I can't get this place out of my mind after reading about it in Catholic Shrines of Central and Eastern Europe by Kevin J. Wright. Steve at November Song brought it to mind again by this post which has some really wonderful links to information and photos of this unique outward testimony to the faith of the people of Lituania. This is one of the lengthier entries in the book but I am putting it because it pulls together everything so well.
One of the most unforgettable and emotional sites in Lithuania is the Hill of Crosses. An intense place of pilgrimage, the shrine offers a glimpse into the history of Lithuanian Catholics and their struggles with the former Communist regime. A worldwide attraction, the two-humped hillock is today buried amidst a multitude of crosses.
More than 170 years ago, however, the site was simply a hill overgrown with weeds. That all changed in 1831, when the first of hundreds of crosses were placed in the ground to honor those killed or deported to Siberia in an anti-Russian uprising. Thirty years later, more crosses were mounted on the hill in memory of those tragically killed in the peasant rebellion of 1863. In the ensuing years, more and more crosses were added to the site. At the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, the faithful came here to pray in solitude or take part in religious processions. They came to present their needs to God, to mourn those who had been killed, imprisoned, or exiled, and to recall important historical events.
When Soviet authorities took power in Lithuania after World War II, the new government designated the place as "forbidden" and severely punished those who defied them. The great drama then began to unfold as authorities destroyed the crosses on the hill in an attempt to smother Christianity and erase the "fanaticism." Between 1941 and 1952 the Lithuanians suffered greatly as many of their people were exiled to Siberia. Entire villages were emptied. In 1956 the people began returning to their homes.
Only a short time later, the faithful began secretly replenishing the hill with crosses again in memory of the unbearable torture they had endured and of those who had died and in gratitude for coming back. Lithuanians who returned from captivity in Siberia also put up crosses to thank God for the chance to walk the paths of their homeland and breathe its air again. In time, the Hill of Crosses with its heart-wrenching inscriptions became an open book of people's lives. The site symbolized resistance to violence, oppression and genocide. The resurrection of the crosses on the hill told the world that the nation of Lithuania was not dead.
But once the Communist authorities discovered the freshly planted Christian symbols, they attempted in the spring of 1961 to rid the site of its religious sentiments once and for all. Under the strict guard of the Red Army and KGB, soldiers bulldozed the area, burned the wooden crosses, recycled the iron ones, and buried the stone crosses in the ground. A maple tree, planted by the people to symbolize Lithuania's independence, was also uprooted. (Ironically, however, the townspeople later returned the tree to the hill in the form of a cross.)
When new crosses began cropping up, the Soviets attempted new ways of destroying the hill. On oe ocasin, the Soviets flooded the place, turning the Hill into a virtual island. The Communists exhausted themselves in designing new ways to stop the faithful from planting the symbols of resurrection. They dug ditches, closed bus stops, posted signs, punished trespassers, and blocked roads. But all was in vain. Ironically, one of the new crosses erected during the night read, "Jesus, do not punish the villains for they not know what they are doing." In total, the government bulldozed the hill three times, only to see the crosses spring up again and again. In 1975 the authorities leveled the hill for the last time.
Since then, more than fifty thousand crosses have been placed on the hill -- a testament to the spirit of the people. the planting of crosses can be traced to the Lithuanian tradition of erecting crosses near roads and settlements. In fact, in the beginning of the nineteenth century, so many crosses had been placed on the side of roads that the Minister of Internal Affairs of the Russian Empire issued an edict forbidding the erecting of them. However, the order had little effect, as the cross had already become a deeply rooted symbol in the heart of theLithuanian people...Prayer of the CrossJesus, you became an example of humility, obedience, and patience, and preceded me onthe way of life bearing your cross. Grant that, inflamed with your love, I may cheerfully take upon myself the sweet yoke of your gospel together with the mortification of the cross and follow you as a true disciple so that I may be united with you in heaven forever and ever. Amen.