LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 27, No.3 - Fall 1981
Editor of this issue: Saulius Sužiėdelis
Copyright © 1981 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
ICCHOKAS MERAS AND THE HOLOCAUST: TERROR AND SALVATION IN CONTEMPORARY LITHUANIAN LITERATURE
Icchokas Meras (Photo by V. Maželis)
Icchokas Meras is one of the most interesting figures in contemporary Lithuanian letters. His unique style and originality have won him recognition both in his native country and the Lithuanian diaspora in the West. Without a doubt, Meras is the most prolifically translated contemporary Lithuanian author. Since 1963 his novels and short stories have been translated into Russian, French, German, Spanish, Hebrew, Polish, Czech, Hungarian, Estonian, Bulgarian, Norwegian, Tadzhik, Georgian and, now, English.
Meras was born in 1934 in Kelmė, a town in northwestern Lithuania, which contained one of the country's oldest Jewish communities. His family perished during the fateful and tragic summer of 1941 when the Nazis undertook the liquidation of Lithuania's Jews, but young Icchokas escaped the Holocaust. "On July 28, 1941, I was being taken to a ditch to be shot," he wrote later. "Due to chance, they decided to return some of the children. Due to another chance, I fell in with people who valued the life of a seven-year old child." Hidden and adopted by a Lithuanian peasant family, Meras survived the war. In the violent and troubled post-war years Meras attended secondary school and soon revealed an inclination towards writing when he came to work for the local Kelmė newspaper. In 1958 he graduated from the Kaunas Polytechnic Institute with a degree in radio electronics, but began devoting most of his spare time to literature. In 1960 Meras published his first collection of stories entitled Geltonas lopas (The Yellow Patch). He based his sketches on his own childhood experiences of Holocaust terror. In 1963 the stories of The Yellow Patch appeared in Russian as Zhelty loskut. Two of them are presented here in English for the first time.
In 1963 Meras published two works: Žemė visada gyva (The Earth is Always Alive) and his best-known work internationally, Lygiosios trunka akimirką (A Stalemate Lasts But a Moment). This latter novel, a profoundly psychological account of the Vilnius ghetto during the German occupation, established Meras as a major new force in Lithuanian literature. Lygiosios has been translated into a number of Soviet and East European languages, and has also appeared in German and French. Its publication in France has led Le Figaro to rate it as "among the best books about the occupation." In 1980 Lygiosios trunka akimirką came out in English as Stalemate, translated by Jonas Zdanys. Selections from Stalemate are included below in order to acquaint Lituanus readers with one of the most remarkable novels to come out of postwar Lithuania.
In 1965 Meras published another novel, Ant ko laikosi pasaulis (What the World Rest On), the narrative of a peasant woman's travails during the violent imposition of Soviet rule in Lithuania following the Second World War. In 1971 there followed Mėnulio savaitė (The Week of the Moon) and Senas fontanas (The Old Fountain). During the same year Meras presented his most controversial work, the darkly existentialist Striptizas, arba Paryžius Roma Paryžius (Striptease or Paris Rome Paris). This novel was first serialized by the Lithuanian literary monthly Pergalė (Victory), but was soon roundly criticized by party officials who found its lyrical and allegorical tone, as well as its "abstract" concerns, inconsistent with the canons of socialist realism. The Vaga state publishing house refused to accept the novel. Under increasing pressure from the authorities for his literary "deviations," Icchokas Meras emigrated from Lithuania in 1972 and now lives in Holon, Israel. The Lithuanian-American press Ateitis published Striptizas in 1976 and the same year Meras' novel was awarded the emigré Lithuanian Writers' Association Prize for Literature. The award was presented at the literature and arts program of the Third Lithuanian Symposium of the Arts and Sciences held in Chicago on November 25,1977. Meras' acceptance address deeply moved the audience for it contained, in summary, two profoundly intertwined themes that are reflected in his work: his intense personal experience of the Holocaust itself and, at the same time, the realization that the Nazi genocide was a grotesque manifestation of a more universal alientation and dehumanization, a disease of the human spirit common to all the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century.
Icchokas Meras' acceptance speech and three literary selections are presented below. The two short stories, "Mėlynasis vežimėlis" (The Blue Pram) and "Mane paėmė" (They Took Me In) are from the Geltonas lopas (The Yellow Patch) collection. The third selection contains an excerpt from Stalemate, the recent English version of Lygiosios trunka akimirką.
lcchokas Meras' Speech on Accepting The Lithuanian Writers' Association Award November 25, 1977
I am profoundly moved to be standing before you here in Chicago, far from Vilnius and Jerusalem, trying to glance at myself from the side.
And I see beside me, invisible to you, two women. One of them, Miriam Meras, a Jew. She bore me and, surrounding me with her great maternal love, guided me through early childhood, until the executioner's gravel pit barred her path. The other Bronė Dainauskienė, an illiterate Lithuanian woman, a mother of six. Embracing me with both arms, she tore me away from the edge of the pit, hid me from evil eyes and bore me anew as her seventh child. Furtively, she guided me in life until my early youth.
In the gravel pit at Kelmė lies my mother who gave me birth.
In Kelmė lives my second mother who has now reached her seventy-fifth birthday.
Once I used to go the Kelmė synagogue to pray with my father.
Afterwards, still a child, I prayed in Kelmė's church.
I used to herd animals at the Kelmė manor, near the three small pines where they shot my mother, and I saw how the grass had grown up so unnaturally tall and green above the gravel.
While visiting Kelmė's cemetery to pay my respects to Mr. Dainauskas, who had died a natural death, I would pass a few identical graves there lay those who had done the shooting by the pines.
Kelmė taught me to see the world through the eyes of a Lithuanian and not to forget that I am a Jew.
Kelmė is my Lithuania and my Jerusalem.
Probably, everything lies in this: my relations with the Jewish nation and Israel; my relations with the Lithuanian nation and Lithuania; my place in literature and my creative strivings. In this situation I am a man and a writer, simple and complex, lucid and yet contradictory just like those twin roots that nourish me.
I did not mould myself thus with my own hands: I am an authentic, if, perhaps, somewhat strange product of our age. And if every man truly has his own guardian angel, it must be that I was accompanied then, and perhaps am now, by two angels one, in the name of Yahweh, and the other in the name of God who exists in three persons.
Perhaps, that is why when I write about the Jew, I think of the Russian, the Latvian or the Czech; and when I write on the Jew and the Lithuanian, I think about man.
In our age, during our cruel times, tens of millions of people have been physically annihilated. This process still continues, and it is both accompanied and conditioned by the devastation of man's spiritual foundation. By objectivizing absolutely everything, technology and the ideological theories of various bents are trying to diminish the human spirit and detach from man his last inner ornament: illusion. Without this, the hope and despair of our existence, its lucidity and mystery, its reality and transcendence all disappear.
Thus vanishes the meaning of our being.
Guided by such thoughts, it seems, I wrote Striptizas in an attempt to strip bare man and his soul; perhaps, in anger; perhaps, with mockery; but, perhaps, also with love.
I am happy that these efforts of mine have received such high esteem, brought Striptizas recognition, and to its author the first Lithuanian literary prize. Thank you.
Translated from the Lithuanian by