Saturday, September 15, 2007

Lithuanian Snapshots - Four

After lunch, Jay and I visit the Museum of Victims of Genocide, housed in the former KGB building on Gediminas Avenue. It is a fine day, the sky is high and we are cheery after our filming.

We only have an hour. As it turns out I am glad, because atmospheres work on me, and the building was heaving with its history. It is a heavy-doored, stone-staired, long-corridored structure. Eerie holographic hands holding guns reach from the walls.

In the upstairs rooms -which used to be office space to the Russians, then the Nazis, and then the Russians again - is a brilliantly assembled exhibition, beautifully lit, meticulously labelled. The walls are filled with writings and photographs about the various oppressions and occupations this fierce little country has had to tolerate. Cases of priceless human ephemera pinned behind glass like so many insect specimens detail the thousands of lost, deported, murdered lives.

Downstairs in the basement are the torture cells of the KGB prison, maintained virtually untouched since their last prisoner less than thirty years ago. The cells are painted an old, puce green. They boast of the darkest places the human mind can go. The Wet Cell struck me most, a nasty, claustrophobic space with a scooped out floor which would be filled with water which turned to ice in winter. In the centre there is a tiny metal pedestal, the prisoner's only refuge from the wet. Further down the corridor I find the Soft Cell, with its strange, stupid-looking straitjacket hanging on a peg just in front of me. This cell was padded in 1973, the sign says, to stop the torture cries, and the cries from those driven mad by torture, from being heard. Nineteen-Seventy-Three, I whisper, trying to make it fit. My nineteen-seventy-three, the one that I know, held in it Jackie magazine, and the Eleven-Plus, and bell-bottomed trousers.

At the end of the longest corridor, the penultimate cell has been put to a different purpose. It is the Prison Library. Books do not belong here! is my first thought. But then I think yes, yes let there be books. Let there - as with the volume of Shakespeare which Nelson Mandela read and annotated in his imprisonment on Robben Island - be hope. Beyond, a board carries simply a series of black and white photographs, all portraits of dead partisans as their bodies were propped up in town squares against walls and fences, for the people to see. The faces of the dead are beaten and battered, but oddly compelling. I cannot take my eyes off them. In one, the eyes of a woman are like the sewn-on eyes of a ragdoll, so swollen are they. I find myself wondering what act, what atrocity, could have done this to her, and discover that I cannot, literally cannot, imagine.

I step at the last down into the Execution Chamber. I make myself step: there is no-one else around and I make the journey into this brightly lit bowel with dread. The floor is glass and lit to reveal relics of those who died beneath your feet in the sand. Thousands were shot or stabbed in this chamber. I try to say some sort of prayer for them but am so troubled that none comes. I go and find Jay. I've had enough, I tell him. Because I have. Because I can.

I run to hide in the sunlight outside. From an open window in the next building on the Avenue pours a piano solo, someone practising long and hard and strong. I remember that this building is the Academy of Theatre & Music, and almost cling to its walls as I gulp back my tears. This building houses my belief system, I remind myself, my soul.

I walk across the street to a park bench, letting the music work on me, waiting for some sign that it's about love, too, this life: find it in the brief, steadying "Grim" of nodded agreement between myself and my old friend when he too emerges into the sunshine. I put my hand for a brief moment on his arm to pin myself to the moment, here on Gediminas Avenue, beside the bloody geraniums.


Cathy said...

Evocative writing, Livvy. By a strange coincidence yesterday I found a book called 'A Woman in Berlin', a memoir written about what happened when the city fell to the Russians in 1945. The same sort of atrocities, I fear. It really does seem like a different world.

Hannah Velten said...

Hi Livvy

Lovely to meet you in blogging land - glad you stumbled on to my site....

What a moving blog to encounter when I first visit your pages! I loved your 'priceless human ephemera' sentence...lives pinned up to veiw - what a horrowing experience for you (and obviously for the Lithuanian people). I know what you mean by wanting to re-connect with the current world after imagining something so horrendous - thank goodness Lithuanians are emerging from their nightmare aswell!

Just read your other Lithuanian pages - Hmmmm, maybe the ladies of Lithuanian just like getting married/being brides, what with all the men to choose from...spoilt for choice, I guess. And how embarrassing to get stuck in a winibago...and how brave to got Interrailing on your own (mind you, it sounds like you set yourself up for that one!)

I shall watch out for more of your adventures.....

ChrisH said...

Hello Livvy,
Now, I was going to start a flip comment about midnight lurkers when I read this account and choked everything back. It made very shocking reading but we should be reminded of the bloody history of the past.

I then went on to read your previous blogs which also made fascinating reading - now I have a 'snapshot' of Lithuania; gorgeous women fighting the odds to be brides, Elvis on a recorder and poor you, trapped in your winibago.

I particulary liked the quote beneath your title, it's a view I share.

It was good to 'meet' you Livvy and I look forwards to reading more of your blogs. Thank you very much for dropping by and taking the time to comment.

Marianne said...


Livvy U. said...

Cathy I think I've heard of that book, it's by - whom? Do you remember? I think I had it marked to read - along with the 3,543 others beside my bed...

Hannah hello, thank you so much for returning my visit. I know, it's a serious one to drop in but I do have the odd flash of humour! Come again, I have you bookmarked so I'll definitely be along to yours.

And Chrish, great to meet you too. Again, thanks for dropping by. I love that title quote too, I put it there to remind myself. I first heard it from a man called Michael Meade giving an inspirational talk in St James Piccadilly. I think it might be Native American Indian in origin.

Marianne I appreciate all your Lithuanian comments so much, especially the one about my writing - I'm thrilled you can see a difference. It's certainly getting that little bit easier. I'm off to yours, now as I don't think I've popped by in a while. xx

Cathy said...

Livvy the book is by 'Anonymous'...apparently she was a journalist at the time and did not want to be identified...the themes include rpe and sexual collaboration. It is published by Virago.

Flowerpot said...

good to meet you Livvy and what an amazing post! So glad you stumbled across me and I will be back to visit! Keep writing.

Sue said...

I have no words for what you've described. It's just so unbelievable that humans can be so awful with each other.

What's that saying "there's always someone worse off than you". This just takes that off the limit especially knowing it wasn't that long ago that the cell's were being used.

I found how you wrote it compelling too.

Sue x

Livvy U. said...

Thanks for that, Cathy - it is the same book. I think someone recommended it to me.

Dear Flowerpot, hello - and thanks for the return visit. Sooo glad you like the post, do come again soon and I'll be dropping by, too.

It is incredible, isn't it, Sue - the recent past - so recent. And of course, sadly, happening as we speak to someone else, somewhere else in the world. A salutary reminder to cherish what we have. x

merry weather said...

That was a chilling post - what a ghastly place to visit. And yet, so important for ordinary people to do so - to bear witness to human atrocities, to learn and to teach others. Phew. I would have found that a very difficult building to tour.

What a difference time makes in our lives, 1n 2007 you could walk in and out of there - in 1973 God only knows what might have happened.

Thanks for sharing that Livvy. Must have been great to meet up with your friend Jay for this trip, lucky coincidence.

Livvy U. said...

Merry it was a lucky coincidence, it was heartwarming to be with Jay.
Thanks for your writing comment on previous post - yes, it's true, what compels me moves me to write. It's good to have that pointed out. x

Rachel Whetzel said...

Hey Liv! RAK is Random Act of Kindness, and it means give away!

Suffolkmum said...

What a fantastic couple of posts Livvy - I couldn't tear my eyes away from the screen, and left the phone to ring out because I wanted to finsih! You made my blood run cold in this one - as you say - 1973??! Tartan scarves and Jackie for me too. Stunning writing and some piercing images. Better go and see who was on the phone!

Livvy U. said...

Rachel thanks for that - I never would have guessed!

Suffolkmum - appreciation much appreciated. Gosh, yes, I'd forgotten the tartan scarves...

Stinking Billy said...

Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, eh? You have wonderful taste, Livvy U.

Me and a workmate, me in my 30s and him in his 40s, decided we would like to learn music and how to play an instrument together, however late in life, so we chose the easiest and bought a couple of descant recorders, together with appropriate instruction booklets and set to - completely from scratch.

Perhaps I should have written 'screech' there, but we perservered and were soon enjoying playing little duets from the books. Chuffed with our (eventual) progress we decided to enlarge our repertoire and I bought a tenor recorder and him a treble.

It was inevitable that we would want to move up and graduate to a 'proper' instrument, and we bought a couple of second-hand B flat clarinets. That was when the screeching returned - in spades.

However, with patience we picked up the sensitivity needed to vibrate the reed across the taut bottom lip and learned how to get our embouchures right, and eventually produce acceptable tones. Clarinets are infinitely more difficult to play than recorders.

Cutting to the chase,we had reached a point where we were having regular attempts at *the* concerto and improving with every practice session, when we learned that Gervaise de Peyer was coming to Newcastle's City Hall to play our adopted anthem. We had him and a couple of other concert clarinettists on vinyl by then and used to sit and listen to them, absolutely enraptured.

We bought seats down in the second row from the stage. He walked on and stood stock still and totally expressionless during the particularly long introduction by the orchestra, then, on cue, he raised the mouthpiece to his lips and commenced playing.

It looked entirely effortless compared to our own experience, no blowing and seemingly no breathing, in fact, and not a twitch of a face muscle to be seen during the whole of his performance. The music, the way he zipped through the demi-semiquavers with such lightning precision, and the pure sound of his instrument throughout, have stayed with me ever since.

We had been struggling in ignorance and teaching ourselves for over three years when we should really have sought professional tuition. Not that we could ever have remotely approached a professional standard, but we had developed too many faults and it was too late to start over.

It wasn't entirely wasted by any means, for we had come to appreciate classical music from the little tunes by Mozart, Bach, et al, in our recorder books.

Many years later I was passing the foot of our staircase when I was stopped in my tracks by the sound of my teenage son upstairs in his room practising on his guitar. He was surely playing the opening movement of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto? What the - ?

I went up there and sat on the top stair and listened. Yep, that's what he was doing. When he stopped I entered and asked him whether he had been playing from sheet music, because I couldn't see any.

"No, dad, I don't read but I have heard you playing the record on a number of occasions so I borrowed it and listened to the first five minutes a couple of times to get the hang of it." I knew that he had been assessed with 'almost perfect pitch' at school, but his rendition of such a difficult piece from memory - and on a guitar - had me virtually speechless.

Today he is in his 40s and is a solo Rock artiste performing at clubs and pubs, and he also has his own Rock band. It is all he has ever done since leaving school, but at no time has the thought ever crossed my mind that he should get a proper job!

If you happen to play the liquorice stick yourself, Livvy, I apologise for the unnecessary explanations' I apologise anyway for producing such a saga from just one of your preferences, but re-living those experiences has given me a warm glow, and I thank you for that.

Livvy U. said...

Welcome Billy! And thank you for the longest comment I've ever received. I have been over to yours already to suggest you might like to write up the story there, it's a great tale. But am flattered you left it here, too.

It has been a favourite of mine for as long as I can remember, that piece of music.