“Suppose, before they said silver or moonlight or wet grass, each poet
had to agree to be responsible for the innocence of all the suffering on
earth . . . .”
— Robert Hass
Making my list & checking it — things to do before I depart, Thursday, July 11, on the way to Vilnius, Lithuania, a two-week program, the Summer Literary Seminar (SLS). Plenty of info about it here. SLS is also on Facebook with many current posts about what's happening here.
Of all the places to go, why Vilnius? — some have asked. I submitted poems for the SLS fellowship competition, which covers everything — tuition, travel, room & board — and didn't win, but . . . I was a "shortlist finalist" and they offered me a tuition discount. Being jubilado (jubilant, Spanish for retired) and not getting any younger, I cogitated and said to myself, Mike, you should do this.
For a couple months, I've been unsystematically prepping:
• Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder (2010). (Thanks to poet friend Marc Jampole who called my attention to this book & loaned me his copy, which I still have, after loaning it to two others in the meantime. This is a major-major, award-winning historical study — what happened to people, Jews but not only Jews, in the countries between Poland and Russia in the 1930s & 40s. Among exhaustive sources, including personal testimonies, Snyder, a Yale professor, drew from documents available only since the 1990s de-Sovietization of this region.)
• The Partisans of Vilna (1986), a documentary film about Jewish resistance in the Vilnius ghetto, riveting, informative to me at many levels. Thanks to my friend Doug Schiller for telling me about this film, and thanks to Doug also for photocopied chapters from Shpil, edited by Yale Strom (2012), a book about the history of klezmer music in Eastern Europe. (The Partisans of Vilna is available on DVD from Netflix and also from Carnegie Library.)
• "Dictionary of Vilno Streets," an essay by Czeslaw Milosz, Nobel laureate Polish poet in his collection of essays, To Begin Where I Am (Farrar, Straus: 2001). Milosz grew up in Vilnius (part of Poland then, until 1939) before studying in Paris and living and writing in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation, then emigrating after the Soviets took over — to USA in the 50s, where he spent the rest of his life as professor at Berkeley, where USA poet laureate Robert Hass (quoted at the top of this post) became a friend and translator of his work. Milosz returned to Vilnius when he was 80, and wrote about his childhood there with detailed affection. (p.s. I met Milosz briefly in Philadelphia in the 80s.)
• An extensive Yad Vashem website about pre-1940s Vilnius as a vital center of Jewish culture.
• I've also been reading Lost, a Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn & looking at YouTube videos about Hitler, the Final Solution, etc. — maybe getting a little OCD about this.
Maybe the amazing thing is that the world, what was left of it after 1945, didn't find a way to vaporize Germany & the Germans. Every strain of me is, in a way, German — Pennsylvania Deutsch. My dad & grandad (people called him Heinie) used to sprechen ze Deutsch. My dad drove a Sherman tank into Germany & came home a changed person, said his mother — and I'm sure his combat experience affected who I am.
The "inner tyrant" is a phrase I learned from my friend Tony Hoagland. I'd like to vaporize that part of me, whether or not it's German. A worthy life's task, I think, not yet accomplished.
I haven't yet mentioned Herman Snyder, 93, grew up in a town near Vilnius, survived by running away from the ghetto at 21 & living three years in the woods. Herman lives near Carnegie Mellon, a friend of my friend & former American Lit professor Bob Gale.
Enough for now.
djeckou & zay gezunt,
Mike (from Toronto enroute to Vilnius)