Heimweh

A LITTLE GIRL RETURNS TO THE VILNIUS GHETTO

TO TAKE BACK THE DOLL SHE LEFT BEHIND

(1943)

On a December night

(Bloody footsteps in the virgin snow)

A little girl comes running over —

All eyes and hair — and freezes

Before the door of the yellow house,

She bangs on the door and shouts:

Give me back my doll!

It’s cold without her in Paneriai.

— Alfonsas Nyka-Niliūnas

Baltimore, 1986

“Whenever I watch those movies on television about Afro-American slaves out in the fields picking cotton in the American South,” Juliana said, pushing her thick curly gray hair back from her pot-marked face, “I always think, ‘Why are they picking so slow?’”

Juliana Zarchi had been a twentieth century cotton slave in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Tajikistan.

“From when the sun rose to when the sun set, with a bag tied around our waists, bent over, hardly ever straightening out, we would pick cotton. One of my earliest memories is of my mother standing with the others at the end of a long row of cotton, hacking at the stalks. When I began school, I still had to pick cotton. Every year the entire school would pick cotton from September through December. Even when I was a University student I had to go back to the collective farm to pick cotton. There was not much time for learning. The most important thing was to make your quota. You had to weigh in your quota or they sent you back to pick more. They called the cotton white gold. You couldn’t waste it. We were so scared before we weighed our quotas. Not enough cotton meant no stipend. When we were little, they’d send us to collect the bits that the adults had missed. We would carry the cotton on our heads, just like you see in those American films about slavery.”

Juliana Zarchi had been born on the eve of World War II on May 10, 1938, in Kaunas, Lithuania to a Jewish father and a German mother. Before Juliana had even begun kindergarten, two powerful forces sought to destroy her with a terrible efficiency. Each wanted her dead, because half of her blood did not fit the right ideology.

“I hate ideas. I hate idealism,” Juliana says wistfully. “Where there are ideas, there is no space for the human, for the individual.”

When she was three, Juliana had been placed in the Kaunas ghetto. When the Nazis began shooting children in the ghetto, her mother arranged her escape. Afterward, with her mother and grandmother, Juliana hid for three years in a shed behind a cemetery on the edge of Kaunas. They waited for the Soviets as their liberators.

April, 1944, the day after Soviet troops “liberated” Lithuania from the Nazi’s clutches, six-year-old Juliana and her mother were among the first to be arrested. They were held in a camp on the edge of Kaunas while arrested families were brought in from all over Lithuania.  Then, they were exiled to Tajikistan. Juliana and her mother were the victims of one of the least known of the Soviet deportations — that of Lithuania’s ethnic German population to Tajikistan. Fortunately, (in the sad logic of those times) Juliana’s grandmother died of pneumonia before she could be crammed into the cattle cars along with the others.

In April 1944 one single train packed with Lithuanians, Russians, and Poles of German descent departed from the Kaunas train station for Stalinbad (now Dushambe), Tajikistan. Most of the people packed in the cattle cars were deported because they had German ancestry — in some cases, their ties were as thin as a single distant relative. Others on that train had rescued and hid Jews during the Nazi occupation. In the years following the second Soviet occupation, the KGB sought out individuals who had resisted the Nazis or who had rescued Jews and deported them. The logic was that anyone who had resisted one occupation would resist another. Juliana’s mother was the only German-born “German” on the entire train of deportees.

“When they herded us onto the train,” Juliana said, “we assumed we were being brought to Siberia. The train traveled north at first and then changed direction and headed south for a month. We began to see camels and desert. We children were excited. I turned seven on the train. We had been given an hour to pack and my mother had managed to load an entire wagon with goods. Those things saved us. On my birthday the other children pulled what they had from their belongings and gave me gifts.

“When we arrived in Tajikistan in June it was 40°C in the shade. That is the cynicism of the Soviets. They sent exiles to Siberia in the dead of winter and us to the desert in the heat of summer. Most of the Lithuanian-Germans who were deported on that train with us died during the first year. Lithuanians survived Siberia better.

“We were brought to Stalinbad. They led us to a bath house to bathe. As they led us through the streets people shouted, ‘fascists’ and threw stones at us. And I thought, although I was only seven, first I was hated for being a Jew, now I’m hated for being German.

“When Mama first saw the collective farm she thought they were growing grapes and that it would be bearable, but it turned out to be cotton. We became cotton slaves. The Tajik heads of local collective farms came to the central point where we gathered and selected us for work like at a slave auction. They took the able-bodied men first. We were a group of older women and children. A Tajik who arrived late ended up with us. He was one of the lesser bosses, but he was kind to us.

“Everyone in our group said Mama would die first because she didn’t know any language but German. She was isolated. No one wanted to speak German with her. People did not want to speak German after the war. The entire German minority had been deported out of Lithuania. But it was the only language she knew, and no one would speak to her. For half a century the only German she ever heard or spoke was with me. All my life I was her translator.

“We walked several kilometers in the heat to our collective farm. Nowhere in their records do I exist. It’s though I’d never existed. The Soviet law said that children were innocent, but that wasn’t true. When I was seven I almost died of a weak heart lying on the clay barrack floor.

“In June 1944 when we arrived on the collective farm, there were no toilets, no clean water, no shelter. There had been some cement stables built for animals. The local Tajiks would not sleep in them, but we did, we slept on the ground in the stables. Only when I was in the sixth grade were we able to build a clay hut, a Kibitka, together with our neighbors. That first summer we slept outdoors on the ground with insects crawling all over us. We were too tired from our day’s labor to brush them off. The water was unsanitary. There were no well — only clay canals filled with murky rain water that everyone washed in. After we’d washed, we’d use the dirty water for drinking and cooking. Many of the deportees died within a few months of arrival of dysentery and other diseases. We had no food either. I remember how my mother traded her diamond ring for a slice of bread at the market when we first arrived. The Soviets received food aid from America. We’d see them get it. But we received none of it. We were left to starve.

“They would not allow me or the other exile children to go to a real school. We had to go to the collective farm school. Even as a small child I knew it was not a real school and that it didn’t have real teachers. They were making serfs out of us. I had a hard time learning Russian. They put me in nursery school and there was a Jewish teacher who spoke Yiddish with me and helped me learn Russian.”

Thirteen years after Stalin’s death, when Juliana was 22, Juliana and her mother were finally able to leave their place of exile in Tajikistan and return to Lithuania, another foreign country, with a new foreign language and culture to learn.

Juliana poses with university classmates in Tajikistan. The tall blonde stuck out all right in Central Asia.

Juliana poses with university classmates in Tajikistan. The tall blonde stuck out all right in Central Asia.

“I was so foreign in Tajikistan. I was big and blond. They were small and dark. I felt like a big clumsy horse walking among the Tajiks and the Russians. When I came to Lithuanian I felt so good. I looked like everyone else. The first time I got on the trolleybus, my nose was in another woman’s back. ‘Oh my, how wonderful,’ I thought, ‘I’m not the tallest person on the bus. I’m not towering over them.’”

Until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Juliana and her mother made countless attempts to be repatriated to Germany, but they were never successful.

“All our lives, we lived on suitcases,” Juliana said. “I waited until I was 48 to marry because I always expected to leave.”

A rainy afternoon

The morning of our interview I had driven from Vilnius in the driving rain. At times the rain was so hard that I questioned the wisdom of venturing outdoors. That morning, when I had called Juliana to confirm our meeting, Juliana had said to me, “Are you really going to drive in this weather?”

“Why not?” I had answered, “it’s just a little rain.”

By the time I’d gotten onto the highway to Kaunas, the rain had turned into a monsoon with high winds threatening to blow my little Honda off the road. Once in Kaunas I had only to negotiate two major Stalin-size boulevards — Savanorių Prospektas and Pramonės Prospektas — to reach Juliana’s neighborhood. I drove past rows of dreary identical Soviet block house, one cheap concrete building indistinguishable from the next. I managed to get lost and squander half an hour.

I always get lost in these Soviet “bedroom communities.” My American eye cannot pick out the subtle differences in coloration between buildings or the small distinguishing details the local inhabitants saw clearly and by which they were able to navigate through these poured-concrete labyrinths. I made several calls from my cell phone to Juliana, asking for more landmarks, apologizing profusely for my ineptitude. I finally managed to park and then walked up the wrong stairwell twice before I found Juliana’s apartment door.

“It’s nothing,” Juliana said, opening her door, “I live like in jail here. I go to the wrong stairwell all the time.”

There was that familiar Soviet dreariness to the identical stairwells, the corridors, the apartments. Juliana had cheered up her two-room apartment up with a plenitude of potted plants on her windowsills and balcony. Her fat lazy cat added some coziness.

“All my life I’ve felt as though I were living in prison,” Juliana said, bringing a kettle of boiling water into the living room and setting it down on the coffee table.  “On the collective farm in Tajikistan, all around us there were majestic snow-covered mountains. In the spring those mountains were covered in red poppies. In the mountains there were rivers with ice cold glacial blue water flowing through them. The nature was so beautiful. But I always felt as though I were in prison. Even the way the mountains surrounded me made me feel like I was in prison.”

Once the usual fuss of coffee and sweets had been taken care of and I had placed my dictaphone on the coffee table between us, I asked Juliana to tell her story from the beginning.

“In what language?” Juliana asked, gazing at me intently with her large intelligent round hazel eyes. “If I tell the story in German, it will be the most intimate. German is my mother tongue and the language I spoke with my mother. But I was educated in Russian and Russian is my cultural reference — Russian humor, films, books. I could tell the story in Lithuanian, but Lithuanian is a language I learned as an adult. It is not close to me.”

Despite the fact that she’d learned Lithuanian while already in her mid-20s, Juliana’s Lithuanian was fluent. Up until that point we’d been speaking Lithuanian — her’s slightly accented by the vowel sounds of German and the guttural “r” and mine by the vowel sounds of English.

Juliana paused. “Do I know what nation I belong to?” she said, contemplatively shifting her head. “I do not. When I speak about people I find myself saying, the Germans, the Russians, the Lithuanians, but when I speak about other exiles, I say we. What does that mean? Do I identify myself only with victims?”

In the end, the question answered itself. Once we began talking, very naturally Juliana slipped into German. Because I’d lived in Germany for two years while in high school I was able to understand her. Where I needed clarification, I asked in Lithuanian, shy of my school-girl German.

As we spoke, Juliana’s fat white fluffy cat sat comfortably on the arm chair opposite me, as though he were the interviewee. Meanwhile, Juliana perched on a tobouret beside him, reluctant to disturb his comfort.

“My name is Juliana,” Juliana began. “In my Lithuanian passport my name is spelled with a “J”, Julijana, but that’s not how my name is really meant to be spelled. No one in Lithuania has my name; it is a German name. I was named for my aunt. My surname is Zarchi. My father was from a large Orthodox Jewish family. In the 1920s he left Lithuania to study in Germany. His uncle financed his studies. My father spent time in Giessen and studied at Basel University. My father was of that generation of Lithuanian Jews who did not speak Lithuanian; he spoke Yiddish, Russian, Polish, and German. He studied in the Department of Philology and Philosophy. Wait a moment, let me show you his dissertation.”

Juliana stood heavily and lumbered over to the large wall unit the occupied one entire wall of her living room. She pulled open a drawer and pulled out a leather bound book. She placed the book on my lap. I opened it to the title page: Die Ökonomische Kausalität des Sozialpatriotismus (The Economic Causality of Social Patriotism). Underneath the title I read: Philologische-historischen Abteilung der hohen Philosofischen Fakultät der Universität Basel (The Department of Philosophy and History in the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Basel) and then his name, Mausa Zarchi.

Did he have any idea? Any idea that within a few years of completing his PhD, he, a civilized, educated European, would be hunted down and shot while fleeing his pursuers through the forests of Ukmergė. Those pursuers the same people he’d resided among, studied with, worked with? And for what? For being Jewish? A twentieth century absurdity. He must have known what was coming? Or was it unfathomable?

Her family

Rain beat against the apartment windows and the lights flickered. So many millions had had hopes and dreams, plans for the future. So many millions and now their deaths had become a cliché. The Holocaust was overdone — too many films, too many books, too many speeches. We’d hardened to what it actually meant. Until we held the evidence in our hands. The lost dissertations. The black and white photographs of a tow-headed toddler girl hugging her big strong daddy, both of them beaming with the joy of a summer’s day — her in a short dress and him in swimming trunks beside a lake.

As I sat gazing at the dissertation, Juliana placed another photograph on the coffee table before me. This photograph showed a row of five handsome young Jewish men in good suits — five brothers, all educated and with careers and families, and all dead within a year of when the photograph had been taken.

“After my father graduated from the university,” Juliana continued, “he began working in an ad agency. He became an ad man — it was a new and exciting profession at the time. His German wasn’t the best. My mother worked at the ad agency as a secretary. She began helping him with his texts in German. Her name was Greta Ursch. Mother had been born in 1906. She came from a large family. Her mother had been a simple uneducated woman, but her father had been educated. Her father had abandoned the family, leaving their mother without any means of supporting the children. My mother had to work from a young age to support herself and her family. She had been engaged for nine years. Her fiancée had lost everything in the crisis of 1929 and they could not marry. Father, meanwhile, had a Swiss girlfriend. Working together, my parents fell in love and soon they knew that they must marry. But by 1934, Hitler was in power and Jews were forbidden from marrying non-Jews. They took a trip to Lithuania so that they could marry. At the time there were no civil marriage, only church marriages. My mother was Catholic and as a Catholic she could not marry a Jew. So, they went to the synagogue and she converted to Judaism. That is how my parents were able to get married. My mother became a Jew, but we never practiced any religion at home. After their wedding, they returned to Germany and remained another three years in Düsseldorf. Father was allowed to work in Germany up to 1937 because he had special protection as a Jew from abroad.”

Juliana paused to add warm water from the kettle to my coffee. “I have a Gestapo act for Mausa Zarchi,” she said in a serious tone. “They knew of him. They went to my father’s boss and demanded: ‘Why is this Jew working for you?’ Of course, after that, he lost his job. My parents had the choice of emigrating to England or to the U.S. The U.S. was too expensive. In England the war was starting. So, in 1937 my parents traveled to Lithuania to escape Hitler. In 1937 Jews were still living a normal life in Lithuania. In 1937 in Lithuania no one concerned themselves with what was going on in Nazi Germany. My parents settled in Kaunas. As an ad man my father had many job opportunities, but he couldn’t speak Lithuanian. That limited him. In 1938 the cost of living in Kaunas became very expensive and my father had to earn all the family’s money. When my mother was pregnant with me, they rented a room, not an apartment. Even so, in 1938 the standard of living in Lithuania was higher than that of Nazi Germany. From Kaunas they would send food packages to Germany because there was much more food in Kaunas than in Germany. Wurst, Schinken, they didn’t have it in Germany. My mother’s sister came to visit her from Germany. My mother told me her sister would ask to be brought to the store so that she could stand and admire all the foods and goods in the stores. When my grandmother came to Kaunas she was shocked to see that when Lithuanians cooked bouillon, they tossed away the meat.

“My mother never learned Lithuanian and the society was foreign to her. She suffered all her life from incredible homesickness. It lasted until she died. It was the top theme in her life. Homesickness, heimweh, was this feeling that stayed with her always. Because my mother couldn’t go home, her homesickness became an obsession. The nostalgia was so strong.”

“You see,” Juliana paused in her narrative to explain, “Germans don’t have a concept of home as being a big place. Germans never had that sense of statehood. To a German, home is a small place, heim, a small village, and so a heimat is not necessarily the land where you were born or where your parents were born, but where you feel at home. And heimweh is that feeling of longing for that place — that place where you belong. And for my mother that place was the city of Düsseldorf. Düsseldorf was her paradise. All I ever heard about was beautiful Düsseldorf. All I ever heard were stories about how she had lived in Düsseldorf. One day she said to me, ‘Du verstehst mich auch nicht!’ You don’t understand me! That was a shock to me. I realized then that even I was a stranger to her. My mother had a strong, happy personality. That is why she survived everything. By contrast I am finster, dark and brooding. She remained so German. When I go back to Germany now and I hear people speaking German I think of my mother.”

“My mother wrote many letters home in 1937. She was pregnant and she cried a lot. She went home for Christmas. My father wrote her letters. She came back just before I was born. I still have my father’s letters. I’ve been reading through them. It’s hard to read them. I get so emotional because the letters are so beautiful. They were young and they loved each other so much. My father urged my mother to stay with her family where she was comfortable, but she missed him and she went back to Kaunas.

“She came back to Lithuania and I was born in 1938. A year later Lithuania was occupied. She was alone at home with a baby and her mother, who had come from Germany to help her raise me. They only spoke German at home. She had no opportunity to learn Lithuanian and in 1944 she was already deported to Tajikistan.

“My parents were leftists, even quite a lot, but still, they were warned that they might be deported to Siberia when the Russians came. My father was perceived as a spy. A German wife. The situation was not good. My father’s brothers and sisters were deported by the Soviets. The entire family was destroyed. In June of 1941, a week before the war began, the Soviets began deporting people. Many Jews were deported to Siberia at this time. Few people realize this, but during the deportations of June 13-14, 1941 25 percnet of the people deported by the Soviets from Lithuania were Jews. At the time 7 percent of Lithuania’s population was Jewish. These Jews were deported for their wealth and their education and stature in society. Although,” Juliana paused, “the Soviet motivations are hard to judge. The Soviets were anti-Semites too.”

“Jews were running from Hitler to Russia and the Russians were deporting the Jews. It was chaos. You must understand what went on in those weeks in June, 1941. Both sides were hunting down the Jews. My father thought of running to Russia, but he knew that he couldn’t survive in Russia with a German family. And he had his nephew Benjamin to look out for. His parents and sister had already been taken to Siberia a week before the war started. My mother was at home, helpless with an infant and an infirm grandmother. It was very dangerous. Only single young men survived. The stories of old men keeping families together ended with the entire family dying.

“My father’s youngest brother, Saloman, was a leftist. He left Lithuania in the twenties and joined one of the pro-Soviet Jewish farming communities in the Far East. By 1937 he was in one of Stalin’s concentration camp and was killed. He was considered a spy. His wife was pregnant and about to give birth. She ran away to the Ukraine, on the trains, to hide with her relatives. She gave birth to a baby girl, Maya, also in 1938. Maya is my only living relative.

“My father’s sister and her entire family were deported to Siberia. They had owned a well-known book shop. My father had four brothers: Abraham, Moses, Jacob, and Salomon and one sister, Chola. They are all gone. Killed in 1941. The Soviets deported Chola, and her husband and their thirteen-year-old daughter, Eta. Their son Benjamin was a third year medical student at Kaunas University. He had been living with us. Chola thought her son would be safer with us. That was a tragic decision. He was murdered along with my father. On that Sunday in June, 1941 when the Germans arrived my father was working in the editorial offices of a newspaper. He called my mother. ‘It’s going fast,’ he said to her, ‘We can’t do much at all. Benjamin and I will run to Ukmergė and we will hide there. The Germans won’t hurt you.’ We never saw him again. “My father fled with Benjamin to Ukmergė and they disappeared. He was killed either along the way or once he reached his destination or some months later. I do not know for sure. A man named Karl Jaeger was the Standartenfuehrer in charge of killing Jews in Lithuania. He claimed that by December 1941, Lithuania would be free of Jews. He was making a career for himself.”

Juliana rose and once again returned to her huge bookshelf. She pulled out a large volume that listed the number of Jews killed in each Lithuanian district. She leafed through the book’s pages and found Ukmergė. She showed me the numbers.

Number of Jews killed:

1941, August 1

254 Jews

42 Jewesses

1 Pole

1941, September 5

1,123 Jews

1,849 Jewesses

1,737 Jewish children

“My father may have been one of those numbers,” Juliana said reflectively. “But I don’t really know. I have no actual evidence. My mother thought the entire time that my father still had to be alive. She thought he was hiding in the forest. She thought he would come back. I have a letter from a doctor in Ukmergė who wrote to my mother to tell her that he believed father was in the forest.

“They had to have local help,” Juliana said, “otherwise it was not possible to murder that many people in just three days. The local police had to locate, find, and herd the Jews. Karl Jaeger wrote in a report: ‘It is hard to move 300 people in a column without them escaping. You need to guard them. It’s not easy to shoot. You can shoot for 20-30 minutes and then you have to change shooters.’

“I’ve gone to memorials there,” Juliana said reflectively, “for some reason, the Germans killed people in the most beautiful forests.”

Juliana took a deep breath, then continued:

“After that notices appeared all over Kaunas that all Jews had to go to the ghetto in Vilijampolė. My mother was so frightened, she first perceived the ghetto as a safe place for me. Also, as a German, my mother was used to following orders. No one knew what Hitler would do.

“You see, Hitler knew how to incite riots. There were Lithuanians who were imprisoned for resisting the Soviets. They broke out of prison when the Soviets fled. The Nazis would use the situation in a country to cause unrest. They would figure out the psychological state of mind of the local people. These people had just lost their independence and were occupied by the Soviets. The Nazis took advantage of the people’s state of mind. They promised them their own government. It was naïve to believe that Hitler would grant Lithuania independence. The Lithuanians declared a temporary independence and it was tolerated for a short while, but it didn’t last.

“We lived not far from those garages where those infamous incidents took place. My mother was scared. People were shooting in the streets. A group of Lithuanian men lived on the floor below us. They drank a lot. They were wild. During those days between the occupations, they would climb up on our building’s roof and shoot at the fleeing Russians.

“The German army sent some soldiers ahead as reconnaissance. One night a German officer turned up on our doorstep and demanded that we give him a bed. He had been marching for a long time. While he was sleeping, someone began pounding on our door and woke him up. He was furious. He tore open the door. It was the men from downstairs.

‘We are looking for a Jewish child,’ they demanded.

“The other neighbors must have told them because nobody knew us. I was so blond, I didn’t look Jewish.

“The German officer was furious at the disruption. He didn’t even take the time to hear them out. He attacked their leader and the two of them rolled down the stairs fighting. The others scattered.

“It was a strange type of miracle that saved my life that night. The horror of it was that a three-year old child was dangerous to them.

“That incident convinced my mother that she ought to place me in the ghetto for my own safety. We had a friend, Franz Vaselko, a Czech-Hungarian from Austria. He was a graphic artist. His wife was Jewish. They had three half Jewish children. My mother consulted with Vaselko. He recommended that his wife go to the ghetto with their children and me. That way, to the Nazis both our families would appear to have obeyed the order, but he would be on the outside in case something went wrong. My mother was heartbroken, but she agreed. At the age of three I was handed over to another family. The ghetto gates closed on Aug. 15. Later, when my mother heard they were shooting children in the ghetto, she almost went mad with fear.

“Vaselko and my mother then arranged for my escape. I have a memory of my mother standing in the shadows in a doorway across the street. A Lithuanian guard had a ball in his hands. He’d been bribed. If the Germans came, he’d throw it in the street and I’d pretend to run out to get it. I remember being pushed through a barbed wire fence. I remember tearing my coat. I remember those small wooden houses. Someone behind me said, ‘Run.’ Mama said I ran like I never ran before. I remember running across the street to my mother. I remember it was dark and I saw my mother’s silhouette. I remember she was dressed different than normal. She had a scarf or something on her head. She picked me up and set me down higher and she changed my clothes. I was wearing the shirt with the yellow star on the front and the back.

“Vaselko set up a hiding place in his apartment for his family. He created a false wall in this apartment and hid his wife and children behind it. One of his daughters died of diphtheria behind that wall because they couldn’t get medical help for her. They couldn’t even bury her. It was tragic. My mother and I hid at first in the apartment on Vytautas Street. There were two Polish sisters who lived behind the cemetery on the edge of Kaunas. They hid me and my mother and my Oma and that was where we stayed until the War ended.

“Until I grew up, my mother always slept with me and held my hand tight.

“After I was rescued, they began massively shooting people from the ghetto. When they closed the gates in August, they made an announcement that people with educations were needed for special work: doctors, lawyers, teachers. There was even a competition to get those slots. They selected the intellectuals, put them in trucks, took them away to the forest and they shot them. They were the first to be killed. You see, they had to take down the head, they had to kill the educated people first.

“If I had to prove that I’d been in the ghetto, I couldn’t. My name was never on the official list. I don’t know how long I stayed there. I went there in August and I remember leaving with a blue jacket, so it was cold already, autumn.”

Juliana paused. She pulled her cat onto her lap and rubbed his ears. “What kind of a dictatorship is this?” she continued, “A human being is zero. You are dependent on the regime. It is awful. It’s the worst thing. You have no rights. Nothing. My entire family was wiped out. My Jewish family was gone. There are people who can’t get accustomed to the new democracy. They liked living in the communist system. That’s the horror. People accommodate themselves to the system. I worked at the German Department in the University. The Soviet system strove to keep us stupid. You could never develop yourself as a human being. Look at how they taught literature. We never read the actual books. We read criticism. You never knew people’s political opinions when the Soviets were here. You never knew what people really thought. Now, all of a sudden, everyone’s political views are coming to the surface. I’m horrified when nice people talk about the Soviets with nostalgia and curse Landsbergis. Then I know, they had it good under that system.

“We wrote so many letters and requests to go back to Germany but they wouldn’t let us go. Even in Tajikistan, my mother kept writing letters to the German embassies, but nobody helped us. Decades later, we were finally able to get entrance visas to Germany, but no exit visa to leave the Soviet Union. After independence I checked the KGB archives. Filed together in the same folder I found two categories: Bandit terrorists and German minorities. Written in primitive Russian I found a report that stated that Oma and Mama had received a guest from Germany. That would have been my aunt. Because of this family visit, we were categorized as spies against the Soviet Union.

“Wait a moment,” Juliana paused, “let me show you something.” She stood and returned to her magical bookshelves and returned with a box of photographs. She removed the lid and pulled out an envelope bursting with black and white photos.

“Here is my mother at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin,” Juliana said, handing me a black and white photograph, brittle with age.

In the snapshot, leaning up against a sleek car, stood a tall, slender, elegant young woman dressed in a tailored suit and polka dot blouse. A smart hat shaded her face. She was smiling through the dark lipstick of the time.

“Here is a photograph of my mother exactly 10 years later,” Juliana said, “handing me another photo. Now, an older woman’s face gazed out at me. The face was weather-beaten, dark, wrinkled, with sunken eyes. Juliana’s mother’s head was wrapped in a black head scarf. If I didn’t know any different, I would have assumed it was the photograph of any Muslim woman of humble origins.

“In 1989 the wall came down in Germany. I traveled to Berlin and I walked the Friedrichstrasse. I had been there a week before when the wall was still there. It occurred to me then that now my mother could go home to Düsseldorf. I started preparing the paperwork. It took years. I prepared all the visas in duplicate for her and me. My mother had emphysema and a bad heart and was very weak. By the time all our papers came through, I was afraid to bring her to West Germany. What if she died. What would I do? I was afraid that when we got to Düsseldorf and she heard nothing but German the shock of it would be too much for her and it would kill her.

“It was a tough decision, but in the end I didn’t bring her. Perhaps I was wrong. I sometimes think, so what if the trip would have killed her? She would have finally gone home. She died very shortly after I returned from Düsseldorf, in January 1991, just before the tank attacks on the television tower. Before she died, my mother said, ‘Weine nich um mich, ich fahre nach hause.’ Do not cry for me. I am going home.

“I went home for her. My mother would always tell me stories about how she and her sisters would go away on vacation to Belgium or the Schwarzwald. Then, when they came home, they’d step out of the train in the Düsseldorf train station and they would breathe in the air and say, ‘We’re home.’ When I traveled to Düsseldorf in 1990 for the first time, I took the S-Bahn alone. I rode to the train station. I stepped out. I breathed in the air. I wanted to have that feeling of going home, but it was not the same as it would have been for my mother. I didn’t know a soul there. I stood there in the train station, gazing around me, feeling nothing but emptiness.  Then I heard someone calling my name, “Juliana, Juliana.” There is no such name in Lithuanian. I’d never heard my name called out by a stranger in a public place before. I looked around and then I saw that the person was calling out for another Juliana, not me. Still, hearing my name called out across the Düsseldorf station at that moment of emptiness told me that I had come home.”

Laima Vincė, a New York native, is a Lithuanian-American non-fiction and children’s book author, Fulbright scholar in creative writing at Vilnius University, journalist, memoirist and translator. For more information about her work, visit her website at www.laimavince.com and to order her acclaimed memoir “Lenin’s Head on a Platter” go here. Two translations she did of Lithuanian authors can be found here and here.

Disclaimer:

Views expressed in the opinion section are never those of the Baltic Reports company or the website’s editorial team as a whole, but merely those of the individual writer.

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