Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Lithuanian Snapshots - Closing Picture

Is it time for lunch yet? reads Jay's text message.

It is Monday, my last full day. The weather has turned; all morning it has been spitting rain. I hop in and out of puddles and shoe-shops, trying to find something more substantial than my sparkly flip-flops. I am thoughtful, even a little melancholy. I miss my two beloveds desperately, at the same time as longing for more time alone. I spent so much of my life alone before I met the Bim that it will probably always be a state I hanker after. Time alone feeds me. I remember who I am again. I remember how to think again. I recognise this sort of time now, though (in a way I never did then, when I had oodles of the stuff ) as an important, priceless luxury.

Jay joins me for lunch at Skonir ir Kvapas, a wonderful, old-style tea-room in a picturesque courtyard where we order ginger tea with orange juice and honey. We talk for ages. I feel my conversation unfolding from me in a way I haven't for months. These conversations I've had with Jay throughout the trip are the longest consecutive conversations with a grown-up I've had in a long time. Jay is a great listener, and it feels good.

After lunch we go our separate ways with a promise to meet again for dinner. I go in search of the Holocaust Museum on Pamenkalnio 12, to complete my short investigations into Lithuania's recent past.

The Green House, a modest, green clapboard cottage, is difficult to find. It is not what I was expecting. The door is locked, though the Museum is obviously open: an ominous sign and again, not what I was expecting. No-one comes to answer the bell, and eventually a fellow visitor, just leaving, lets me in. Inside, there is no-one to whom I can pay the ridiculously small entrance sum, so I begin to walk around the house without a ticket.

There is a make-shift, temporary feel to the Museum, nothing like yesterday's exhibition, which was so expertly, expensively put together. This is home-made by comparison. I gather that it is not state funded - that Lithuania is, in fact, in some turmoil with itself about the role its own partisans played in aiding the liquidation of its own Jewish population - and that the Museum is the private project of several Lithuanian Holocaust survivors. Very little of the text is in English, so that I am forced to pick up what I can from the board headings (which are) and the exhibition's many images. They pack a weighty punch.

Pre-war Vilnius was known as the Jerusalem of the North. Ironically, Jews were invited to settle in Lithuania in the 14th Century by Grand Duke Gediminas. In the 19th Century Vilnius became the centre for the European Jewish language, Yiddish, and by the 20th Century it had become the Jewish cultural capital of Eastern Europe. Many eminent Jewish thinkers, artists, writers, scientists and musicians made it their home. Pre-World War II there were 100 synagogues in the city and six daily Jewish newspapers. 100,00 Jews lived here of a total 240,000 in Lithuania as a whole.

Today, there are just 5,000 Jews in Lithuania. And just one synagogue still stands in the city of Vilnius. It survives because the Nazis used it as a medical store. A rabbi flies in from London now and then to officiate.

I'm not a numbers person, except when they become more eloquent than words.

A short way into my tour of the Museum, a door opens and two well-dressed Jewish women of a certain age appear. There is much consternation that I have neither ticket nor a guidebook, and was not greeted on arrival. They introduce themselves by Christian name, insist I retrace my steps to the very front door. Let's start again! they say. Come in, come in! they say, opening and closing the door even though I am already in the building - Now, where did you say you were from? They hand me a well-thumbed wodge of photocopied pages - an extremely wordy, well-written guide to the exhibiton.

I find their kindly attentions extremely touching. I know these women; they remind me of candlelit Friday nights at my childhood friend Shoshannah's house, welcomed into a culture which is not mine but with which I have always resonated. Coiffeured, intelligent, good-hearted women, too concerned for your health and well-being but achingly reassuring. I think of my friend Dee, whose Jewishness seeps through her every pore and more than makes her who she is. I think of Anne Frank, who was born the same year as my mother Esme - how she, too, could have been nearing eighty now. What a body of work we lost there! It was the slim, serious little paperback of Anne's diary, slipped into my twelve-year-old hand, which started my own habit of journal-keeping, which led, perhaps, to here.

There were two ghettos in Vilnius. The Small Ghetto existed for 46 days in 1941. No-one survived it: eleven thousand Jews were marched from here to their deaths in the forest at Paneriai, some 10 kms from the city. The Large Ghetto existed for two years. A few hundred people survived it; some nineteen thousand died. Studying the maps in the Museum I realise how little the streets in the city centre have changed. I make my own, lone pilgrimage to find the streets mentioned. It is a drizzly, sombre little mission. I begin to understand why the comments of Jewish visitors from all round the world in the Museum's leather-bound Visitors Book are so frustrated and angry. The ghetto streets remain largely unchanged, but they pass almost unmarked. I find two or three marble memorial plaques, but blink and you'd miss them.

The Ghettos were made and sealed in the old Jewish quarter, in the very heart of the city. It was impossible not to know what was happening. Indeed, crowds formed to watch the Jews being marched in at the main Ghetto gates. I find myself staring into the faces of elderly passers by, silently questioning: Were you here? I ask them. Were you?

As I identify street after ghetto-street, walk the pavements, touch the walls, I remember a couple of original, black and white posters in the last room of the Museum, advertising theatrical performances. In 1942, over 120 musical and theatrical performances took place in the Large Ghetto. I am ineffably moved by this. Plays, they did plays. And music. They had a Symphony Orchestra. They took up their instruments and played. They took up their instruments and played, learnt speeches and performed. Of course. As an artist myself I understand this in a visceral, passionate way. It is how I have been taught to live, too. And so it is that in the face of this sad, heartbreaking day, I go back to my hotel room, and write.

The next day I leave Lithuania, and come home.


Suffolkmum said...

God. Some horrors just can't be rationalised or swept away. I loved all the detail on this post - the ladies ushering you in again, the sense of anger in the comments book. I started keeping a diary because of Anne Frank's book too. And I have read of the symphony orchestras in camps, in ghettoes, of plays and lectures, and it astonishes me and makes me weep. (PS I also love time alone).

Mean Mom said...

Welcome home Livvy!

This post was certainly sobering and sad. It was also really well-written, and I felt as if I was visiting with you!

It's gone a bit chilly, here. Get those jumpers out!

I can't believe it! I've got the 'word verification' wrong, again!!!

debio said...

Beautifully written.

Marianne said...

What a wealth of talent was lost to the world because of the holocaust.

Have you read Vikram Seth's 'Two Lives'? It would resonate with you I think. A moving and haunting memoir based on leters he found in his Uncle's attic in Hendon.

merry weather said...

That was very moving reading Livvy. I am dwelling on the thought of those people producing art in the midst of nightmares. It is both a heartbreaking and inspiring image.

Would you return to Lithuania again I wonder? Take care, hope your writing is coming on, good luck...

Livvy U. said...

Vikram Seth's 'Two Lives' is a book I've always intended to read, Marianne - now perhaps I will: I heard a wonderful quote from it once - and I'm paraphrasing, forgive me, Vikram: 'Shanti, you need to put your wishbone where your backbone is' - something I've been trying to do ever since...

Yes, I'd return to Lithuania, Merry, I'd like to see the country outside the city of Vilnius - sounds very different. It was a place which certainly hit some kind of nerve in me, hence the number of posts about my trip - though i think that was as much because I remembered who I was there, as much as about the place itself.

Yes, Anne Frank - oh I mourn her still, suffolkmum.

Richard said...

So poignant and terrible and sad. Beautiful writing. You shine through.

ChrisH said...

Thank you for your incisive and moving account of your stay in Lithuania.

Stay at home dad said...

Fascinating all of this. What an experience and how good to have it now. And all written in your usual beautifully measured yet pacey style. I feel you need a wider audience...

Livvy U. said...

From your mouth to God's ears, SAHD!! x

Thanks one and all for comments on the Lithuanian experience. I'll move on, now...