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Lively Kaunas, 100 kilometres west of Vilnius, is Lithuania’s second largest city. Some people find it to be an industrial city with sprawling suburbs, while for others it’s an edgy urban centre with a vibrant youth culture thanks to its sizable student population. However you see it, it has some handsome architecture and poignant historic sights, including castle ruins.
While this waterside city, located at the confluence of the Neris and Nemunas Rivers, dates back to the 13th century, Kaunas didn’t really begin to flourish until the 15th and 16th centuries when it developed into a busy river trading centre, with German merchants establishing an important presence here. The town’s finest architecture, such as the baroque 17th century Pažaislis Monastery, which has a lavish marble interior and massive cupola, dates to this boom period. While Kaunas owed much of its success to its strategic riverside position, the location was also to blame for its suffering – the town was destroyed 14 times by enemies, the last time during World War II.Read more
Kaunas was the site of some of the worst World War II brutality Lithuania experienced and there are a number of monuments that honour heroes and museums that recount atrocities. One sight worth visiting is the Ninth Fort on the north western outskirts of town. Built in the late 19th century as a fort to defend the western frontier of the Tsarist Empire, the Ninth Fort was used by the Nazis during World War II as a death camp, where some 80,000 people were exterminated and later by Stalin as a prison and execution site. The museum here illustrates the cruel treatment of Lithuanian Jews by the Nazis.
More uplifting is Sugihara House, a museum dedicated to the Japanese ‘Schindler’, a Japanese diplomat called Chiune Sugihara, who was based in Kaunas and is credited with having saved some 12,000 Jews during 1939-40 by issuing them with visas. Even after he was ordered home, he continued approving visas for another month, leaving the visa stamp with a Jewish refugee upon his departure.