|Photo of the "Gates of Dawn" where this incident occurred. Credit Joe.Sau flickr.|
Monday, September 19, 2011
I traveled to Lithuania in June of 2010 for a one week trip. At the time I had just completed six months of study in a Spanish University. It was my second trip to Lithuania and when I got back to the USA I began composing long blog entries combining my recollections of my last trip to Lithuania with emails I wrote home to family and friends from when I studied Yiddish there for a month in 2008. This is the third, of nine entries. (Entry one is here), (entry two is here). I hope to post a new entry every three days.
So what’s changed in Vilnius during the past two years? Well the best way I can describe it is that if Vilnius, and Lithuania as a whole were a person it’s kind of like someone hit her over the head with a baseball bat and didn’t let her clean herself up afterwards. This of course is true of the USA as well, but the global financial meltdown seems to have taken a particularly dramatic toll and you can see it on the faces of the people and you wonder at it as you realize that there are five times as many beggars in Vilnius than there were just two years ago. My second time in Lithuania there was a brutal raw desperation to some of the beggars that just wasn’t here two years ago, a type of desperation I had only ever seen before during one scary trip with my parents to the outskirts of Tijuana when I was nine or ten years old. It’s the type of desperation that stems only from being convinced that starvation is around the corner. Although there were several dozen sad cases worthy of Saint Jude, the saddest of them all was undoubtedly a man with an open infected wound on the top of his forearm that went down to the bone. The first time I encountered him just through the entrance of the gates of dawn he used his arm as a barrier to block further movement. He’d simply put up his arm and people in all directions would instinctively back away and the unlucky ones would end up pinned between the bone sticking out of his arm and a wall. There was something so disturbed, so unmistakably medieval about it that every time I approached him I had a guttural reaction to put as much space between him and myself as humanely possible.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m no sissy. In fact I’m just the opposite. I’ve seen some really horrible stuff in person without turning away or flinching; from strokes, fatal heart attacks, to a waterlogged/bloated corpse to a mutilated (but not bloated) boy’s corpse and most relevant to this incident a really horrible compound fracture of a friend’s femur that took some of his thigh-muscle along for a ride. In all of the cases I got really upset an hour or two after the adrenaline wore off. Which is to say that I’m no fan of gore or suffering but it’s not like I haven’t seen some horrible things the average person in a first world country hasn’t. Because I have. That combined with unbelievably horrible things I’ve seen on film and in photos for Holocaust related research in archives (much worse than you’ve seen on TV or Youtube) means that this beggar was on the surface hardly the worst thing I had ever seen. But there was something so perverse about both the man’s arm and his situation that it has caused me to lose sleep ever since. It took me a while to figure out what it was that has stuck with me so much but ultimately I’ve come to realize that it was his calmness.
Let’s start clinically: he had an open infected wound that was about 3 inches long, with about 2 inches of bone fully exposed. The skin surrounding the bone was black, dead, and gangrenous, resembling more charcoal than skin. The visible bone itself was completely white, devoid of any surrounding blood or tissue (G-d forbid you ever see a compound fracture up close you’ll see that there’s lots of stuff that is fastened to the bone and as the bone breaks the skin tissue stays attached to it, in his case it looked as if bacteria had eaten away all of the skin and ligaments over a period of days). But the thing that was most upsetting about it was that the man seemed totally there mentally and he was extremely calm. After trapping people and exacting money he spoke to the people he had caught as I stood a short distance away. He was Polish; or at least an ethnic Pole and spoke to the crowds in Polish, Lithuanian or Russian and sometimes all three. It wasn’t until the third day that I heard him speaking to someone in German and therefore realized that I would be able to communicate with him myself. As you’d expect what he had to say was absolutely devastating.
He was in his sixties and recently a widower. He was sawing something when he cut his arm and although he went to the hospital an infection had set in, followed by gangrene. Unable to work he couldn’t pay his rent (he was already behind due to his wife’s funeral) and was evicted from his apartment. He had no relatives and the homeless shelters refused him because they (rightfully) felt that he was a health risk to everyone near him and that he ought to have been in a hospital. The hospitals for their part, for reasons I have either forgotten or never understood due to my poor German, wouldn’t take him and the man related to me that he “honestly feared” that he was going to die from the infection. Looking at it, and knowing that his bone had been exposed to the elements for weeks I was honestly surprised that he wasn’t far more ill than he appeared, let alone dead. And I told him my assessment. As we were having this conversation a horrified-looking German man in his late twenties asked him why he wasn’t in a hospital, about insurance, about how much a hospital stay would cost him etc. I started to leave and our hopeless case called out to me “sir, aren’t you going to give me any money?” “Money” I said “money! You don’t need money you need medicine and a hospital bed!” He looked at me sadly and said “what I need sir is Saint Jude but money won’t hurt!” I saw him the next day but not the day after that. By complete chance I ran into the German man in a bar and found out that he, along with colleagues on a business trip, had paid the equivalent of three hundred Euros to get the man into a health clinic. I gave him about fifty Euros to reimburse him for the part I felt I should have paid and bought him a beer. I never heard from the Polish beggar with gangrene after that.
Thursday, September 15, 2011
I traveled to Lithuania in June of 2010 for a one week trip. At the time I had just completed six months of study in a Spanish University. It was my second trip to Lithuania and when I got back to the USA I began composing long blog entries combining my recollections of my last trip to Lithuania with emails I wrote home to family and friends from when I studied Yiddish there for a month in 2008. This is the second of nine entries. (Entry one is here). I hope to post a new entry every three days. The next post will cover a disturbing run in with a beggar that revealed the effects of the recent "great recession" on Lithuania. This post seems to end in the middle and for that I apologize. It is background information which will allow posts 3-9 in this series to make more sense. In any case, here is my personal history with Lithuania, why I traveled there twice, lots of information on Vilnius, and some of the history of the illustrious Jewish community of the former "Jerusalem of Lithuania."
I went to study Yiddish in Vilnius Lithuania in July/August of 2008. Being there was a lot more difficult for me emotionally than I had expected and partially as a result I spent much of the time behind the lens of my camera filming so that I wouldn’t have to process as much information or interact with people during tours. The good aspect of this is that I ended up with ten hours of tapes of tours of Jewish and Holocaust related sites in Lithuania which are now on Youtube in their entirety in Yiddish with English subtitles, leaving an invaluable (albeit poorly shot) record not just of my trip but of Lithuanian Jewish culture. The bad aspect of this is that I spent far more time on my first trip living in Vilna and not in Vilnius and as such missed a great deal of Lithuania itself. For what I mean by that last sentence, as well as some background information on this city, I’m going to turn this entry over for a bit to excerpts from a letter I wrote to my parents and a couple of friends the first time I went there:
In some ways right now I’m beginning to live and study in two places simultaneously: Vilnius in 2008, the fascinating Lithuanian capital and next year’s European Capital of Culture and Vilna, the once second city of Poland and sometimes Lithuanian capital and one of the cultural capitals of vanished (ahem, murdered) Yiddish speaking Europe. Although Vilnius and Vilna were located on the same ground and share many of the same buildings and streets, they are really different places in more ways than a name (Vilna is Yiddish, Wilno is Polish, Vilnius is Lithuanian). Vilnius/Vilna in all of its reincarnations was and still is located in Eastern Europe, in the area that is now called the Baltics. If you look at a map of the Baltic countries today (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania respectively from north to south), you’ll find that they are the three small countries to the south of Finland (across the Baltic Sea). They are to the northeast of the comparatively larger Poland, and to the west of Belarus and most of Russia. (Strangely enough, just to confuse us, there is a small piece of Russia that is squeezed onto the western half of Lithuania and eastern half of Northern Poland against the ocean that is detached by hundreds of miles from the rest of the country. Although Russia looms very large to the east of here, this detached chunk of Russia is the only part of it that actually borders Lithuania.)
The city of Vilnius, whatever it has been called and whoever has called it home, has existed since the 14th century, if not earlier. The city has been shuttle-cocked alternately between Poland (or better yet several different kingdoms and republics of Polish speaking people), Russia, Lithuania (like Poland in several different reincarnations) and a Lithuanian-Polish commonwealth over the centuries. The city even managed to change hands seven times during the years of WW1. Throughout the past 500 years the city has been home to various combinations of Poles, Lithuanians, Russians, Belarusians, Jews and Roma. While the leadership and main ethnicities/languages of the city have varied, Yiddish speaking Jews were a constant presence for nearly five centuries until during the years of 1941-1944 when they were systematically murdered during the events that have come to be known as the Holocaust in English, H’shoah in Hebrew and Khurbn in Yiddish itself.
When Napoleon came to Vilnius, he was so impressed with the local Jewish community that he declared it the “Yerushalim d’lite” (French: Jerusalem of Lithuania). The name has stuck in Yiddish ever since. Vilna (the city is always called Vilna in Yiddish), was one of the great centers of Jewish civilization; both religious and secular, right alongside biblical Jerusalem, post-biblical Babylon, and Muslim Spain during the golden era. Yiddish Vilna was a center of religious scholarship and the center of a brilliant modern secular culture, and by the 1930s was arguably the most important Jewish city in the world (Warsaw and Thessalonica were the only rivals). In the 18th century one of the Diaspora’s greatest minds, the Vilner Goan, held court and helped solidify the power of Misnagic Jewry in Lithuania. Interwar Vilna boasted a half dozen daily Yiddish papers, schools, universities, and criminal courts where Yiddish was the sole language of instruction/arbitration, not to mention some of the world’s most prestigious Yeshivas. Vilna was also home to the YIVO institute, which between the two world wars served as the address of scholarship on the history of Eastern European Jews, as well as the Académie française of the Yiddish language. Vilna, along with Warsaw and Lodz was also the home of much Yiddish political culture and the birthplace of the Bund. But all of that is gone. Today is a very different world. The Vilna described in thousands of Yiddish books is no more and will never again be…………
……..So, this society, which I call Yiddishland in English and “oyf der yidisher gas” (on the Jewish street) or “Yidishkayt” (Jewishness) in Yiddish, and not the Holocaust, is what I came here to learn about. In short I came to Vilnius to learn about the Jewish civilization that thrived here for centuries and to improve my knowledge of its language, not just because of an academic interest but because it is the culture whose remnants I grew up among. I grew up hearing Yiddish and singing songs that were written on the very streets that I am now exploring. I read some of the same books (albeit in English translation) that were written here and were bestsellers. I had neighbors, family friends and relatives who grew up in Yiddishland before the war (and I still know people who did) and learned Yiddish songs on their laps. So I decided to come here to learn about this stateless culture that thrived here and whose language I now consider my own from some of the people who grew up in it, in their own language, on the ground in which it thrived for centuries, before they are lost to time.
In addition to meeting with as many survivors as possible and hearing lectures and tours from them, I will be spending the vast majority of my time learning the Yiddish language at an advanced level and reading its literature not only in the original but also taught and explained in Yiddish. What I learn here, from the place, from the language, from the literature, and most importantly from the people, I am not just learning for academic development or “personal enrichment”. If I have my way it will be the language that my (future) children grow up speaking and it will be their culture too. I come here to learn what I can so I can pass it on to them.
So that’s some of the background on how I ended up in Vilnius the first time around. I completed most of my goals; I met and got to talk to people who had grown up in the Jewish community before the Holocaust, I got to see many of the places I had heard about as a child, vastly improved my Yiddish and made a half dozen friends I’m still in touch with. So as Americans like to say “mission accomplished.” Been there done that right? Well, last summer Vilnius to me still wasn’t a matter of “been there, done that,” among many things I had left out some details in my films and needed to speak to a few people there and corroborate details. I also had other business to attend to on behalf of a friend that I’m not even going to begin to get into but could only be done in Lithuania, if at all. Plus, two Vilnius residents I knew had heard that I was in Spain and said that they had wanted to see me. So without enough forethought I decided to hop on a plane and go.
Traveling from Valencia to Vilnius is no easy trip. You have to first get to the Ryanair airport advertised as Barcelona which is really in Girona (six hours from Valencia by bus/train at best) and then fly to Kaunas and from Kaunas find a way to Vilnius and of course because this is Ryanair you have to leave Barcelona at 3am which means you need to leave Valencia the day before and have a hotel room in Barcelona that you only actually sleep in for a few hours. Still it’s certainly a much easier trip than making it from Philadelphia or anywhere else on the other side of the Atlantic for that matter. So in short, I had a few reasons to delay my return to the US and travel to Vilnius this past June (2010). But as it turned out two of the people who said they’d be in Lithuania were doing things abroad, one person I stupidly assumed would be there wasn’t and the “business” I alluded to completely fell through, leaving me with a lot more time to kill than I had planned for or knew what to do with. I soon decided to fill it by trying to spend my time in Vilnius and not Vilna the second time around, by “paying more attention to the Lithuanians the second time around” as I titled an email home. And in the end this was the only thing that went well during the course of my trip.
So what’s Vilnius itself like today? Well, the best description I can give comes again from that 6,000 word letter I wrote to my parents and friends in 2008. Here are some excerpts:
You asked me about Vilnius today. Well it’s not the city I grew up hearing about in old folksongs, in Chaim Grade’s novels or from survivors. As I mentioned yesterday Jewish Vilna and Lithuanian Vilnius are two different places located on the same ground. Despite that, (and not in any way holding that against it) Vilnius is a very interesting place. In fact, to be honest, Vilnius is far more interesting than I had expected.
Walking around Vilnius you can feel that it was built up in sections at different times by different people. A river separates the old city (with the University) from the new city. The new city is very Soviet in every sense of the word. There are more Soviet apartment blocks than residential neighborhoods, large patches of green earth are splotched along the ground between the buildings as if a dinosaur was allowed to run loose and leave footprints behind. The colors are dreary like they have been splashed on in titanium grays. Children play with balls between the big buildings, teenagers watch them and drink vodka out of large bottles. These are the outskirts of Vilnius. While in America the poor in cities are packed into neighborhoods of endless row homes that bake on summer nights close to the city centers, in Eastern Europe the poor live on the edges of the cities in a maze of giant soviet era apartment buildings with no neighborhood of which to speak. Because the buildings are self-contained units, there is little to no interaction at street level. The stores are far removed from where people live, more cars drive away than towards the buildings. The graffiti seems so permanent as to be part of the original building designs.
The second half of the “new city” on the opposite side of the river from the old city doesn’t feel particularly Soviet but more like an American east coast city’s downtime. There are a lot of high-rises and skyscrapers and long avenues with stores. Trackless trolleys and the occasional bus ferry people along in a spider web of routes. The buildings, at least at ground level, seem entirely commercial although some may double as apartment complexes, I can’t tell due to the language barrier. There a lot of trees placed around this part of the city, more than you’d see in a typical American city. But the key word is “placed”, they don’t seem to belong, they seem just as manmade and out of place (albeit much more organic) as the buildings themselves. This part of the city is known by the locals (and the guidebooks) to have different neighborhoods, types of stores and styles (unlike the more Soviet section which is much more uniform), although the differences are not perceivable to a foreigner on a short trolley ride.
The third section of the city is what the tourists, students, diplomats and wealthier Lithuanians are supposed to see. It’s known as the “old city” (what I’ll term “old city proper” is actually a much smaller subsection of the old city that I’ll talk about later) and as I’ve already mentioned it is separated by river from the “new city.” In a bizarre attempt to reduce the tension between the two sides of the river, the local authorities have painted giant words on both sides of the river. One set says “I love you” and the other says “I love you too.”
The old city is divided into several different residential and commercial districts. The University itself is on the edge of “old city proper”, a series of stunning centuries old buildings, all freshly painted, with a maze of alleyways and roads closed to traffic (or with limited traffic) where tourists congregate and stores and restaurants cater to them. Music from street musicians wafts through the air, polite multilingual beggars beg and sell trinkets and tchochkes, there are dozens of beautiful cafes that extend out along the main street. Most of the buildings double as both stores and high-end apartments. Many of the buildings seem built to look deceptively small from the outside, upon entering you discover that they seem to go on and on and on (they extend far further back than in the states). These are the most beautiful traditional European buildings I’ve ever seen in Europe except for perhaps in Prague and among the nicest to have survived the two World Wars. (The only thing I’ve ever seen like it outside of Europe is Quebec City, which having been undisturbed during WW2 is much more traditional architecturally than most of Europe).
(My photo 2010, part of “Old City Proper”)
In between “old city proper” and the more residential areas of the old city is downtown, filled with commercial districts and main avenues, it looks and feels like a nicer version of most American cities. The center of downtown features a large square that borders city hall. Bars and nightclubs comfortably share territory with banks, museums, hotels, bookstores, cafes and residential apartment buildings. On the edge of “old city proper” and downtown is the section of the university where the Yiddish Institute is housed. My classroom overlooks the presidential palace, where the president works (but does not live). Unlike the White House in America or the Prime Minister’s Residence on Downing Street in England, you can actually walk right up to the presidential palace, touch it and take a picture (in the US you’d have 50 bullets in you before you got within two or three blocks of the Whitehouse today). Walking to class across the steps of the presidential palace does not seem to raise the least bit of alarm. The palace, as the name implies, is actually a palace and not a house like its American or British counterpart. There is a guard unit but like the guards at Buckingham palace they seem to be there much more for the tourists’ cameras than for actual security. A block away is another large white stone building which is the defense ministry.
(My photo of the Cathedral up close 2008).
Three blocks away, the boundary between “old city proper” and downtown is composed of the main cathedral and its adjoining square. The cathedral is a centuries old architectural marvel that is one of the most famous in Europe because of its architecture. The square, however, is more famous as the symbolic center of post independence Lithuania due to its role in the independence movement of the late 80s and early 90s and for it being often credited as the starting point of the international movement that brought down the Soviet Union. In the late 80s, the first Lithuanian human chain started on a single cement square outside of the cathedral and traveled up the country for hundreds of miles. After the event (and the enormous publicity it attracted), human chains were attempted throughout Eastern Europe. About (or perhaps exactly) a year later a single human chain that stretched the entire length of the Baltics again brought world attention to the plight of the local populace under Soviet rule. The small square yard sized chunk of stone where the last person in both lines stood is marked and is treated by both locals and tourists from throughout the world as holy ground, perhaps even more so than the famous Cathedral itself. There is a local superstition that if one walks around the marked stone three times, whatever they wish will come true. I did this and wished for world peace…. I’m not holding my breath.
Tuesday, September 13, 2011
I traveled to Lithuania in June of 2010 for a one week trip. At the time I had just completed six months of study in a Spanish University. It was my second trip to Lithuania and when I got back to the USA I began composing long blog entries combining my recollections of my last trip to Lithuania with emails I wrote home to family and friends from when I studied Yiddish there for a month in 2008. This is the first of nine entries. I hope to post a new entry every three days. The next post will cover more of my trip in 2008 and more of my personal history with Lithuania as well as the country's Jewish history.In a way my trip to Lithuania began in the small Ryanair terminal in Girona. Ryanair, which is basically the Megabus of airlines, has its own peculiar super-informal culture that both the airline’s corporate structure and its loyal customers have created. As the tickets are often between 30 and 70 Euros for flights across the European continent the Irish budget carrier has become an essential part of both the tourist and ex-pat experiences. Since not many tourists go to Lithuania and few of those who do would take Ryanair from Spain in the middle of the night I found myself among a crowd of Lithuanian expats who lived in Spain and were going home to see family.
Expat communities are fascinating. Until recently expats formed their own cultures that bridged their “home” culture and the culture of their adopted country without realizing their own culture or outlook on life had been altered. Before the era of the internet and dirt-cheap travel expats were often stuck in a cultural vacuum, cut off from cultural changes in their homeland so that their “home” culture remained preserved like a fossilized specimen and combined with their new country’s culture. Now with instant communication and constant travel people remain abreast of changes in their homeland much more easily and as a result can maintain their home-culture alongside (and separate from) their adopted country’s culture in a way that was not possible for earlier generations of ex-pats.
All of this was on my mind as I waited at the Ryanair counter fretting over whether my backpack would be light enough so as not to incur an extra fee. Two of my Lithuanian friends are into studying expat-communities in general and the Lithuanian expat communities in particular. From them I learned that the vast majority of Lithuanian expats live in Britain but that there is a sizable community in Spain. I had already encountered several Lithuanians who spoke Spanish but no English in 2008 so I knew that it was always worthwhile to ask someone in Lithuania who didn’t speak English if they understood Spanish if I needed to communicate something to someone. But being in the airport and seeing 150 or so Lithuanians in one spot chatting away in their melodious language complete with their inscrutable and thoroughly un-Spanish mannerisms was stunning (and besides you can go months without running into someone who looks like they could be from the Baltics in Spain or at least that was the case where I lived in Valencia). The conversations and arguments over the overweight bag-charges in Spanish (and once even in Catalan, albeit with an adorable Lithuanian accent) were the only thing to remind me that I wasn’t in a shopping mall in Vilnius but was actually still in Spain.
Right as I got to the front of the line I heard a young boy with a working class Madrilenian accent arguing with an exasperated woman at bag-checking over an extra two kilos. He and his mother refused to let the airline officials put the extra-charge sticker on the bag and actually went so far as to roll/throw the bag back and forth between them so that the workers couldn’t get the sticker on. As I was on the scale next to them and the scale’s weight display was easily visible, the boy quickly realized that my bag was exactly two kilos underweight, ran behind me, opened my bag, put in some children’s books and an alarm clock and instructed me to put my bag back on my scale. I, his mother and the two women at the scales were all seemingly hypnotized by this strange act he was putting on and waited for his further instructions.
“Now, here’s how it’s gonna’ work” he said. “This Russian gentlemen here” (pointing to me) “has agreed to take my extra kilos in exchange for a story to be told on the plane. Now since both our bags are at the correct weight you can’t charge me.”
The two scale-operators looked at each other and burst out laughing. The boy thought he had won until one of them made a gesture to him that is usually reserved for a naughty dog and said “you can’t do that, that’s ridiculous.”
The boy’s mother looked at the woman and said: “Come on Ma’am, what’s the difference?”
The woman turned to me and said, “won’t you please hand this miscreant child back his books and his clock?”
I didn’t like her tone so I looked at her with as much seriousness and gravity as I could muster and said “the only alarm-clock I have on me is my own and I packed those children’s books yesterday.” The woman looked like she was about to either explode or turn into a shrew and turned to her colleague who was desperately trying to swallow her laughter.
“Get these ignoramuses to put their items in the correct bags or I’ll fine them both.”
“I don’t see nothin’ wrong.” Her coworker responded.
“Ah hell, didn’t you just see this boy open this man’s bag and stick in his clock and those books?”
“No,” the second baggage handler answered coolly, “I didn’t see nothin’ like that.”
The first baggage handler looked at us with this weird face that was trying to smile but was being ordered not to so that it appeared that she was choking on a fur ball and said “oh, hell, just go before I change my mind.” And so before I knew it we were both on our plane without having paid the extra fee for our bags. And that’s how I met the Little Spaniard.
Sure enough as promised, as soon as the three of us sat down on the plane the boy began his “payment” in the form of a story. He began talking in a hilarious monologue about his whole life story starting with his immigration to Spain at four and ending with his tenth birthday and a pantomime imitation of drunken goats. His monologue went on for a good twenty minutes during which time his mother occasionally peered over his head and shot me a quintessentially Lithuanian gesture that seemed to say “do you still want to listen to this? You don’t have to you know?”
The boy’s life story wasn’t particularly interesting or surprising but his enthusiasm for telling it was absolutely enthralling. After moving to Madrid he recalled refusing to speak or even try to understand Spanish which got him put in a special class for what he termed “mutes.” He didn’t like the class so he just ignored everyone and everything. This went on for several months. Then one day he got into a fight with someone during recess and when the teachers demanded an explanation and threatened to discipline him, before he even realized what he was doing he broke his silence to explain how the boys on the playground kept calling him “blondie” (rubito) and “mute buffoon” (payaso mudo) until they finally surrounded him from all sides and demanded that he speak. Then a large Arab boy decked him and the little Spaniard kicked him back. As he told the story the large Arab boy was watching him snitch on him and he expected retribution from him the next day on the playground. Instead when the boy saw him again he said “so you can finally speak?” and the two became best friends.
“And now,” he told me, “Ahmed is like my brother. Here” he said, handing me a photograph of himself a year or two younger together alongside his mother and with his arm around the shoulders of a boy standing in front of a woman wearing a burqa and a tall man smoking a cigar. “But he’s an immigrant like me so we both get to travel to our parents’ countries during the summer.”
“Lithuania isn’t your country too?” I asked.
“No,” he said “Spain, is my country, I was just born in Lithuania.”
His mother chimed in: “My mother calls him ‘the Little Spaniard’ ‘cause he’s always telling her about Spain and trying to teach her Spanish.”
“So you can speak Lithuanian?” I said addressing the boy.
“Of course, my Mom only talks to me in Lithuanian unless other people are visiting our house. So I speak it well but I say things wrong sometimes.”
“Do you know anything about linguistics?” His mother asked me, staring over her son.
“Well, actually I’m kind of a linguist” I said.
“Vale, he sometimes calques (literally translates) Spanish phrases when he speaks Lithuanian and I don’t correct him enough because I can figure out what he’s getting at so when he speaks to my parents he doesn’t even realize he’s saying a purely Spanish phrase with Lithuanian words. But he understands everything and has no problem being understood if he rephrases things.”
“Did you study linguistics?” I asked.
“Just a survey course in college.”
“What do you do now for work if you don’t mind me asking?”
“She’s a nurse.” The Little Spaniard answered for her.
“At first I worked as a maid in a hotel but I had studied nursing in Lithuania so once my Spanish improved I finished my education. I worked in a nursing home, now I work with dialysis patients.”
At this point the Little Spaniard put his hand over his nose mockingly and his mother grabbed his hand telling him something in Lithuanian. He began speaking in Spanish, all the while looking at me “so what if they can’t help it, they still smell.”
“Sometimes,” his mother said “when I have to work late and there’s no one to watch him he entertains the dialysis patients, he can be very charming so he keeps the old ladies entertained. We had a blind lady, a Lithuanian who didn’t speak Spanish. Her kids worked nights and she would have had nobody to talk to for hours if he didn’t keep her company.”
“Well,” began the Little Spaniard. “Other than the smell it’s alright, especially when Ahmed comes along to talk to the old ladies in Arabic.”
“How come he comes too?” I asked.
“Because of his religion he has to help people and do charity.” The Little Spaniard said. “His parents make him volunteer with people. They would too but they work too much.”
“He says he wants to be a doctor too so it’s a good fit” his mother added. “And because it’s a clinic there isn’t always a translator around so it’s good to have him around, especially for the blind people because with them we can’t just write something into a computer and translate it so they’ll understand.”
“Diabetes?” I asked.
“Severe diabetes cases, exactly” she said.
“But the kids are so young for this?”
“Yeah, it’s unusual but the patients like it and my boss prefers him to a dog which is what some of the clinics and hospitals are doing now to keep people happy.”
Somehow shortly after this point the conversation turned to my life and my reasons for traveling to Lithuania. To be honest I had been hoping to avoid the whole thing, in part to avoid having to explain the Holocaust to the boy on the chance that he wasn’t familiar with it and in part because it was a long story and in any case I wasn’t even exactly sure why I was on a plane to Lithuania at that particular moment myself. Still, I ended up explaining that I was Jewish, that my great-grandfather was from Vilnius, that I had been there two years earlier to improve my Yiddish and interview Jews who had grown up before WW2 and I was returning to double-check information with one of my interview subjects and visit a friend. Of the perhaps five minutes or so that it took me to explain all of this the only part that the Little Spaniard seemed particularly impressed by was my mentioning of Yiddish.
“I knew there were Jews in Lithuania,” he began excitedly “especially in the cities and that they were killed in the war but I didn’t know they had their own language.”
“Yeah,” I said “and newspapers, movies and even their own schools. Just like there’s a Polish paper and Polish schools in Lithuania today you had Yiddish too.”
“And this is different than what they speak today in the Middle East?”
“Yes, Yiddish is like German while Hebrew….”
“Is like Arabic..I’ve heard it before on TV. So what you’re saying is that there’s a whole lost world written in those newspapers in a language nobody speaks anymore?”
“Basically, yes. But some people speak Yiddish still, just not that many, not like it was.”
“Have the newspapers been archived?” His mother asked.
“Yes, thankfully.” I said. “You can read them in America and Israel and some in Lithuania too but they’re hidden away in archives on microfilm.”
“What does the writing look like?” she asked. Do they use the same alphabet as Hebrew?”
“Yes, give me a second.” I said. I looked through my bag, pulled out the Little Spaniard’s books and alarm clock and found the book I was looking for underneath; my Yiddish translation of The Little Prince I had brought with me to donate to the Jewish school in Vilnius. The copy I had was printed in both the Hebrew and Latin alphabets so it worked perfectly as an example to show them what the language and the script were like.
As I showed them The Little Prince the boy called out, almost screaming “hey, that’s my favorite book, look” as he showed me one of the books which had caused the great tumult at the weighing station, one of the same books I had just handed back to him without looking at. And in his hand was a torn ragged copy of the Little Prince in Spanish which had been read and reread to smithereens. And as he began flipping through the illustrations in the Yiddish Little Prince he began reciting entire passages of the book in Spanish for my benefit.
“You’ve memorized the whole book?”
“Yes,” said his mother “strangely enough he has.”
“The order gets jumbled though so I need to use the pictures but I have each page of my copy memorized. I often skip exactly a page.”
I was stunned. Now The Little Prince is not that long of a book, perhaps 25,000 words if that and if a ten year old in Pakistan can memorize the Quran in a language he doesn’t even speak than certainly a ten year old Spaniard could memorize a text a fraction the length of the Muslim holy book in a tongue he understands. Still, who runs into someone who has done such a thing? And how does someone go about doing such a thing?
“Why did you memorize it?” I asked.
“Because it changed my life. It’s the reason that I want to be a historian.”
“A historian?” I said, not seeing any reason why The Little Prince would lead anyone into that particular field and wondering if I had ever meet someone so young who had wanted to be a historian.
“You wouldn’t rather be an accountant?” I asked. The Little Spaniard didn’t get my reference or else simply ignored my joke.
“Of course a historian, that’s what The Little Prince is. He’s the only one there to tell his history and he does it so beautifully. I’d love to be able to explain to someone why something is so important to me as his rose was important to him. And since there is no one else to tell his story, he has to be the historian. And that’s why I’ll be a historian, to tell things nobody has bothered to remember. That’s why I was so enthused with the Jewish newspapers. Who knows what may be written there that’s been forgotten and needs retelling.”
“Here,” I said handing him a third copy I had, “have you ever read this version?”
“No, I can’t read Lithuanian. I’ve never seen this before, when and why was it translated?”
I almost got sidetracked into an explanation of how The Little Prince became the third most translated book in human history (more than 200 translations, some in languages far more obscure than Yiddish) but I caught myself in the middle of the digression and returned to the more pressing matter.
“Sure you can read it. Look, you know the alphabet already and you speak the language. And I know it’s a pretty easy language to pronounce because it’s written as it’s spoken see.” And to try to prove it to him I pulled out my Lithuanian phrasebook and read a few phrases for him aloud. By his expression, however, I saw that my butchering of Lithuanian wasn’t changing his opinion.
“Look, this is what I do” I said. “I give every one of my good friends from school who grew up speaking an immigrant language in America a copy of this book in their mother tongue so that they’ll learn to read. And when I visit friends in other countries I give them copies of the book in their own language or in a language they’re studying. I’ve brought the Yiddish for the Jewish school so that maybe they’ll see it and want to learn their own language which they no longer speak. And I brought the Lithuanian one for a good friend who I gave a copy to in Hebrew when she was learning that language. But she can already read Lithuanian well, in fact she’s writes for a Lithuanian newspaper so how about I give you the book instead but you have to promise me that you’ll read it.”
And so I gave away my Lithuanian copy of The Little Prince to the Little Spaniard, in the hope that in his quest to become a historian and tell forgotten stories he would eventually see the value of becoming literate in his mother tongue in order to tell his own. Shortly thereafter the boy, whom I noticed for the first time oddly resembled the young prince of the story in Saint-Exupéry’s drawings, began reciting a page in Spanish to himself and piecing together the Lithuanian words until his murmuring in both languages seemed to combine. Shortly thereafter he fell into a deep sleep. We soon landed in Kaunas.