LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 51, No.1 - Spring 2005
Editor of this issue: Stasys Goštautas
Copyright © 2005 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
SEARCHES FOR LOST VILNIUS
From the short stories
JEWESS IN AN ARMCHAIR
As a child, I really didn't like herring. I grew up in a village where you could neither catch them nor buy them.
When Kelcas the Jew would turn his wagon with its barrel of herring into my parent's farmyard, I would hide in a thriving nettle patch behind the garden. The hideous smell of herring wouldn't dissipate from the cottage for several days.
Now I even like it. Particularly smoked herring. "The taste of smoke," as it says in the advertisement. My wife got me used to eating herring. Right after our wedding.
Now, however, that's not important.
Miłosz says: "Through this window I watched the Red Army occupying Vilnius in 1939. There were so many of them. You can't imagine. Like ants in the woods."
Now it's 1992, the two of us are sitting in the "Literatai" cafe, right in the center of Vilnius. On the other side of the windowthe Cathedral, its plaza, the tower of Gediminas Castle and the entire sacred valley of the Vilnia River. As the cook fries up some chicken cutlets for us, we knock off some appetizers. Atlantic herring with Polish onions, Lithuanian sour cream and hot, maybe Dutch potatoes.
Above our heads is the headquarters of the Lithuanian Sajudis, which has been there since 1988. A national flag waves on the roof of the building.
Miłosz is searching for the Vilnius he left many years ago.
I help him as best I can.
Today we visit cafes that are different now. But apparently, not entirely. Here, you can come across the exact same window, a reminder of those other times. Here, you can sprain an ankle like you could fifty years ago in a hole that shows up in perhaps the exact same spot on the sidewalk.
"Only in Vilnius did they know how to make good herring. Particularly then,
before the war. There was a herring store called Mark's. On Totoriu," says
. The two of us speak English together, but he says the word "herring" in Lithuanian.
I immediately remember that there's a restaurant named "Markus and Co." but on Mėsinių street, not Totorių. Clearly, it's a different one, not Mark's herring store. But all the same.
We're so concerned with the herring of yore that we agree we'll go to Mesiniu Street.
The building where I live is on the way. During the war, the Vilnius ghetto started there. Mėsinių Street isn't at all far.
"Enough herring for today" Miłosz says unexpectedly, examining a plan of the ghetto drawn on the wall of my building for tourists. "I never liked them."
"All right," I agree, "then let's go eat Violeta's cakes."
I knew that my wife had made them according to a special recipe, an aristocratic recipe, inherited from her grandmother or great-grandmother along with a coat of arms. Violeta baked them the evening before. An hour ago, when Miłosz and I left the Oginska mansion, where the writers took shelter, to go to the "Literatai" cafe for lunch, she had called me on the phone. She asked if Miłosz had liked her cakes. I didn't understand. After all, Miłosz and I hadn't laid eyes on them yet. But the plate on the table is already empty, my wife protested, if you two haven't eaten them, who has?
Really, who had?
Afterwards she called a second time and explained everything. Apparently, the dog had eaten the cakes baked for Miłosz. Our Airedale terrier Ukvis. But he's never done that, I said to my wife. He didn't used to. He's never nabbed anything from the table. Yes, my wife agreed, he's never nabbed anything until now: it's lucky I didn't put all of them on the plate on the coffee table in the living room. I have a few left. Come on over and I'll serve them.
So, the two of us are going. What would Miłosz say if he knew that the dog had already polished off the cakes that were baked for him, and that what awaits the famous guest is merely the leavings, as they would say in my village?
The house where I live was built in the 16th century by Zaleski, a nobleman from Grodno. Miłosz left Lithuania, its very center, for Poland, and now is more of a Pole than a Lithuanian, and here a man from Poland built my house in Vilnius. All of the buildings in Vilnius are more Polish than Lithuanian.
"This is an old building," says Miłosz to me as we climb to the third floor.
"Yes, very," I say, blushing from shame, as the stairwell, as in all of the Vilnius buildings inherited from the Soviets back then, is dirty and looks older than it really is.
The three of us eat Violeta's cakes and look through the window at the spire of the Church of the Saints John. A mixture of Gothic and Baroque that you won't find anywhere else in the world. Not even in Cracow. Between the spire and the window is an empty square, left over from the bombardments of 1944.
The Airedale, lying by the door, looks at us, his brown eyes following every bite.
"Really, aren't the two of you hungry," my wife worries. "Come on, admit it."
She is also following our movements. She forgets that the two of us have already visited at least three restaurants. And evening is still far away.
"Those cakes are nothing. I have some particularly tasty herring" she keeps at us.
"No," Miłosz waves his arm, "How many times in a day can you eat herring?"
It occurred to me that in the Issa Valley, where the guest grew up, Jews perhaps brought around barrels of herring. Along with scarves, needles, thread, all of the everyday necessities. Maybe he needed to run to the nettle-bed, too.
On the wall hang two wonderful paintings by Leonard Gutauskasthe diptych "Lost Vilnius," with city dwellers walking the narrow streets of the old city. From the clothes and their appearance, it's clear that they are Jews. Perhaps even from the 18th century. Back when the great Vilnius Synagogue stood a couple of buildings over from mine. It disappeared during the Second World War. Lost lost Vilnius.
With full glasses of wine in our hands, the two of us go into my study, which is piled high with books, and, to Violeta's horror, not very tidy. The dust is almost as bad as something from Kelcas' herring barrel. My wife whispers to me: "Lord, when I came home and went into the living room and saw that the cakes were gone, just the empty plate and crumbs everywhere, I thought to myself: Czesław Miłosz must be a really old man, if even eating is hard for him. He can't get the food into his mouth."
I show our honored guest a 19th century armchair that I'd purchased in an antique store. I'd written several books while sitting in it, but now I avoid it like the plague. A clairvoyant acquaintance of mine saw a young woman sitting in that armchair. She'd perhaps even been murdered in it, and I was always sitting on her, or her spirit's, lap. I was horrifiedI pushed the armchair away from the desk and replaced it with a kitchen stool.
Miłosz laughs. He's a pantheist, an atheist, or maybe all the same a Catholic; like me he doesn't believe that there's anyone in the armchair. The guest sets his wine glass on the writing desk, sits down and spins around the armchair's iron swivel. It creaks like an ungreased wheel.
"I tried to sell it," I explain. "It stood in the antique store for a year. No one bought it."
"Strange," the guest remarks. "Why wouldn't anyone buy it? Along with that girl of yours. It's old and still looks good. After all, when a word is old, it's better than a new one, isn't it?"
He stands up, goes into the living room, and comes back with one of the paintings from the diptych on the wall. Sets it on the armchair. The two of us gaze at it.
"Sell the armchair with the painting," he says, raising his glass and smiling. "Good luck."
I look at the woman, full-breasted and raven-haired, standing under yellow light raining down from a gas street light like a shower, and the man standing next to her, leading a white goat on a red leash. A brick arch spanning the narrow street frames both of them, and I notice that the back of the armchair, like a mirror, reflects the bend of the arch in the painting. The canvas stretched on its frame now has an unusual, but really perfectly suitable frame for the painting. In the center of the double arch is the woman, who has settled herself in the middle of the armchair, shoving aside the man with the goat.
"A Jewess," I say to Miłosz. "Maybe she's from the ghetto? I'll have to ask Gutauskas."
I say this as if I didn't know that every model dies in his or her own portrait.
After Miłosz had gone home, I took the armchair to an antique dealer.
Every year, and wasn't last year the twelfth time, I ask, maybe the armchair has sold?
No, not yet, the dealer answers.
He doesn't seem surprised that he (or is it me?) hasn't had any luck. He's a poet, a good friend of mine, who started dealing in old wares only after Sąjūdis, so it's not hard for him to keep my old thing in a dark corner.
Incidentally, I took the chair over to him without the Jewess in it.
Without Gutauskas' painting "Lost Vilnius."
Perhaps that's why it hasn't sold. This year, thirteen years after our conversation about the Jewess in the chair, Czesław Miłosz died. I heard it said that a dog showed up at his funeral, who, like my Airedale, was the first to feast at the Nobel Prize winner's wake.
Now Lost Vilnius isn't just the Jewess Gutauskas painted, but it's Miłosz
A HOTEL BY DRĖMA
Where to put up a guest in the city?
In a hotel, of course.
All that's left to decide is which one?
I spent a lot of thought on where Czesław Miłosz should stay. He was returning to Vilnius for the first time since the war. Not just in spirit, but in person. A few years earlier we met in Suvalkai, on the other side of the border from Lithuania, in the castle of Vygris. We dreamed of this day. A native son, in Vilnius once more.
In his letter he had given clear instructions: I want to stay near the Cathedral, not far from the office of the Writers' Union and the "Literatai" cafe.
All of the better hotels built in Vilnius during the Soviet years were too far away from the area Miłosz had indicated. After all, neither the "Stikliai", nor the "Arris/' nor the "City Park Hotel" existed yet. At least the "Neringa," famous for its restaurant's avantgarde interior and the intellectuals who gathered there each night, offered some hope.
So, I took my guest to that symbol of the bohemia of the Soviet years. Alas, alas. Opening the door of a room described as deluxe, we were both appalled at the sight of a little table that had seen better times, a bed of the same vintage and a rug with burn marks covering the floor. In the bathroom, sticking my hand into the open toilet tank, I rattled the slimy lever around and somehow managed to stop the uselessly flowing water. Miłosz asked if there wasn't another hotel closer to the Cathedral.
I understood that my plan to convince the guest to stay here for at least one night had failed. Hoping to raise his spirits, I told him a story that sounded almost like a joke about some Soviet tourists in a Western hotel: they removed the top from the toilet tank, and using it like a pot, made themselves some soup with an electric heating element.
Miłosz liked the story and we both cheered up.
We made our way on foot down Gediminas Prospect toward Cathedral square. We looked at the dark windows of the once splendid "George" hotel, now closed and awaiting reconstruction or a new owner, and stopped at my other hope: nearly across from the municipal officesa small pentagon built during the Soviet years for the Communist partyhuddled a tiny annex, merely a few rooms, to the "Žaliasis Tiltas" hotel. A few steps away was the topographical center of the city, the Central Post Office.
"There won't be any luxuries here," I explained, remembering my earlier conversation with the hotel's manager. "But you have to stay somewhere."
The lobby was pint-sized, the three tables in the cafe barely fit, but the room on the second floor was considerably more pleasing to the eye than the one at the "Neringa." On the wall hung Antanas Sutkus' photograph, "Pioneers," famous throughout the Soviet Union. The guest examined it with great interest for a long time. The three-cornered face of the boy and the three-cornered pioneer scarf on his chest looked like the double eye of God to me. Maybe a Soviet, atheist God.
I stuck my head into the bathroom. The water and everything else was in its proper place.
Encouraged, I waved my hand toward the window. Through it you could see not only the municipal building and the post office, but also a small street named after Konstantinas Sirvydas, overgrown with trees, in the middle of which stood a 19th century neoclassical building that before the First World War had belonged to the Duchess Maria Oginska. Since the Soviet period the house had been home to the Writers' Union, their club and publishing house. After independence both the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and distant relatives of the Duchess had laid claim to the building. I had no idea whether the literati would remain in their usual quarters.
"Aha," Miłosz understood my gesture. "We've returned to 'Pūškornia'."
He remembered what I had told him about this part of the city during lunch at
the cafe in the writer's quarters, where through the window we could see not
only the old trees, but also the "Žaliasis Tiltas": barely a couple of centuries
ago, on the hills rising above the castle walls, there were no buildings, just
workshops and sheds needed for manufacturing weapons and ammunition for the
castle's inhabitants. "Pūškornia" was the word for cannons and shells, I had
several hours before.
"Pūškornia" is long gone, in its place are the buildings where we unsuccessfully searched for a room for the night. Buildings that apparently are completely unsuitable for either conversation or sleep.
"We'd be neighbors during the day, when I'd come to my office. And my apartment's not at all far. Maybe you should stay here for the night. If it turns out to be noisy or bothersome, you can stay with me tomorrow." I flung my final, my official, card on the table.
"Wonderful." Miłosz was already sitting in the armchair with his back turned to the metaphysical pioneer of Soviet times. He sat limply, his eyes almost closed, and looked very tired and old. "This hotel's not at all bad."
I phoned the guest's brother Andrzej, who, it seemed, had gotten bored waiting for news of how we'd fared with settling in the heart of Vilnius. "Finally," Andrzej brightened up. I brought Miłosz's suitcase over from the Writers' Union, where it had been left that morning after it had been brought from the airport. It was only a few years later that the "Žaliasis Tiltas," now renamed the "Congress Hotel" and with three or four gold stars drawn above its door, would begin providing its guests with all sorts of services. For the time being you had to manage as best you could.
Miłosz turned down dinner.
We discussed the next morning. We would drive to Rykantai early. It's in the suburbs of Vilnius. There we wanted to see a house that Miłosz used to visit and had even lived in for a while. That evening, as had already been arranged on the phone, we were to visit a literary compatriot of Mitosz's, a "Žagary" poet, now the most distinguished historian of Vilnius' architecture, Vladas Drėma. The mention of the name, a friend from his younger days, momentarily erased the exhaustion from the guest's face.
The next morning at nine o'clock I knocked on his door.
"The door's not locked," I heard the guest's voice say.
Entering, I met Miłosz standing by the window and looking at Maria Oginska's greyish mansion beyond the trees growing in the corner of the municipal office's courtyard. It seemed it hadn't been several hours, but only a moment before that I had waved in their direction and Miłosz had understood: "We've returned to 'Pūškornia'."
"You know what I dreamed?" Miłosz turned toward me. "About the house where I grew up. When I woke up in the night and went to this window, the dream continued. That house of mine stood here under these trees, in Vilnius' 'Pūškornia.' As if it had stood here the entire time. Between this building and Oginska's mansion. When I lay back down and fell asleep, I dreamed of Vladas Drėma. He was showing me a plan or photographs of Vilnius' streets and telling me about where some house stood and why it wasn't there any longer. When and who had knocked it down. I asked him if it was possible that my childhood home could turn up between the buildings of Vilnius' Old town. Vladas answered, why not? There are underground currents flowing beneath all of Vilnius. If they attracted your house, it would be here. As if it belonged there. Then I dreamed that I was sleeping in this hotel, but it was my childhood home, brought here from Kedainiai by some kind of current, right here in 'Puskornia.' Well, what do you say to that?"
Miłosz's eyes gleamed mischieviously. I didn't get whether he was serious or playing with me. Whether he had really dreamed it or whether he had made it all up, wanting to comfort me.
"So maybe this is a hotel by Drėma. After all, he knows what he's talking about," I answered. "In Warsaw, on Meduolių Street, there's a house according to Canaletto. Canaletto was an 18th century Italian artist who painted almost all of Warsaw's old town fairly accurately. After the war, when they were planning to rebuild the Old town, they drew up plans and built a house on Meduolių Street that could be seen in the artist's canvas. But Canaletto, homeless beggar that he was, in place of some sheds or ruins that had stood there between the real buildings, had painted the mansion of his dreams, and even a self-portrait in one of the windows. He looks at us through that window. Like Velazquez in Las Meñinas, he immortalized himself in fictional art. My friend Raimundas Samulevičius wrote a short story about it, "Canaletto's Joke."
"I know that house in Warsaw," smiled Miłosz. "Maybe the two of us should play a prank with Drėma? Maybe today, when we're visiting him, we'll ask him to imagine my dream? Miłosz's hotel according to Drėma, won't that be wonderful?"
"It would be nice," I agreed. "Next time you would have a place to stay, when we rebuild a hotel in 'Pūškornia'."
However, I waited in vain for the continuation of this story: drinking tea, remembering "Ž!agary" and much of Vilnius in 1939, neither one of these legendary native sons mentioned Miłosz's childhood home standing next to Maria Oginska's mansion.
However, I wasn't with them in the Drėma family's living room on Šaltinių Street the entire time, so I didn't hear everything these two old pranksters discussed.
Their eyes shone and sparkled. Neither looked old. Definitely not in their eighties.
Besides, perhaps not all of Vladas Drėma's drawings of the torn-down houses in Vilnius fit into his famous encyclopedic book, "Lost Vilnius," which was published some time later.
At least there's no drawing of Konstantinas Sirvydas Street in that book.
Not as yet.
Translated by E. Novickas