Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 36, 1992
Postcolonial Fictions:
Proceedings of the SPACLALS Triennial Conference 1992
Edited by Michèle Drouart

Two Lithuanian Stories

Betty Birsky

'In Vilnius'

Bron poses Beryl in Lukiskiu Square in front of the former KGB headquarters so she's standing facing the building with her right arm raised, palm up, fingers gently curled as if bestowing a blessing. "Okay," he calls as he backs away, "Do not move!" and he snaps her with his new little Japanese camera.
"You can call this, Here stood Lenin," Bron says, and takes similar photographs all over the city: Beryl standing in places where a few months earlier identical ten-metre statues of Vladimir Ilyich had loomed offering, as Bron puts it, new life to the lucky Soviet peoples.
At first Bron wanted Uncle Vito to pose, but Vito would not be part of such public clowning. Aldona too stands back aloof; she shakes her head and chides in her faltering English, "My husband - my most big child."
Bron and Beryl are undaunted. In parks, in front of public buildings, all about the city, she stands in her Lenin pose and he photographs her.
In another part of Lukiskiu Square, close to Gediminas Avenue, stands a thick wooden pillar about ten feet high. In several places the wood has been chopped about and pieces of metal hammered in rough repair round the damage. On a plaque affixed to the pillar are a date, 1863, and two names: Zigmontas Sierakauskas and Kastus Kalinauskas.
Bron explains, "Last century a gallows stands here, where these two patriots are hanged for leading a revolt against the Tsar. When we declare independence we build this memorial." He touches the plaque and says, with his usual dead-pan expression, "The Russians do not know how to act about this. You must understand; for them it is difficult. These two are rebels against the Tsar and that is good; but they are Lithuanian patriot rebels and that is not good." He points to the crude repairs. "so there are mysterious vandals who try to destroy our memorial but always we repair it. Now, we leave it like this. In memory."
Beryl and Vito are touring Vilnius with their ironic guide Bronius and his wife Aldona. Alda drives the rackety, jerky little Moskva car, with Vito in the front passenger seat, while Bron curls his length into the back seat beside Beryl - and talks. He talks and talks; she suspects he is practising his English on her. Most of the talk is about his country and she warns Vito: I"ll know more about Lithuania than you do by the time we go home.
Home is Australia, and after more than forty years there Vito is visiting his native land.
He and Beryl arrived in a dream, numb with the improbability that their fantasy of many years was really coming true. The stopover in Singapore, the long flight, the plane's descent over the brown fields and forests and lakes of the sacred homeland, the tearful airport reunion with Vito's sisters, Ancie and Kasta and their families, the ceremonial sashes, the flowers, all seemed to be happening to someone else.
Later, the thing Beryl remembers most vividly about their arrival is the shock of the grey cement housing block in its barren yard in the bleak "district" with the rhythmic name of the village it replaced: Fabijoniskiu.
"Now we start to show you Lithuania," Bron announces, the second afternoon. "And where better to start then with our fine supermarkets."
The 'supermarkets" are even worse than they had imagined. TV had shown the empty shelves, the queues, the indifferent assistants pushing beads on their abaci - but not the stench of rotten vegetables, the grime and the dilapidation. Almost daily Alda must search the free markets to find food for them all; the bread is dry and almost too hard to eat, just as Vito once dreamt.
Vito's worst TV image had been of an old woman in Moscow, trying to sell a withered brown cabbage heart; on their first shopping expedition she is here, standing outside the local Supermarket in Fabijoniskiu, her clawed fingers still holding out her one spoilt offering.
Vito blanches, and cannot stop lamenting: "My poor little country! We used to grow everything; we had too much food."
"But Uncle Vito, the old lady has something to sell, and she looks for a buyer. This is capitalism, we must all learn it," Bron says.
It takes a while for the Australians to realize that over the years, irony and ambiguity have become Bron's defence.
Beryl can understand this: the squalor and beauty, the courage and fear. Her own being soon aches with the contrasts of the place.
They tramp the Old Towns in Vilnius and Kaunus, the turreted medieval castles at Trakai and on Gediminas Hill, the beautiful old churches, and as they go, Bron tells her of the last pagans in Europe and the peasants who maintained their unique culture and language under centuries of oppression and of the Grand Dukes who established a brief Empire; their names roll off his tongue: Mindaugas, Gediminas, Vytautas . . .
She had known a little of this history; now, here, her skin crawls with it; it seeps through thin layers.
In bed, she tries to apologize to Vito. "We had no real culture or history of our own and we never wanted to know anything about yours; even now we don't."
But he has collapsed into a sleep of exhaustion, is lightly snoring.
They visit Zemaicaia province in the north, where Vito grew up, where his older sister still lives in the city of Telsiai. Algie, Kasta's son-in-law, drives them in his big black Lada. They go along the main street, to the city square in the valley between the two hills and stand beneath the monument to the Black Bear, the city's symbol, to pose for photographs. From the cathedral grounds on the higher hill top, they view the city and the forests and farm lands beyond. Vito goes to stand a moment before his parents' grave in the Telsiai grave-yard; he is now older than either of them when they died and his grief is tempered perhaps by that fact. They stand by the gravestone and take photographs.
The name Lieplauke, the name of Vito's boyhood village has a magical aura for Beryl; Vito has often dreamt of it, of walking its roads.
"I can't believe you're really going there," she says, but he does not answer, looks away, and she can imagine how fearful he might be of this visit.
The day is bleak for July. The only place Vito recognizes is the large wooden church but it is shabby and unpainted, the churchyard wall eroded, the garden neglected. The shop where the children bought sweets from the old Jewish lady is gone; a row of neat new homes stands where the priest's gardens had been. No one moves in the village except one old woman tending her garden. Vito does not want to talk to her.
When he was a boy Vito would go with his father to Lake Garmonto to sell cherries to the summer holiday-makers. Today a chill wind blows across the water onto the empty shore; the weekend cabins are long gone. Vito stands looking round impassively. There is nothing here he can recognize. He shivers. "It is cold," he says. "Let's go back."
His sisters have warned him not to look for the family farm; the buildings have been demolished long ago and the fields incorporated into a collective.
Driving through a glistening forest of silver birch, Algie points to ruins in a clearing. "That was a Smetona concentration camp; after, the Nazis took it over," he says. Smetona, Beryl knows, was President in the years of independence between the wars.
At the edge of the Rainai forest a chapel is being built. One wall bears the names of seventy-four local men brutally murdered by Soviets in 1941. Vito finds the name of a classmate inscribed.
"Some Lithuanian comrades helped," Algie tells them dryly, and Beryl thinks, Yes, there would be Australians to help too, if . . .
"All some of them did was fly a Lithuanian flag. They brought a lot of trucks here and ran the engines full throttle to drown out the screams while they cut off their penises and cut out . . ." Vito is translating as Algie tells the story, but Beryl has heard enough; the words tongues and stuffed them whisper after her through the delicate rustling of the birch leaves as she flees back to the car.
"I shouldn't have come," Vito tells her that night. "It's all too much." It is not the first time he has said this; she often feels the same.
With Antanas, Alda's father, they walk through a beautiful park in the centre of Kretinga. A picturesque water mill is reflected, mirror image, in the lake; they pass tall wood carvings, Lithuanian folk art: harvest maidens and hero knights. It is a splendid summer morning and Beryl's heart sings, she smiles across at Vito, today it is wonderful to be here.
"It's too far to walk now." Antanas says, "but the other side of the lake there's a memorial to the Jews of Kretinga. They were driven into the lake here, and those who didn't drown were shot on the other side as they tried to climb out."
Back in Vilnius they stroll again in the Old Town and the history, the feeling of centuries, is like something growing inside her.
They walk down Subacious Street looking for the barracks where Vito was billeted as a young sergeant when the Lithuanian army marched into Vilnius to reclaim it from the Poles. They cannot find the building but pass old lop-sided houses where a woman draws water from a well in one of the yards.
They prowl the narrow lanes around the University, into Vokieciu Street, past eighteenth and nineteenth century houses under reconstruction; this is the place, Alda says, for amber and linen souvenirs.
"Vokieciu meant German," Bron explains. "This was the ghetto."
Days later, browsing in his library, Beryl comes on a book, LOST STREETS OF OLD VILNIUS with English subtext. There are photos of Vokieciu Street as it was at the end of the war, in ruins, dynamited and burnt. She means to ask Bron to tell her more, but forgets.
In Kaunas they pass the railway station where in 1941 Vito saw, with his own eyes, as he has often told her, men, women and children being herded into cattle trains to be taken to Siberia. Many thousands died, on the way there or through their years of exile. Since independence they are bringing back bodies.
Everyone has stories of those "Russian years" - family farms destroyed, parents and grandparents sent to Siberia: They pinched aunty's arm with pliers; if it bruised it meant she was still fit to work. Bitter memories of fifty years of silence and mistrust, now to be spoken of. They tried to wipe out a culture, Beryl reads in one of the four-page English language newspapers that Bron buys for her.
In all the large cities there are Russian garrisons; they have passed them many times: the high walls and red stars on the gates, the armed sentries. On a street map Bron marks in the Vilnius garrisons. Across the large site in Zirmunu District he writes 800 tanks.
"That is where the tanks came from last year," he says. "To the Press building and the TV Tower and the Parliament."
Of course they have been to pay homage at all three places: to the bullet holes, and the barricades left in place, and the rough home-made shrines to the dead.
In the Vilnius Parliament a dozen parties squabble and accuse each other of being communists, of being fascists. The quarrels, noisy and excited, invade family gatherings and Beryl, who loves politics, could weep with frustration at her exclusion. She yells for Vito to interpret but, confused, he shouts at her in Lithuanian.
"As nesuprantu," she screams back and the argument breaks up into laughter. She has learnt a little of their language after all if only to say she doesn't understand.
Everybody, Beryl realizes, has a private phobia: a return to Smetona times or the Russian garrisons acting of their own accord or some group "taking over" once more: the Church or the communists or the fascists . . .
At Gariunai there is a huge open market, the largest in Eastern Europe. It cannot be missed. They pass it on the way to Palanga, to Kretinga, to Telsiai, to Kaisiadorys. The tents and booths and cars and trucks spread over acres in a valley off the main road. Lithuanians, Poles, Russians, Georgians, even Chinese and Vietnamese sell anything and everything there, from cheap watches and toothpaste to cars and machine guns, the Vilnius guide-books says.
"I'd like to look at that," Beryl suggests, but Bron shakes his head.
"We do not go there. It is too dangerous."
The market features on TV; there must have been bashings, extortions, even murders.
"See," Vito admonishes.
"They think all this is capitalism," Bron says.
A Stock Exchange is to open in Vilnuis.
"The traders from Garaunai should do well there," Beryl says and realizes that as Bron seems to have abandoned much of his ironic stance she has adopted it.
She cannot help wondering what other, even more subtle changes are taking place within her. And, doubtless, within Vito.


'From the Village of Lieplauke'

The names buzz in Beryl's head; she mentally practises the sounds, imagining their soft sibilance emerging correctly from her nasal Australian accent: Telzhay, Zhem-eye-tay.
Vito's father's farm was close to Telsiai, in Zemaiciai province, she has heard it so often that these places of Vito's childhood have by default become her land of myth. She suspects that for Vito too they now have a mythical unreality. "It's hard to believe now . . ." he says, or "I can't remember exactly, but I think . . ." as if all that former life could be merely a fiction.
"The village of Lieplauke in the Druksciai district," Vito says quite sternly. "In the north."
The countryside in the Druksciai district is beautiful with great forests and many small lakes formed at the end of the Ice Ages. A little further north near the Latvian border is the town of Platelai, in an area even more beautiful than the rest of the country round about. A hundred years ago, one winter evening a wedding party from Platelai drove their gaily decorated sleds through the pine trees onto the frozen lake. The ice was already softening; it cracked with the weight of the sleighs and the whole wedding party disappeared under the ice. Early in the evenings in the winter sleigh bells ring out across the lake and sometimes you can hear human cries of anguish rising from beneath the ice.
Did Vito tell her: "People say you can hear" or "You can hear"? She is never quite sure.
Years later and further north, the same thing happened when the Soviet army tried to invade Finland across Lake Ladoga. The ice cracked, and many thousands of men with their tanks and armoured cars and weapons disappeared into the lake. The loss was so great that there was no chance of the Soviets occupying Finland. However no one hears, drifting across that lake, the panicked grinding of the invaders' engines or the anguished cries of the drowning soldiers.
In the Taurinskas farmhouse a boy is born with the local mid-wife in attendance. There had been a brother two years older, but he died as a toddler, probably from the flu which raged at the end of World War One. The boy is called Vytautas, after a great Lithuanian duke of the middle ages. Vito for short. Three sisters are born after him. On the night of the youngest sister's birth someone creeps into the barn and cuts the head off two sheep. The culprit was never revealed.
In June 1940, in accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Soviet army occupied Lithuania and the other two Baltic states. In June 1941, the German army broke the pact and invaded and occupied Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia on its way to Moscow.
That is history: fact, not myth.
In a frantic few days before the Soviet forces retreated, thousands of people were arrested. At Kaunas railway station Vito watched men, women and children being loaded into cattle trucks for deportation to Siberia. His father, in Lieplauke, was warned that he was on the local list for deportation; he was one of many who hid in the forests until the Russians had departed.
"Who warned him?" Beryl asks and Vito answers, "I am not quite sure; I was not at home then, but I think it was the Police Sergeant."
Sergeant Vilkinas would often come in his sulky pulled by the solid plodding horse, from Alsedziai some ten kilometres away, to have Vito's father sign papers or give an authority to act or to discuss some official business or other.
Vlad Taurinskas was Shire Councillor. He had been a clever boy and his father had been able to afford his education at boarding school in St Petersburg, in the old days of the Tsar. (Imagine him, with his shaven head and student's cap, the Lithuanian farmer's son at school with the sons of well-to-do Russians.) He spoke Russian fluently; he was a man of the world by comparison with most of the local farmers, many of whom were illiterate. They came to him for advice and information, and to have him read and write their letters. He organized many of the local events, usually held in the Lieplauke school house: farmers' meetings, meetings of the school committee, school dances. He sold the dance tickets and was caller for the folk dancing. He was often Match-maker, quick with jokes and laughter at the week-long winter weddings. He had an excellent singing voice and led the village choir in church services and at weddings and funerals and wakes.
"Yes," Vito decides. "It was probably Sergeant Vilkinas."
Sometimes a small girl, his daughter, sat by the sergeant in the sulky and came shyly into the house to eat yeast cake and drink fresh milk, then ran outside to play a while with Vito's youngest sister.
Sergeant Vilkinas is tall and bulky, but smart in his khaki uniform, and sits square and authoritative in the best room, his cap upon his knee, drinking coffee and munching cake.
"Why would they have wanted to arrest your father?" Beryl asks.
Vito shrugs. "Not because he was rich; he was not; perhaps because he was a councillor. Here you are a nobody unless you have a lot of money . . ."
She will not argue about that and Vito persists, ". . . but in Lieplauke it is different; Dad is not rich, but still he is a leader."
Whenever Vito uses the word Dad, injecting this prosaic family designation into her myth, Beryl is surprised. Her myths are places for political mysteries, for Gothic scenarios and treacheries and cruelties, not for such familiar familial titles as Dad.
"He did not trouble with politics," Vito says, "or only once, if you could call it politics. Germany buys geese from us and our farmers start to breed many thousands. Then one year the Germans suddenly announce they will not buy our geese any more and the farmers are left with all these birds."
"A glut," Beryl offers.
"There are protest meetings everywhere, Dad organised one in Lieplauke and in the end the government makes all the public servants - teachers and clerks and everybody - take part of their wages in geese."
Beryl laughs. "God, I could imagine if they tried that here!"
"We have a dictatorship, so they can do this," Vito explains. "But that was no reason for the Russians to want to arrest him."
These are the stories Beryl likes; they can easily be incorporated into her land of myth, a mysterious land where dictators rule and public servants can be forced to take part of their salaries in geese.
Summer was the time of fruit, both wild and cultivated. In the forests little bitter apples and tiny strawberries (sharp on the tongue and best eaten with milk and honey) and bilberries and nuts all grew wild. The children carried them home in baskets.
Families went walking together in the forests, gathering the summer mushrooms, some as big as plates.
In the mid-summer children from neighbouring farms came to help pick the sweet red cherries in the orchard and to pack them in boxes for selling.
A few miles away, on the shores of Lake Germanto were holiday cabins, very popular in the summer vacations especially with Jewish professionals and academics from Telsiai. An old Jewish lady had a summer stall there selling sweets and eggs and flour and other basic foods, and necessities such as kerosene for the lamps.
Summer after summer Vito and his friend Bruno went in the wagon loaded with baskets of cherries and raspberries and while the father traded his fruit and joked with the holidaying parents, Vito and Bruno swam in the lake with the other children.
Beryl can see that lake and the cabins; it is like the Broadwater on the Gold Coast with the sun brilliant and the water sparkling and gently lapping a sandy shore and the children shouting and splashing.
In the winter wolves howled their hunger in the stark forests, and snow screeched under your boots as you walked across the farmyard.
The winter of 1941, the first year of the Germans, was the coldest that anyone could remember. Birds who had not already migrated dropped dead as they flew. The trunks of the fruit trees in the orchard cracked and split; next June there were no cherries to take to Lake Germanto, but they all knew that no one was there that year to buy them.
When first Vito dared to write to his family, some months after Kruschev had denounced the Stalin years, his two elder sisters wrote back from Telsiai, amazed and comforted to know that he at least was still alive. His parents were dead; the farm had been incorporated into a collective, and the youngest sister was one of the many thousands who had disappeared.
"Disappeared?" Beryl asks stupidly and Vito does not answer her.
"I only wish Mum and Dad had lived to hear that you were safe in Australia," his younger sister Ancie wrote.
She enclosed photographs: four grainy snaps, black and white on cheap paper: one of each sister's family and one each of the funerals, his mother's and five years later his father's.
The family groups were distressing enough: the unknown brothers-in-law and niece and nephew, the pensive faces and drab winter clothes, the brooding bare trees, the sense of oppression. The funeral photos were even worse: a knot of sombre mourners gathered about an open coffin with the pallid, set face of the dead beloved visible within.
Beryl had never seen, had never imagined, such photographs. Photos in Australia are of barbeques and days on the beach and weddings. Not of death. Death should be disposed of as quickly and with as little public grieving as possible, not paid tribute thus with wakes and open coffins and photographs.
Beryl could barely bring herself to look at Vito's photographs and he became silent for many years about his childhood and all that he had lost. His life might have begun in the German camps.
It is only when he is retired, with the children grown up and gone, that he starts to talk about his childhood and his own country.
Now he even goes occasionally to lunches or concerts at Lithuania House. Not that these gatherings are as they used to be. None of the friends from their young days are there. The boys, Gus and Pran among them, are long since gone to Sydney or Adelaide; several families, like Einikis and Nikmanis, have migrated years ago to America. The Australian wives, not only the few who were widowed young but even those with husbands still alive, have stopped coming; Beryl is often the only one there. Not that we ever had much in common, she tells Vito, but we'd all married Lithuanians and were young together back then.
Gone, too, are the hectic folk-dances, the hours of nostalgic tipsy singing; now they are an audience listening decorously to the Choir led by Mr Butkevicius and watching the few young people who can be inveigled or bullied into the Folk Group, dance their choreographed steps.
At one of the monthly lunches they meet the Peters.
George and Ruth Peters migrated from Scotland a few years before and are now active in the community - on committees, singing in the choir, dancing in the folk group.
George is also working on a "Family Tree." He has brought it into the club today in the hope of inspiring others to make a similar record before it is too late. Far more than a chart of names and dates, this is a large album which includes photographs and brief histories when available of Ruth's family in Lithuania and his own in Scotland.
"I didn't know there were Lithuanians in Scotland!" Beryl cries. "And even talking with a Scottish accent! And with a Scottish name!"
"Peters is from Petrauskas," George explains. "And there's Lithuanians everywhere."
"He even talks Lithuanian with a Scottish accent," Vito says.
"What would you expect?" George asks. He was born in Scotland. His grandparents were two of the many refugees who fled their homeland early in the century to escape poverty or years of conscription into the Tsar's army or repercussions from failed revolutions.
The first generation in Scotland laboured beside the local poor, mostly in the Lowland coal mines. The next generation and the next, while their prosperity grew, kept the old language and customs alive, if not always impeccably. When a new wave of refugees arrived after World War Two, the small but active community was there with Lithuanian traditions and Scottish accents. Ruth was one of the new displaced; she and George met and fell in love and married.
This story is wonderful enough to form part of Beryl's myth, but Vito is not as interested in the Scottish-Lithuanians as in Ruth. She had fled the homeland as a young child with her parents but retains her native accent.
"You're a Zemaiciai?" he asks. Beryl knows this is not really a question; Zemaiciai, while teased by other Lithuanians for their simple rustic outlook and raw country speech and accent, smugly and privately congratulate themselves that they are the true children of the ancient sacred heartland.
Ruth comes from Druksciai district.
"From Alsedziai."
"My village was only a few miles away. Our farm was just outside Lieplauke."
As a little girl Ruth went with her family collecting mushrooms big as plates in the fields around Lieplauke. Her name had been Birute Vilkiniete and her father had been the District Police Sergeant.
"Don't you remember?" Vito cries. "Your father would come in a sulky to our farm. And sometimes you came with him; Mum would give you a drink of milk and a piece of cake before you went outside to play with my little sister Rina!"
Ruth shakes her head. "I don't remember, I was pretty young then." She seems unmoved, but Vito leans forward tensely, staring at her.
"It must have been you," he insists. "Unless you had a sister."
Ruth had no sister. "I vaguely remember," she murmurs, perhaps she is merely consoling Vito. "Another little girl and yes - I think she was called Rina . . ."
Doubt seems to have settled about them all.
"Sit down, Vito," George says. "Look at this." He turns the pages of his album quickly, going unerringly to the page he wants; he knows this book like his own face in the mirror, knows where every line, every photo, every brief history is set.
"There!" George cries, and slaps his hand down. "Ruth's father! Sergeant Vilkinas."
Beryl, leaning across Vito's shoulder, sees a small grainy snapshot of a man in uniform, his cap upon his knee. He is tall and bulky, she can see, but smart in his uniform. He could be about to take a cup of coffee, a slice of cake, to have some paper signed, to request some authority, and Beryl feels a shiver run down her spine.
For a moment Vito does not speak. He stares. They all wait. When he speaks his voice is choked. "Yes," he says. "It could be him." He is pale, his face tight. "It is a long time," he admits.
Beryl gulps and sniffs and wipes with the back of a finger across her nostrils and puts her other hand over Vito's on the table and squeezes.
The idea of Lithuania that she carries in her head is not the real country, not of the present let alone of the past. She can accept this, but Vito she is sure has just realized that he is equally exiled from those real countries, that for him, too, they are and now will always be lands of myth. Perhaps it is like that for the childhoods of us all, she thinks.


New: 7 January, 1997 | Now: 20 April, 2015