place. Glad we were able to visit. And that our way of getting there was easy! 😉
8/20/2016 08:26:49 am
Aside from the soup Nazi, it sounds like you had a great visit to Wolf's Lair. We went without a guide, just a map we bought at the souvenir stand, which identified the buildings for us. Unfortunately it didn't say anything about the plastic leaves. We kind of avoided the deep woods after reading the place was surrounded with 10,000 land mines that took 10 years to clear out. They think they got all of them, but I wasn't about to take any chances!
8/19/2016 05:53:15 pm
Kaunas is my ancestral home where I have been many times. The Devils' Museum is unique, one of many places to visit in the city. I love Laisves Aleja, the walking street with its many restaurants, coffee houses, and shops. I was glad to learn of the Atomic Bunker Museum and will visit there in the near future. An important person in Kaunas at the beginning of WWII is Chiune Sugihara, who, as a Japanese diplomat, saved many thousand Jews. His home in Kaunas is now a museum of his time there.
8/20/2016 08:31:10 am
You are lucky to spend so much time in Kaunas, Jack. It's a wonderful city. We stayed right on Laisves Aleja and loved its vitality. I'm sorry to have missed Chiune Sugihara's house; that would have been fascinating. Another thing I didn't have time to visit was the museum for the blind in the basement of one of the churches. Clearly I'll have to try to come back one day!
8/19/2016 06:38:05 pm
Terrific and evocative post. Such pain in those days that is is important to have meaningful reminders for a long, long time. Thanks, Karen.
8/20/2016 08:35:07 am
Rich and I often discuss why we visit creepy places like Wolf's Lair, and in the end, it comes down to bearing witness. Those gigantic bunkers, and the stories of what happened in them, have a lot to tell the world about lunatics and power.
8/19/2016 06:42:51 pm
Wow! What adventures you are having and how wonderfuly explained you make them! I'm envious as these were things I might hvae done 20 years ago but now it's like taking a trip with you to read about your adventures...keep 'em coming!
8/20/2016 08:38:58 am
Thanks, Carol, I'm glad you're enjoying the stories. This is an amazing part of the world, with a surprise around every corner. I'll keep you posted on what happens next!
8/19/2016 07:28:23 pm
We love traveling with you!!!!
8/20/2016 08:39:56 am
It's great to know you two are with us in spirit! Thanks for joining us on the journey.
8/19/2016 08:46:58 pm
8/20/2016 08:40:28 am
My sentiments exactly, Marilyn!
8/19/2016 10:41:56 pm
All the photos are fantastic, but I especially like the one of Margot Wolk. Extraordinary!
8/20/2016 08:44:49 am
There wasn't space to get into much detail in this post, but I found myself deeply moved and somewhat haunted by the stories about what those poor girls went through. Margo is indeed extraordinary!
8/20/2016 05:20:48 pm
I am so enjoying your stories from this trip...although following you from my armchair, your vivid descriptions and wonderful photos make me feel as though I'm there. Thanks!
8/21/2016 08:43:59 am
We appreciate your virtual company on the journey, Denise. Rich and I are constantly discovering astonishing things, and sharing them is half the fun.
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
Wanderlust has taken me to more than 60 countries. Every week I provide travel tips and adventure stories to inspire your journeys and let you have more fun — and better food — on the road
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