Barbara O.

Barbara O.2020-02-12T19:54:02+00:00

Barbara O. (born 1960) – a fifth-generation local of Vilnius, a Polish by nationality. Graduated from the Vilnius Pedagogical Institute. Works as a coordinator of literary projects, an author of Polish students’ books, and a guide. (Interview carried out in Lithuanian by R. Racėnaitė. Transcribed by R. Racėnaitė. Translated to English by A. Gedžiūtė. Translation edited by L. Būgienė).


That is a very interesting thing. Even though I am a local here in Vilnius, but in my times, in my childhood, no one spoke Lithuanian in the street where we lived […]. In the Soviet times it was Suvorovo1 Street, while now it’s Sapiegos2 Street. There was only one neighbor of ours, whom I dearly liked as a child […] and the whole street would call that man litwin, that is, a Lithuanian. I cannot even tell his name nor his surname. He was simply litwin. There were no other litwins – Lithuanians – in the street. And everyone would speak Polish, Russian or Byelorussian. That is, these three languages have been quite familiar to me since my childhood. […]

That house is no longer there. The house as well as the land was nationalized in 1973. We are not the only ones who had to survive this.

About the street of my childhood. What can I say? The street used to look like it is now. If we go from Antakalnio Street, there, on the left side, there is a green fence [surrounding the former park of Sapiega Palace and former territory of a military hospital]. As it would stand in the times of my childhood, the same fence is there now. Maybe some planks were changed3. There were houses on the other side of the street. The houses were separated by yards: there would be a yard in the middle and the houses would stand around it. Yard No. 1 in Suvorovo Street, then there was Yard No. 3, then ours was No. 5, then No. 7, then No. 9, and that was the end of the street. I remember, there were thirteen flats [in the houses around our yard]. Our house was half brick and half wood. We had a two-room flat: one room and the kitchen were made of wood, and another room was made of brick – it was in that better part of the house. Most probably the apartments were redesigned in the Soviet times already. Because when my parents got married, that was around the year 1958, before I was born, my father obtained [the flat] from his employer. And he worked in, as they’d call it in Russian, строительный трест – a construction company […]. He was an engineer having graduated from VISI4, the branch of tuition by correspondence, as an architect and he worked there together with my mother. And he got a flat – damp and cold as it was. There was neither water-supply nor sewerage. […] There was a water pump in the middle of the yard and one had to pull the handle hard and then people [would carry water] in buckets. There was no sewerage at all. There was, excuse me [says with a disgust], somewhere in the corner there was a common lavatory – the stench was like… a nightmare, how it stank. My mother would never allow me to go there. “You cannot go there! That’s all! Forbidden!” I was a good child and I wouldn’t go. But I remember the stink of the lavatory.

Among the people who lived there, maybe there were three families who had lived there before the war. There was a lady Jachimowyczowa [pronounces in Polish], her son went to Poland after the war, such an intelligent old lady. There were also Russians who lived above us. They were Eastern Orthodoxies. In Polish [they would be called] miejscowe5, since they lived here before the war. […] There was also such a lady Lyza, baba Lyza, a very old grannie. And she, most probably, had nothing to do. She used to stand the whole day at the gates near the door of her house, asking everyone who was coming where and why they went. I was very afraid of her, but my father was happy: he would say that we, children, were safe in the yard as long as this baba Lyza was standing at the gates. Such a curiosity! [laughs] […]

As a child I noticed this variety of cultures and religions. I would go to the Eastern Orthodox Church as well. And it was very interesting to me: all those festivals and how everything went there. My parents explained to me that these were the same Christians, yet a bit different. And that the Jews believed in the same God, yet differently. […]

My father had a friend, a Jew, who would come and visit us. His name was Moshe, while officially he was Mikhail. My father used to call him Muska. And he would come on Jewish Easter and would always bring matzos. And that was a very good man. Here, a Jew. […] I remember it was Easter. Most commonly both Jewish Easter, that Pesach, Pascha, and Catholic Easter – they take place at the same time in spring. And Muska brought those matzos – a lot of them! While my mother gave him eggs dyed in onion rind6. A couple of simple red eggs. I remember those eggs in my mother’s hands – how she gave these eggs for the matzos. Maybe that was usual? To exchange? […]

There was a garden behind our house, up a hill-slope. So that is also very interesting. It would seem that we lived in a city, but then people used to live there like in a village. Every person who lived in that yard had their own garden-beds and trees. It all was divided: we knew that this tree belonged to that neighbor, while this apple-tree – to another one. And I knew that I couldn’t take some apples or pears because they were not mine. We had many cherry-trees, I remember, and one large apple-tree. […] And my father would make cherry wine: a large bottle would stand on a windowsill and poof, poof, poof – air would go out of it through a pipe. My father was fond of making wine, various bitters, and food. That was his hobby. […]

We also had garden-beds; we used to grow our own onions and even cabbages. And people had some internal knowledge: if these were not my garden-beds, I had no right to take anything from there, because that was not mine. That was some kind of order. […]

Imagine, my father himself had made the whole [water-supply system in the flat] before I was born. All neighbors would show off it! We even had hot water. There was a stove and a metal barrel above it – we even had hot water. There was even a bath! Our bath was in the kitchen. The kitchen is big in my memory. Maybe it wasn’t that big – a child sees the world differently from the adults. […] And my father made a table – a box – and hid a bath inside. When one didn’t bathe, he closed it and it would serve as a large table. And when one would bathe, then he would open it – there was a bath with hot water. While near the bath, there was a large window and you could see everything […]. In my memory that was a completely different life. […]

My father was taken to Russia in 1944, he was sixteen years of age. He came back in 1948. He was deported как враг народа7. And his sister – in 1944 as well. There was a court trial and she was sentenced for 25 лет лагерей в солнечном Магадане8. And she came back from there, excuse me [says with disgust] only when Stalin croaked in 1953. They had to stay there for four more years and then [were allowed to] come back. She got married there, my cousin was born in Magadan. But it was not possible to come back to Vilnius because she was registered there as a citizen of Poland. And they’d only let her to Poland, straight to Poland. It was not possible for her to come back to the Soviet Union. Why did my grandparents from the father’s side stay in Vilnius? As both their children were in Russia, and it was possible to send food packs once a month: some bacon and onions. It was not possible to do such things from Poland. Hence my grandparents stayed. And afterwards, when my father came back, the aunt stayed there until 1957. The last repatriation [to Poland] took place in 1957. They didn’t manage to get ready in time. So, they stayed. That must have been destined so, probably…

Did your parents think about leaving?

No. Never. My father used to say tu nie swój i tam teź cudzy9. Maybe it will not sound nicely here, but maybe, on the one side, that is true: “a stranger here, and an alien there”. Maybe there is some truth in it.

Why a stranger here?

Well, you know… Maybe now these things have got softer a bit.10 […] In the Soviet Union, every person had that личное дело11. And there was пятая графа12. The first column – surname, the second column – name, the third column – the date of birth, the fourth column – the place of birth, while the fifth one – национальность13. And, here, that column was one of the most important things that was checked when evaluating if someone was враг народа14 or not. So he was поляк15 – that is, the main enemy of the Soviet Union, the second being еврей16. […] I think it was because the Polish would never live quietly, they would always raise demands and oppose something. Well, look, there was always something [going on] in Poland: all these revolts, you see, since the times of the tsar! There can be many such reasons.

Well, but here, in Lithuania, it might have been softer than, for instance, in Byelorussia… I know because my mother-in-law comes from Naugardukas [Navahrudak]. She was sixteen and she came to Vilnius after the war. In order to get a passport (because people did not have passports, they lived like some kind of slaves), it was not possible to write “nationality – Polish”, because you’d never get a passport then. So, she wrote национальность – белoруска17, though they had never been Byelorussians. They were Catholics and they’d speak Polish at home – but the inscription is such until now. In the birth certificate of my husband, again: his father – Polish, because he’s from Vilnius, while his mother – Byelorussian, because, you see, there was this пятая графа. […]

My father had been deported, and my aunt had been deported. He knew that [he could be spied upon] everywhere. And, most probably, he was afraid of such things. So it seems to me. He was afraid that KGB was everywhere. He was simply afraid. He did not tell me anything. Children can blurt out things. And then instantly [I would be] дочь врага народа18. […]

When the Soviets came, officers came, and some chiefs [visited the grandfather who worked as a superintendent of a military cemetery]. Of course, people would speak Russian then since the old times. And my grandfather treated them with some bacon, vodka, and pickled cucumbers. And I cannot believe it, well, but that’s true (my father told me). That colonel looked down and asked, “Что это?”– “Сало”19. He tried some, well, it was very delicious! – “А где это делают?” – “Идем, я тебе покажу.”20 And they [the grandfather’s family] had a pig – there was no famine throughout the war – they had their own [meat]. He took him [the Soviet colonel] there. “Here”, he said, “here’s the bacon.” The officer’s eyes were this big [shows], he couldn’t believe it. I don’t know, maybe these people were from some orphanage? It’s a nightmare, isn’t it? [laughs] […]

The term “repatriation” is incorrect. Repatriation means “coming back to one’s homeland”, in Latin. While here, excuse me [indignantly], people had lived here for, I don’t know, for ages, since olden times. That’s very complicated. There is no answer in one sentence. […]

We are people who live here. […] Those people who lived here around Vilnius and to the East of it: in the contemporary Byelorussia – Naugardukas [Navahrudak], and towards Minsk. In all those lands. There were the nobles and simple gentry. They would all call themselves “Lithuanians”, that is, litwins. But not in the sense that we understand it today: that a Lithuanian is the one who speaks Lithuanian and adopts the Lithuanian culture. But these people are rooted in this land! That’s the difference. […] And here, that division was made again: ah, if you speak Polish, then you’re a Polish, and not a Lithuanian. It cannot be that way! And here someone [did this] again. And that is the tragedy. Among the local Polish people here as well. My mother and my father, while they’d lived in Vilnius before the war, they’d say, “S Polski przyjechal21. They lived here, in Poland [in those days]22, but they’d say that someone “came from Poland”. While on the other side, [after the war] they lived in Lithuania and would say, “A, z Litwy przyjechal“23. Do you understand? For instance, I feel that difference and that [attachment] “to the land”. And that culture of ours, of the local Poles here, it is different. It’s different from those Polish people who live in Poland. We are different. We are completely different. Our traditions, our culture, and mentality – everything is absolutely different. And I can see it very well. And it really, really hurts when sometimes you hear, for instance, that somebody speaks in Polish and people get angry because of this – they do not like it. […] This is one of the languages of Vilnius. […]

Indeed, I am a patriot of my land, of my country, of my state. […] This is my homeland! I live in Lithuania. This is my homeland. Well, and I have to respect my homeland. It’s pleasant when my homeland gets more and more beautiful. Because when your homeland sometimes perceives you as an occupant, well, then… […]

It seems to me that every city, every country is richer if there is greater variety there. Maybe it’s easier to live in that mono- [monoethnic country], but when there’s poli-24 – maybe that’s just more interesting?


[1] A little street in one of the suburbs of Vilnius – Antakalnis – was named after Alexander Suvorov (1729-1800), a famous Russian military commander.
[2] Leonas Sapiega (1557-1633) – a noble and a political leader of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The street acquired his name after 1990. It goes along the fence of the former park of Sapiega Palace and leads towards the remnants of this palace in Antakalnis.
[3] Some time ago the fence was renovated and the planks were replaced with metal segments. The interviewee does not know that.
[4] Vilnius Civil Engineering Institute, currently Vilnius Gediminas Technical University.
[5] The locals.
[6] A traditional way of dyeing eggs for the Easter celebration is putting them to boil or soak in the boiled onion rind. The tradition is still popular nowadays.
[7] Rus. “As enemy of the people”.
[8] Rus. “25 years in labor camps in the sunny Magadan”.
[9] In Polish.
[10] The interviewee hints on the common enmity against the Polish people that she felt in the Soviet times.
[11] Rus. “Personal case”.
[12] Rus. “The fifth column”. The phrase used in metaphorical sense. It meant the obligation throughout the USSR to indicate the nationality of a person in the fifth column of personal documents (a personal case, passport, birth certificate, etc.).
[13] Rus. “Nationality”.
[14] Rus. “Enemy of the people”.
[15] Rus. “Polish”.
[16] Rus. “Jewish”.
[17] Rus. “Nationality – Byelorussian”.
[18] Rus. “Daughter of the enemy of the people”.
[19] Rus. “What’s that? – Bacon.”
[20] Rus. “Where do they make it? – Come, I’ll show you.”
[21] Pol. “He came from Poland.”
[22] In 1920-1939, Vilnius and Vilnius region was part of Poland.
[23] Pol. “Ah, he came from Lithuania.”
[24] Multicultural environment is meant here.