My ex-pharmacist / art gallery bureaucrat friend drove me back to his Socialist Surrealist Corbu high-rise just across from the new soccer stadium under construction, apologized for the dog pee smell in the elevator, and opened the door to an apartment radiant in its selection of art, most pieces with a unique Lithuanian angle.
He and his wife offered me delicious coffee “made in the Turkish manner,” then plied me with Danish chocolates from an almost empty box, a souvenir from a recent joint Lithuanian-Danish exhibition. The rarity of these treats was evident from the six-year-old’s shyly asking for a second piece (before the pig from Philly sucked it all up?).
The ex-he’s-done-it’s wife was a marvel. She’s part of a team of six researchers gathering data on the 300,000 Lithuanians who were deported to Siberia in the 1940s and 1950s—one tenth of the population. The Russians decimated key cadres—teachers, journalists, lawyers, political activists of every stripe, and especially Lithuanian nationalists—in order to better consolidate their occupation. (Their crappy style can be seen in their turning the church of the country’s patron saint, Casimir, into a museum of atheism!)
Her group—helped by the donation of three Toshiba computers from CARITAS, the Catholic Refugee service—has gathered 9,000 questionnaires from survivors of the camps. With this data, they hope (in their capacity as Repression Research, Inc.) to help the returnees with sticky things like pensions and places to live. Or help them, indeed, to return from Siberia, where a good many still languish.
The lack of rancor that accompanies the recital of such horrors was surprising to me, with one exception—the heat lightning of anti-Semitism, which greeted me everywhere. I asked this couple over dessert—after I had taken them and their kids back to the Astoria for dinner—whether I was making a mountain of anti-Semitism out of a few molehills of sneers and snide comments. No, they conceded, I wasn’t making it up.
Their explanations went something like this: Jews dominated Vilnius before the War. So part of the problem was the old chestnut, Envy. But that wasn’t the biggest reason. Many Jews, perhaps naturally as part of the anti-Nazi underground, became only too prominent, eventually dominant, in the Soviet nomenklatura. Expediency made them too accommodating, in the Lithuanian nationalists’ judgment.
But most bitterly, the Lithuanians resent what they regard as a Jewish monopoly of the genocide theme: The Communists tried to wipe out Lithuanian culture the way the Nazis attempted to obliterate the Jews. The manager of the Astoria’s café put it to me this way in a spirit of rare candor: “We respect the Jews; we just don’t like them.” I think it boils down to a pervasive fear that the Lithuanians could end up not running their own country—again. In any case, today it’s the least vicious form of anti-Semitism I’ve ever run into.
When I tried out this hypothesis on the curator of the Jewish Museum in Brussels a few days later, he bristled: “After Jerusalem and Istanbul, Vilnius was the most important center of Jews in the world, and they tried to wipe us out.”
Granted, someone tried to wipe out the Lithuanian Jews—whether Nazis, or Soviets, or Lithuanian collaborators—and mostly, succeeded. There appears to be at least some blame to go around. Whether there will be enough empathy to exorcise these fixed positions remains to be seen.
Not everyone enjoys political discourse as much as I do—so don’t get the impression that Vilnius is one uninterrupted seminar on political history. My specialty is collecting and writing about art (politics is a hobby). Art lovers will have a field day in Vilnius. The Astoria is right across the street from the National Art Museum, so be prepared to spend several glorious hours savoring painters and sculptors our parochialism has kept us from even knowing—especially the sculptors and the printmakers.
And kitty korner from the classically designed Museum is a modern exhibition hall, where, when I visited, there was a sister-city art show from Austria, and a ravishingly interesting exhibition of 19th-Century images of Vilnius. Everything but the local allusions delighted me, and I asked a young woman with a preschooler in tow if she could explain some of the history.
Did she ever. She turned out to be the art critic of a local weekly, Republicas, and the daughter, I later discovered, of two of the country’s leading intellectuals. Incidentally, because she can’t afford a car and can’t stand the crowded conditions on public transport, she always ambles about to art shows with her kid at hand.
She took me on a brief architectural tour of the University district. The buildings were mostly run-down, but are absolutely and brilliantly idiosyncratic in their variations on traditional historical styles: I can’t remember when I’ve seen racier changes rung on standard classical tunes.
She took me to the newest sources of high-quality crafts, where I fell in love with a bowl carved from a cherry burl, the base of which was a grotesque boar. A steal at $200. But they didn’t take Visa. In three other venues I bought art of world-class quality for peanuts. Ten works, $30!
There’s a marvelous architectural museum in old St. Michael’s church. (It was weird to observe that between the wars the major genre was churches; after the Russkis, sports stadia.) The museum, by the way, is across the street from the quirky brick St. Anne’s that Napoleon liked so much he dreamed of moving it. And next to the restored cathedral—which the Soviets for a while tried to turn into an automotive repair center—there’s an ethnological museum of surpassing interest. And hang out for lunch at the café across from the National Museum. The artists and writers who gather there to schmooze over their coffees are as delectable as their native pastries.
I spent a day as well in the former capital of Kaunas (a few hours away by train), where there’s a lot of Deco architecture—because that’s when they built the capitol and cultural buildings. The National Museum there has much richer holdings than its counterpart in Vilnius. And if you walk along the promenade that leads from the city center, you’ll eventually come to the Old Town, where I found a marvelous photographic gallery.
I also lucked out when the secretary to the director of the ethnological museum invited me out to her house in Traiku, the medieval capital, with a storybook castle in the middle of the lake, 25 miles or so from Vilnius, a $25 cab fare. Up at dawn as I usually am, I was trying to find “by ear” the train station I would eventually need for the trip back to Vilnius—train-track sounds, whistles, etc. I didn’t even come close, ending up on the opposite side of the village.
But in the odyssey, I ran into umpteen farmers going about their age-old chores. Leading a horse to a job, taking a cow out to pasture, carting wood home. Strangely hostile people—to this stranger, anyway. Usually, I can get wordless encounters to blossom into a semblance of friendliness. Not in New Traiku. When I asked my new friend what was the problem, she explained that there was an unfriendly mix of peoples in the village—Lithuanians, Poles, Germans, even Russians. And they kept to themselves.
Didn’t know how to handle the next potential oppressor, I guess. It could have been 250 miles, not 25, from cosmopolitan Vilnius. A few hours later, when she showed me where the train station really was, the young people putzing around on their bikes and with their fishing gear there were more Vilnian.
I must have really walked into the woods before breakfast! I can’t wait to get back.
From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, April 13, 1994
Dolce Suono’s Debussy farewell
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