In late May, the long anticipated fourth season of the lauded Netflix show, Stranger Things, was released. The story picks up where it left off three years ago in the adolescent lives of the many beloved characters as they battle against evil monsters, alternate dimensions and diabolical Russian villains. This sci-fi show has also been celebrated by Jewish fans for its Jewish cast and themes: three of the most prominent characters, Joyce Byers, Mike Wheeler and Dustin Henderson are played by Jewish actors Winona Ryder, Finn Wolfhard and Gaten Matarazzo respectively, and some storylines also have centered Jewish themes. The fourth season ushered in another storyline with Jewish connections, but this one is much more controversial: scenes filmed in a former Lithuanian prison that held generations of Jewish and non-Jewish victims of persecution, torture, and execution.
The former Lukiškės Prison is now a thriving arts center that is a home and studio space for 250 artists, musicians and creators. The prison is also a popular tourist attraction. Visitors can take tours, watch concerts and relax with a cocktail. There are cultural events, film screenings, music festivals, bars and restaurants for people to enjoy on their vacation. Yet this charming television set once housed an Israeli president and Jewish Nazi prisoners.
The prison has garnered new recognition after the release of season four of Stranger Things, which depicts the building as Russian. Now, guests can enjoy waffles inspired by the character Eleven’s favorite food, attend Q&As about the show’s filming, and even stay in a Stranger Things themed Airbnb that includes a tour of the prison and the show’s filming locations.
This modern tourist hub looks extremely different than it did only a few short years ago. The prison was still in operation until 2019, when it was closed and handed over to Turto Bankas, the state enterprise Property Bank. This was done as part of an effort to transform Lithuania’s penal system and humanize it, removing prisoners from the deteriorating infrastructure and poor living conditions. Lukiškės Prison is a century-old prison complex located in Vilnius. Before World War II, Vilinius was known for its thriving Jewish community. More than 30 percent of the population was Jewish and the city was even coined, “The Jerusalem of Lithuania.”
Lukiškės Prison was built in 1904 when the city of Vilinius was under the rule of the Russian empire. Tsar Nicholos II erected the prison to solve the overcrowding problem caused by revisions to the criminal code that required prisoners to serve longer sentences for their crimes. This gigantic complex was formed and included a penal center, a detention center, housing for the warden and guards, kitchens, laundry facilities, and even houses of worship for the prisoners including an Orthodox church, a Catholic church and a Jewish synagogue. The prison was highly advanced for the time, complete with its own water system, sewage system and heated and ventilated rooms.
Despite its modern amenities, Lukiškės Prison was far from luxurious. It was a place of extreme physical and psychological torture, resulting in more than 40 percent of its inmates committing suicide over the entire span of its use. This torture began the moment prisoners stepped foot through the gates, when inmates were taken to detention facilities to wait while prison officers spent hours examining their cases. In these “shoebox rooms,” up to four prisoners were squished in a space of around four square feet.
Lukiškės’s system was known for its torture; depriving prisoners of adequate food, sleep and privacy, as well as causing extreme humiliation through invasive searches and difficult punishments such as standing still in ice-cold water. Those convicted of minor crimes such as common thievery were housed on top of each other in extremely small rooms that would squeeze dozens of bunk beds into tight spaces. For more severe crimes such as murder and political opposition, prisoners were kept in solitary confinement, being released into the outdoors for only one hour a day. The prisoners were not highly monitored or taken care of. Despite their scant supervision, no prisoners ever escaped, a statistic that tourist officials still boast of to this day.
The start of World War II was a dark turning point for the prison. In 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union and the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) was tasked with evacuating the USSR’s political prisoners. The NKVD were known as the secret police of the Soviet Union and were in charge of overseeing the country’s prisons and labor camps. These political prisoners mostly consisted of those suspected of being disloyal to the Communist party. One such prisoner at Lukiškės was former Prime Minister of Israel Menachem Begin, who was imprisoned for his Zionist beliefs. He was sent to the labor camp Pechora in northern Russia before the German invasion. Instead of evacuating these prisoners, the NKVD often ended up torturing and executing them in what became known as the NKVD prisoner massacres. More than two thirds of political prisoners ended up murdered, including the prisoners at Lukiškės. They were either shot en masse or in more disturbing cases, burned alive and brutally stabbed with bayonets.
During the Nazi occupation that followed this massacre, the Gestapo used Lukiškės as a holding cell for Jews and political enemies before they were sent to Ponary, located just south of Vilnius, to be executed. Ponary was a strategic spot to hold mass executions due to its proximity to train tracks for efficient transfer and its deep pits, which had been dug by the Soviets in 1940 for emergency fuel storage, for corpses. More than 100,000 people were murdered there during the four years of German occupation. Once the Germans started losing the war, they attempted to burn all the bodies as a way to cover up their crimes.
During the later half of the 20th century, the prison became overcrowded. It was originally built to house 421 inmates in penal cells and 278 in the detention center, but as of 2007 contained over 1,000 prisoners in the complex. The death penalty was not abolished in Lithuania until 1998, so executions were fairly common within the prison grounds. Up until the 1970s, prisoners were publically hanged in the yard, but in the later years of the prison, prisoners facing the death penalty were shot in their cells. The last execution took place in 1995.
Based on the prison’s past, its present can be a little jarring. While Stranger Things provides audiences with fantastical entertainment involving fictional villains and monsters, the very ground that they taped that entertainment on holds real horrors that cannot be swept aside and forgotten. The prison’s current cultural endeavors are a way to move beyond the country’s dark past and create a space of culture and hope for the future. Its tragic history, however, can be difficult to forget.