This landscape: modest, flat to rolling, sea-influenced with
heavy mists and fog, even sixty miles inland, here. Forests and farms –
Lithuanians are said to have a deep love of the land and growing things. It is
a quiet country. Lietuva is once again
its name and may mean “rain.” S
iauliai, pronounced show-lay, the fourth-largest city, is near the eastern edge of Samogitia, or Zemaitija, a deeply traditional area running westward to the Baltic Sea. It has been the main market-town in north-central Lithuania for several centuries, with a population 85% Lithuanian. By contrast, Riga, the capital of Latvia – sixty miles to the north – is half-Russian. So is Tallinn, in Estonia. The Russian military enclave of Kaliningrad starts only seventy miles south of here, on a bus-line that runs straight up to
Siauliai and on to Riga and Tallinn. Lukashenko’s Belarus is a mere twenty-six miles from Vilnius, three hours southeast of S
iauliai seems comfortable with itself, is easygoing, pretty in its way and, from what I’ve seen, tolerant and good-natured – I’ve already been shown real kindnesses by strangers. There are some parks, a few nice churches, tree-lined streets. No cars allowed on the main shopping street, Vilniaus, which is tree-lined and handsome. Nothing especially historical here, most of it blasted away in centuries of wars, S
iauliai flattened in both World Wars, for this has always been a military city. One of the USSR’s largest strategic-bomber bases was just outside of town. This was an officially closed city, for residents only, most of whom worked at plants producing military technology. The unemployment rate here was 50% with the shut-down of those industries. The air is cleaner now but the groundwater seriously polluted with heavy metals and airplane fuels. Bath water is sometimes the color of tea – it’s like bathing in a tea-pot. The Danes provided some millions to replace the sewer-system of the city, but the money was “used for something else – we don’t know what,” as someone told me. Water a plant and it may die, unless you first let the water settle in a container for a day or two, the method also used for shaking down the drinking-water, a little trick which costs nothing. At the university, we are not to drink it in any case, or rather: “We’re used to it – you’d better not.”
For almost fifty years this school was a Soviet pedagogical
institute, a language-center in a restricted military city. The Russian faculty
still has considerable power. Valentina – former Dean and still head of the
Russian Department – is also the only elected member of S
iauliai’s Russian Opposition Party and sits on the city council. I knew of her. In the first article I had found on the web under “S
iauliai,” I read that a year earlier, the bodies of six Russian soldiers were removed from their showcase graves in city-center by Lithuanians and reburied outside city limits.
Siauliai’s mayor refused to come out and console the Russian community, who gathered angrily in front of the empty graves. Valentina came instead, giving a speech of apology to her outraged constituents. At the university’s outdoor opening ceremonies the other day, a large, close-cropped woman in a pink suit rose with majestic irony when it was her turn to speak, cracked a joke to roars of approval from the students and took her time sitting down again. This was Valentina.
There has been a pitched battle for control of the Graduate Division between Valentina and R., the new Lithuanian power, the woman who arranged my stay. It began three years ago, when the only advanced degree possible was still in Russian. The next year, R. wrenched it into English only. Last year, a draw – no program at all, and this year, a desperate compromise: a forced double major in both, so in my small graduate class today I met four smoldering Russians and four uneasy Lithuanians, all compelled to study the enemy language: the Russians English, the Lithuanians, Russian. Five of them teach in the local schools. I asked them to jot down any concerns they might have about our writing class:
“I’m a pessimist and you’ll feel it. I hate writing. Horrible, terrible.”
“I’m not ready to hear critiques by my friends and you after sitting a long time and writing my abnormal poems.”
“I feel embarrassed in this class, as if standing not in my shoes.”
“Not poetry – I BEG YOU.” I looked up in dismay. What was all this? An overweight blond in the front row stared up at me for two solid hours with a fixed and unreadable expression, then announced it was her lunch-time and left.
Four dozen 3rd–year students in three sections, looking like colonies of meerkats on the alert, were simply frightened. It was they who told me the workshops had all been made compulsory – I almost laughed. Then, late in the afternoon I had my first coffee with R., the woman who invited me to teach here. I’ll tell you about it later. Most disturbing.
Walking home disheartened, I saw another side of Lithuania – what it once was, perhaps still is. A country family had gathered under a large tree. The adults spoke quietly, apparently waiting for someone. Soon I noticed a small boy just behind them, his arms flat against the big trunk, his cheek pressed to its bark, his eyes closed in concentration. Normal enough for a three-year-old, I supposed, but I slowed in amazement at the behavior of his family, for no one told him to ‘stop that nonsense’ or to hurry up. They glanced over now and then to see if he had finished yet, kept their voices low and simply waited. At the light on Traku Street, I looked over my shoulder again. Nothing had changed under that dappled tree. There they all were, waiting for a small boy to finish his moment of ecstasy, as if they and the afternoon were the spokes of a great wheel turning around this boy-tree, for surely he wished himself into it, an experience they recognized, even respected. It seemed an almost religious scene.
As I headed down the hill to my apartment, to my right were
the walls of a large prison. To the left over some trees, a kind of witch’s hat
on top of the church-steeple – at the bottom of the hill, a golden archer on a
very tall pillar, erected by the Soviets for
iauliai’s 750th birthday; beyond it, a graveyard tucked into the trees behind a low stone wall. Then a lake, very blue, with forest to the horizon – also the view out my bedroom window. From my kitchen, I see the red-walled prison at the top of the hill. And hear it, too.
I’m reading E. C. Davies’ book of 1926, A WAYFARER IN
ESTONIA, LATVIA, AND LITHUANIA. The Baltic countries she traveled through will
never exist again in such purity. What she describes has mostly been destroyed
by the Germans or the Soviets, even to the local legends. Here is the lake out
my bedroom window, which on my map is called Tal
The lake of S
iauliai, one of these ‘travelling’ lakes, has a legend, too. One morning long ago, the people of the town woke up to find a brand-new lake hovering threateningly over their heads, which had apparently arrived during the night out of the blue. The lake was in a thoroughly bad mood, too, and threatened to drown the whole town if it were not respectfully addressed by its correct name, which, unfortunately, no one knew. As the lake itself refused to disclose its name, the position was serious, and the priests ordered prayers and processions. Things were getting desperate, but an old Jewish woman who had prayed and wept with the rest, thought at least there could be no harm done if she addressed it by a few pet names. So she began beseeching the lake: ‘Oh, Bitmelis, Bitmelis’ she cried, and this was the name of the lake, which had been christened ‘Little Queen Bee.’ It was pacified and at once settled down amiably, and there it is, even at the present day. Now this legend is of particular interest because it links the Lithuanian belief in the idea of the Word being all-powerful – and of such power residing in the correct use of the name – with a similar idea which holds good in certain Eastern Faiths…
When I asked about it, no one had ever heard the lake called by this name. No one knew anything of this legend.
Only bread, cheese, coffee, in the apartment – no time to shop…
I sat exhausted on my front steps this evening – hauling boxes upstairs – when a funny thing happened. There are quite a few dogs in the neighborhood, with personalities and grudges to match their owners’. People shout at loose animals – there are frequent dog-fights. I could hear them tonight but was too tired to think where I was sitting. Here came a big young boxer prancing down the drive and not on a leash. Just over my head, its owner, Regina, watched carefully out her open window. The dog’s name is Laura, or as she says it in her Polish accent, Lauw-ra. The dog spotted me sitting on her step and came to full attention. Regina bellowed in warning, “Laura!” The boxer hesitated – and came for me at a run. Regina hurried for the door but I just sat there, too tired to care, so when the dog reached me and I still hadn’t moved, it only shoved its face into mine and slobbered on it, knocking me over. I shrieked with laughter – Laura barked noisily, but now Regina arrived. The poor dog got hauled inside to a terrible scolding.
The whole neighborhood had seen me carry boxes up the stairs, then sit there exhausted like any workman with my legs sticking out. Ladies do not do this in Lithuania. I could see them glancing out their windows to see if it had all come to a bad end, yet, so when Regina shouted, everyone saw Laura make a run for me, and when I didn’t move, they braced for disaster. But the unexpected happened. That a dog had sized me up first was a big plus: warm smiles from the matrons on my street next day. Grins from the men. You can’t fit in – they have to fit you in, in such places, and the surest way is to end up the subject of a funny story, because being in the right kind means safety. Regina and I both knew it had been a close thing, though. Her face was ashen when I stopped by to thank her – the door open only an inch or two, Laura blowing at the crack, grinding her hindquarters and that stub of a tail.
Regina sits at her open window on the ground floor and hollers at every child who passes, keeping an eye on things for the building. She’s a big, warm-hearted Pole – actually, a doctor of some kind. I seem to have been dumped on her. She is the only one to help me, and though she speaks no English, she comes to the rescue every time. When she learned I wasn’t English but American, a small cloud crossed her face for a moment but, whatever the hesitation, she let it go.
Every night at my kitchen window, I can hear a man shouting from the prison on the hill: “Yoo-liee!” Brando-like, until Julie comes. She stands below to call back up to him, and this is how they visit. When she doesn’t come, he shouts to the neighborhood his entire frustration at his circumstance, his life’s story at many decibels, with pauses, side avenues and a main theme he returns to. Prometheus chained to his rock, his spleen torn out every night, it can go on for an hour. No one stops him.
On my way to do some shopping, I climbed the long, sweeping
flight of steps to the top of the hill to see the 16th-century church of Saints
Peter and Paul,
v. Petro ir Povilo Ba
ia, as the sign on the gate reads, a massive white structure, visible for miles around with its tall steeple. The church had been an easy target in the closing days of World War Two but survived, was repaired, and the interior was now being re-plastered, I discovered. No entry. I walked around the walled courtyard, instead, and found some curious things. Off to one side, a ten-foot stump of a tree wearing a huge metal hat which came to a point with a cross on top, like a fairy-tale come to life, and some twenty feet in front of the building, a large boulder, its flat surface uniformly pocked with indentations. I walked to the far side of the church and discovered some of those big, powerful Lithuanian crosses, bristling with smaller ones that radiate from a central aureole, ironwork topped by crescent moon and twisting spikes. In front of each was a life-sized plaster saint but they looked almost threatened by their settings, didn’t seem to match these crosses. Around to the back of the church, I discovered something much more peaceful: under the linden-trees a very old cross, the gray wood cracked and neglected, on its top a small roofed porch with filigreed railings. A whir of wings from it…
Tonight I read in E.C. Davies’ book that this was a soul cross:
Since the old Lithuanians believed strongly in the transmigration of souls, it is not surprising to find that a special provision was made for the departure of the soul from the body at the moment of death. Hence we have this most interesting type of cross known as the ‘soul cross’, which is distinguished from all other types by having a little umbrella-like top, the idea being that the soul can shelter under it on its journey upwards if the weather is inclement. On the upright are a series of notches. The soul is typified as a small winged creature with gossamer wings, and, should its wings get wet as it leaves the body, it will naturally have more difficulty in rising; so it can rest on these notches and dry its wings before soaring upwards into the ether….
There must have been two pagan Lithuanias. This one, which could add a soul porch to the top of a foreign cross with little fuss, and the other one, iron suns and moons, ominous spikes, a hostile struggle. Or, perhaps this is what it came to. Lithuania was the last country in Europe to be Christianized – in the 14th century, a thousand years after the Council of Nicea had codified Christian practice for the rest of the post-Roman world. Pagan elements remain strong for Lithuanians even now, stopping only at the doorstep of the church. Witness this courtyard.
A bakery nearby. To my amazement, on display was a tall cake much like those crosses in spirit, the sakotis, Lithuania’s national cake: a narrow spiral of spikes, layers of sharp-toothed wheels – a stack of suns. Glazed, not frosted. In church, then, the body and blood of Christ, wafer and wine. For weddings, they eat the sun.
Wheels, spirals, spikes – carved wood, wrought iron. No frosting.
I made my way down Vilniaus Street, searching for simple
things I needed for the kitchen. No time today for the big crafts outlet, the
amber jeweler, all these deli’s, but I paused to smile at the titles in the
bookstore window: Deividas Koperfyldas. Oliveris Tvistas. Robino Hudo.
erlocko Holmso. Lithuanian is full of these strange endings, most of them sibilants. You hear –as and –os and –is peppering their sentences at every turn. Late afternoon – street and shops crowded – still no kitchenware… I headed for what looked like a big department store at the end of the street and, just before reaching it, happened to notice a wooden news-stand neat as a small carved house. I stopped in surprise, for at either end of its roof were the stylized, crossed horse-heads in an X seen all over Estonia on older houses and farm-buildings, meant to keep evil spirits from flying under the eaves. But of course, this has to be their home – with the Balts, not the Estonians, an entirely different people. The horse has been central to Lithuanian culture for thousands of years, and I’ve heard they still have a great reverence for them. These X’s on gables, and the sun symbols found everywhere in the Baltics, are from the Balts’ homeland somewhere further to the east and south, where sun and horse were sacred. Old Lithuania is a heartbeat away from the Vedas, and so is its language. Some years ago in India, I heard of an extraordinary ancient ritual, the a
vąmedha, which meansmare-sacrifice.Tonight while paging through a book by Marija Gimbutas, the great Lithuanian scholar of Central European and Baltic prehistory, I saw that the Lithuanian word for mare, old text, is a
In the crowded, ex-Soviet department store, where they still used the abacus, I had a stunning encounter. Just before closing-time, my arms full of kitchen things, I maneuvered my way towards the cashier, trying not to collide with anyone. Suddenly, black cloth swept by. And again. I turned with caution. Not far away stood two magnificent monks, tall and strong-looking, hoods thrown back on tonsures, the wool of their black robes of the finest homespun. The change in atmosphere took your breath away. They looked at no one as they swiftly selected things, and no one in that crowd looked at them. The monks did their shopping without the slightest self-consciousness, which made their presence all the more electrically felt. No one stared at them as I was doing because they didn’t have to: in Lithuania, these were heroes. In the long struggle against communism, it was the Catholic Church and monks like these who led the resistance against the Soviets in a pitched ideological battle, with a dozen underground newspapers. Many monks and priests were imprisoned, a number executed. In this ex-Soviet store, they were an explosive presence. When they finished their shopping and stood behind me at the counter, I could hardly manage my purchases. In a daze I watched the clerk’s fingers flying on the abacus.
The wind was up, the sun low as I left the store, making my way carefully down the broken steps with all my packages. Around the corner came two more monks, moving sharply as swifts, their black robes boiling….
On my way home, along the wall of the churchyard and under a line of trees, I thought I heard singing. A distant radio – but the voices seemed to come from overhead. I stopped to peer into the branches and, after a moment or two, found several children hidden there, quietly singing along with the radio. They didn’t stop or smile but only watched me, in that absent-minded way that children have of claiming their own privacy. Down the long flight of steps to the bottom of the hill, the moon just clearing the woods on the far side of the lake, I kept waiting for a mother to call those children down from the trees, dark as it was, but none did.
Much can be learned about a country by watching how its children play – and whether adults interfere. From what I’ve seen in Lithuania, children to the age of about three are smothered in affection by adults, who meet their every wish – we’d call it “spoiling them.” Beyond three or so, they’re given complete freedom to learn the hard way, are left entirely to their own devices. They have time to play, freedom to imagine. My university students here are extremely sensitive, perhaps even too vulnerable for our modern world; but this rests on an impressive inner stability.
The neighborhood children spent some time the other day making a large, very smoky bonfire. This alarmed me: they’re only eight or nine years old, but nobody scolded them or paid the least attention as they passed, simply avoided their smoke. When the fire had barely settled down, the children took turns leaping over it. Now I understood. This was all to do with Midsummer’s Eve; they were imitating the adults, who have leapt over bonfires for thousands of years in the Baltics, and still do, on what is now called St. John’s Day – Jannipäev in Estonia, Joninas here – but it’s really part of their old religion. Lithuanians have another word for it: Rasa, which translates, “the dew is falling.” Nothing to do with St. John – it’s an old fertility celebration.
Poinga, poinga, poinga… A little squirt spends hours each afternoon going back and forth on his new pogo-stick outside my window. Envy of the neighborhood...
Traku Street, I read on the Shtetlinks website before coming
here, was the location of one of
Siauliai’s two ghettos during World War Two. The Red Prison is mentioned. Where was the Ghetto? It must have been very nearby. I watch the children on that vacant lot out my window and wonder. I’ve located old foundations on its periphery – but these could be anything. There is a drift of spirit over this neighborhood like a cold ground-fog.
Coffee with R. – I have delayed telling you – it was troubling. She chose an outside table and collected two cups for us, but the moment she sat down, and before I’d even had a chance to stir my sugar, she began to tell me an anti-Semitic joke. A very long one. She followed it with a second one, short and brutal. At the end she said matter-of-factly, “Well, you know, Jews are the brunt of all jokes, here,” – that such jokes were very common. She moved on to Lithuanian literature. It was my first day on the job. This was our first coffee. I found myself completely bewildered.
I could see that if someone like this woman could tell such jokes – a university official, highly cultured, well-traveled – that anti-Semitism must still be very widespread in Lithuania. That was my first thought. And she knew of my interest in the Shoah. Was this some kind of test? A warning? Before changing the subject, she added if I wanted to know about the Jews in Lithuania, I should talk to Elke the German teacher from Cologne, because “she’s also interested in such things as you are.” I watched her red mouth move and didn’t know what to say.
This is how the Jews are remembered, then, I thought to myself: as the butt of jokes. As if still here. “Sarah, Sarah!” says the elderly woman through the wall to her neighbor, in R.’s longer one, pronouncing the name Sadah, “Tell Avrihim the debt is not cancelled!” R. explained, “She knew that by putting pressure on the wife instead of the husband, her own husband would get paid faster!” She threw her head back in a low laugh. But it occurred to me when I thought about it that, in fact, this joke showed a fairly close knowledge of Jewish life, some cultural savvy. This wasn’t so much an anti-Semitic joke as a Jewish one, but the people who should be telling it were gone. She had no right to repeat it but didn’t see this, had told the joke as though she’d just overheard it from a Jewish neighbor across their adjoining fence, he and the uncle laughing over it while their women washed up after supper in the 1930s because this joke was not without affection. I was ready to leap to my feet and throw the table aside, my own thoughts so alarmed me. What had I been hearing?
The names she had used were real Jewish names, surely
pronounced just this way: Avrihim and Sadah. How could she know this joke unless it had been
passed along without a break since it was last told in Jewish
iauliai? The parts she spoke for husband, wife and their two married neighbors had been done in familiar, even in comfortable character. Was this some Lithuanian way of saying, We miss you? It seemed an impossible thought, given that ninety-three percent of all Jews in Lithuania had been killed in the Shoah, a quarter of a million people, more than a few of them by the Lithuanians themselves, according to painfully emerging evidence. Such an enormous loss does not go unrecorded on a nation’s psyche. There has to be an outlet.
“Very common, here,” she had told me – very common – the warm cultural life of the missing Jews reconstructed by Lithuanians every day all these years in this strange and chilling fashion? There is a terrible poignancy to these jokes and in the fact that Lithuanians are so fond of telling them, even to a visiting scholar from America, even on her first day, even the very moment you sit her down for coffee. I do not think this woman is hard-hearted – she’s the mother of two polite young boys, has a distinguished and devoted husband, knows perfectly well what constitutes a tasteless joke. I think she wanted to talk about the Jews. I think she did it in the only way so far psychologically available to most people in countries like Lithuania, where an entire culture and its people were suddenly erased, leaving an enormous vacuum.
Walking home from the café sick at heart, I came across the little boy and the tree. There seemed to be two Lithuanias, two sides to the national character, a sweet side, full of light, and a darker one. An upward movement – a counter-pull. Prayers, and curses. Two worlds contending. Some kind of dualism not much to do with ethnic background, as if it came with the territory, with Lithuania.
All day I couldn’t remember her second joke, short as it was. Tonight, I see why. It took the form of the currently popular Russian type which is lightning-fast, a little blitzkrieg, very ugly. “A Jew opened a shop,” she began. But that was it. She threw her head back in silent laughter. No echo of Jewish humor, here. No warmth at all. This was a Holocaust joke for anti-Semites, so unlike the first that I thought perhaps it wasn’t Lithuanian, at all.
Late at night, some kind of unrest among the prisoners. Terrific howling on the hill, along with banging of metal in an insistent rhythm. Guards on the roof with sub-machine guns, pointing them into the prison-yard….
I couldn’t dislodge them. Tell Avrihim, I thought again for the hundredth time… debt not cancelled.
In my food-store at the top of the hill, where everything is behind long counters – nice pastries – dark breads – those perfect Baltic potatoes, yellow inside – I purchased again the excellent white local cheese, pointing to what I wanted, and some pastries. As I turned, I noticed something I’d failed to see before. Near the window, a cubicle about six feet square like a free-standing ticket-office and, inside it on a high stool, a middle-aged man bent over his work, wearing a magnifier in one eye, a fixer of watches and other small things, the parts littering his bench like a Lilliputian scrap-yard. When he glanced up he didn’t quite take me in but merely returned to his work, concentrating carefully, with a halo of light warming his bald head and his beautiful long fingers guiding the small tool. In this dim and shabby place, he was a sight as old as trade itself in Europe, a man exquisitely immersed in his craft in the midst of busy market-sounds – in this case, just an old Soviet food-shop with a game-arcade right behind him, four teenagers hip-shooting the enemy and whooping it up. He seemed not to notice.
Outside, just beyond the steps, two pensioners. Their basic pensions are 138 litas a month, only $34, so they are often to be found like this, selling whatever they can. A large and dignified man in coveralls stood holding one beautiful onion, the pride of his small allotment garden. Next to him crouched a woman with three tomatoes. He brushed off the onion and held it up for my inspection in his red hand, turning it this way and that. When I said “Yes,” he thought about the language gap then held up his finger – one lit – twenty cents. And so it goes. I opened my backpack and he placed the lovely onion in it carefully, as if he did this all the time. We smiled. I would have bought the woman’s tomatoes, too – she had inched them in my direction during the onion purchase – but the man gave me such a nice bow in parting, just the right size for his large self and the small occasion, that I would have spoiled it by staying.
A second coffee with R. – I couldn’t refuse. Her subject this time, thank heaven, was neutral: older artists. “They’ve suffered terribly since independence,” she said. “ Nobody wants them. For a few years they simply reeled, some went mad.” She explained that Lithuania has always been famous for drama and opera and, now that the theater was picking up again, parts were being found for these older actors and singers, who were also teaching an occasional class at universities or in the schools. “Like your visiting artists,” she said. “Except they’re not teaching their subjects. A famous actor from Soviet times is offering a course in algebra… another tutors in chemistry...” I was glad for this conversation. We needed to locate common ground – the arts would do. Her attitude was in all likelihood widespread in any case, I decided, if even she couldn’t see how revealing those jokes were. No doubt I was just as blind in other ways. She talked passionately about the arts in Lithuania…had been a music major, the violin her instrument…both sons studying it, now… We talked for a while about the importance of a musical education for all children but, for me, a worm had crawled into the apple. I felt I was learning something here I didn’t like the thought of, which undercut everything I believed in and set me adrift in my own life, a lesson now hardening by the hour: that art is not enough. It will not answer. She had moved on to Baltic languages and the history of her people. Some minutes later, as we prepared to leave, I asked if she employed any of those artist-pensioners at her university. “A few,” she said, but didn’t elaborate.
Lithuanians, unless they’re Russians or Poles, would be quite offended to be called Slavs, she’d told me. They are Balts, as I knew. Or even, a little wildly, Celts: on my first visit to the Teachers’ Room, a young instructor who had studied abroad marched over to me and said, “So! How am I to consider you?” Fists on hips. What could she mean? “Where did your ancestors come from?” I laughed a little – must not know many Americans, I thought. Assumes mine are all from one place.
“We’re Celts,” I offered, though this hardly covered the whole story. She brightened at once.
“Ah!” she cried, “Then I know you. We’re Celts, as well!” She ticked off “our common traits” but the only thing I could remember about “us” was Tacitus or someone remarking that Celts were fond of bright colors and incapable of prolonged thought. I wanted to ask her by what possible adventure Balts were Celts but didn’t get the chance – she’d flown out the door. Word for word, we could have had this same exchange, it seemed to me, four thousand years ago.
What’s outside your tribe is unknowable, where ‘knowing’ means to acknowledge mutual humanity. The names for any of the tribes I know all translate as ‘mankind’ or ‘people.’ Fine, when no other humans have ever been spotted in your world, but that was half a million years ago. Handy when others did appear on your horizon – they weren’t ‘mankind,’ thus easier to dispatch. This atavistic application of language, voodoo labeling, has been cleverly tapped into ever since, right up to the present day, wherever and whenever interests overlap. First, a campaign by increments to dehumanize. Then, do what you want, it doesn’t matter. They’re Not Us, they’re Other. Less than human.
“We have a term here for someone who doesn’t fit in – for outsiders,” one of the students told me yesterday, gloomily referring to herself. “We call them white crows.” White crauws is how she said it. I had to smile.
The key to the Teachers’ Room is kept in a locked box by the hallway receptionist, a thin woman of about fifty with a beehive hairdo. She knits and smiles, tends the ancient Bakelite telephone, which hardly ever rings, and plays Gregorian chants on an old reel-to-reel for the students, who are fond of her and squeeze onto the couches near her desk. She knows who I am by now, so always has the key ready when she sees me coming in the door. On Saturday, I stopped by to do some quiet work but, instead of our peaceful regular, found a large, sullen man of about eighty with thick white hair and a scrutinizing face, far too powerful a presence for a receptionist. An opera played on the reel-to-reel and he was reading a newspaper. Nor did he look up, strange behavior for somebody new on the job. “Could I have the key for the Teachers’ Room?” I asked, though there was faint chance he’d know English. No response – maybe he was hard-of-hearing. “Excuse me,” I said firmly. He studied me a moment over his half-glasses then returned to his paper. “Key,” I said, thrusting my fist forward in a turning motion, unlocking an invisible door, feeling like a fool, but it was my own fault for not knowing Lithuanian. He finally gave it to me.
Down the hall, the music cranked up a notch or two as I stayed for a while correcting papers – it sounded like FAUST. I smiled to myself as it got louder, but by the time I was ready to go, a bass voice had joined in – he was singing. I found him at the window with his back turned, one elbow out and his leonine head tucked in, his beautiful voice low on the register in Mephistopheles’ aria about the golden calf:
Le veau d’or est toujours debout!
On encense sa puissance. . . .
d’un bout du mond ą l’autre bout!
Commenting on the world that had overtaken him: “The golden calf is still standing…one adulates its power…from one end of the world to the other”.… He didn’t see me. I set the key down quietly. She’d given him Saturdays, when his duties would be light, when no one would be here. It did show a nice sensitivity. “Et Satan conduit le bal…!”
Today our beehive lady approached me in the Teachers’ Room carrying a bag of large books, her sideline to augment what must be dreadful pay. “You want buy?” she asked, like a little girl selling her toys half-heartedly. I helped her to lay them out on the table. Two were collections of black-and-white photos of Vilnius and Kaunas, the bleary, high-in-the-chest views typical of Soviet photography. She turned the pages hoping to interest me, but I said No, not these, thanks. What about this one? “Gintaris,” she sighed, smoothing the cover of a large black-and-gold book, which showed three amber teardrops falling from a woodcut tree. The title – Russian above, English below – was: THE TEARS OF THE HELIADS I paged through it. Imprimatur: Moscow, 1991 – all about amber, glorious color on black pages. I hoped to visit Palanga soon, if I could figure out the buses…amber museum there…the Baltic Sea.… “Yes, this one, please,” I said, closing the cover. Though it must have amounted to half a week’s wages, she accepted the money sadly. She had not wanted to sell this book. The others were failed decoys.
Took it to bed with me last night – propped it on my chest. The English was overdone, too muscular: in short, fun. Amber is associated with the Lithuanian sun-goddess, but in this Russian book, the weight was on the Greek myth, where Phaeton, son of Helios, the sun-god, convinced his father to let him drive the great chariot of the sun for a day, but quickly lost control of it, the horses plunging too close to the earth, scorching everything. To save the world, Zeus killed Phaeton with a thunderbolt, near the river Oder or, in another version, the Vistula, where amber abounds. The Heliades were Phaeton’s three sisters who came to mourn him and were turned into weeping willows, their tears into those amber drops. A nice story, but not the one extant in Lithuania. Here it is in ripping Moscow English:
One folktale related by the Lithuanians, whose home is by the Baltic Sea that so often casts up blobs of amber after storms, tells the sad story of the sea princess Jurate, who enamoured of the handsome young fisherman Kastytis takes him to her amber palace at the bottom of the sea. However, in his rage the thunder-god Perkunas – twin to the Zeus of the Greeks and the Perun of the pagan Slavs – hurls a thunderbolt at the amber palace, wrecking it to its very foundations. Grieving for her dead lover, the inconsolable princess continues to this day to shed many a bitter tear, which the sea casts up as beads of amber. Meanwhile the larger chunks are believed to be remnants of Jurate’s ruined amber palace….
In the British Museum, on a clay Sumerian tablet from the 10th century B.C., is the oldest known reference to Baltic amber. The poet tells of the search for this “gold-tinted gemstone in Arctic seas”… An old photograph of the missing Amber Room, now reconstructed in the Ekaterina Palace in the town of Pushkin… Snuffboxes…diadems… chess-sets…pipe-stands…. Stradivarius is thought to have coated his violins with amber resin… You can still buy amber ‘physicks’ bottled in Poland. Good for gout.
Located the Post Office today by stopping different people
and simply holding up the parcel I wanted to mail. “Ah, Pashta!” they’d cry, pointing the way each time. It’s a fine
stone building, mahogany partitions inside, desks for writing, also long queues
and disappearing clerks. After some reconnoitering, I joined the right line and
found myself behind a small, brown-coated woman, perhaps too poor, too
hidden-away in life to venture out much, maybe too damaged by Soviet times, for
when we neared the front of the line and she turned her head a little – I think
to gauge if she could safely take out her coin-purse – I got the impression
this was one of the few people in
iauliai who had never encountered a foreigner, or a stranger’s smile.
The smile had been nothing much, merely a reflex, but she kept looking at me. To my astonishment, her face now began to soften into sadness. She stared as if she recognized something but couldn’t quite remember where in the past she’d seen it. She took her time adjusting to this memory, all the while with her dim eyes fixed on me. Then she did something extraordinary. She stepped out of line and pushed me gently in front of her, making clucking sounds, completely surprising me. She flagged the attention of the bored young clerk for me, too, but when I’d bought my stamps and turned to thank her, she was gone. I caught sight of her hurrying out the big front doors and down the steps. Had it all been too much for her? Somebody gives you her place in line, I thought: what is that? I looked at the stamps in my hand, feeling a small, indefinable grief. This middle-aged, brown-coated woman, who in fact couldn’t have been much older than I was: what tectonic plates of history had collided, catching the hem of her life to crush her? But they hadn’t, quite. In the provincial post office of a small, Baltic country, a woman covers versts of frozen terrain and half a century of terror to help a stranger. The scrap of space she occupies, she gives to you. She’d left in triumph.
No one has time for my questions. Quite understandable, as I have a lot of them. I’ve now been asked to please direct them all to our department secretary, a languid beauty slow of movement. Wednesday, this exchange: “Edita,” I said, “to mail a letter, do I have to go all the way to the Post Office?”
“There’s no post-box here at the university?”
“No.” A sub-tropical smile, the kind found in hammocks.
“Well, where do you mail the letters you type, then?” I said a little too sharply, not realizing she didn’t type many. “Do you walk all the way to the Post Office?” Edita pouted – a cloud threatened her holiday. Once outside, of course, I found a post-box just around the corner, attached to our building.
Friday, I had another question. This time, the long table was lined with teachers busy correcting papers. I asked her where I could find the big Saturday market. She looked seriously puzzled. “I don’t know of any market,” she said.
“There isn’t one?” But of course there was. Edita frowned as if checking her memory for any possible oversight, then shook her head.
“Hm-mm,” she said sadly.
“Edita!” cried one of the teachers. “You know there’s a market. It’s been there for seven hundred years!” Smiles along the table, but no one could tell me where the market was. “Oh, you’ll find it,” said one of them, flicking her pencil. “Can’t miss it.”
Questions are not the way, here. Nor are they in Estonia. Nor – an Asian connection to Baltic peoples lost in time – are they among Native Americans, either. No one tells you anything. To learn, first observe. When ready, imitate. You’re then sharply, cleanly corrected, humiliation being the oldest teacher. This approach is pan-Asian, perhaps universal, so archaic it involves no language and probably pre-dates our use of it. Think how the animals learn.
Last summer in the north woods, I awoke to the brief whistle of a bald eagle – a pair nested nearby. I rolled over to watch for them in the first gray light. The storm had moved on but the gale continued. There, an eagle – then another – and a third, this year’s awkward teenager, in a ragged brown coat. Over the next several minutes, I witnessed an amazing sight. All three sailed by not once but several times, upwind and down. Taking advantage of the gale, the adults demonstrated how to fly straight into a high wind without once moving your wings. One flap at the end to bank and come again, calling to their offspring, chiding him as he struggled to get the hang of it, rocked awkwardly, made little chalkboard cries. Oh, how he fought the temptation to flap those wings going upwind! On the fifth run, he got it: the moment he did, the adults left him.
The difference in how childhood is regarded, East and West, is Rousseau, whose influence never crossed the Oder or the Vistula. East of there, it is not Romanticized, remains indigenous, even Darwinian. To us, this looks cruel.
I stood inside a vast food hall, so crowded it was difficult to inch along and see what was being sold. A long line of counters with only sausages, hams and smoked meats. Another section with tongues, hearts, livers galore, even pig-tails sprigged upright in a bucket or two. Three cases with skinned animal heads in a row at eye-level, ghoulish but fascinating, their eyes bulging in flesh, like the heads of enemies displayed on a castle wall. Beyond the sea of shoppers I could see men in white coats sawing away at dozens of large carcasses. I escaped to a side-room to find myself surrounded by thousands of eggs, a room oddly empty of people. I rested here, then jostled my way upstairs to the balconies. Buckets of honey in the first corridor – curiously, like the eggs, nobody buying any, but the next corridor was too crowded even to enter, the delicious aroma of fresh-baked breads coming out of it. I ended up by default in a room full of cheese where you could hardly move at all, quickly joining a queue in self-defense. When I reached the counter, mangling the name of the cheese I’d written down, the woman behind me suddenly said: “Good!” I turned in amazement. So little English is spoken here. “Good, you try!” she urged me, showing me what she’d just bought at another counter. She held a soft cheese the size and shape of a collapsed heart with caraway stuck in it, as if the idea of all that meat had penetrated the dairy products. “Lovely,” I said. “Very nice.” Time to leave.
Resting with a cigarette just outside the back door, I
contemplated the great open market itself, social event of the week in S
iauliai for the last eight centuries. An enclosed acre, the center filled with covered green tables, the entire area teeming with people but in a relaxed manner, crowds always being much more bearable out-of-doors. After my break, I headed to the left where I could see horse-carts, passing on the way tables and tables of chanterelles; whole aisles of herbs; of fruits; of vegetables. Half a row with coleslaw piled high in buckets, sold in paper cups. Aisle upon aisle of the sort of clothes manufactured all over Eastern Europe, cascading from hangers. There was another area for tools, farm implements, machine-parts. Tucked around corners were thieves selling stolen goods, shady deals over the shoulders of leather jackets – their market, too. Along the edges, people crouched next to open suitcases of whatever they had to sell that week, and throughout the market were vendors without a stall or suitcase, standing with their goods draped on their arms and shoulders, everything from underwear to fine hand-crocheted tablecloths. Near the farmers’ section, I stopped to watch a large old fellow seated on a bench with his wife, assembling twig-brooms from a pile of long dark branches. When he glanced up at me, his eyes were a stunning periwinkle, a gaze clear to infinity. Only once before have I seen this – in the eyes of MaryAnne, a New York painter just in from six months alone on the Sahara, the same look of wise contingency.
Just beyond some cages of chickens and ducks and a few indignant geese, I found a line of farmers and their kerchiefed wives lounging against their wagons in the sunshine, Breughel-like, chatting with each other while selling apples and potatoes. A younger man gave me a hard little apple to sample. I bought some of these, enjoyed myself looking at the animals, including a row of piglets asleep in a car-boot, then headed for the herb-sellers’ row in the center, looking for chamomile.
Quieter in this row, aromatic, peaceful. I felt swept away into Old Lithuania, surrounded by bundled medicinal herbs and women with an almost pagan distance to them, who took my measure and made no move to sell me anything. I didn’t recognize much. No labels, no prices. Finally, at the table of an old woman with just a few herbs in front of her, I spotted some chamomile. To find out what it might cost, I pointed to it, took a small notebook and pen from my pocket, made writing motions – handed these to her. Slowly she reached out for them, glancing at her neighbor, who had been watching all this – they had a short exchange. Then she settled on her stool to think about it, notebook and pen in hand.
She took a long time. I began to worry this might be an
embarrassment for her, perhaps she was illiterate, but now she wrote. Not the
price, though. In a wavering, flowery script, it read: Ramun
i. My cheeks went hot. She assumed anyone must want to know its name first, what you called it, but I had only wanted to know its price. With one word she had skinned my values and pegged them out to dry. “Such power residing in the correct use of the name,” I suddenly recalled... “Ra-mu-nay-leh,” she said with a great rolling R. No, not enough to put the word in one’s pocket! You’re meant to say it, give back, speak, child! “Ramuneyleh,” she urged me again, her eyes fierce pinpoints. “Ra-mu-ney-leh,” I said from a terrible distance, my heart sticking at each syllable. Not until I had the name right would she sell it to me.
She wrapped the package carefully. I thought: Ramunelei. Chamomile. Her R is rolled. If you aspirate our Ch at the back of the throat and bend your ear a little, the two words are very close. Ramu-NAY-leh. (C)ha-mo-MIL-le. The tongue merely moves from the back to the front of the mouth. Was I hearing the same word?
At home, I checked on “chamomile.” In our language it’s straight from the Latin chamomille, via the Greek meaning “earth apple,” from the scent of its blossoms – “like windfall apples rotting on the ground.” I took down the Lithuanian dictionary. Wherever the Balts’ homeland had been, I thought as I looked up words beginning with Ramu, it must have been devoid of chamomile. They must have borrowed the word from the Romans, somehow. Or the Greeks. But no, a complete surprise. Ram // us in Lithuanian means “calm, quiet, tranquil.” I shut the book. Quite the opposite. Our word had lost its root meaning somewhere along the way but had kept the memory of the sound. Standing behind “chamomile” was the ghost of the much older word from proto-Indo-European, so appropriate for the little daisies that bring sleep that its very sound made the eyes heavy. Ramunelei.
Lithuanians and Latvians are the only remaining Baltic
peoples, both East Balts. The last of the West Balts, Old Prussians – who had lived
in “Little Lithuania,” now Kaliningrad (formerly Königsberg), and to the south
along the Amber Coast – died out in the early 18th century. The Germans who
conquered them appropriated their name but weren’t Prussian in the least. Three
small and priceless dictionaries from the 18th century were the only
repositories of Old Prussian, but one of these was lost in the destruction of
Warsaw in WWII. Jotvingians, on Lithuania’s southern border, also West Balts,
had thrived until the Teutonic Knights overwhelmed them in the 13th century and
were all annihilated by the 14th. Quite a few other Baltic tribes survived into
historical times, too, but are known only by their names in a few classical
references, from chronicles of the time and from local hydronyms and toponyms.
Samogitians, Semigallians, Selonians, Curonians, Latgallians, Sudovians,
Galindians, Nadruvians, Scalovians, and more. All their Baltic languages were
direct descendants of proto-Indo-European,
with Old Prussian by far the most archaic, thus the value of those two small,
extant dictionaries. Lithuanian, influenced as it was by Old Prussian to its
west and south, is just as important now to linguists and historians. Latvian
has leaned somewhat to the north, one ear picking up the Finnic love of the
galloping trochee. Latvia is only thirty-nine miles away from us, so the S
iauliai dialect feels the pull of the first syllable, too. Shopkeepers taught me my first words, here, but when I tried them on the teachers, they had a great laugh over it. “You sound like someone from
Siauliai District! That’s not the way to say it!” On a word with three syllables, I’d stressed the first. I’m keeping it there, too.
Eight miles out of S
iauliai on a quiet secondary road is Kri
kalnas, the Hill of Crosses. No one’s buried here. It’s no longer even a hill, thanks to the Soviets, but large mounds covered in crosses of all sizes, some fifty thousand of them. I’ve been wanting to see it so, last Sunday – a bright but very windy day – I took a cab there. The effect as you approach is like a sea of spikes, an almost military sight. It looks at first like an army of Roman standards on the march with sun and moon prominent; but I could hear the sound the moment I stepped from the car, the chick-chicking of rosaries in the wind, a million of them knocking against each other from every possible cross-beam. Little else, here – a row of trinket-sellers in the parking-lot, their tables full of Catholic bibelots; a covered wooden podium built for the Pope’s visit in 1993. Only three other people here… On the far side, a rivulet hidden in long grass with a few willows pendant. Cow pastures beyond. The clicking of rosaries in the wind – otherwise, silence.
“The story of this hill,” says E.C. Davies,
is that there was once a church built there which, by reason of the wickedness of the worshippers who came to pray within its walls, sank in shame underground, leaving only the cross on its steeple to show where it had been. After this, people were afraid to come near the hill, but an old blind woman dreamt that if she went to pray at the foot of the church cross and then bathed her eyes in the rivulet at its foot, she would regain her sight. This miracle happened, and in gratitude the old woman planted a cross on the little hill. Other people for some vow or penance did the same.
The larger crosses are magnificent, many of them beautifully carved, most spiked and haloed with the sun and crescent moon of pagan Lithuania. Quite a few are soul crosses, like the one I had seen behind the church. Wherever you turn, more crosses, of all sizes down to the tiniest, with rosaries draped from every possible horizontal as well as spread over the rocks, piled in crevasses. But it is the other objects here which are so amazing: propped and tucked into every square inch of space are pictures and trinkets and mementos – photos, drawings, flowers, toys, fruit, rings, bracelets, anything. Surprises in any direction. Up a narrow, goat-like path, I found a small, tin church on a pole, with pews and a tiny rusty altar inside. Low to the ground elsewhere, the framed photo of a bearded man playing a cello in his living-room, a plastic German shepherd leaning against it. And despite all the crosses, there’s a whiff of the East, here: it reminds me of the fetish-groves of India, where small objects are left behind as tokens of an experience, until the place looks like the aftermath of a carnival. The location is the point: the rock, the tree, the cave. Kriziu kalnas is known to have always been such a sacred spot too and, as such, it is an active domain. The pilgrim comes here to undergo an experience and leaves behind some small item in thanks. Three times the Soviets bulldozed this site, taking the original hill on the first effort but, of course, it made no difference. New crosses appeared, rosaries and mementos piled up again. The spirit of place is not subject to bulldozers.
Some loci in the world are gentle, some joyful, some are violent. The one at Kriziu kalnas is for sorrow. One of the carved figures here is the “Lamenting Christ,” seated with his head in one hand and wearing an expression of deepest melancholy. These once dotted the countryside, the originals pre-dating the arrival of Christianity, before which he was Rupintojelis, “The Man of Sorrows,” an old man in exactly the same posture and with the same expression. Few people were here today, but the faces passing me were suffused in grief, no matter where encountered along these tracks or how many times I passed them. They were not to be disturbed in their mourning. Sorrowing for a Balt is an indigenous event, the expression of a nation, located and ritualized. Lithuanians aren’t sad people at all, quite the contrary. There’s a time and a place for sorrow in Lithuania, and Kriziu kalnas is its omphalos.
E. C. Davies on what she saw in the early 1920s: “The whole of Samogitia is a treasury of these wonderful crosses, which are peculiar to Lithuania, and it has been estimated that of the more than three thousand examples which have been photographed and tabulated, no two are alike. As a new house is built, so a cross goes up to guard it. On the road-side: on the hill-tops: you will find them everywhere…” No more. The Soviets destroyed them – very few were saved. But new ones are appearing across Lithuania again, especially in Samogitia. Rupintojelis is back, too.
As we were about to leave, my driver pointed out a plain wooden cross near the gate, chest-high, with “1997” carved on it, a girl’s name and that of an American man, with small flags of each country at either end of the cross-beam. The word joining the two names was “ir.” What did it mean? I put my finger on it. He hesitated – pointed at me, at himself, and then at the distance between us (not much). I said, “Near?” Not knowing English, he couldn’t tell if I’d understood. That night, I saw that ir simply means “and.” I sat back in wonder at our differences. I had chosen a preposition, my driver a conjunction. I had gone for a juxtaposition, he a connection. In my world view, a preposition was as close as you could get to someone, living or dead, but my driver had assumed a simple continuity.
I walked some twenty yards to the edge of the rivulet where the old blind woman had bathed her eyes six hundred years ago. A winding, fast-moving, grass-lined little stream, going off into the trees then skirting a cow-pasture. When I crouched down only to see if I could spot any watercress, my driver hurried over. “No good!” he called. “No to drink – ” Polluted. He offered his hand to pull me to my feet again.
On our return to town, we passed a large, white complex. I pointed to it – “What is this?” A factory. The one polluting the holy stream behind us. Makes watches – no – time-pieces. Timers. For munitions. Or, it used to. Empty, now. For only a heartbeat, I thought he looked upset. Perhaps he’d worked there.
Lithuania is the only nation ever to defeat the Teutonic
Knights. When Hitler took Lithuania seven hundred years later, he announced
from a balcony in Klaipeda that it was in retribution for the Battle of
algiris to Lithuanians, or Grunwald), though the Germans had lost it in 1410. Lithuanians overwhelmed them in an earlier conflict too, the Battle of Saule in 1236, which saw the demise of the Sword Brothers from Riga – more properly, the Brothers of The Militia of Christ, who wore white tunics marked with a long, red, vertical sword which looked from a distance like a narrow cross, a confusion that was deliberate and wholly appropriate: they were much hated for their brutality. Saul
means sun, and is the name of a Lithuanian goddess; “Battle of Saul
iauliai’s original name – it took place in a nearby field. The ferocious Duke Mindaugas, a few years later the first king of Lithuania, was the victor, here.
I located the Ausros Ethnography Museum on Saturday, the
19th of September, but found the cavernous old museum strangely empty of
visitors. One by one, rooms were unlocked for me by a suspicious matron with a
big iron key, who switched off the lights and locked doors behind me as I
finished each century. Peering into the badly lit cases, I wondered why I was
the only person there. No English on the cards, so most of it was lost on me;
but now and then I was able to match things to the little I did know. In a case
iauliai’s early history, a red X on a hand-painted map with the word Saul
marked the Battle of Saul
. The date read “September 22nd,” three days from now. Perhaps a celebration? Knights jousting? Natives piping? I strolled into the next chilly room as another door clanged shut behind me, not knowing that along the entire length of Vilniaus Street this morning, the Battle of Saul
festival was in full swing and I would miss it all.
An hour later I was in the 19th century, in front of a small display on something else I’d read about: the Peasant Uprising of 1831, when Lithuanians rose against the Tsar in a bloody revolt that failed. A few years ago, I happened to visit an American friend near Pärnu, in the south of Estonia, by chance on St. George’s Day, April 23rd, her birthday. Together with her Estonian neighbors, we witnessed the re-enactment of the St. George’s Night Rebellion of 1343, Jüriöö Mäss. Estonia has always commemorated this and did so right through the Soviet occupation, the Soviets having no idea it signaled the beginning of a bloody uprising against foreign control. Children of about eight and older in white tunics gathered in groups on a dark country road, at intervals of a mile or so. One at a time, each child was given a burning torch of reeds and sent running into the dark alone. In just this way, the peasants of 1343 had alerted most of their fellow Estonians and, over the next two years, killed nearly every German in the countryside. Horrified, the Danes sold Tallinn, or Reval, to the Teutonic Knights and sailed home. Thousands of peasants were slaughtered in retribution. But Jurioo Mass, marking this furious uprising against impossible odds, was faithfully celebrated for the next 656 years, only 30 of those in freedom. It was an eerie scene, those bobbing torches receding into the night in silence. Just an old folk-custom, to the Soviets.
Five hundred years later, in Lithuania, the Peasant Uprising of 1831. For several minutes I studied the rebels’ faces in the old engravings – fascinated, especially by the last of the group, a black-haired young woman in an officer’s jacket, wearing a look of deadly calm, or was that hatred. She reminded me of someone. I scribbled her name down on a shopping receipt, but lost it immediately. The door to the 19th century swung shut behind me, and I moved on to the 20th.
The exhibit on the Deportations seemed to me strangely
skimpy, considering its importance to Lithuanians. A few documents – stunned
passport photos of the already-arrested – some yellowing letters from Siberia.
Snapshots of smiling women on a kolkhoz
somewhere far to the East. Not very much about Jewish S
iauliai, and nothing on the Holocaust. But this was an old Soviet-era museum. I knew that another building was being prepared for the Au
ros collection, and very likely much was in storage. What you could surmise from this, however, was the atmosphere for the last half-century until independence, and what children who were now adults had been taught about Lithuania’s history, at school. But anyone could read between the lines, here. Those smiling women on a vast state farm – where were the men?
In Stalin’s Gulag. In Brezhnev’s, too. Major deportations of the Baltic peoples took place from 1941 until 1959. From Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, the entire professional class, along with anyone else with a skill or who knew how to manage something, like a factory or a farm, were packed into cattle-cars and deported to Siberia in staggering numbers, the men to the prison labor-camps, the women and children dropped on the empty taiga, often with no supplies, no housing. The smiles in the photos are of women who survived it. No, this exhibit didn’t even begin to tell the story. It has yet to be fully told. Part of the anguish for Balts is that their own tragic, recent history has yet to be assembled. NKVD and KGB archives have just recently opened for partial public access. Some of the records of the Vilnius NKVD/KGB are behind a sealed cement wall in the basement of their former headquarters, now a chilling museum.
Last week, I read C.P. Cavafy’s “Waiting for The Barbarians”
to the third-year students, along with some other poems. Today I collected
their written responses to any of these, the choice was theirs. Only one person
had taken on Cavafy – Dovil
. Thin, dark and intense, she’d stormed the class by overriding my refusal to take her – the course was full – had shown up anyway and slapped the permission-slip on my desk. She didn’t speak the first week, but her eyes burned holes in me all the way from the back of the room, where she sat gripping the desk trying to understand my spoken English. The first time she spoke was in a tense discussion about safety for women at night in
Siauliai (they choose their own subjects). Pranas, our banty rooster from Panev
ys, scoffed at the notion. He was out late all the time, he said, adding something about women just asking for it, anyway. From the back of the room, Dovil
suddenly rounded on him, in a run of good English. He said no more. Her essay showed the same reckless courage. We have a number of Russian students in each class, protégés of Valentina’s, but this didn’t stop Dovil
The time of communist collaboration was a time when most people thought that everything is already decided for them, that there is no point in doing anything. ‘Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.’ It was a time when we were not supposed to have opinions, thoughts. The ‘barbarians’ raped our country. Though everyone knew that the change of power would be a great calamity to our nation, our leaders waited for the ‘barbarians’, ready to give them a ‘scroll, loaded with titles, with imposing names.’ These were the years of hypocrisy….
Only tonight did I make the connection. The black-haired
rebel of the Peasant’s Revolt of 1831, the woman with the deadbolt eyes in that
museum engraving, looked just like Dovil
A revealing exchange today with the Ethics teacher, a large Lithuanian woman with the aspect of an eagle. She cornered me on the subject of weaker students, wanting to know what I would do with them, obviously aware that I had some. I said something about inclusion and non-threatening engagement, but she waved these aside. “Not I!” she cried. “Let them founder! Some are born to be left behind, it is God’s will, not ours to meddle with. The best will naturally rise to the top – that is where your attention should be.” A quote by St. Augustine followed – in Latin, so I had to ask for a translation, but it was a famous line: “Charity is no substitute for justice withheld,” she intoned, fingers to her chest, the way people do when repeating famous quotes. But didn’t this go against her point? Liberation theologians used this frequently, in the sense of Charity will not substitute where justice has been withheld, or simply by leaving off “withheld.” But that’s not what he says, nor would this woman be consorting with socialist priests, who must be very thin on the ground in Lithuania. A City-of-God Augustinian for an Ethics teacher! And a strict Darwinian. She’d gone, now – I gathered up my folders.
My new motto, taped to the refrigerator:
ART IS NO SUBSTITUTE FOR CARITAS DENIED
Elke, the teacher from Cologne, took me for a long walk
today to the other side of the lake. She’s been here three years – knows S
iauliai well. The dark brick building we passed on the south side of the lake – derelict-looking, surrounded by broken-down fences and rusting barbed wire – is still producing shoes, she told me, as it did when it was owned by Mr. Frankel, a prominent member of the large Jewish community that was Shavel until World War II. Once it was the largest leather-goods factory in the Baltics and employed five thousand people. His big wooden house still stands across the road from the factory, and he had built a small stone synagogue.
There are six surviving Jewish elders, here. She’s been
trying to tape their testimonies, is a friend of their leader, a Mr. L., but
he’s been ill and has just had triple bypass surgery. She hasn’t heard from him
in some time. Six men – not enough to form a minyan, a religious quorum, and,
in any case, there’s no longer a congregation, here. No religious practices are
followed, he has told her, suppressed as were all forms of religion during
Soviet times. No child or grandchild speaks or writes either Yiddish or Hebrew,
though the elders do. Mr. L. has spoken publicly about the Holocaust here in
Lithuania for years, apparently to no effect; she says he is discouraged. He
has material, history, archives to do with Jewish life in the S
iauliai region which he can’t find a home for. A year ago, Elke gave him a tape recorder and blanks to record what he knew but, so far, nothing.
She didn’t know about the Shtetlinks web-site or its pages
on the Jewish history of the city, which I had brought with me to S
iauliai. I said I’d bring her a set. “Available in German?” she asked. Mr. L. could read German. “No? Well then,” she said, “you bring them. I’ll translate for him when he’s feeling better.” “The Jewish Community of
Siauliai” by Jeffrey Maynard is the only history in English of the life of this community, which began in 1776 and once numbered close to ten thousand people. Five small chapters, some 35 pages, sketch out in warm detail the life of the people, here. In Chapter 5, for instance, are listed the many places of worship and Torah-study in Shavel, including the “Kloiz de Sandlarim – Shoemakers Kloiz”:
Here the worshippers also included more prosperous heads of households, and there were many pious men among the shoemakers. They prayed three times a day, hired a Rebbe from another Kloiz who taught them every day between afternoon and evening prayers.… The community had a Jewish Hospital, an Old People’s Home, a Guest House for traveling peddlers and honored guests; a Talmud Torah school; a Hebrew School for Beginners; another for girls; a Linas Hatzedek Society to benefit all residents of the city whether rich or poor – with medical equipment and drugs; a Savings and Loan Co-op; a Bais Hamidrash Hagadol (Great Study House). The Landremer Kloiz was a yeshiva without a leader, but where many who became Rabbis later, taught themselves. There was the Kloiz Desocherim – the Merchant’s Prayer House, and kloizes also for the Psalms Society, the shoemakers (as mentioned), for tailors, for carters, butchers, gravediggers and several others, each a separate prayer-meeting society….
From Maynard’s article and elsewhere, I have gathered these
few facts about S
1902 – Jewish population 9,848, out of a total of 16,968, or 58%.
1928 – Jews, 5,338; total population, 21,878. (A 46% drop in the Jewish presence, from pogroms in the Russian Pale,1903-21, and mass expulsion of Jews from northern Lithuania in June 1915.)
1939 – Jews, 8,000; total population, 32,000. Jewish community growing at the same rate as the non-Jewish, having stabilized at 25% of the total.
1945 – Number of Jews, 500. (Most were returnees from Russia.)
A handful from
Siauliai survived the war hidden by Lithuanian friends. Only a very few returned from Auschwitz or Stutthof to live here again after the war (Mr. L. was one of these). Others emigrated from Displaced Persons camps in Germany to South Africa, England and the United States. The Shoah is covered in a very short space in Maynard’s article – only two inches. The living history of the Jewish community of S
iauliai is what he means to help preserve, its cultural legacy, and this is also the wish of most of the small numbers of Jews now left in Lithuania. They would like to make their 700-year contribution to the country known, and most would rather not stress the Shoah and their almost total population losses for a very good reason: they have to live here.
But Elke was more strident. Did I know about the Kinderaktion, she asked me at one point. Yes, I said – that is, Maynard had one line on it. She now told me more. On November 5, 1943, while their parents were out on forced labor, as they were each day, all the children in the Traku Ghetto under thirteen, five hundred and seventy-four of them, along with two hundred and forty-nine of the elderly and infirm, were forcibly removed, taken to nearby woods and shot. A few children had been tossed over the fence and saved by Lithuanians. Yes, I knew. Every time I watched those children play outside my window, I thought of it. How could one not.
I told her about the jokes and that R. had said they were very common. “Yes, these jokes are everywhere, all right,” she said with disgust. I mentioned my theory about them, but this she scoffed at. ”You’re mad! Lithuanians don’t miss their Jews – not for a minute. They’re not sorry in the least!” She told me about the “quid pro quo.” “They call it the dual-Holocaust theory. The quarter of a million murdered Jews, here, equals the same number of Lithuanians shipped to Siberia. It’s the Jews’ fault, all Jews are communists, didn’t you know? Quid pro quo!” she said angrily. “Some six percent of the Lithuanian population was killed or deported to Siberia in 1941. Yes, it’s tragic. But ninety-three percent of the Jews were murdered here, not a small number of them by Lithuanians, the highest percentage of any country in the War. They refuse to look at what happened! It’s straight denial.” Still a lot of prejudice here on all fronts, she said, and not just toward the Jews.
Elke’s been here for a while and is surely aware which way the wind blows in Lithuania, but I marveled at who was saying this and with what indignation. I took a deep breath and asked her about it, but she spoke willingly. We had a long talk about what had helped the German people to face what they had done. “It took a long time,” she said. “Thirty years of relentless K-through-twelve re-education, every child, every grade, every year. School visits to the camps. Survivors’ visits to the schools. Research by the children. Writing projects, films, books, discussions. We saturated an entire generation to adulthood with the truth, because we had to.”
On the resurgence of neo-Nazism in Germany, she said that
most of its members were from the uneducated, disadvantaged classes and most
were from East Germany, “…where, for the same reasons, we have the same
problems as do Lithuania, Latvia and Poland. No information about the Jewish Holocaust during Soviet years. The fall-out has been
tragic. Sixty percent of teenagers in the former GDR believe Hitler was a good
thing, sixty percent!” she said.
“The solution is the same. An entire, K-through-twelve, saturation-approach to
education, straight through to adulthood. I don’t know how to help the older
ones – you have to start young. But farther east, in places like Lithuania,
where’s the money for such programs? And what about their teachers? You have to
re-educate them first, fly them out for special training and workshops, they
can’t take a bus a few miles to Berlin. There’s just no money for it. But, do
you know, they’ve started anyway. At the national level, they’re doing
everything they can.” She talked about this
for a few minutes more then ended with: “Did you know that
iauliai is home-base to the National Socialist Party of Lithuania? Thank God, they’re not allowed to register, but their leader lives here. Mindaugas Murza, lovely chap. Mayor agrees with him. Let’s get out of here.”
As we started back, the view to the far side of the lake was spectacular, with my pink apartment-building at the base of the long bluff, the golden archer on his pillar no larger than a hood ornament from here; the dusky-rose walls of the prison at the top and, over to the right, the brilliant white Church of Saints Petro ir Povilo, its tall spire visible, said Elke, far into the countryside. I was surprised to hear she attended Mass there every morning: during the week, our schedules are ferocious. Her explanation startled me. “Halfway through my first year, I nearly packed it in, almost went home. Instead, I joined the Catholic Church.” I was busy working out this puzzle, a piece in each hand, when she fiercely placed them for me: “If you’ve come to Lithuania just for yourself, you won’t survive. You’ll need more than that, my friend.”
As we passed the former Frankel Shoe Factory on the south side of the lake again, she pointed behind us. “Cat Museum up there – if you like that sort of thing.” Kitsch museums happen to be my favorite cup of tea. I made a mental note of this one.
Yesterday, half the police force was here at the Humanities Building, sirens wailing. We had to shut the classroom window, couldn’t hear ourselves. A squad-car again today. Later, when I walked towards R.’s office, a man in a uniform with bars on his chest strode past me looking livid. Polizia, his arm-band read. No idea what’s going on. When I asked the students about it, they only smiled in a sour way and said: “Normal.”
Because the Ruble has fallen, there are some obvious crooks in town doing biznez who were not here when I first arrived. Upstairs at “The Black Cat” two days ago – just across the cul-de-sac from our school – six of them crowded their bellies around a marble table near mine. They knew I was American, though I hadn’t spoken to the waiter yet – when one of them leaned over to ask for my sugar-bowl, he did it smoothly in perfect English. Otherwise, they ignored me. Muscovites, probably. On my way home, I stopped at Elke’s to give her the Shtetlinks pages and told her about these men. She said she’d noticed them, too, adding that corruption was anyway so pervasive in Lithuania, in everything and at all levels, that only the highest clergy of the country were exempt. “A bishop or two,” she said. “Everyone else can be bought.” Advised me to trust no one.
Saturday I walked over to the English Office to collect my BALTIC TIMES but found the building cordoned off. A fire truck, police cars, a few people idling by the ropes – whatever had happened must have taken place some time earlier. I approached two well-dressed men. Any English? No, of course not. So I pointed. “Bombe,” said one. “Terroriste,” added the other, who pretended to dial a phone and then said, “Phooof!” throwing his arms up in the air.
R. had no information on the bomb. Said only she did not
know if it had gone off (though she’d been
in her office Saturday, her secretary told me), but when I questioned her
further about the general picture here, she said that “things are generally smoother,
now.” Previously, they were not, so the police respond now with alacrity even
to a bomb threat, she explained.
“Two years ago, the whole population was in great fear because there were so
many actual bombings. And several deaths.” The target? “Mostly the Tax Office.
Also the main police station.” I knew about that one, but it wasn’t two years
ago – only three months. It was the second news item I’d found on the web under
iauliai’: four policemen killed. I said nothing, hoping she’d tell me more. She did: “A secretary was killed at the tax office two years ago. The bomb was in the ladies’ room and she’d gone in there. Also,” she added, “large houses of certain businessmen were blown up. In one, only two small children were at home. When they answered the door, well …along with the entire house. Nothing left.” Who was responsible? I asked. Any arrests? “The extensive shadow economy, here,” was her answer to my first question. “They don’t like attempts by the government or the authorities to rein them in or to tax their profits.” She answered the second question only obliquely. The town’s solution had been to implement a Draconian arrest-without-evidence decree. “Not very legal. Not democratic. We have now rescinded it.” But it had apparently helped.
Brought down by flu and dismay. Unplugged phone, crawled under quilts. In short, hiding.
Elke has been trying to reach me. Mr. L. came to visit her,
even though recuperating from his surgery. Together they tried to call me to
come join them but my phone was off the hook. I’ve missed him. He was overjoyed
with the Shtetlinks pages, she said, wanted to know how to use the Internet and
whether anything on it was in German or Hebrew or Yiddish. Asked her urgently
to find out if I had brought, or could find, any pages on Linkuva, a village to
the north of
iauliai. Apparently, something happened there during WWII. She will invite him again in three or four weeks when he’s feeling better…
At the ex-Soviet department store – upstairs this time, in yard-goods – I found some traditional Lithuanian sashes, the kind worn diagonally on the chest, hand-woven with names of towns. I chose two. Expensive, 25 litas apiece – six dollars. Upstairs, you pay Soviet-style: leave item, take chit to cashier, pay her, return with receipt to counter, pick up item. I handed the young cashier my chit. She stared at it – here was a foreigner in need of rescue. She pointed to the price in disbelief, raising the chit so I could see it better. Did I really understand how much these cost? I nodded. The girl became incensed. She banged up the total on her till and pushed the receipt across the counter at me, her cheeks burning. Fifty litas for sashes! A week’s wages.
Vilnius yesterday – unfortunately, mid-week. School Mercedes plus driver to a meeting along with R., and a very speedy trip it was. Five hours’ travel for one session and a quick dinner, so this will not be much of a sketch. After two and a half hours of blurred and placid countryside, suddenly over a hill and across a long bridge, you’re in Vilnius. I twisted my head this way and that as our driver sped to the meeting-place, impossible to see anything. Old Town and much of the city Baroque in architecture, handsome. Old Town done up in fresh pastels. Hills, glorious churches, not much explained, though R. did say the largest church – that blue one just receding out the back window – had been used for storing horse-fodder during Soviet years. Or was it munitions?
You know how cities have personalities, or they do not:
Tartu, in Estonia, has its own feel, even though one-tenth the size of Vilnius,
which seems to carry no firm stamp of who or what it is. But Vilnius has
changed hands many times, so this is surely the result of its see-saw history.
It has a lulled quality to it as if its central mechanism is out for repairs:
something is missing, and after
iauliai, somehow this did not feel like Lithuania. Given a trip like this one, though, how could you really tell?
On our return that night, R. put her head around the front seat at one point to ask if I was “having trouble with any of the students?” Cautiously I described a few difficulties, not mentioning any names, but it all turned into an interesting exchange. I had some concern about one young man, I said – very weak in English – perhaps this was the problem, the class simply over his head, because – and there I stopped. “Ah,” she said. “You mean Dimitrijus.”
Older, taller than my tall Lithuanians, his thinness a different shape from theirs, with the triangle chest of a black-vase figure from Attic Greece, Dimitrijus had loped like a wolf to the back of the room the first day, and slumped there. The others pulled away uneasily. He looked about to explode and, over the next weeks, often bolted out the door after a few minutes or didn’t come at all.
“Close to being a displaced person,” she told me now,
“without a proper home or even a real language.” He comes from a formerly
disputed area of Lithuania, a thin strip on the eastern border with Poland,
where only a patois is spoken – part Polish, part Belarusian. The borders of
his home territory have shifted twenty times this century and are once again in
Lithuania. With Independence, she said, its citizens now need to learn
Lithuanian, “to be full members of the new democracy,” as she put it. To
accomplish this, university places are reserved for such students far from
home: “deep in traditional Lithuania,” i.e., here in
iauliai. In other words, Dimitrijus is being Lithuanianized. It was all too familiar. We did the same to Native Americans until only thirty years ago with forced boarding-schools far from home, and nearly destroyed them. I learned this firsthand, teaching in Alaska. “The students from this area don’t consider him a true Lithuanian,” she said, “and the Russian students certainly don’t consider him Russian. He speaks Lithuanian not very well, has no one with whom to speak his native patois and is very poor in English.” Two generations of Native Alaskans in a certain few villages near the Arctic Circle grew up feeling just like Dimitrijus, with no complete language at all, no way to express what was happening to them. She finished with, “He’s also something of a disciplinary problem.” Which would hardly surprise a flea.
I don’t care what language Dimitrijus uses, if only he’ll stay. We put no pressure on him. Recently, there’s been an excellent development. A Russian strawberry, Ina Petrovna, has taken up his case. She’s a serious girl – tall as he is, long legs and enormous eye-glasses – but is also a drop-dead beauty with a reddish-blonde ponytail. She sits next to him and “fronts” for him throughout the session. Fine with me, seems to have a calming effect: Dimitrijus still stalks out the door, but he’s staying longer.
Friday, for the first time and quite by chance, we snagged his attention. I tend to use whatever floats by – this time it was a local news item. Before class, they’d all been arguing in Lithuanian about something; it turned out that a local doctor had just been found guilty of the murder of her son, who’d been horribly burned in an accident. She was on duty at the hospital when they’d brought him in, saw he couldn’t survive and gave him a lethal injection. They began to argue again. Dimitrijus listened to all this with his chin in his hands, looking puckish. “All right” – I said now, and banged the desk three times. I had an idea. “The court is now in session.” Dimitrijus sat bolt upright. Courts, he knew. We figured out the parts – they leaped at them. He took prosecuting attorney; Ina, the doctor’s role. For an hour their court deliberated the doctor’s case, while I shoveled in advice like a stevedore, struggling to remember how courts are run, cases presented. Ina the doctor gave her prosecuting attorney English as needed, but nobody minded. Dimitrijus won his case. Guilty as charged, but I mention all this only because of what he did next.
Our workshop is three hours long. We’re often exhausted before the end of it and, when this happens, I have them work quietly on a draft to take away and finish at home; so now I said: “Write in the voice of anyone from this situation – in the first person – poem, story, essay, your choice. Doesn’t matter. Start here, finish at home,” and sat down, quite worn out. From the corner of my eye, I saw Dimitrijus snatch some paper from Ina. Cadged a pen, too. So far he’d written nothing for our class at all, but for the next twenty minutes, his hand flew across the pages. He borrowed Ina’s dictionary several times and consulted her frequently. We still had ten minutes to go when he marched to the front, thrust the pages at me, and left the room. It was a two-page poem entitled “Monologue.” I glanced through it for a minute then looked up at Ina in astonishment. The man without a country, raised only on patois, had chosen to write in the voice of God. Life still surprises you? said Ina’s shrug, exactly the one that goes with the Yiddish: Nu?, the human condition in half a peanut-shell.
I waved him over when he came in next time. “Dimitrijus,” I said quietly, holding the sheets of paper on my palms, “Would you read your poem for us? You don’t have to. You can say no.” He gathered up the pages shyly.
“Well – what about now?”
“Okay,” he answered. “I do.”
Ina watched all this with a dropped jaw.
He waited for the others to settle then planted his feet like a Cossack, one bony hand on his hip, and read seven stanzas on the badly burned son from God’s point of view, holding the pages at arm’s length, giving them a flick now and then to keep them straight. Everyone listened in stunned silence – it was also about Dimitrijus:
I see screams of pain when one can’t speak
He’s tied to the bed, he’s alive by machine
I see friends losing hope week after week
and relatives reading the Bible they would
never have read just for fun or to
keep their soul clean.
I see questions in his eyes: how long will I live,
shall I walk, and what should I believe in?
I see the thing that I can’t understand
All want to live but this man wants to die?
I see man proud like a god,
I mean like me….
At two in the morning the same prisoner begins tearing his heart out. Julie no longer comes – he’s reduced to merely shouting his story these days, but tonight his long soliloquy is cut with a strange refrain from all the other prisoners, the old saw so familiar they know it in their sleep. “Hoo-ooo!” they call by the hundreds at intervals, an eerie call and response, like a priest with a derisive flock. Pretty soon, Laura begins to moan one floor down because Regina’s on night-duty at the hospital, and the noise frightens her. But now she’s growling – and nervously. I slide out of bed to have a look from my kitchen window. The prison is lit up in search-lights – and, what’s this? Guards running on the roof…a break-out.
The trouble is in the timeline.
In August of 1939, Hitler and Stalin sign a protocol to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, secretly dividing spheres of influence in the East. Stalin, after some delay regarding Lithuania, gets all three Baltic countries. Ominously, Hitler now orders the evacuation of all Balts of German descent from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, though they’ve lived here since the days of the Teutonic Knights. He sends ships for them. They’re gone in days. In June of 1940, very rapidly, Stalin takes the Baltics. One year later, on June 14, 1941, he sends half a million of them to Siberia in cattle-cars. One week after this, the Nazis invade.
The time between the Soviet deportations and the German invasion is seven days.
It is during this traumatic week, and with a blind fury, that most of the atrocities against Jewish neighbors take place in Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. The Nazis arrive, startled to find their work in the villages already begun and sometimes even completed. (This is fiercely denied by most Balts but no longer by every Pole.) The German Einsatzgruppen now organize and implement the rest of the genocide, sometimes with local help. Two years later, in 1943, the job is finished. Five hundred thousand people are missing from Lithuania. Half of them were removed by the Soviets in 1941 and sent to Siberia, a cross-section of Lithuanian society which included Jews. The other quarter of a million people, all Jews, were killed between 1941 and 1943, most of them by the Einsatzgruppen machine. In August 1944 the Soviets invade again, occupying the Baltics for the next half-century. During the first year, hundreds of thousands of Balts and Estonians flee to the West. In March of 1949, hundreds of thousands more are shipped to Siberia, deportations which continue on and off until 1959. By the time Lithuanians gain their independence again, they have been subjected to forty-five years of state terrorism. Nearly half the population is missing from these years, murdered or deported by the Soviets or escaped to the West, replaced by millions of Russians at all levels; but the first question the world wants answered when at last a Lithuanian steps from behind the Iron Curtain is, Where is your brother Abel?
Lithuanians are a calm and steady,
a courageous people: not given to hysteria, the least likely in the world to
have turned on their neighbors with such ferocity. Any of them will tell you
the Jews were always welcome in this country, that their own Grand Duke
Gediminas invited them in the first place in the 14th century, to
lead a reasonable if separate existence here for the next 700 years; and that a
great Jewish culture flourished in Vilnius specifically under Lithuanian
protection. Fast-forward to the 20th century. What little was left
of this culture after WWII was suppressed during the Soviet years. Victims of
the Shoah were cited only as “Soviet citizens.” Two generations in the Baltics
grew up with the Jewish Holocaust publicly erased, privately never talked
about, and with the deportations of family members ever-stressed at home. The
atrocities they were raised on are the ones they want addressed first or at least
equally: those done by the Soviets to all Lithuanians. The people responsible
are still among them, however, are still a power in the Baltics, holding local
positions of influence and sure to protect their own. Nonetheless, some of the
deportation records are opening, now. They’re not in Moscow, but in Riga and
Balts need us to understand what happened to them; but, as Elke said, the average Lithuanian makes a fatal tactical error. Though his national government is working to change this misperception, he still blames all Jews for the Deportations, thereby forfeiting his credibility. Even when it’s demonstrated not to be true, he won’t let go of this argument: it is the only one he has. For him, beyond this after all else he and his family have been through lies the unthinkable; for if the Jews weren’t responsible for the Deportations were not all Communists, were not all collaborators and traitors then there’s no reason left to have killed them except that they were Jews.
The pressure is on. How can he answer for what his grandfather might have done along with other villagers in 1941, when forty-five years of state terrorism and the loss of many family members all go unpunished, thanks to the power of those responsible? For, if atrocities by Lithuanians are uncovered and proved before their own tragedy is addressed, who will care about it? So he clings to the sinking raft of his quid-pro-quo argument in growing desperation. If he should let go of it, as thinking Lithuanians have begun to do, seeing they must; and when crimes of the past on all sides in Lithuania have been aired and answered for and laid to rest, he and his children remain in the selfsame jeopardy, because anti-Semitism, as only one example, still abounds. Few can guarantee, in any case, what they might or might not have done in a desperate week, if the shoes had been on their feet instead of a Baltic villager’s in June of 1941.
I’m in my kitchen having a morning coffee, listening to the BBC World Service. An author is being interviewed, Philip Gourevitch, whose book has won an award and is just out in paperback. The title gives me pause. WE WISH TO INFORM YOU THAT TOMORROW YOU WILL BE KILLED WITH YOUR FAMILIES: STORIES FROM RWANDA. He begins to read from a section – I put my cup down in sudden grief.
A demographic map of our county in the Upper Midwest shows ninety-seven nationalities represented, pretty much town by town. Ours was Old Bohemian. There was no “melting-pot” – the term’s a misnomer. Away from the cities, it congealed into its separate puddles again like mercury from a broken thermometer, just the Old Country reconstituted, nation by nation and town by small town; gossip, silences and all.
Three DP families, Displaced Persons, were assigned to our small town in 1952 – one family from Estonia, one from Latvia, one from Lithuania. Their children were my classmates, quickly leaders in everything. My Estonian friend’s father was our town’s first real doctor. Where they might have come from, or why, was never mentioned. There was no discussion. Our town had just won a cultured middle class, a windfall not to be sniffed at. We never knew that three small countries had just lost one.
Kristina’s missing. Has been cutting all her classes – was about to be thrown out of school. I have only this fragment from her:
The sea’s so angry this evening
And the wind’s so cold and gusty.
Waves are fighting with the shore like enemies,
It’s going to rain and sky is dusky…
– Rain it did.
Siaulai, Lithuania September 2, 1998 —
Grand Rapids, Minnesota, March 22, 2001
Yitzak Arad, Shmuel Krakowski, Shmuel Spector, eds., THE EINSATZGRUPPEN REPORTS (Holocaust Library, New York, 1989)
James Carroll, CONSTANTINE’S SWORD: THE CHURCH AND THE JEWS (Houghton Mifflin, 2001)
THE CHRONICLE OF HENRY OF LIVONIA, tr. James A. Brundage (University of Wisconsin, 1961)
Israel Cohen, VILNA (Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia, 1943, 1994)
E. C. Davies, A WAYFARER IN ESTONIA, LATVIA AND LITHUANIA (Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1926)
Jonas Daugela, “Jews Honored Natives of Siauliai”
Modris Eksteins, WALKING SINCE DAYBREAK (Mariner Books, 1999)
Marija Gimbutas, THE BALTS (Thames and Hudson, London, 1963)
Charles-Franćois Gounod, FAUST. Libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel CarrŹ, tr. Lea Frey.
Philip Gourevitch, WE WISH TO INFORM YOU THAT TOMORROW YOU WILL BE KILLED WITH YOUR FAMILIES: STORIES FROM RWANDA (Picador USA, 1998)
Masha Greenbaum, THE JEWS OF LITHUANIA: A HISTORY OF A REMARKABLE COMMUNITY, 1316-1945 (Gefen Publishing, Jerusalem & New York, 1995)
Jan Tomasz Gross, NEIGHBORS: THE DESTRUCTION OF THE JEWISH COMMUNITY IN JEDWABNE (Princeton University Press, 2001)
Dan Jacobsen, HESCHEL’S KINGDOM (Northwestern University Press, 1999); see also this site.
Anatol Lieven, THE BALTIC REVOLUTION (Yale University Press, 1994)
Jeffrey Maynard, “The Jewish Community of Siauliai.”
Memoirs of Traku Ghetto survivors on microfiche, U. S.
Holocaust Memorial Museum: Sonja Haid-Greene, “Between Life and Death;” Simcha
Brudno, “Witness to Nazism;” Sophia Binkien
, “Soldiers Without Weapons” (translated excerpt); Rosalie Gerut, “The Family of Aryed-Leyb Fingerhut (Leo Gerut).”
Romuald Misiunas and Rein Taagepera, THE BALTIC STATES: YEARS OF DEPENDENCE (Hurst & Co., London, 1993)
Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, THE ANNIHILATION OF LITHUANIAN JEWRY (Judaica Press, N.Y.,1995)
, THE MASS EXTERMINATION OF JEWS OF JUBARKAS ( B.A. Thesis, Vilnius University, 1997)
Toivo U. Raun, ESTONIA AND THE ESTONIANS (Hoover Institution Press, Stanford, 1991)
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, EMILE, OR ON EDUCATION
Laurence Salzmann, “Lithuania: Looking Back,” photo-essay with “Mr. L.” (Leiba Lipschitz)
Avraham Tory, SURVIVING THE HOLOCAUST: THE KOVNO GHETTO DIARY (Harvard,1990)
Eliezer Yerushalmi, the only complete diary of Traku Ghetto, not yet translated: SHAVLI-YOMAN MI-GHETTO LITA/ MEMORIAL BOOK OF SHAVLI (Mosad Bialik, Jerusalem, 1958). In English, “Extracts...” and “The Ban on Births in The Shavli Ghetto.”
ius, THE HISTORY OF THE LITHUANIAN LANGUAGE, tr. Ramute Plioplys (Mosklo ir enciklopediju leidybos institutas, Vilnius, 1998)
K. Callaway, “Estonian Letters,” Archipelago Vol. 1, No. 1
 An important and careful article on the Baltic Deportations is now in translation: “The USSR MBG’s Top Secret Operation ‘Priboi’ [“Surf”] for the Deportation of Population from the Baltic Countries, 25 February; 23 August 1949,” by Dr. Heinrichs Strods, Head of Research Programme, The Occupation Museum of Latvia, who recently obtained access to the Soviet military documents on the deportations.
 In the spring, I stood in front of that wall. Behind me, a Lithuanian State tour-guide, a middle-aged woman, gave a speech to a group of Japanese educators. The deportations were the fault of the Jews, she said, who were all Communists, and deserved what they got [and similar]. She was not an employee of the museum. Its director, fluent in English, stood near me with his head lowered but did not correct her. Later, I called him over to a photo-display, officers of the Vilnius NKVD/KGB. “Who was the worst?” I asked him (would he tell me, I wondered?). He swung an arm from behind his back to tap a photo. Only this one picture carried no name, no caption. “What’s his name?” I asked, pushing my luck, I knew, but he told me. “Major Vokulov,” he said, and swung his arm out to tap another picture, this one with a name and dates: ‘E. Eismuntus, 1987-89’. “The Last KGB Chief of Vilnius. He’s still alive. Living in Lithuania.” More on the KGB’s activities in Lithuania at this site.
 Recent news on this and on similar issues in Lithuania can be found at http://www.fsumonitor.com/indices/Lithuania.shtml, specific article http://www.fsumonitor.com/stories/092100Lith.shtml article 122700 for news on Murza.
 For Latvia, see Modris Eksteins’ WALKING SINCE DAYBREAK: A STORY OF EASTERN EUROPE, WORLD WAR II, AND THE HEART OF OUR CENTURY (Mariner Books, 1999).
 For Poland, see: NEIGHBORS: THE DESTRUCTION OF THE JEWISH COMMUNITY IN JEDWABNE by Jan Tomasz Gross [Princeton University Press, April 2001. News on Jedwabne
 Picador USA, 1998. National Book Critics’ Circle Award for Nonfiction.
I was pleased and honored to find you had reprinted my "Lithuanian
from Archipelago journal in the Siauliai "Stories" section of your
(retitled there as "This Landscape"). It has found its proper home:you
website readers are most welcome to it. My year in Siauliai (as a
Fulbright scholar)was stamped right away by the missing part of its
a huge omission that I could feel still colored everything; and that's
to the article. It was originally a long series of personal letters to
editor of Archipelago, who is a friend. The research took place when I