There’s a district in Vilnius called Užupis, which has seceded from the rest of Lithuania and established its own republic. To get there you cross over a river on a bridge festooned in padlocks engraved with the names of lovers. On the riverbank below the bridge is the statue of a mermaid. It’s a bohemian neighborhood with its own whimsical constitution (“Everyone has the right to understand nothing,” “Everyone has the right to encroach upon eternity,” “A cat is not obliged to love its master, but it must help him in difficult times,” and so on) mounted on a wall in a dozen languages. There’s a café in Užupis with a terrace overlooking the little river, where I sat drinking beer with some Lithuanian poets. They were impressive company, the poets with their chiseled Slavic features, who recited their poems from memory and, unlike Americans, made no apologies for their art. The subject of conversation was Lithuanian identity and the national narrative the citizens were struggling to cobble together since gaining their independence from the Soviet Union. It was a narrative the Jewish component had been mostly edited out of.
“You people are so lucky,” I submitted. “You’ve been persecuted for centuries by the Russians, the Poles, the Germans, whereas I’ve had to punish myself all these years.”
Understand, I’m a cheap drunk, and the beer in Vilnius is very good, especially the dark Baltic variety with its tincture of caramel. Well past my limit (of a single beer) I was inclined to presumption. Also, I wasn’t especially sympathetic to the Lithuanian national identity crisis, having recently visited their Museum of Genocide Victims. This is the museum housed in the old KGB headquarters, a forbiddingly grim building where thousands of Lithuanian partisans were imprisoned, tortured, and murdered by the Soviets. With its punishment cells and execution chamber, it’s a chilling monument to inhumanity, and there’s no question that the Lithuanians suffered disproportionately at the hands of the Russians. But I was more than a little uncomfortable with calling their particular tragedy a “genocide.” I reminded the poets that the Jews had constituted nearly half the population of Vilnius before the war, that theirs had been arguably the richest Jewish culture in Europe. I called the roll of Jewish geniuses from Vilna—the Gaon and the Chazon Ish, Moishe Kulbak and Chaim Grade, the scholar-rabbis, the Yiddish authors, actors, and artists—and suggested that, if the Lithuanians were so desperate for a narrative, they could do worse than to appropriate that of the Litvak Jews. After all, while the official identity of Vilnius had long been Russian, the public life was largely Polish, and the real flavor of the streets was distinctly Jewish. The scant native Lithuanian population was, at least until recently, negligible and ghostly.
I waited for my remarks to revive some atavistic form of anti-Semitism among my listeners, who merely registered then dismissed the suggestion; my reputation as a nudge had preceded me. Lithuania, they explained, was the last nation in Europe to be converted to Christianity. In the late 14th century, when the rest of the continent was building its high gothic cathedrals, the Lithuanians, it seemed, were still worshipping trees. In their zealous quest for identity many of the young were now looking back to the mist-shrouded pagan past. Shikkered from a second beer, I recalled an item of graffiti I’d seen on a crumbling wall earlier that day. It was a more or less stick figure with a protracted middle limb and a legend chalked above it reading in English: Long Dick Boy. It struck me in retrospect that what I’d seen was a pagan scrawl from the Lithuanian Stone Age, possibly the image of some trickster god. I presented my theory to the poets, supporting it with improvised episodes from a cycle of tales about Long Dick Boy: how he stole borsht from the gods, lassoed a dragon with his schlong, etc. “And a little known fact,” I added as a postscript, “Long Dick Boy was circumcised.” I think the Lithuanians were as glad to see the back of me as I was to go home, but I cherish the souvenir hangover I brought back from my time in Vilnius.
I liked to sit sipping coffee in the tall kitchen window of my apartment in Vilnius. The window overlooked the broad Town Hall Square teeming day and night with international tourists. Gold-domed churches and pastel houses with terra cotta roofs bordered the square above which loomed the red brick castle on its hill. Beyond the castle were the dense pine forests that surrounded the city like a green velvet setting for a diadem. The window coincidentally faced the corner where the Nazis had staged their so-called Great Provocation. This was the faked sniping incident they used to justify the “retaliation” that led ultimately to the extermination of the Vilna Jews. Turn left outside of my apartment and you entered the Square, with its wind-tossed fountain, linen and amber boutiques, and outdoor cafes. Turn right and you found yourself in a dreary, cavernous courtyard carved out of what had once been the small ghetto. In this area women, children, and the elderly were corralled and starved before being marched out to the killing fields of Paneriai, where they were summarily shot and tossed into open pits.
During my first week in Vilnius, whenever I left the apartment, I always turned right. I walked through the twisted streets of the former ghettos, the large and the small, and read the signs in Yiddish commemorating the slaughtered; I went to the little Holocaust Museum in the Green House and fed my revulsion on the names of both the ordinary and celebrated citizens that had perished. I made the pilgrimage out to Paneriai and tried to identify with the men assigned to burn the corpses, who might discover among the dead the body of a wife, a father, a child or two. I tried in my fashion to obey the 11th commandment: Zakhor! Remember! and its more piquant Yiddish corollary, “Zolstu krenken un gedenken,” may you sicken and remember. I believe that the Shoah diminished the whole human enterprise, that as a race we’ve been missing vital parts of ourselves ever since. So shouldn’t it be incumbent upon persons of conscience to return to the scenes of the crime in the hope of retrieving something of what was lost? Of course it’s a quixotic exercise; language and emotion are unequal to the task. Poetry, as Theodor Adorno famously pronounced, is barbaric after Auschwitz. Besides, there’s nothing to be found in such places but the stray stones placed atop the monuments by mourners. And even the Jewish graveyards of Vilnius have been removed. Meanwhile, from my kitchen window, I watched the early morning theater: young men stumbled cartoon-like from all-night benders, scattering pigeons as they soaked their sore heads in the fountain; a pair of lovers, still tipsy from their the previous evening’s carouse, performed the comic pantomime of a mating dance; a street sweeper whistled as he worked to a tune played by a solitary Gypsy accordionist. And later on, when I left the apartment, I turned left—as I did every day after that first week in Vilnius—ducking under the arch to enter the carnival atmosphere of the square.
I’m not entirely a fool. I knew that the city was largely illusion, its crooked streets and fanciful facades reconstructed after the war upon a foundation of ashes and bones. I knew that, if you walked beyond the perimeter of the precious Old Town, you immediately found yourself in a soviet wasteland, where impoverished and often suicidal alcoholics sold their daughters into slavery. I knew that, in the face of the nightmare of history, even the Deuteronomic injunction to choose life is a flimsy excuse. But the square was so full of a number of things and the city such a goddam gem.
I had fun in Vilnius, despite my low tolerance for fun. Not to mention that fun in Vilnius seemed like a betrayal of everything sacred. So what was I doing in Lithuania? A good question, and having traveled all the way to that small Eastern European nation to teach English-speaking students the same stuff (creative writing) I routinely taught at home, I asked my class at our first meeting, “What the hell are we doing in Lithuania?” But the truth was that the question was disingenuous. I knew perfectly well why I’d come. When first invited to teach there in the Summer Literary Seminars, I instantly declined. I don’t travel well; I like to hang on to my desk with my teeth—that was my default reply. Then I remembered that I am a lover of Yiddishkeit. What reputation I have is as a writer inspired by Yiddish culture and folklore, and old Vilna once boasted the mother lode of that culture before it was utterly erased. So I complained to everyone I knew that I’d had a chance to go to Lithuania and blown it. Eventually I received another email from the program, saying, “We hear by the grapevine you might be having second thoughts.” I considered my bluff called.
It’s a beautiful city, Vilnius, a hard place in which to imagine the unimaginable. Especially when you’re strolling serpentine streets flanked by blue and yellow houses, some squat as toadstools, others narrow as the spines of books, most sprouting scrollworked balconies. The baroque churches look like pink cupcakes, the hidden courtyards beckon like grottos, and the women (Sabrina, I can look) are whip-thin and sleek as cats. It was a storybook milieu, complete with an argosy of hot air balloons overhead, and it dazzled me to the point where I forgot to miss what was missing. What was missing? Only about 1000 years of the most vibrant Jewish life to be found anywhere on the planet. It was here that the Vilna Gaon sprang from the womb reciting Talmud, and the poets of Yung Vilne kept the printing presses busy until the plates were melted into bullets for the resistance. Here the shelves of the YIVO archive and the Strashun Library groaned from the gathered weight of the Diaspora, and the cauldron of conflicting ideologie—Hasidim vs mitnagdim, bundists vs Zionists—boiled over in the streets. Here Chaim Soutine and Jacques Lipchitz plied their visionary trade within earshot of Jascha Heifetz’s violin. All that remained of that world, however, was a handful of memorial plaques, some busts and a couple of signs informing the tourist that history was once here but had since moved on. Not that I’d expected more; though I’ll confess to a romantic hope that, if I connected my passion for Yiddish culture to its source, sparks would fly and the streets swarm again with Jews. Instead there was only a sputtering of my good intentions before the impulse fritzed out and expired. Then it was easier to brood over what was absent than to try and recover what was lost.
So I abandoned my role of amateur Yiddishist in exchange for professional mourner. I gave a fiction reading in an old church outside of which the first Jewish victim of the Nazi occupation (a woman) was shot. “It’s wonderful to be here in a city where you can picture a Jew hanging from every lamppost,” I quipped, embarrassing everyone. The audience, comprised of Vilnius’s tiny Jewish community come to hear a concert of Yiddish music for which I was the opening act, sat in deadly silence. When I was done, a man like a steamer trunk in a tuxedo marched to the stage and, accompanied by a classical pianist, belted a medley of Yiddish folksongs that exorcised the chapel of my sarcasm. He ended with a Kaddish that rocked the foundation of the church. Chastised, I too dropped a tear into the overflowing bucket of Jewish grief and tried to hold that thought. But the music was truly cathartic, and afterwards, exhilarated, I went off with colleagues to drink too many beers in sidewalk cafes, in cafes tucked away in vaulted catacombs, in cafes with terraces overlooking the river, where I wallowed in guilty pleasure.