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Saturday, July 24, 2010

12 Last Days of the Soviet Union: Day Seven-Too Many Churches (traveling to Vilnius)

St. Anne's Church

Church of the Holy Spirit

The Ducal Palace at Trakai

Too Many Churches
by Douglas Messerli

After our stay in the hotel in Leningrad, where, even on the best of days, the elevators operated very slowly and the rooms were always overheated and dirty, and especially after our unpleasant train trip, we were all delighted by the towering, modern building where we were to spend some nights in Vilnius. I believe the hotel was what today is called the Radisson Bleu Hotel Lietuva, but I don't remember the name at the time of our stay. The first thing my roommate and I did was to take showers.

Upon inspection, soon after, the entire city of Vilinus seemed well-kept and spotless, a tourist's delight.

We were toured briefly through the Old Town, where the Jewish quarter was quickly pointed out to us. It seems hard to imagine so many important figures having lived in such a small area, but I'm sure it was a crowded few blocks even in the days that Vilna was described as the Jerusalem of Europe. Many of our group wanted to see more, but we were hurried away during our visit to the city, time and again, to inspect numerous churches and cathedrals. There are some 40 churches in Vilnius.

One evening three or four of us were invited into a Lithuanian home for dinner and to speak to the elderly couple. The couple with whom we were dining seemed quite literate and appeared to enjoy literature, so I bravely asked whether there any young innovative Lithuanian poets. Both husband and wife, quickly answered, "Oh, no. Lithuania is a very traditional country."

Of course, this couple might have mentioned Tomas Venclova, although by that time he had already immigrated to the US; or they might have looked to the past of Oscar Milosz, Henrikas Radauskas, or the great Abraham Sutzkever, but it was obvious that they were disinterested in poetic adventurousness.

On one day, however, we did catch a sense of a distinct change in the air. Our Lithuanian guide was explaining to us that until very recently, Lithuanians had not been permitted to speak their own language, which, we had been proudly told by several Vilnius citizens, had its roots in Latin and even had connections to Sanskrit. The Guide continued, with a list of other restrictions put upon them by the Soviets, including the closing of several of their beloved religious sites.

Suddenly, one of two Russian Guides, stood up and went forward, speaking quite harshly, it was clear, to the Lithuanian speaker. It was apparent that the younger girl was being told not to continue criticizing the Soviets.

The Vilnius Guide smiled and continued on with her catalogue of gripes. Clearly, she wasn't one little bit afraid of the ramifications. Perhaps that was the first time we all recognized that the Soviet Union would not last long, that its power in the Baltic States, at least, had already crumbled. We were all aware that only three months before The Baltic countries had met to create the Assembly of the Baltic Independence Movements and created The Baltic Council, and this small confrontation was one of its effects.

On another day, we were taken for a day trip to the nearby Trakai Island Castle, built in the 14th century. As we passed a woods just outside of Vilnius, many of our group asked whether or not if that was famous woods where a number of Jewish citizens had hidden and attempted to resist German occupation. Mightn't we be able to stop for a few moments by the side of the road? No answer.

Later that evening, when we were taken to yet another cathedral, several individuals in our party complained. "Not another church," a couple of them shouted. "Not another!" Some of their ancestors had lived in the Vilna Ghetto, and they were desperate for a different perspective.
Our feisty tour guides simply smiled.

Yet, despite the refusal of our Guides to deal with the painful facts of the past, most of us did feel a sense of new possibility here in this lovely small city. Even the air seemed warmer than the cold stones of Leningrad.

Los Angeles, July 22, 2010

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