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The historic city of Vilnius

Czesław Miłosz
„May the souls of the departed leave us in peace”

There are not many cities in Europe that have been subjected to as much mythology as Vilnius. By this I mean, stories taken from the past that are not necessarily related to fact. The history of this city is so strange that it borders on the realm of fairy tales, which it frequently has done, and these tales have changed depending on who was doing the telling: Lithuanians, Poles, Jews, Byelorussians, etc.

Whenever I visit Vilnius I always have the impression that one must walk there like on thin ice, and that it does not suffice to be a person, because one is immediately asked if one is Lithuanian, Polish, Jewish, or German, as though the gloomy 20th century – the age of ethnic divisions – continued here unabated.
Prior to 1939, Polish Vilnius and Jewish Vilnius lived side by side, although there was little communication between the two; they were, in effect, two cities and two cultures. To Poles, Vilnius is still the cradle of Romanticism – the most important movement in Polish history – whose significance goes beyond literature.

The city also had great meaning in Lithuanian history. Without exaggerating one can say that Lithuania, as the mythical land of ancient forests and pagan gods, influenced the imaginations of Polish writers, especially those of the Romantic period. In the sixteenth century, Maciej Stryjkowski published his giant Lithuanian Chronicle, which served as a reference for his followers for centuries. The Lithuanian national identity was formed as a result of such literary works as Mickiewicz’s Grażyna and Konrad Wallenrod , Mindowe by Slowacki, Pojata, daughter of Lidia by Feliks Bernatowicz, or even the curious lengthy poem Witolorauda by Józef Ignatius Kraszewski, published in 1840, which contains a litany of Lithuanian pagan gods who act like ancient Greek gods. Another series that has a Romantic pedigree are the nine volumes of The Ancient History of the Lithuanian People by Narbutta that appeared in Vilnius between 1837 and 1841. In Polish literature, the pagan Lithuania of mythology fulfilled the same role as ancient Scottish mythology did in British literature.

The fact that Lithuanian national consciousness was influenced by Romantic ideas also had an effect on Lithuanian historians, who tend to idealize certain rulers and magnates of the past.

The beauty of the surroundings, as well as the architecture of this city has a kind of magic within it. It makes one forget that one is standing on the graves of approximately 100,000 Jews. The horror of this mass murder is a constant here, though it is easier for the living not to dwell on it. For Jewish historians, Vilnius remains the “Jerusalem of the North” – one of the most important centres of Jewish culture in the world. Growing up in Polish Vilnius, I did not know much of the Jewish past of the city, which shows how the nationalist textbooks of the time simply eliminated certain facts. For instance, what happened here in 1749 was unpleasant for Polish Catholicism, and therefore was erased from history books. Count Valentin Potocki, accused of being a heretic, was burned alive. While he was a student in Amsterdam he had converted to Judaism and, even under torture, refused to reconvert to Christianity. To my total ignorance, the tomb of this martyr of the Jewish faith was treated with great veneration by Vilnius Jews. In a way, I could serve as an example of how a mind can be deformed by a nationalistic education. In later years, it took a great deal of effort for me to reverse this mindset. Consequently, I warn today’s Lithuanian youth that they must avoid being subjected to a new deformation of the mind, this time a Lithuanian one.

In conclusion, I want to show how difficult it is to penetrate the truth, if it is someone else’s truth. There is a painting, by a painter from Vilnius that I find very moving. The painter, Ludomir Ślendziński, was one of the most famous Vilnius painters of the interwar period. For a time he was an art teacher in my school and later had his own studio at the university. He was born in Vilnius and was the son of an artistic dynasty – both his father and grandfather had been painters. On leaving Vilnius in 1945, Ślendzinski painted a rather mythical portrait of the city as a fairy-like spectacle of church towers and clouds. He named this painting Oratorium. The painting can be found in the Ślendziński Gallery In Bialystok. Personally, I would call Oratorium a hymn to the beauty of Vilnius’s architecture, as well as a hymn of grief – the lament of an exile that will remain part of the history of the city, even when no one remembers who the victors were, and who the vanquished.

On October 2nd, 1999, through the efforts of the Goethe Institute and the Polish Institute, Gůnter Grass, Czesław Miłosz, Wisława Szymborska and Tomas Venclova, appeared in Vilnius. The notes above are fragments of Czeslaw Milosz’s speech.

Source: Official internet web site of Czeslaw Milosz www.milosz.pl