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Mindaugas Kvietkauskas (born 1976) is a literary scholar, writer and translator. Since 2008 he is a director of the Lithuanian Literature and Folklore Institute in Vilnius. Kvietkauskas acquired Ph.D. at the Department of Lithuanian Literature, Vilnius University, and studied Yiddish language and literature at the University of Oxford, Centre for Hebrew and Judaic Studies. His main areas of research are multinational literary modernism and urban culture in Lithuania and East Central Europe. He is an author of two academic monographs, a collection of poetry and a recent book of literary essays Uosto fuga (The Port Fugue). Kvietkauskas has also translated several books from Polish and Yiddish languages, including works by Czesław Miłosz and Abraham Sutzkever.

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From the personal archives of Mindaugas Kvietkauskas
 

Two essays from the book “The Fugue of the Port”

 

Esther’s Scissors

 

I’ll call her by her biblical name—Esther—I’m allowed to now. That’s the name the rabbi used, not so long ago, when he recited the prayers calling her into eternity and sprinkled the first three handfuls of earth onto her shrunken body, a body already cut off from the world of the living.

In life, she went by a different name. Usually she was Fira, sometimes Firochka. I smile to think how the name of the Queen of Persia—meaning morning star—has been altered so unrecognizably in our land, the everyday Yiddish dialect washed over by the greater Slavic languages. But now, entering a time of more perfect reckoning, Fira has once again become Esther, daughter of Israel, the morning star, Ester bat Israel.

She was a member of the graduating class of 1941 at Sholem Aleichem Jewish Gymnasium in Kaunas, the descendent of a very well-known and world-famous Litvak family. On June 21 of the same year, she sat her final exam—history, as fate would have it. When she arrived home, her father gave her the key to their house as a symbol of her maturity: from now on, she could return home whenever she wanted, even after her current curfew of ten at night. That same evening, carrying her very own key, Esther went out to the customary meeting place of high-school students—the grounds of the War Museum. A friend awaited her there (she never did tell me his name), as well as other youths from Sholem Aleichem Gymnasium and from the Lithuanian gymnasium. A common circle of friends, united by Haya and Lida, two happy Jews who studied at the Lithuanian school. Their literature teacher was none other than Salomėja Nėris[1],  and, Esther told me, one of their more famous classmates was the future actress Lilijana Binkytė—daughter of Kazys Binkis[2]—nicknamed Lialka by her friends, and at one time madly in love with the young poet Eduardas Mieželaitis[3]. That evening, for the first time ever, Esther talked and made merry with her friends late into the night: they were flying high. But their conversation kept returning to the fate of their friend Lida: she hadn’t sat her exams, because a week earlier, along with her parents, she’d been deported and exiled to Siberia. It was three in the morning when Esther finally returned home, using her very own key to unlock the front door of their little house on Prieplaukos Krantinė[4]. She lay down but didn’t have a chance to fall asleep.

Barely an hour later, at around four in the morning, the house suddenly shook. Esther described it to me on more than one occasion: ‘I jumped out of bed and ran to the living room, the windows faced the Nemunas River. I saw fire and fountains of earth rising above Aleksotas[5]. I felt my father’s hand on my shoulder: Child, that’s not a fire, that’s war. He understood immediately.’ And so, in an instant, in the dawn of a midsummer morning, the mist of yesterday’s ideas and hopes disappeared. It was Nazi aircraft. The telephone was still functional, and soon a chaos of calls began: some relatives advised them to flee, others to lock the doors and not let the children out anywhere; her friends wanted to meet one more time in the city and discuss things. Esther’s mother, a midwife, dutifully prepared for her shift at the Kaunas Jewish Hospital, readying herself to greet the newly born as if nothing was happening. As if on purpose, Esther’s sister Gita had come down with tonsillitis and a high fever; she lay half-dead in bed, and was in no condition to go anywhere. Towards evening, Esther heard from her friends about an evacuation organized by the Communist Youth League. They should meet on Kęstutis Street by ten that night. Her father made the decision: ‘Go, my child, maybe you’ll be lucky. But let’s not say anything to your mother, it will upset her. Best she finds out afterwards.’ Esther’s last telephone conversation with her mother, who was sitting on duty at the hospital: ‘I’m at home, I’m fine.’ Her sister also didn’t understand what was happening when Esther sat down by her bedside and said her goodbyes. Gita was so feverish that she was nearly delirious. Her father packed her things for the journey, trying to select what might be most useful. At the last minute, he placed a small pair of scissors in Esther’s bag.

She and her friends met on Kęstutis Street. Dividing themselves up into small groups of ten individuals, they set off from Kaunas on foot. The Soviet ‘gentry’ travelling by automobiles towards the Latvian border didn’t stop to pick them up. The youths would hitch rides on lorries full of fleeing Russian soldiers; when the Nazi planes flew overhead, they’d jump over the sides into the ditches and hide from the machine guns and bombs. When they approached the town of Zarasai, they saw the beginnings of a pogrom: ‘We avoided the town, but in the surrounding area we saw things I don’t want to talk about.’ Esther finally reached Daugavpils, which was already inundated with refugees from Kaunas. In the city, they saw the red buses from the temporary capital that had brought the refugees there, still displaying the old route signage: ‘Rotušė–Panemunė’[6]. In the crush of people, Esther did not manage to secure a seat on the troop train transporting refugees to the town of Zilupe, on the Latvian-Russian border (she let women with children board first, unwilling to save herself at any cost). On the third night with barely any sleep, with swollen feet, she once again set off on foot with a group of youths. ‘When we came to Zilupe we saw that troop train on fire. Next to it stood a tank of fuel oil that the Germans had aimed for and hit, setting the train alight. Bodies were scattered all around, lost children running about, hysterical mothers searching for them. That night was the worst I experienced on the road to Russia. That night I saw real war.’ It was the same troop train that Salomėja Nėris was on. In the hellish chaos, she lost her four-year-old son, and only found him several days later. As she wrote in her poem ‘Zilupė’: ‘Where will you go, where will you stop? / Face blackened, a sunken gaze. / Always asking, for all time always: / Where is my joy, my little one?’

I don’t know why Esther told these things to me, a virtual stranger; things barely suitable for disclosure even to one’s closest family and friends. The border guards had been given orders not to let anyone else cross, so the surviving passengers from the incinerated train and the other refugees gathered in the woods between Zilupe and Sebezh (a town on the Russian side of the border). But a new horror awaited them there; mounted Soviet cavalry suddenly appeared, swords unsheathed, and began swinging the swords at them, chasing back the refugees. At this point, many people decided to return home from that nightmare, thinking they’d fare better in the Nazi ghetto. Esther slipped into the thick undergrowth and lay there for the night. In the morning, she heard people speaking German—it appeared to be Nazi troops checking the border. Eluding detection, she and several other lucky individuals crept through the undergrowth and crossed the border, reaching Sebezh. For some reason, once, as she was telling me this story, she added: ‘For years afterwards, on the anniversary of the night before, that night, and for several nights later, I’d dream everything all over again. I did my best to plan accordingly for those days, to keep myself busy. But still. Still, on those nights, I find myself at the border in Sebezh. To this day, no psychiatrist has been able to help me.’ Very likely, this type of recurrent dream was a sign of post-traumatic stress disorder. I can only imagine what it was like for someone to suffer the repeated return of such images for more than seventy years.

Some of the refugees who returned home from Sebezh ended up in the Kaunas ghetto, and for some reason they told Esther’s parents they’d seen her corpse. Her father was overcome with grief. He cried and repeated: ‘I’m to blame that her body is lying out there somewhere.’ He lost all hope that even a single member of his family would survive. The whole family was murdered in October 1941, during the ‘Great Action’ at the Ninth Fort in Kaunas. During the selection in the ghetto courtyard, her sister Gita was directed to the line of those chosen to live, but she crossed over to the line of those condemned to die, choosing to remain together with her parents. Esther: ‘To this day, I feel guilty about my parents.’

Meanwhile, Esther travelled on overcrowded trains, elbowing her way through teeming stations, hiding from the authorities with two other Jews, Alya and Liza, who she knew from the Aušra gymnasium in Kaunas (the three of them had scraped together enough money for only a single train ticket), until she reached Alma Ata[7]. At first, she worked in exchange for food as a German-language teacher in a school on a Kazakh collective farm: ‘Of course, the job was terrible. On the collective farm, I had to teach a language which, because of the war, no one wanted even to hear.’ She was also required to work in the fields, raking hay alongside Ukrainian exiles. One day, she got sunstroke, and fell off a haystack. When she was taken to hospital, because she was so thin, the doctor recorded her age as three years younger than she actually was. She kept trying to escape to the capital, Alma Ata, and enrol in an institute there, but she was unsuccessful—she failed the Marxism exam. She simply could not understand what was written in the textbooks: ‘Those texts were written in what you might call a completely foreign Russian to me. I had learned the language from my father, but it was the Russian spoken in the previous century in St Petersburg.’ One day, she was despatched to the construction site of a new hydroelectric plant in the mountains; it was being built in support of the war effort. Working there was no different from working in a penal colony—they were charged with carrying large chunks of rock by hand. The women would carry the rocks in groups of four, changing hands from time to time. One day, no doubt because of her small build, Esther simply could not keep hold; the rock slipped from her grip, and landed on her foot, as well as the feet of the other women. Esther was accused of subversive activity—members of the security apparatus awaited her at the hostel. Warned by the commandant, she didn’t return from work that day; instead she walked through the mountains, with her injured foot, for thirty kilometres, to a medical clinic in the city, in order to obtain a certificate of compromised health (it was written out for her by an old doctor from pre-revolutionary St Petersburg, who risked attracting the attention of the authorities himself). After this, Esther was relieved from physical labour, and was allowed to go and live in Alma Ata.

In the city, she found her way into a community of Lithuanian refugees, who cared for her like an orphan from Kaunas. She experienced much warmth: ‘At that time, to hear the invitation—‘Come have some soup with us’—was a very big deal.’ In particular, she became close to Maria Cvirkienė, an artist, the daughter of Professor Merkelis Račkauskas, and at that time the wife of the writer Petras Cvirka[8], who was working in Moscow. The two of them took up knitting, and earned some money from the garments they made, in particular by selling them to a colonel’s wife who liked to dress up and who procured the yarn for them. Maria had only one pair of very worn-out shoes, purchased in Nice during her honeymoon, so she had to find new ones on the black market in Alma Ata. The most important thing was to be able to tell fake ones, made of cardboard, from real ones. The two of them traversed the market, looking in vain, until out of the blue someone whispered to them in Lithuanian: ‘I won’t sell you bad shoes.’ It was a shoemaker from Kaunas, one Čepas from Kęstutis Street, who had also ended up in Kazakhstan. He sold them real leather shoes. In the spring, they’d venture out into the outskirts of the city to gather nettles—Maria suffered from scurvy, and there was no other source of vitamins. When the war ended, Esther received permission to travel to Moscow, in large part due to the efforts of the Cvirkas family, and from there, in October 1944, she boarded a train and returned to Vilnius.

She avoided Kaunas; she didn’t think she’d find any of her friends or relatives there. Only a few months later, convinced by one of her friends with whom she had fled to Russia, did she return to Kaunas to search for signs of her family. Her grandparents’ flat on Ožeškienė Street was completely empty, and the windows were broken. She ran out with tears in her eyes. She found another family living in her parents’ flat—they were very decent people, who let her in without any objection. She walked through the rooms—not a single item that had belonged to her family remained! Outside, she encountered the old yard-keeper. She asked him what had happened, and heard that when they were forced into the ghetto, her parents took almost nothing with them, they were in very low spirits, and very disturbed. But the next day, their maid Rosalia came by, the one who used to do the housework for them; and together with her sons, she took everything that was left, all the furniture, the linen... The yard-keeper told Esther what village she might find Rosalia in. ‘I never went, I didn’t go looking for her. I understood that I could no longer live in Kaunas. The place was full of memories of those closest to me. I felt as if I was in a cemetery.’ After the war, she had just one remaining possession from her former home—the small scissors her father had for some reason packed in her bag.

These conversations happened in what might be considered strange surroundings—a cell in the former Carmelite monastery located alongside St George’s Church in Vilnius. For the past twenty years, this had been her workplace. Maybe the reclusive space suited her solitary life in some way, separated from all those she was closest to. But as I later understood, that room was but a modest vestibule of her vast kingdom. That building—that dusky room I met her in, crossing squeaky hundred-year-old floorboards in the corridor—was known as ‘The Department of Jewish Literature’, and Esther was the department head. More correctly, she was the chief bibliographer—she put in order, catalogued and studied Jewish books which had been brought to the monastery from a variety of ravaged Lithuanian libraries, as well as from the former Vilnius Ghetto Library and the renowned YIVO Institute, to become part of a Soviet-era institution—the Palace of Books. Esther started working there during the Sąjūdis[9] period,  when it first became possible to freely organize and open up to readers the special Judaica fund—a massive and magically safeguarded collection. During the Stalinist period, part of the collection was saved from destruction in a paper factory, thanks to the bibliographer Antanas Ulpis, who hid it in the niches of St George’s Church. Even though she had not worked as a bibliographer before, Esther was invited to take over the cataloguing of the books, most of which were still in piles, mostly because of her keen knowledge of the Yiddish language and literature, which she had gained when completing her studies at a prestigious interwar-period gymnasium. Having lost everyone close to her, as well as her home, and having endured tedious administrative jobs during the Soviet period, and, alas, not having had the opportunity to start her own happy family, Esther quickly became the guardian of this impressive, if somewhat melancholy, treasure trove. The Queen of the Books of an exterminated tribe.

On my first visit, I quickly understood that my initial goal—to collect material for a dissertation about the multilingual literature of Vilnius—was to become secondary during our meetings. When I passed my first test—Esther had to determine if I really knew Yiddish, and if I really understood the importance of the names Reisen, Kulbak and Sutzkever[10]—word by word, from the lips of this amazing bibliographer, slowly began to trickle and flow what I quickly understood to be a living, oral history of the Litvak intelligentsia. I would feel shivers go down my spine as I’d leaf through the rare books she brought to me from the depository, often marked with stamps from the Vilnius Ghetto Library, or a footprint from being trampled by someone’s rough shoe (I’d sometimes find dirt still stuck to the pages), the margins full of observations by readers laid to rest at Ponary[11]. At the same time, Esther would prepare tea, and, having caught hold of some conversational thread, would start telling stories. Her grandparents, her parents, her nine uncles and aunts living in Kaunas, Vilnius, St Petersburg, Paris, their destinies, their characters, their vices ... Their family nest—her grandparents’ large apartment in Kaunas on Ožeškienė Street, filled with books in seven languages, with the smell of Café Haag drifting in through the window alongside the singing of the cantor at the Choral Synagogue; Mikhail Aleksandrovich... her father, completing university in St Petersburg, a remarkable social activist; how he fostered in her a culture of art and music, especially opera; how before each performance that he took her to he’d explain the plots and arias in minute detail; how she sat on her father’s lap at the State Theatre watching Fromental Halévy’s opera The Jewess; how she ran along Freedom Avenue chasing after opera singers Feodor Chaliapin and Kipras Petrauskas, unable to take her eyes off those two impressive men ... When Esther started talking, I listened with bated breath—as though by opening up those books I could step into the disappeared world she once belonged to. ‘A voice as though from another world’, ‘Like something from another world’—these were Esther’s favourite phrases. Perhaps she instinctively felt I had a hunger for that other world, and for that reason she always let me in a little bit closer.

As is fitting for a queen, however, she was also a clever tactician. Sensing that a topic was of particular interest to me, or that I required some rare, not yet catalogued book, she’d turn off the conversation, ‘not hear’ my request and hints as if on purpose, put me ‘on ice’, so that ‘by chance’, a few days later, she could remember again, after receiving adequate compliments and attention. Just like Esther the biblical beauty, the one who led the Persian King Ahasuerus by the nose until he obeyed her like a sheep. I found myself caught up in the whims of the Queen of the Palace of Books, but I wasn’t sorry. Putting up with the courtesy calisthenics, the cool peripeteia, which, you see, her dynastic dignity could not do without, I was always generously rewarded—with books not yet catalogued, with personal stories not yet told.

And yes, Esther always ‘forgot’ my persistent requests to be allowed to examine the treasury of her kingdom—the primary depository of books in the now closed St George’s Church. As I mentioned earlier, after the war, many treasures from various destroyed libraries, manors, seminaries, yeshivas and synagogues were brought to the church. I repeated this request patiently for several months, until suddenly one day I was the recipient of a guileless observation: ‘So have you still never been to St George’s Church? How come you’ve never had the opportunity? Come, let’s go. I can show you.’ And I found myself in the middle of what can only be described as a magic realm: multi-level rare and old-fashioned bookshelves, stretching right up into the Baroque arches, where, climbing up on a narrow ladder, the reader is surrounded by the inaudible sounds of trumpeting angels, and the invisible smoke of flickering flames; where, in a niche, tucked between old Yiddish newspapers, a Carmelite saint agonizes with his heart skewered by a sword; where the throat of St George’s dragon glows, and the blue robes of Our Lady of Sorrows blaze in a labyrinth of books; where the Babylonian Talmud lies open on top of confession kneelers shined by Catholic elbows. It looked to me as if I’d actually stumbled into Jorge Luis Borges’ fantastical library of Babel, and Esther was its all-knowing head. Borges, by the way, asserts that in his endless library you can find books in all imaginable languages—not just Yiddish, but also works in the Guarani language in a Sami-Lithuanian dialect with Classical Arabic inflexions; I wouldn’t have been surprised to find the same in Esther’s treasury—not just to find the former, but also the latter. Maybe I should have ingratiated myself even more with her—maybe she would have found it for me? She knew the labyrinth of the Palace of Books the way she knew people’s lives—some things were talked about, others were kept quiet. I was so sure that her Judaica catalogue was not yet complete that I once dared to try one of Borges’ recommended ways of finding a rare book—pull from the shelf the first book you see. In that way, I came across Zohar, a foundational tract of the Kabbalah, published in 1800 in the Ukrainian city of Slavuta, the cover entirely eaten by bookworms.

Having become an increasingly experienced and privileged visitor to the Queen of the Palace of Books, maybe even fighting my way into the ranks of her favourites, I began to catch on to where some of her tactical manoeuvres might lead. In her investigation of her own life, the history of her family, and the treasury of books, Esther very much wanted to leave something for the future—to add one more volume to the endless library of Babel. And let me add that she was entirely deserving of this honour. The problem was, she wrote mostly in Yiddish, and her native and mother tongue was a dying one; but I could translate her text, as well as write down her oral stories. And so it happened, that at the same time as completing my dissertation, I was preparing ‘Esther’s Book’. I would come to her little room with a recording device and sheaves of her writings about the history of Jewish books translated. Her book was published in 2009, and we gave it a royal title: ‘The Riches of Judaica’ (Prie judaikos lobio / Baym oytzer fun yidish). It is a publication truly worthy of Borges—written in the Yiddish and Lithuanian languages, with German insertions and a mid-20th century personal history inflexion. As is fitting for a special author, the book was published in a small edition; it remains rare, and is known only to a chosen few.

Of course, speaking with Esther always left me with questions that I never dared to ask. I understood she had painful personal themes, certain taboos, and I respected the limits. However, some of my unasked questions were related to sharp, acrid historical wrongs. Why did she, in 1940, during the occupation, join the Communist Youth League? Who made her do it? For she always emphasized how foreign the Soviet system was to her. Why did she speak so warmly not just about Cvirka and other Lithuanian communists, but also—and this is something I really never could understand—about Genrikas Zimanas, an ideological Cerberus of the postwar Communist Party of Lithuania, whom she remembered firstly as her talented biology teacher at the Jewish gymnasium? On the other hand, neither did Esther ask me the questions that must have arisen in her mind. What did my grandparents in Panevėžys do, or their relatives in Kaunas, when thousands of Jews were herded into the ghettos and mass murder sites, including Esther’s own family? Why didn’t we discuss this, and try to unravel it? Maybe we were avoiding a relationship crisis? Maybe we would have argued, or maybe we would have cleansed ourselves of all the dregs. And I still can’t shake off the feeling that these unasked questions were actually answered, only in some other way, more effective than any explanation using words; that they were answered by their own accord, by our respect for one another, by the differences in our identities and experiences, and most of all by the miraculously rescued books which we read. Very likely, our dialogue was maintained by a dose of aristocracy, which Esther brought with her from her parental home, which she agreed to share with me to demonstrate that aristocracy does not belong to individual nations, classes, ideologies or historical periods—that it is a beautiful human attitude. After all, the biblical Esther, who became Queen of Persia by her particular beauty, was also just a Jewish orphan who had lost her family home.

And it all ended in just an ordinary message on my mobile phone: ‘I’m writing to inform you that Esther died today. She will be laid out ...’ I was silent at first. Then an involuntary thought arose: this was to be my first Jewish funeral. And of course it had to be hers, the Queen of Books. Unfortunately, my knowledge learned from books of the differences in customs between what I knew and the Jewish way now seemed somewhat unreliable: should I bring flowers or not? How should I express my condolences? In the customary funeral hall, it was to each his own: old men in kippahs read Jewish prayers; neighbours who had come to pay their respects crossed themselves at the casket and whispered the ‘Hail Mary’. I was trying to figure out who of the mourners were Esther’s family, when another descendent of a prestigious Litvak family who had sat down sorrowfully next to me said: ‘Have you ever been to such a funeral, without a single real relative? This is the most obvious consequence of the Holocaust.’

And still, so many people were gathered. Esther was seen off by a mixed Jewish and Lithuanian community, one that had something real to discuss: within an hour, the funeral hall was abuzz. A rabbi enters to perform the rituals; the funeral home employee also enters to read some kitschy sorrowful words better suited to the Lithuanian mourners. Some lay wreaths; some follow the Jewish tradition, and decide to put small stones on the grave. We make our way to the silent Jewish cemetery—exiled in the Soviet era to the edge of the town. But as we carry the casket down the cemetery paths, a new ruckus arises; one by one, the mourners ask each other a question. I’m walking at the end of the procession, so the question doesn’t reach me right away, but when it does: ‘You’re our last hope. Maybe you know what Esther’s father’s name was? The rabbi needs to mention him in a prayer, but none of us here can remember.’ ‘I don’t remember either ...’ It was as though someone had cut off all our memories. Then suddenly, a Lithuanian historian walking next to me, a young woman who studied interwar period Jewish life in Kaunas, answered: ‘I think I know. Her father was Tevye.’ And so the name of Esther’s father, who was shot in the Ninth Fort, is resurrected for a Jewish prayer by the memory of the young Lithuanian generation. Everyone quietened down at this point. Harmony finally appeared in our mixed Jewish and Lithuanian procession. With common strength, we had managed to rebuild a ruptured genealogy.

And finally the procession comes to a stop in the lane of the most meritorious. The end is as quiet as a silent film. But something still tremors inside me. You see, earlier that day, a distant relative of Esther’s, who was taking care of the funeral, had approached me: ‘We’d like to ask you to say a few words.’ But why me? What do I have to say? What gives me the right? What words could I possibly come up with to connect all that was happening? I should have been gathering myself to give a mournful speech at my first Jewish funeral; but standing at the graveside of the Queen of Books, all I felt was how the scissors cut the threads of the past and the present, quietly as in a silent film.

Why was a small pair of scissors the last thing Esther’s father put in her bag, when he was saying goodbye to her forever? Why did she look after those scissors so carefully, take them everywhere with her—in her wanderings around Kazakhstan during the war, on returning to postwar Vilnius, travelling to Germany for Judaica conferences after Lithuania regained its independence—like a symbol of her identity, like a talisman? If airport security asked her to remove the scissors from her hand luggage, Esther would demand that they be placed in a safe with the most valuable things and protected, because to her they were priceless. What did those scissors really remind her of? Maybe it wasn’t the brutal cutting of her family line, but something else completely? Maybe they were like the key her father gave her to the now lost home? Or maybe the surgical scissors her mother, the midwife, used to cut the umbilical cord of newborns at the Kaunas Jewish hospital, ushering them into life even in the early days of the Nazi occupation?

Why did this queen take on such a multitudinous and strange dynastic symbol? Maybe the symbol was suitable for an Esther of 20th-century Lithuania, but not a biblical queen?

It was time for me to speak. The representatives of the Jewish community had finished their farewell words. At that moment, Esther’s name—morning star—suddenly came to mind, and a phrase came together clearly, as if of its own volition, in her native Yiddish tongue:

טײַערע פֿיראַ, דײַן ליכט וועט בלײַבן אין אונזער זכּרון.

‘Dear Esther, your light will remain in our memories.’

As soon as I had spoken these words, the rabbi began to sing the final psalm.

In this world, there are many scissors that cut off living memory, that cut tradition and relation, that separate nations. However, on rare occasions we happen upon such small pairs of scissors that can manage to unlock the locks of disappeared worlds, of forgotten treasure troves, scissors that can open the road to a new life. And there will never exist a pair of scissors capable of cutting off a shining light.

Farewell, Esther.

2016

 

1. Translator’s note (TN): Salomėja Nėris was a well-known and politically rebellious Lithuanian poet, who began writing in the interwar period. Her involvement with the Soviet administration during the war led to much controversy about her literary legacy. She died in 1945.

2. TN: Kazys Binkis was a well-known Lithuanian poet and playwright, a leader of the Lithuanian avant-garde in the interwar period. He is counted among the ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ for aiding Jews in Lithuania during the Nazi occupation.

3. TN: Eduardas Mieželaitis was a  leftist poet debuting in the interwar period and later became one of the Soviet Lithuanian literary celebrities.

4. TN: This street runs alongside the Nemunas River in the vicinity of the Kaunas wharf.

5. TN: A district in the south of the city of Kaunas, first hit by the Nazi bombardment.

6. TN: During the interwar period, Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, was occupied by the Poles. Kaunas was the interim capital. The signage on the bus indicated a route from the Town Hall to the district of Panemunė on the banks of the Nemunas River.

7. TN: Now known as Almaty.

8. TN: Petras Cvirka was a well-known Lithuanian leftist writer of the interwar period, later – a communist and the head of the Soviet Lithuanian Writers‘ Union from 1940-47.

9. Sąjūdis (Lithuanian for ‘movement’) was the political organization which led the struggle for Lithuania’s independence in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

10. Zalman Reisen – a well-known historian of Yiddish literature of the interwar period. Moyshe Kulbak and Abraham Sutzkever – famous Jewish poets, classics of Yiddish literature.

11. The Ponary massacre was the mass murder of up to 100,000 people by German SD, SS and Nazi collaborators during the Second World War. The executions took place between July 1941 and August 1944 near the railway station of Ponary, now known as Paneriai, a suburb of Vilnius. Some 70,000 Jews were murdered at Ponary, along with 2,000 to 20,000 Poles, and 8,000 Russian POWs, many from nearby Vilnius.

 

 

 

Post Scriptum

 

 I wonder                         

if you even remember them ...            

it wasn’t so long ago that they were still around.  

We used to receive them, and we used to write them.

First you had to choose the paper, what to write with, and 

an envelope—despite the shortages in my early youth, there was always a choice. I liked best writing with something that made a thin, black line. I wrote better on ruled paper, because I often couldn’t manage to write in straight lines; my writing would come out slanting and curved like the lines on the palm of the hand. Because of my handwriting, my letters turned into unusual drawings as I wrote. It always seemed strange to me how handwriting is born of the hand. Do I create it myself, or does it choose and write me? Is it saying something about me to those who read it? An unpredictable drawing, one often described using a different word: authentic.

There usually wasn’t much to choose from in terms of envelopes. The Soviet-era standard was a white rectangle (often with a variety of views of the Kremlin printed on them, or heroes, or the faces of astronauts). The long envelope into which a sheet of paper fits when folded in three reached us only from abroad. Do you remember how those Soviet envelopes required the postcode to be written in special dotted squares, so that they could be read by some kind of correspondence-sorting machine? The envelopes also had the Russian words Куда (Where), and Кому (To whom) on them. First you wrote the address, and then the name of the addressee. Times have changed, and the procedure has flipped: we’ve returned to the Western way—beginning with the name of the addressee. During the transition period, angry at the fact that the Soviet-style envelopes were still on sale, one of my friends got into the habit of making her own. She’d stick together various pieces of paper and pictures from magazines. Every time I received a letter from her, it was an unexpected piece of handiwork. But even the most ordinary, standard envelope had a certain intimacy: after all, we glued them shut with our saliva, and sent our genetic information together with the letter. Not to mention the postage stamp—each envelope was adorned with a small sliver of the era. Like most people, I collected stamps in my childhood, and dreamed about the countries they came from (due to Cold War restrictions, my collection consisted of stamps from Cuba, Nicaragua and Madagascar).

Still, it was very individual to write them by hand. In writing this way, it was as if you could tap into the flow of thoughts, the movement of the words and sentences. I can feel how I’ve become distanced from these things. Now, if I travel somewhere without my computer, and try to write something even slightly long by hand, a strange feeling of unease comes over me—I can no longer tell if what I’m writing is any good. I lose my train of thought, get lost in the text, am overcome by the fear that I will fail. What do you think—does this mean I no longer trust my inner reality? Have I not sufficiently trodden a writing path into the depths of my psyche? Does it mean that I require some sort of external apparatus or computer program in order to orient myself, like the modern traveller who has lost his innate sense of space and immediately gets lost without GPS? And moreover, does it mean that I find it oppressive that when I write by hand my corrections are not immediately erased, they only disappear if I completely rewrite the text, and burn the countless previous drafts? Maybe it’s a sign that I want too much to be correct, and am avoiding any serious introspection—that I don’t want to reflect on my mistakes? But still, I can only visualize my inner language as handwriting; never as a text tapped out on a keyboard. And you know, of course I still only write my personal notes by hand. Sometimes, when I’m making notes in a café, I get very strange looks from my fellow patrons, sitting around me swiping through their phones—as though I’m doing something quite unbecoming with my hand by writing, and not swiping.

When did classic letters disappear from our lives? It seems to me that it happened without us even noticing, so much so that I’d hazard to use a verb from Orwell’s 1984—vaporize—which he used to mean the sudden disappearance of a person without any trace, negated by the authorities, the very fact of his existence forgotten by his acquaintances. Letters vaporized. Can you remember the last time you wrote and mailed a real, personal, handwritten letter? Not an email, not a professional note, not a short card to mark an occasion—a real letter. I thought about it, and couldn’t remember. A little concerned, I leafed through my files, and determined that I last wrote long letters by hand in 2000-2001. Alongside those letters were several printed-out emails, although in them the sender complained of having to contend with the hellishly slow Internet while writing (something that also sounds quite exotic now). It seems that by the time I left Lithuania in 2002 to study in England, I was writing only emails—I do not have a single paper letter from that time. Some of the emails from that period are lisping, written without Lithuanian accents; in one of the emails, the sender thanks me for her first meaningful letter by email, as opposed to the usual laconic note.

So, does this mean that the demise of the handwritten letter corresponds almost exactly with the beginning of the 21st century? Is it really possible that the history of a genre spanning over four thousand years ended so imperceptibly, like the line of an intermittent path increasingly overshadowed by the virtual world? From what I understand, the first recorded personal letters sent to family members were written with a stylus on clay tablets around 2000 BC, and found in the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Perhaps letters haven’t vaporized after all; perhaps only the means of production has changed—is there really such a big difference now in how we write and pass messages along? Do we not continue to call the program we use for our email a ‘mailbox’, and the texts we write ‘letters’, all of which are ‘sent’ (even though in reality we are only pressing a virtual button on a screen)? However, as my accumulated experience with this form of communication has shown me, not only has the speed of the spread of information become lightning fast and geographical distance melted away, but new boundaries have also appeared—namely, the types of things that can be conveyed via the channels of virtual mail, jammed into the slots of immaterial mailboxes. The electronic medium has returned the following to the sender: my handwriting, the personalized touch of my hand to the words written in a letter, the marks of the letter-writing environment, all the messy crossing out and fixing of mistakes, the notes in the margins, the art of the detail, the textures of intimacy, and the personal scent of a text—it’s as though these things were viruses, capable of dangerously infecting the system, or as if the information contained is so large that it surpasses the allowable limits. You cannot send material things by email. Not even the smallest of objects. You can receive information instantly, and at any distance, but you can no longer touch it. And because of this, we’ve unwittingly fallen out of the habit; connecting with someone by writing a real letter has begun to seem excessively direct, provocative, too intimate even. It appears much more threatening to us than our daily public announcements on Facebook (by the way, have you noticed how on Facebook everyone’s personal qualities seem to have become the same?). To give someone your e-mail address is as normal as saying hello. But to give someone your actual home address so that you can write letters to each other by hand—it’s almost uncomfortable. What I’m saying is that we keep referring to these things as ‘letters’, but they are already a different genre, a different style of communication, another e-reality or irreality. And my proof? Emails don’t smell like anything. I don’t know about you, but I have yet to fulfil all my personal communication needs with email.

That being said, I also don’t know if it is currently possible to safeguard the art of letter writing. As I see it, we experienced only the tail end of the art form, its sunset; and it is already seventy years ago that Stefan Zweig declared that this art form belonged to ‘yesterday’s world’. In his memoirs, he ascribes the mastery of letter writing to a tribe of poets from the late 19th and early 20th century, and their most important, as well as most secretive, personality was Rainer Maria Rilke. According to Zweig, Rilke’s impressive epistles, numbering six volumes, were influenced by the aesthetic atmosphere of the period—the lifestyle of the poet faithful only to his art, including the perfection of his handwriting, his calligraphy—and it had an all-encompassing effect on the relations between men and women: ‘This basic desire for beauty would not let him go, not even when he was dealing with the minute details of life; even his handwriting was carefully composed, calligraphy-like and rounded, written on beautiful paper, lines arranged as though he’d measured the spaces between them with a ruler; even the most ordinary letter was written on refined paper and in his calligraphic script, lines arranged with perfect spacing. He could never allow himself to leave a crossed-out word, not even when sending a quick note; if a sentence or expression appeared not quite right he would always rewrite, with enviable patience, the entire letter. Rilke never allowed anything to leave his hands that was not quite finished.’ So the question remains, how much effort did he put into his considerable letter-masterpieces, how long did he carry them around inside himself before he wrote them? As he wrote to Lou Andreas-Salomé from Duino Castle on 10 January 1912: ‘It is already half-past four, I’ve barely eaten anything, and have spent nearly the whole day writing to you, and still I have not managed to explain a single thing clearly, my head is ringing.’ As you can see, the most important of Rilke’s letters were cultivated and grappled with in the same way that he wrote his poems and pages of dense prose. In fact, some of the scenes in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge first appeared in his letters to Lou about Paris: when you have the chance, compare his letter of 8 July 1903 with the well-known episode about St Vitus’ Dance in his novel. The letter describes how, like a man possessed, Rilke follows an individual, who is shaking from the illness, down the Boulevard Saint-Michel in Paris; he describes how ‘a thousand dances’ break free from his body; this was written about six months after the fact; the more developed scene in his novel was written a few years later; if I had to choose between the two, I’d pick the first one—the letter version—for its sharp expressions; but that’s not what I’m writing about. What is most important to me here is that the text matured through his relationships with himself and with others (with his love and his fear); that it is, in fact, like a completed inner thing—perhaps written in a niche or a separate cell in the writer’s mind, or maybe akin to the swiftly and precisely cut edge of a memorial stone, or a smooth sphere, the surface of which was slowly shaped by his own experienced hand—it is unimportant what form it is, just that it is an interior text, which shows the mark of his hand, which he can then evenly and calligraphically write in a letter or draft of a novel. It doesn’t matter where, just that it has matured; at the moment of writing, the letter becomes a completed handiwork; or, as Rilke would say—Kunst-Ding. A wonderful gift, in a carefully chosen envelope, sent to someone. Is this not similar to how he describes the secret of Rodin’s sculptures to Lou? ‘And so his greatest creations grew out of handiwork, from an almost indifferent and humble desire to make better objects, and this is why, even today, he stands immovable and independent of his interest in the material of creation, one of the simplest things he cultivated within himself.’

And perhaps this is why the artistry of his handwritten letters was so strongly connected to fate and heart-lines. Did you know that Lou Andreas-Salomé received the first letter from Rilke, sent by courrier, the day after their meeting at the theatre in Gärtner Square in Munich on 12 May 1897 (the letter was written on paper with a blue chicory motif); that Rilke had previously anonymously sent her several of his poems (Lou only learned this fact later, from one of his essays), and for a long time he would not admit to his actions; that the two of them, he, a budding poet, at that time only twenty-one years old, and she, a well-known writer and salon celebrity, a former lover of Nietzsche, who later married the linguistics professor Andreas, at the time going on thirty-six (the ten-year-old Pasternak later recalled that the two of them travelling together in Russia looked like mother and son); and besides the difference in age, the sharp contrast in social status—she was an heiress from a very wealthy family of Baltic German aristocrats, a lady of the nobility, raised in her father’s house in St Petersburg right next to the Winter Palace, educated at the same private schools that raised the children of Russia’s tsars, and he—a penny-pinching art history student from Prague, whose gibberish about the path of the poet boggled the mind of his father of modest means. Regardless of these conditions, a correspondence began that lasted nearly thirty years, through life’s various peripeteia, until Rilke’s very last days; how in those letters to Lou from Paris, he revealed the future of his poetic prose style, and how the birth of the Duino Elegies in January 1912 was preceded by a particularly intense wave of correspondence, helping RMR to climb out of a particularly exhausting creative dry spell; in her attempts to help him surmount this crisis, Lou became interested in psychoanalysis, becoming one of the first female psychoanalysts, thus discovering her true talent; she advised the still-young Rilke to change his ‘soft’ name René to the stronger and more resolute Rainer, and he named his only daughter Ruth after the protagonist in Lou’s autobiographical novel. It was through Lou that he developed his passion for Russian culture, travelling with her to meet Tolstoy, and in his final letter to her, written in December 1926 from the Valmont sanatorium in the Alps, where he was trying to fight rapidly advancing leukaemia, he ended with the language he’d learned from her lips: Прощай, Дорогая моя—Farewell, my Dearest. She wrote five additional letters in response, but for unknown reasons, not a single one survives. According to one of the doctors at the sanatorium, after reading the letters, Rilke repeated, quite oddly, several times: Vielleicht wird die Lou Salomé doch begreifen, woran es gelegen hat—’Perhaps Lou Salomé will one day understand the heart of the matter.’ Her final letter to Rilke was written when he was already without an earthly address—in 1934, eight years after his death: ‘We met before we became friends, and we became friends not out of free will but by submitting to bonds that were forged in unknown depths. We were not two halves discovering one another; we were that moment when one whole recognizes itself, with a shudder, in another whole. We were fated to be brother and sister, but in those mythical times when incest was not considered a sin ...’ What do you think: when writing this final letter to nowhere, did she understand the heart of the matter?

And now I must admit—I’m guilty of treachery. I began writing this letter by hand, on a sheet of paper, having decided to finally cross this writing barrier, but I abandoned it at exactly the moment when I started to accumulate multiple crossed-out drafts. Mea culpa. Yesterday I transferred everything cleanly on to my computer, on to the screen; the text poured out easily, as though I’d released a stress-valve; I pressed ‘save’, and closed the document. But I must have been a bit foggy from writing, and pressed the wrong button, because today when I opened the document, I discovered that the whole thing had disappeared without a trace! It vaporized! And now not a single draft remains, not even a madly marked-up one. What once was—was no more. Disappeared without a trace. Or maybe I’d only imagined writing it? But when, after first scolding the computer—and my own carelessness—I took a step back and began to look for a way out of the mess, I realized quite unexpectedly that I didn’t need to download a program from the Internet that magically recreates lost texts—my letter had survived, written in my memory. At first I didn’t believe it, but the longer I sat with my eyes closed, the more it came back to me, from the very beginning, sentence by sentence, even the dates I mentioned, even the German writings quoted, even that small detail about the chicory! And this meant that I really had written the letter; it didn’t disappear from my memory overnight, in my incoherent dreams, in my lazy, everyday morning. And as I rewrote the letter, I swear I could hear my inner voice, ringing with the intonations of my speech—yes, it was as if I said all those sentences to you. They twined like a vine, each word drooping down to me like a ripe berry, and each phrase a finished bunch; my question marks and semi-colons were tendrils, reaching further, hooking on. Reaching towards you, it would seem. And, to tell you the truth, it made absolutely no difference what hand movements I used to write down the twining vines of my inner dialogue. I could have written in Braille for all it mattered, and read my words only with the tips of my fingers, blindly.

It is said that in Ancient Greece, letters were carried by messengers, protected by the god Hermes, who had to learn the contents by heart. When they arrived at the recipient, they first had to recite the news, and only afterwards give the recipient the actual letter to read, otherwise the written letters were not trusted—it was thought that a written letter was easy to forge; and from this recitation comes an essential part of the letter as we know it—the salutation. Perhaps I should start following my disembodied electronic messages, come to you, and read them aloud in person, so that they transform into real messages, what the Greeks called epistolē? You see, in fact I no longer know how to write and send real letters. Is there still some god out there who participated in the creation of original objects, and who still cares for the post where handwriting and voice don‘t melt away in instantaneous communication, but where lives themselves are linked? But I still believe that there is still such a thing as a real letter, that we are not simply fated to live out the post scriptum of an epoch that came to several thousand years. The most important thing is to continue to dare to write, even if not according to Classical rules, even if the previous order is overturned and the new letter is easier to begin writing from the inconsequential post scriptum, and it is deemed safer to leave the personal appeal until the very end. The appeal will still be heard, a dialogue between addresser and addressee will still be struck up, and the genuine identity of the letter confirmed. And then it will become clear that the post scriptum was, in fact, actually a somewhat too lengthy prae dictum, that the voices in our minds that once recited our letters aloud have not been silenced. And then a connection will be found between the correspondents and a courrier of some kind who hears their appeals, a third party in every true dialogue, and if the written words of a letter coincide with the timbre of the voice, if its core can be grasped, the letter will finally recover the ability to express an authentic message, maybe in a trace of the hand on the paper’s surface, maybe in the Smart System margins, or maybe in networks of thought, more penetrating than anything the Internet is capable of. And then, watched over by him,

I will once again learn to

write letters

by hand

in black ink

on lined paper

in the hard drum-beat rhythm of typewriter keys

in the particles of electronic letters blowing

in a flat-screen desert

in a personal code of hieroglyphics written

on clay tablets

smelling of primeval earth

in ornamental beans used for writing by Peruvian

natives in sms

granules in sharpened thorns of Nile

reeds drawing

live bodies on coarse papyrus

in sharp tip of a chisel

etching severe northern runes

into the backs of rocks in sepia spilling

from the glands of formless molluscs

in the acorns of oak

dissolved in sulphuric acid in pure hawthorn juice

mixed with wine and soot

in rich iron

rust boiled with acacia resin

in firm mountain graphite

in carbon polymer dust

poured into cassettes

in the computer gigabytes

in thought

microbes

in atoms

proton

quarks

and

 

in my ow

neurons.

 

Will You

answer

me

 

then

 

?

 

 

2016

 

 

Translated by Medeine Tribinevicius

 

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