ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2006 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 52, No.1 - Spring 2006
Editor of this issue: Stasys Goštautas



Stefan Chwin, novelist and essayist. His most recent books are Death in Danzig [Hanemann], Esther and Golden Pelican. The essay published here first appeared in Die Welt and was read during an homage to Tomas Venclova in 2001 in Seiniai, Poland.

My father was born in Vilnius. There he spent his youth. In the sixteenth century the Poles and the Lithuanians created the Commonwealth of Two Nations. Vilnius became the second capital of the country – after Kraków and it continued to be one for almost two hundred years, until the end of the eighteenth century. The Russian army of the Empress Catherine II entered Vilnius in the eighteenth century and made it a provincial city. Vilnius remained a provincial city of the Russian Empire for almost a hundred years, until the end of World War I. The Russians had to leave the city after World War I and Vilnius was occupied by a Polish general who integrated it into Poland, which had regained its independence after a long period of partition. This took place in 1920, during my father’s life. The Lithuanian government regarded the action of the Polish general as illegal and declared Vilnius the capital of Lithuania, which like Poland had also regained its independence. Twenty years passed, and in 1940 the Russians again occupied Vilnius; this time, the Russians were wearing red stars on their caps. After several months, the Germans arrived from the west wearing swastikas on their caps. Right away, they kicked the Russians out of Vilnius and, with some Lithuanians, they murdered some Poles and Jews. They murdered sixty thousand of them. The Germans wearing swastikas on their caps ran to the West after their defeat by Russia. Then, once again, the Russians wearing red stars on their caps occupied Vilnius in 1944. The Russians stayed for fifty years until the famous Autumn of Nations when Lithuania regained its independence for the second time.

Every time the Germans or Russians arrived in Vilnius, liquidation and deportations began. And my father? My father was an eyewitness to everything. He hid in the forests where he studied the difficult art of survival in an area that went from one set of hands to another. He did not learn much, probably only one thing: that one should stay away from such places.

In 1944, the Russians captured Vilnius and my father left the occupied city. He took the train going to the West and after several days he reached a city situated on a gulf by a cold sea. The name of the city was Gdansk. He spent the rest of his life there, over forty years.

Had my father decided to stay in Russian-occupied Vilnius, he would have been taken to one of the labor camps in Siberia for several years – or maybe forever, like many representatives of the Polish intelligentsia from that part of Europe. And I – had my father married an inhabitant of Vilnius before leaving for the snowy plateau of the Urals – I would have spoken fluent Russian today, although with a local Lithuanian accent, and I would have known several Polish words, but their pronunciation would have been difficult for me. It is very unlikely that twenty years later, following the event when my father had been pushed to the freight train riding to the East by the men carrying tommy guns, I would have become the hope of Russian Lithuanian literature and perhaps even a valued writer of the Lithuanian SSR, owning a villa by the river Vilia in an enchanting place by the shady pines.

After the war, my father never wanted to go to Vilnius.

When it was possible to travel to Vilnius, he never thought about it, although he was born there and spent his best years there.

My father not only did not want to visit Vilnius, he also never became a member of any “organization of exiles from Vilnius.” Of course, he could only dream of such an organization because they had no right to exist in communist Poland. The situation of the Germans in the western zones was much more comfortable. They could set up organizations of exiled people from Gdansk and Silesia. Had my father expressed any interest in such organizations in Gdansk, for instance, an organization of people exiled from Vilnius, he would have found himself in prison because in the entire Eastern Empire it was difficult to find a greater sin, even in a veiled form, than undermining the postwar order established in the famous Yalta conference. Had an organization of the “exiled people from Vilnius” been created in communist Poland by a miracle, my father – I know for certain – would not have become a member.

Why did my father not want to go and never went to his “Heimat” in Vilnius when he could have? Perhaps he preferred not to see what had become of his city under Soviet rule. They said it changed so much that it ceased to be a city worth returning to. Only once, when a conversation about the old times – of which I did not know much – touched this issue, he murmured “That is a closed matter.”

What did his words really mean?

My father endured his exile very badly. Although he married in Gdansk and his children were born there – he never considered this city as his own. Even though the place where he lived now was lovelier than the area he was exiled from. When at the end of the Great War my father left Vilnius for the West, he wore a herringbone coat that served him as a cover, a cap like Lenin used to wear that he pulled over his eyes and a leather briefcase with several things that he placed under his head. While leaving Vilnius by train, he stared at his home vanishing behind the trees. Then, this house disappeared and my father never saw it again. What is more important, he never tried to recover it, even when he had the opportunity. “That is a closed matter.”

The attitudes of my father to the decisions made at Yalta, probably like those of many Poles, were not clear. As an expatriate, robbed of his own family fortune, my father with all his heart should have objected to the shifting of the borders to the west. They took away his birthplace and his home, offering him a place in the destroyed, post-German city on the gulf of the cold sea that he had never seen before. When he arrived in Gdansk he had only a coat, a cap and a briefcase. My mother did not have much more when, with cardboard suitcase in hand, she got off at the station in Gdansk, arriving from Warsaw, where she left her parents’ five-story townhouse, burned to its foundation by the Germans during the Uprising. The townhouse was worth ten times more than my father’s home. A boiler building stands in its place now.

One evening my father told me what would have happened if a decision had not been made at the famous conference in Yalta regarding the displacement of enormous masses of people in Central Eastern Europe after the defeat of the Nazi Germans. It was a story about Gdansk from which Germans were not exiled after the war. Later I recalled this story many times, as I watched what was happening in the world with great amazement and astonishment. The story that my father told me about Gdansk from which Germans were not exiled was a fiction; the real fate of the German population in Gdansk turned in a different direction.

Nevertheless, my father’s story about Gdansk from which Germans were not exiled was not only his own tale. In the Gdansk of my childhood this story was in the air like a film projected on the clouds. One heard it at stores, at stations and tram stops, in the kitchens and bedrooms, even when no one was telling it. It was a part of the social subconscious of that period. It was as much a fiction as a fact of spiritual life. I do not remember this story exactly because several years have passed, but it presented itself in the following way.

After the Second World War two hundred thousand Poles and five hundred Germans lived in Polish Gdansk. As long as the communist regime held everything with an iron fist, there were no tensions, although they existed under the surface of normal life. When the Soviet Empire began to crumble, the situation shifted like it did in Georgia, Lithuania, Moldavia and Yugoslavia. The new democratic government of reborn Poland had nothing against the “German minority” in Gdansk under the new conditions cultivating their national identity and even demanding more rights. They were only concerned about the borders, which the Germans in their just aspirations should not cross.

Could one allow the German population to demand more rights to meet in front of the famous Polish Post Office, this sacred national place of defeat for the Poles, Gdansk’s Kosovo? Because there was no lack of reasonable people on both sides, the controversial issues were taken care of quickly. A clear change was brought by the first, real, free democratic local government election, which was won by a “German minority” that gained absolute power in the city government due to their predominance in the national make-up of the population. After the election, a few citizens of Gdansk declared that they were against breaking relations with Poland; some announced a desire to broaden its political autonomy, and others demanded a complete change. Gdansk – if that was the wish of its citizens expressed in the referendum – should decide its own fate freely. The city government, which after the successful election was composed of Germans, clearly favored changes allowing no peaceful march of the Poles through the streets inhabited by the German population. Fearing growing unrest and after long hesitation and many ineffective negotiations that could have brought solutions for both sides, Warsaw decided that the local government election was invalid. The commissary clerks from the capital replaced the elected clerks. They concluded that it was necessary to reinforce the Polish police to avoid dangerous incidents that were unavoidable in such a situation. In response to these actions, a group of young Germans created a closed society “to actively defend the German minority against persecution” – stated the leaflets distributed in the city. In order to prevent the worst, the Polish police began to search for the German “terrorists.” They detained and interrogated many innocent people – and that is unavoidable in such circumstances, but this agitated the German-speaking population, which is not surprising. The tensions in the city quickly intensified...

I listened with mixed feelings to my father’s tale about a Gdansk from which Germans were not deported. The story hid a riddle that made the heart flutter. Did I own the peace of my life, that innocent peace of Gdansk’s childhood and youth to exiles that had painfully touched my parents and the people who used to live in our apartment? Because of Stalin’s, Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s orders, Gdansk was ethnically cleansed and I could run peacefully in the streets, drink orangeade at the kiosk by the station, steal cherries from my neighbors’ gardens and enjoy sparrows’ chatter on the enormous black cherry tree that grew in front of our home built in 1918 for the workers in the Gdansk Shipyard of Ferdinand Schichau? This is why I could enjoy reading books by Günter Grass, because if Günter Grass had not been deported from Gdansk, would The Tin Drum even have been written? Those great, but terrible exiles then created this wild, magnificent, enchanting masterpiece, full of spirit and humor whose reading offered me so much joy?

As Mephistopheles used to say to the German doctor: I am part of the power that always wants evil and always does good?

Of course, my father did not insist that the situation in Gdansk had to develop in the way he had predicted. On the contrary, he did not take anything for granted; he claimed it as one of many possibilities in a history where nothing is guaranteed, where everything could have happened in a different way. But I felt that this cruel game – guessing the possible fate of the world – cheered his heart because it was a game foreboding the worst. My father did not respect those who, smiling, claimed that the world still awaits its best time. He used to say: “My dear, the world is a rather dangerous place to live.”

Telling what could have happened in postwar Gdansk had the Germans not been exiled, my father recalled events that he remembered from his youth. Was he then guided by a bad memory? He was born and raised in the Polish east borderlands, in the city where Poles, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Jews and Belorussians lived next to each other. He loved that city truly, but at the same time he could not forget what had happened near that city in the 1930s, when the Polish police fought long battles with Belorus and Ukrainian “terrorists”.

Besides, he was not the only one who could not forget this. I knew several other inhabitants of Gdansk from the former borderlands of eastern Poland who carried the true grievance of exile in their hearts. They longed for the lost places of their birth, they sometimes declared loudly that “Lvov and Vilnius should again be ours,” and at the same time – yes, at the same time – they felt a great relief that they did not have to live there in the borderlands, in that pot of nations wounding one another, that they could miraculously escape – from those as they felt – loved and at the same time cursed parts of the world, that luckily they could live peacefully in Polish Gdansk.

I was not surprised at all when one day our neighbor, Mr. S., a former inhabitant of Volhynia who recalled what happened in Volhynia in the 1940s, after he had seen a report on the war in Yugoslavia, said to me: “You know, if Poland had its prewar borders, we would have had the same events in Volhynia, Vilnius, and Ukraine as in Kosovo after 1990. And the Germans would have had the same in Silesia.”

I only knew from stories what it really means to live at the border of divided cultures and nations. I have never experienced it personally. I was born and raised in a single–nation society. No one reproached me for being a Pole. On our street a “foreigner” was as exotic as a Martian. Everyone that I knew spoke the same language, observed the same national holidays, went to the same Catholic church – with the exception of a gray-haired German woman who remained in Gdansk after the war. She lived several steps from our home, and she died unnoticed – as if she had vanished into thin air. But even here, far away from the boiling pot of wounding nations, my father (therefore, I, too) experienced small but annoying petty harassments because my father spoke in a different, eastern accent. And, I knew this, my father had tried, unfortunately without any success, to get rid of his eastern accent, because he did not want to carry this bad – as he felt – stigma that made him stand out as a target. He wanted to blend in, to be invisible, blend in – that was his credo derived from his former experiences.

I was a child and I did not know what to think of it. Everyone around me – and I noticed this very soon – cursed Stalin, hated Communists and longed for their lost “Heimat” in the East. At the same time, I had the impression that they felt a great relief that they didn’t have to return there. They cursed the evil they experienced with one half of their soul, but with the other half – that was timid, silent, quiet – thanked the evil for what it had created? For separating those unhappy, wounded and wounding nations? And that that painful separation opened the long road to good emotions and reconciliation?

How can one measure gain and loss, good and evil, in the life of a man and in the life of entire nations?

“Do you know” – I once heard my father speaking to Mr. S. – we were sitting by the black cherry then and the sun was setting, casting shadows on the grass – “do you know that several Jews from Lithuania, whom the Soviets had sent to gulags, returned to Poland after the war? Had they not been sent to the gulags in Siberia by the Soviets, had the NKVD left them in peace in their hometowns, would all of them not have been conflagrated by the German ovens?”

This sentence – pronounced in the conversation that was taking place at sunset in the garden by the enormous black cherry tree – sounded like a dark joke, although no one was joking. So, I asked myself, who really were those people wearing a red star on their caps, who, with their rifles, pushed the horrified Jews from Vilnius, Kaunas, and Zytomierz to the cattle wagons to deport them into the icy East? Weren’t they the pure embodiment of evil? Their goals were vile, but were the objective meaning of their acts vile? And what is “objective meaning” anyway? By condemning Siberian deportees to pain, suffering and humiliation they, despite their wishes, brought salvation to those they tried to defeat. Like a surgeon who inflicts pain, but cures? And why had this question appeared at that moment when behind Mr. S. a gate overgrown with ivy was closing, a gate separating our garden by the enormous black cherry tree from the world? And why had that Someone arranged the destiny of many people in this way? What did he want to teach us (my father and me) through this? What kind of soul to awaken in us? Encourage us to what sort of life?

But Mr. S., whose figure by the enormous black cherry tree I remember well, said something more casually once. “What do you think, what would happen in Warsaw today if there were a great Jewish quarter, about one and a half millions of Jews in the middle of Warsaw? How would one and a half million people speaking Yiddish act after the fall of the Soviet Empire (how many of them are still there, in Poland?) who quietly or loudly agree with Monsignor Jankowski when he speaks about the “Jewish minority” in the Polish government?

If you had only known what was said in Warsaw when the Germans burned the ghetto. Offer thanks to God that you didn‘t hear this.

I shrugged my shoulders. Why say those things? Why should the worst have happened? Why here in Warsaw after the fall of the Soviet Empire should a Polish Kosovo break out? After the great experiences of the Polish August? After Solidarity? After the visits of the Pope? What could enable Mr. S. to such dark foreboding, besides the former bad recollections and an inborn pessimism? Why did he cling to Warsaw, why did he not ask how the Russians, the Ukrainians, or the Germans would have acted toward a Jewish quarter in Moscow, Kiev or Berlin – if such a quarter had existed in the days of the decline of the Empire? But in Warsaw the Polish and Jewish quarter could live in harmony like the Chinese and Greek quarters in San Francisco. I shrug my shoulders because his words deserved a shoulder’s shrug. At the same time, I heard from a distance the echo of those words that I could not forget: “I am a part of the power that...”

So what kind of conclusions could be drawn from my father’s and Mr. S.’s words that I heard in the shade of the black cherry tree in the sunset over the Cathedral?

That the most dangerous places in the world are the borderlands of dual nations and dual national cities with a “bad” past because these are the places in which sooner or later there are outbreaks, even if the peace lasts for decades and it seems as if all conflicts are extinguished forever?

To build centers for refugees and immigrants in the middle of town or in the designated areas beyond the city, instead of refugees and immigrants dispersing in the local places to allow them to grow into society in the natural way – that is to tempt the devil, because is there anything more dangerous than a difference, individualized, named, marked, exposed, intensified, concentrated in one place, meaning made into a target?

From what my father said, however, different conclusions appeared, much more fearful ones. Listening to his stories did I begin to feel the mysterious foundation of our existence on Earth? And how disturbing is the picture of history if we know the following sequence of events, when the meaning of the moment’s painful experiences suddenly dissolves in the long perspective of Time? I knew that deportations are always horrible. It really does not matter if the exiles are Germans, Poles, Ukrainians or Jews. But what if the loss that leaves an unhealing wound in the soul sometimes survives, as my father experienced it?

For after all, his feelings were real. And what if they – the unjust, illegitimate feelings of a separate man – constitute the measure of history, as significant as moral statistics, relating the “gain and loss of the communal destiny”? In the final result, is it only what is happening in one’s heart that counts?

My father is no longer alive. He has a marble tombstone in the Srebrzysko Cemetery in Gdansk. That cemetery had had a name – Silberhammer. For several generations, Germans had been buried there. My father was buried in a grave from which German bones were removed. At first those bones were placed in a pile mixed with other bones, later pushed off into a common grave and covered with sand. Had my father not been exiled from Vilnius to the West by Stalin (his escape was kind of an exile to Gdansk) his bones would have met the same fate. Mixed with the thousands of bones of dead prisoners from So¬owki and Vorkuta, they would have been tossed in a common grave, somewhere in the wastelands of Russia. Now, at the Srebrzysko Cemetery in Gdansk, my father has a marble tombstone. To have one’s marble tombstone with a first name and a surname in the twentieth century is a luxury. Millions of people have not been destined to dream of an individual tombstone with a cross and a plaque. On the marble plaque next to my father’s surname we had engraved the names of his parents, who died in Vilnius and were buried there. Now they rest here together symbolically, the entire family – four sons, mother, and father.

And the writer? What is a writer to do with knowledge that gives him no peace? The writer who has such knowledge is neither on the side of good nor on the side of evil, nor on the side of compassion, nor on the side of hate, only on the side of the mystery that shines at night through the rosy smoke of the fire and leaves us helpless, facing the most important questions of life.

Translated from the Polish by Anna Gsienica-Bircyn