If you listen carefully, you can hear the rustling of crosses and hanging rosaries when the breeze blows, creating unique music on a windy day. And if you look carefully, you will see hundreds of thousands of crosses on a hill, ranging from crosses of over 3 meters tall to miniature carvings. This is the legendary Hill of Crosses, Lithuania’s national pilgrimage site, located 12 kilometers from the small city of Siauliai.
Some of first crosses were put here during the 14th century when this city Siaullai was founded in 1236 and occupied by the Teutonic Knights. It is thought that people put up crosses as a symbol of their defiance against the foreign invaders - thus a symbol of non-violent resistance to oppression during the medieval period and later also during the Cold War.
The city Siaullai was taken by Germany in WWII and then by the Soviet Union from 1944-1991 when Lithuania gained its independence. The Hill of Crosses became a symbol of Lithuanian nationalism. The Soviets bulldozed the hill and then crushed and burned the crosses down three times: in 1961, 1973 and 1975. Each time local inhabitants and people from around Lithuania risked their lives to replace the crosses, getting past the barbed wire and Soviet soldiers.
The communist regime wanted to suppress religion and to institute an atheist state. Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state, cited Karl Marx: [quote] “Religion is the opium of the people” [end quote]. The Soviet regime tried to limit the influence of religion with the goal of eliminating it all together: they ridiculed religion and believers, confiscated church property, restrained the priests' ability to preach, took over or destroyed religious buildings, and taught atheism in schools. Since any public display of religion was prosecuted, people turned their belief and practice into the private realm.
Still, religion played an important role in the resistance and independence movement, as demonstrated by the Hill of Crosses - an expression of national and spiritual devotion and identity.
Gintaras Grusas, Archbishop, His Excellency Archbishop
His Excellency Archbishop Gintaras Grusas discusses his life as a Lithuanian-American and religion in America and Lithuania. He was born in Washington D.C. and earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics and Computer Science at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). He also worked for five years at IBM before pursuing his studies in Sacred Theology. He was consecrated bishop in 2010 and was appointed as Archbishop of Vilnius, Lithuania in 2013.