Lithuania – Hill of Crosses
I don’t know exactly anymore. Either in 2006 or 2007 we went to a photo exhibit of a well-known Lithuanian photographer, Antanas Sutkus, in Petersburg. It was all black and white photos. He is known among other things for his “People in Lithuania” cycle which he has continually added to since 1950 and I had not known previously. I was immediately drawn to 2/3 photos. There was a hill with remarkably many crosses. There wasn’t much Information on the photographer via the exhibit. Even less about this special place with the crosses. I’d like to go there I thought. But as it sometimes happens, this became a faded memory. But it wasn’t forgotten. At some point I began to look for the photographer and tried to find out something about the hill with the crosses. When I found that out, I thought I had to get there. It was practical that it was sort of on my route between Berlin and St. Petersburg. I was finally there in 2008. Today when I stumbled on these old photos I thought, I have to return there. (But please. Who’s the thin person in the photos?).
The forecourt at the Hill of Crosses
Hill of Crosses
The place is called “Hill of Crosses” (Lithuanian Kriziu Kalnas). It’s about 10 km away from the city of Šiauliai (German: Schaulen, Polish: Szawle). It’s claimed that it’s on the way to Riga. Not true. There is definitely a slight detour which has to be made in order to reach this wonderful, otherworldly place. The hill is considered a medieval castle hill for the Jurgaičiai Castle, which was destroyed by crusaders in 1348. Between 1991 and 1993 archaeologists found evidence during their digs that a wooden castle must have once been there. They found hearths, every day objects and building remains from the 14th century.
History of the Hill of Crosses
The history of the “Hill of Crosses” appears to have begun in the first quarter of the 19th century. Lithuania is Catholic like Poland. There are different stories about the hill.
A neighbor was sick and promised to put a cross on the hill when he was healthy again. In a derivative of this his daughter was sick and a woman in white appeared in his dream who told him to put a cross there. He did this and his daughter was healed. People who heard about this then put crosses there also. And it’s still the case today that people make pilgrimages to the hill to put a cross there. So the Hill of Crosses continues to “grow”. Some visitors also hang little notes with requests and prayers on the crosses.
Another story tells of a prince from Vilnius. Three hundred years ago this one sued another prince and passed by the hill on his way to court in Riga. He told his servants: “If I win this case, I’ll put a cross on this hill”. After winning his case, the prince ordered a cross be erected on the hill. The story of the prince’s vow spread throughout the land and new crosses quickly joined the first one.
I found a third story. After Poland’s third division, Lithuania belonged to Russia. After the first Lithuanian uprising against the czars in 1831, Lithuanians supposedly secretly buried their fallen relatives and erected crosses there. This also occurred after the 2nd uprising in 1863. At that time, erecting crosses at street crossings or farmsteads was forbidden. And crosses were destroyed under the czars.
In 1900 there were 150 crosses on the hill. In 1940 there were about 400 crosses. After the Soviet Union had occupied Lithuania in June 1940 in 1940/1941 and again from 1945 to 1953 more than 100K Lithuanians were deported to Siberia. After Stalin’s death in 1953, survivors returned in waves. They erected crosses in remembrance of those who had perished in the gulag. Many of the devout and former political prisoners also erected additional crosses. Thus the Hill of Crosses became a Lithuanian pilgrimage site. It also became a political symbol against communist rule in Lithuania. Not surprising that hill became a thorn in the side of the communists in Lithuania. On 16 June 1959 The Central Committee of Lithuania’s Communist Party actually reviewed the hill. There was a decision made, not unexpected of course, to destroy the holy site. An initial destruction took place on 5 April 1961. The crosses were mowed down with bulldozers. 2,179 crosses were gathered from the hill. The wooden crosses were burned and the iron crosses brought to scrap. The stone and concrete crucifixes were crushed and subsequently buried or thrown into the neighboring creek. But already during the next night new crosses were erected. In 1973, 1974 and 1975 there were repeated destructions but the communist crusade against the Hill of Crosses remained unsuccessful with the hill becoming a true symbol of national resistance as a result.
There are countless crosses on the hill in the meantime. The numerous, different large crosses from wood, metal or plastic are also strung with many rosary beads in the hundreds of thousands. There are also orthodox crosses there.
How many crosses are there on the hill?
Only God knows. There were supposed to be 40k crosses already in 1990. The number of crosses also increased when 14 were shot dead by Soviet special troops who stormed the television tower in Vilnius during the struggle for national independence in January 1991. At the beginning of the 1990s students from the University of Vilnius attempted to count the crosses which now also occupy a hectare large area near the hill. The students stopped counting at 50k crosses. Furthermore, small crosses and rosary beads which were hung on the larger crosses were not counted.
The constant flapping of the many small crosses and rosary beads against the large crosses in the wind adds a mystical atmosphere to the hill’s exceptional, otherworldly beauty.
Here are many Antanas Sutkus’ photos: