LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2015 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 61, No.2 - Summer 2015
Editor of this issue: Almantas Samalavičius
Translator's Note on Silvija Lomsargytė-Pukienė's memoir
AL ZOLYNAS is a poet and scholar born in Austria of Lithuanian parents in 1945. He holds degrees from the University of Illinois (BA) and the University of Utah (MA and PhD). He has published three books of poetry. Many of his poems have been translated into Lithuanian, Spanish, Ukrainian, and Polishthe last by Czesiaw Mfosz.
Lithuania's second modern independence from the Soviet Union in 1990,
numerous books, stories, essays, and poems have been published in
Lithuanian (many also translated into English) on the heels of the new
freedoms and in an attempt to redress the distortions of official
Soviet history and to come to grips with a difficult past.
Silvija Lomsargytė-Pukienė's memoir, The Parallels of Dita: Surviving Nazism and Communism in Lithuania, more than holds its place in the list of published works looking back on the twentieth century. Narrated with deep emotion, percep-tiveness, humor, and irony, this memoir captures the narrator's (Dita's) growth and development from innocence as a young girl growing up in Kaunas in the 1930sthen a prosperous European city in an independent nationthrough the first Soviet occupation in 1940 soon to be followed by the Nazi takeover in 1941 and the return of the Soviets in 1944. Her adolescent and adult years under the Soviet regime follow.
A central drama in the narrative is the question of what happened to Silvija's (Dita's) loving father, a Jew, and how, as a little girl and teenager, she was carefully shielded from the knowledge of his tragic fate. Ironically, her stepfather, a Christian, also met with a tragic end.
Throughout the story, the reader vicariously experiences life as seen through Dita's eyesher eyes as a girl, teenager, and young woman, and at a much further remove, as the now older and wiser author, looking back on the happenings and sometimes unresolved emotions of a long, complex, and eventful life.
Seen more broadly, this memoir is part of the Lithuanian nation's attempt to understand itself and its place in the worldthrough reliving a deeply fraught chapter in history. It tells a powerful story with vivid, gripping details and events that provide catharsis for those who lived them, as well as speaks movingly to a new generation, not only of Lithuanians but of anyone willing to enter into the life of a small, generally unknown part of the world during its most difficult times. As serious and shattering as some of the subject matter is, the author takes us through it with grace, deeply felt emotion, and, finally, with a life-affirming sense of humor.
The excerpts from Silvija Lomsargyte-Pukiene's book follow the translator's note.
* * *
The Parallels of Dita: Surviving Nazism and Communism in Lithuania
LoMSARGYTĖ-PUKIENĖ was born in Kaunas, Lithuania in 1933. She was
educated in Kaunas and later in the Vilnius Pedagogical Institute,
where she studied foreign languages, specializing in English. She
worked as a journalist for the humorous and satirical journal, Šluota
(The Broom) and then as a journalist for Lithuanian radio.
A life-long translator from English to Lithuanian, Ms. Lomsargytė-Pukienė has translated and had published works by numerous writers, including major fictional works of modern American and British writers like Hemingway, Dreiser, Cather, Greene, and Waugh.
Original title in Lithuanian: Dita. Paraleles
Published in Lithuania in 2014 by Jotema Press.
Written by Silvija Lomsargytė-Pukienė.
Translated by Al Zolynas.
Dedication: In memory of my father, samuel.
Chapter 1 Freedom Avenue
"search for your fortune every day," the old calendar urges.
"I'm searching, I'm searching," I say almost aloud, understanding less and less what that fortune may be the more I seek it.
Maybe someone can tell me what it is?
Many seek it, but no one seems to know what it is.
It can't be we search all our lives for what we don't know.
over thirty years ago, returning late at night to my place in Vilnius (the first apartment I owned, though I was already in my late thirties), even as I was unlocking the door, I could hear chirping inside. Aha, it's already past midnight. I knew my children were sleeping peacefully.
"Perhaps I'm fortunate now," flashed
through my mind.
A cricket lived behind our gas stove all winter long. He'd begin his chirping only after midnight, so as not to bother anyone. In the spring, he disappeared. In the summer, staying with relatives by the seaside, I ask:
"Could you please give me a cricket?"
At first they didn't understand what I wanted, as if they didn't hear me correctly.
oh, those town folks, they'd say, and shrug their shoulders like the rational western Lithuanianslietuvininkaithey knew themselves to be. They explained that in the modern-day village there are no more crickets, and if they were ever to come across one they'd kill it with boiling water. Just so its chirpings wouldn't interfere with anyone's sleep.
Instead of a cricket, they gifted me with an old horseshoe. A fairly beaten up and rusted one. seems it had spent more than a winter or two mired in puddles and kicked along the paths of seaside villages. If you really need all of that good fortune, their looks seemed to say... but generally those kinds of superstitions are not good..
We nailed the horseshoe to the door on the stairway side, so the approaching good fortune would have no doubt on where to enter.
Well, come then.
And while it's coming, I'll return, for now, from where I came.
I return to Kaunas and to that time known as between-the-wars.
.Kaunas begins for me at the railroad station square, where the black carriages stand. The carriage drivers sit up high on their seats and together with their carriages are known as ižvoščikai. When it rains, they pull a rounded cover over the passengers, much like the roof over a child's stroller, only larger. Passengers can cover their knees and laps with a black tarp that fastens along the sides. The carriage fits four or five passengers, much like a taxi todayexcept that half of them sit on a soft leather seat and the other half opposite on a hard fold-out bench. The horse clops apathetically along Kaunas's streets, many of which are still unpaved. Soon those ižvoščikai will no longer be needed, nor their sluggish horses with their randomly dropped "road apples."
On Vytautas Prospect, not far from the station, stands a policeman. And needless to say, he is tall. In those days, all policemen were tall. His uniform cap, adorned with a cockade, stretches him to an even greater height. He looks dignified and self-possessed, though undoubtedly he's an ordinary village boy, "not long off the plough."
It's hard to imagine Kaunas without Freedom Avenue. Starting from Vytautas Park's wooden gates it's a rather modest street, but from the Soboras (a real Kaunas old-timer would not refer to it as the Garrison Church or the Church of St. Michael the Archangel) to Vilnius Street, it's an avenue planted with many lime trees and sparkling with shopwindows everywhere. From the Agfa firm, Mama buys a modern camera with bellows and some film. Telefunken offers the latest radio sets. During Easter season, the firm's window displays chirp with little live yellow chicks. Arkus, the cloth merchant, has hired a little person for his shopwindow. He's a dressed-up little man of indeterminate age, with a face as wrinkled as a balled-up wad of paper, decked out in coat and tails and patent leather shoes. All day long, he'd clamber up and down and over the piles of cloth bolts.... I look at him, my nose pressed against the glass, and feel a little envioushow fine it must be for him there. From the Markus confectionary shop come the aromas of almond cakes and cinnamon buns. I'm most drawn by the Tilka chocolates and the ice cream. That prewar ice cream, those variously colored balls, plopped on stemmed glass dishes. And of course you'd always get a glass of water! And almost on every corner were the white-robed sausage sellers. A serving would be laid out on a cardboard disha fried bun, a sausage, and a puddle of mustard. From a distance, I see a whole cloud of balloons. The man holding them on a stick seems as small as an ant. I choose a balloon with ears that remind me of Mickey Mouse.
The company Pienocentras (Milk Central) builds huge quarters on the corner of Freedom Avenue and Daukantas Street. In that building, there's an elevator and an elevator operator, still a rarity in those days, and fashionable apartments facing the busy street. On the other side, you have the movie theater Triumph (now the Mercury store).... "How small those people are, and they all go to the movies whenever they want to," I think to myself, looking down onto Freedom Avenue from the fifth floor of Mama's friend Nina's apartment.
In the Batia shoe store a true miraclethere's a little room containing a special box with a little window on the top and a hole in the bottom. You place your foot with the shoe you're trying on in the box through the hole, press a button, look through the window and know if the shoe's not too tight on your foot and fits you properly. For me, the distance from the hole to the little window is too far, and Mama has to be the one to determine whether a shoe fits me. What a pity I don't get to see my foot through that window.
In the bookstore, I see something terribly desirabletwo little picture books. They're cut up so that one is in the form of a little girl, the other a bear cub. How I want them.
"Buy them for me," I ask.
Mama replies with a sacred phrase I can't stand, but one I'll hear many times and, later, one I'll repeat myself over and over, even to this very day:
"I don't have the money."
"Work a little, work a little more, and then you'll have some," my kids used to say.
"How can you have any, when the light is always on in your hallway," says my little grand-daughter when I refuse to buy her a stick-limbed Barbie doll.
...Christmas approaches. Lights twinkle along Freedom Avenue.
Lithuanian lass, daughter of open fields,
With your eyes the color of sky,
Lithuanian lass, I am your slave,
My heart belongs to you.
sings Danielius Dolskis, a star of Kaunas from that time, a Soviet Jewish immigrant who learned Lithuanian surprisingly quickly. I'm not there yet, and my future papa, as if winged, flies down Freedom Avenue towards my mother-to-be with a bouquet in his hand and a heart belonging to a lietuvaitė in his breast.
And later, there is me.
It's the last Sunday,
Today we'll separate...,
sings another star, a local one, Antanas Šabaniauskas.
The shopwindows compete with each other. Colored light runs through letters made out of wreathed and twisted glass tubes. It fills the tubes, then dies, then starts up again. A brand-new innovation. But how I want those books. I head home disappointed and sad. Fortunately, Christmas arrives soon, and Santa Claus makes me happy.
Moneythe litas, the mark, the ruble, and again the li-tasin our family at all times there was never enough.
In The Swans pharmacy on Daukantas
Street, two white swans, one in each window, necks curved, look to
right and left. Both the pharmacy and the two swans disappear during
the second Soviet occupation. Many years later, I come across one in
the Pharmacy Museum on Town Hall Square. It fills me with joy, like
meeting up with a long-lost friend. Throughout my childhood, my
pediatrician, Andrius Matulevičius, always recommended The Swans
pharmacy. From there came a fright-eningly large syringe and needle
that he used to inoculate me in my rear end when I was sick with
Doctor Andrius Matulevičius was not a big believer in medicines. For minor illnesses, he'd recommend mashed bananas with orange juice. During the German occupation, when I'm seriously sick again, Mama, unable to find our good doctor, approached another well-known pediatrician, vincas Tercijonas. But he won't make a house call unless you send a car for him. During those times, people were already starting to change.
I become feverish and delirious; Mama runs to a nearby physician, Vytautas Juškis, who specializes in skin and venereal diseases. He doesn't turn us away. He heals what comes before himas he understands it. Juškis's house used to be one of the most modest on vaižgantas Street.
.From The Swans pharmacy you can almost reach your hand over to the garden of the War Museum.
"Greetings, Sir," I politely address the "little person" statue, as I always do each time I come to the garden with its little fountain. The fountain's iron dwarf says nothing back. I know he only pretends to be grumpy. For so many years he's been tearing with his bare hands at the rock face from which spurts a fountain of water. Thousands of little girls have stood in front of that fountain. The worried little man tries to find me among those thousands. It's hard for him to rememberbut he doesthe former days, when the fountain was beautiful with its golden fish, rather than filled with trash and dull coins. The little girl Dita marveled then at the little man's diligence.
Today, the old woman Dita looks at him with the same fearful respect. The garden and memorial have been recreated to look almost exactly the same as before. The soviets had swept the grounds clean of all crosses, the piled-stone monuments, the altar, the statue of Freedom. But they didn't touch the dwarf. Perhaps he didn't look threatening enough. He didn't stand for any ideas.
I still hadn't learned to read, but I knew where the busts of Maironis and Basanavičius were. And not only where they were, but also what they were. More or lessnot yet having had my first lessons in patriotism. Those lessons were also on the modest covers of my school notebooksas portraits of Vincas Kudirka, Žemaitė, the ruins of Trakai Castle. The covers were simple, single colored. Poor cousins to today's notebooks. Back then, no one made fun of the idea of patriotism, love of one's country, freedom, the tricolored national flag.
so, they swept it all away and not only from the surface. They dug out the remains of the Unknown soldier, and no one knows where they put them. Later, not far from that spot, they buried the poet, Salomėja Nėris. Only after many years was she finally transferred to the Petrašiūnai Cemetery.
You could call those times the "excavation years." Historians and museum archivists, in restoring the statues and memorials of the War Museum grounds, searched everywhere for the Unknown Soldier's remains, but did not find them. Earlier, the Soviets were unable to find the bodies of Darius and Girėnas,* which had been secretly removed from their mausoleum and hidden away. Much later, after the nation regained independence, the responsible officials somehow allowed the nationally known priest and poet Ričardas Mikutavičiuskilled by criminalsto be buried as an unknown person, with no honors. Eventually, his body was disinterred and reburied in the Petrašiūnai Cemetery next to Salomėja Nėris's grave. Now the two are side by side. Probably two of the most controversial, yet highly respected, people in Lithuania.
.The transfer of Salomėja Nėris's remains from the War Museum grounds doesn't happen right away. The planned ceremonies hit a snag and are postponed. It seems that the remains are not buried directly under the gravestone and monument. A fair amount of searching needs to take place and finally a lot of jackhammering at the concrete panel under which they're finally located. The remains are solemnly carried to Vytautas Church where, at that time, another poet, Ričardas Mikutavičius, is the parish priest.
The next day, the coffin is transported to the cemetery. But what happened the night before?
Father Ričardas comes from his nearby apartment, unlocks the church doors, and approaches the coffin. He lifts the coffin lid and, unseen by anyone, lays a rosary on the white bones of the poet. A rosary gotten from the very hands of the Pope.
"May all be forgiven you,"prays the priest, and all the dark vaulted space seems to look on approvingly.
"God has forgiven her all," says the priest to me in the ancient Vytautas Church, restored and decorated as a result of his attention and concern, when I arrive the next day with a microphone to interview him for the radio.
The bell clangs. My heart is pierced
Nėris wrote this verse in 1921, when she was seventeen. And this, in 1944, a year before her death:
She's lulled into eternal sleep.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
If only my homeland would meet me like that!
How hard it is, how I pity myself.
These verses were not typical of the Salomėja whom some honored, others reviled. Nor for the Salomėja whose verses rang from the youthful lips of my generation, cultivated our literary taste, helped name those newly born feelings of love. Nor for the Salomėja who still echoes in my heart in the voice of my girlhood friend Rena.
...At the end of Freedom Avenue, a narrow archway lets you into a yard, where stands the small church of St. Gertrude. Most people call the place Šaritės (Charity) Church or just Šaritės. The church was first made note of in the beginning of the sixteenth century. At one point, alongside the church lived a group of nuns, the Sisters of Charity. The nunnery grounds stretched alongside the banks of the Nemunas to the Carmelite Church. The sisters used to grow vegetables and look after the poor. The prospering city's development swallowed the sisters' gardens and finally even the order itself. The church, undergoing renovation and "improvement," lost its Gothic appearance, its frescoes, its tapering windows.
Many had the habit, walking down Freedom Avenue, of turning into Šarites, kneeling, and asking for some small favor.That short stay, you could say was like getting a little pet from the Almighty. A short staya small request, and a short thanks.
"Please, Dear Lord (Dievuli), let me meet up with Juozas."
"Thanks, Dear Lord, for helping me pass my exam."
...The Šarites churchyard is thick with green bushes and trees. Behind them hide two teenage girls who amidst coughs try to inhale the smoke of cheap Moka cigarettes. Those teenagers are the high-schoolers Dita and Protelė. The daughter of the composer Mikas Petrauskas lives on Kipras Petrauskas Street (named after his brother, a famous opera tenor) in the Petrauskas house, first floor. Neither for her nor for me is it necessary to walk to school via Freedom Avenue, but somehow we two always end up there. And we don't forget to stop by Šarites.
The Soviets convert the little church into a pharmaceutical warehouse. Garages sprout on the approaches to the church. Finally, they decide to expand the existing communist bureau for their local leaders, and within a few steps of the church they begin to erect an especially solid-looking building. Meant to stand for a thousand yearslike that Reich of Hitler. The unwanted soil is carted out of town along with the bones and skulls of nuns who'd been buried there long ago.
Just before Lithuania's Independence,** when I arrived at Kaunas on a work assignment, I see such a sad scene at Šarites. I complain to the then Culture Fund's chairman, professor Česlovas Kudaba. But the professor is not omnipotent, and his eyes fill with sadness.
"I know," he says, "I've seen it. And I also spoke to the head of that office. The director first enquired who I thought I was and then said, 'For the sake of some old antique, no one is going to halt the building of a project already in progress.'"
The enlightened Česlovas Kudaba's
memory will last a long time, but who will remember those
functionaries? Even their surnames? During the independence
movementthe very rebirth of the nationthe huge foundations were
dismantled, the pits filled in and leveled. Šarites regained its
original form and purpose. They repaired and restored it; only the
central altar up to now remains as it was during the time of the
church's use as a pharmaceuticals storehouse beaten up, dirty,
peeling. strange. Between the newly cleaned walls, the altar still
glows with the truest, purest light. Your eyes, having run through the
small space of the church, stop on the altar and seem to see God's face
there. At least for a short time, your heart is relieved and at peace.
But the dish to take that feeling away is so shallow, and the drop in
it is so tiny. surely I'll spill it, won't be able to carry it. Truth
be told, where am I to take it anyway?
Today's Freedom Avenue empties around nightfall, even though the shopwindows are twice as spacious as before and glow with sterile lights. In the years of my girlhood, the darkening avenue filled up with people, and you could meet anyone you wanted there. If you went up and down a few times between the soboras and the Šarites gates it was called šlifuoti, or polishing. Freedom Avenue was "polished" by pupils, students, all sorts of folks of differing ages from all the various districts of KaunasŽaliakalnis, Šančiai, Slabada, Senamiestis. Ah, if only they all could gather here now!
Afternoon. The start of summer. 1940. Freedom Avenue is full of people. They're not going anywhere. They stand on the sidewalks and look into the street. Down the avenue flows the stream of a dimly colored foreign army. At that time, I only sensed, but now well know, why my mother wept, why many people wept as they looked on at the puffed up men in their strange uniforms. They did not yet resemble the short-statured brutes with Asiatic features and small-peaked caps who were to come later, the ones who within a year will stuff cattle wagons full of terrified Kaunas residents.
The smell of army boots and cheap soap overwhelms the aroma of cinnamon from Markus's confectionary.
I didn't know then what freedom smelled like. It was just there. As ordinary as air. You breathe it inyou breathe it out.
The Statue of Freedom still stood on the War Museum grounds.
Crying was not enough then. It was not enough to grasp that this was freedom's burial.
"What does it mean, CCCP?" I hear myself asking.
In Lithuanian, that would be SSSRin English, USSR, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Not everyone wept.
"We met the Russians with flowers and song," remembered Cilė Žiburkienė, the granddaughter of Plungė's rabbi in 1944.***
"No, that was not an occupation," agrees Rachelė Mar-golis in that same book. Her parents were from Vilnius, and after the October Soviet revolution of 1917, they returned here from Russia. As she herself affirmed, "They ran from the Soviets."
Unanswered questions pour over me from Freedom Avenue's linden trees. "Why were the flowers and songs necessary, Cilė? If not an occupation, then what, Rachelė? And why did your parents flee the Soviets? Why was the Lithuanian army in shining readiness at that time, if not for defense? What price did Juozas Urbšys, the foreign affairs minister, have to pay for accepting the Soviet ultimatum? Only eleven years in solitary in a Soviet cell for himself and solitary for his wife, Marija Masiotaitė, too?"
At the beginning of 1990, Juozas Urbšys inscribed his memoirs for me with a trembling hand. And "good wishes" above his signature to my children, Paulina Eglė and Martynas Žilvinas. He was ninety-four then. In a year he was dead. When I visited him, the former minister lived far from the center, in block housing, "near the tank," as kaunietės used to say. As angry fate had it, that tank stood for many years, not only as a monument but also as a stern warning, with its barrel pointing at the window of the foreign affairs minister of the "liberated" state. But there came a time when the tank, named the Josef Stalin, was hoisted up and carried away. A cross was erected in its place. One night, some unknown vandals knocked the cross down. Now, there's an entire hill of crosses there. They won't knock them down in one night.
After the war, it was fashionable to call Kaunas a city of speculators, swindlers, and scammers without any subtlety of spirit. Even though the light of Maironis, and Vaižgantas, and Krėvė, and Putinas, and others, still shone over it, those who didn't want to see it didn't.
A certain science professor, after having listened to my many biting pronouncements about the city of Kaunas, finally unable to stand it any longer, asked me:
"Why do you so painfully love Kaunas?"
Then I really thought about it. "Why, indeed?"
Not only because it's my birthplace.
Here, the fountain's sullen dwarf still tears persistently at the rock face.
Here, Daddy and I walk down Freedom Avenue to the photo gallery Zinaida near the post office and get ourselves photographed in an embrace.
Here echo and fade the steps of my first love.
When wisdom entereth into thine
heart, and knowledge is pleasant unto thy soul.
Proverbs 2, 10
A time to rend, a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.
Ecclesiastes 3, 7