Meilė Š. (born 1939) came to Vilnius together with her mother in 1945. Graduated from the State Institute of Art (now the Vilnius Academy of Arts). A painter. Nationality: Lithuanian. (Written memoirs in Lithuanian. Translated to English by A. Gedžiūtė. Translation edited by L. Būgienė).
The misty Vilnius – the city that I was destined to know, to run away from and come back again to, to love and not to love, to miss and to be horrified by, to perceive but not to know, to believe and to hate. Every step made on its coded streets would echo as a fire in my heart and still resounds now, until finally forgotten. Its dark maze of streets, yards trodden to obscurity, pale streetlamps in a misty lonely night, always breathing of nonexistence, searching for and losing, searching for the meaning, losing of the meaning.
I do not know if I have ever loved it, I do not know if I have ever missed it or if I would I ever come back to it – the familiar, alien, and mysterious. Conception of love and homeland dissolves in it, it absorbs everything and then demands another offering. Nothing is ever enough for Vilnius, entire lives are not enough for it, and whole generations and generations of generations are not enough for it…
When my feet first touched its ground, my eyes beheld its vaulted towers, my ears heard a hollow tolling of its bells echoing away on the uneasy surfaces of its rivers and streams.
Kings and jails, gallows and graves of heroes have all vanished. Mighty monuments have disappeared. Their metal hands do not point at any direction any longer.
I stopped and looked around taking all this within my childish heart. Was it a gift or only a delusion, the utopia of the sunny city, or the true misty Albion?
I remember a hill, a very high hill, and a ruined castle standing on it – torn stones sticking out, white eye socks of narrow windows gazing onto overgrown impenetrable slopes. Thick trees were shivering and beating at the remnants of the windows. They were longing for those already gone.
Two young women were pulling me, still a little one, up along the winding and curved ruined stairs of the castle. There were no steps left in some places – only knotted rope ladders reminding of stairs, which even had planks tied as footsteps filled in sharp angles of turns. I know that it was difficult and scary to climb there. And it was pointless. The top was full of gaps, dangerous caverns, swaying timber blocks that would lean opening dangerous holes underneath. Neither there were walls decorated with fancy swords. Yet that was a castle, the Vilnius Castle, the castle from Gediminas’ dream, and the wish to be inside it, to feel its majesty and power could overrule everyone’s heart.
After many years, when a dark windy autumn night had fallen, I once again happened to be in that castle. Winds would rage and howl thus beating windows with their icy fingers, scrapping at their black faceless glasses. That was the same castle, but the ruins had gone, the hill, though dimly, was nevertheless lit up, while a huge red flag was fluttering on the top of the tower. The slopes of the hill were overgrown with strong and powerful bushes that held them as if in an embrace of tangled roots. The traces of the war seemed to be gone. Uneasy stormy peace lingered there. […]
Vilnius railway station in 1945-1946
Vilnius railway station where overcrowded trains arrive and leave, full of ragged people with dark, dirty and tired faces. Their weary eyelids are sticking together. They are afraid to fall asleep lest they should be robbed, although there is nothing to steal from them. Only a moldy crust of bread with yellow fat tasting like wormwood – such a great wealth! It gives a chance to survive another homeless day on the way to nowhere. Children are snoozing curled up like puppies among dirty bundles stinking of urine. They often have no socks; their worn blistered fingers are bandaged with dirty rags. Their mothers cover them with shapeless stitched-wadding coats – the only pieces of clothing that they have. Neither toilets, nor water, nor beautiful floors paved with colorful tiles. […]
The station is overcrowded, buzzing, filthy, shabby, sieged by a flowing grey ragged crowd that is sunk under packs and knows neither its past nor future. The main and the most important artery of the contemporary city. Platform, tangle of railways and endless trains. Everything is moving, everything is rumbling, whistles, buzzes, and smoke from the railway engines tumbling in clouds. Colorless carriages, freight cars, platforms, railcars – everything is covered by endless unconceived loads and passengers. People are everywhere: in overcrowded carriages or clinging to them, hanging on the carriage stairs, crammed on the roofs of freight cars, kindling fire there and thus warming their hands or maybe boiling water to drink. Platforms full of soldiers that stack their rifles between their legs.
Both my mother and I disembark into all this confusion, noise, and chaos with our four little suitcases, which are our only assets left to us after the house where we had lived was bombed. Russian exclamations sound everywhere, trains move in opposite directions, and me – not yet big but without fear. My mother is confused, she doesn’t know a word in Russian, while nearby a platform is full of soldiers. Suddenly one jumps down, then another, third, fourth, and all rush to help us carry our suitcases. It seems that everything would be fine. We and the soldiers slip under the moving trains, under great many of them, to get into the station. Yet on the way to the station they all disappear with our last belongings. Only one soldier comes out from under a train, puts down our trunk and slips away. Having left me in the station, my mother rushes to search for them. There is no sense, of course. I am sitting on the floor alone in all this stinking confusion, waiting for her. I have to wait for ages, but I am not afraid, I am never afraid. The night comes, but the movement around never ceases – soldiers, thieves, the wounded bandaged in dressings that hung down, dirty footcloth popping out of their shoes, women with children, with worn out rags, with packs – everything keeps mingling around. There is no mother.
Only in the early hours of the morning she rushes to me all in tears. She was not allowed into the station. They wouldn’t let her in, even to a child left inside. She had to get a platform ticket, and to find the superintendent in order to get permission. It took her the whole night to obtain that permission. And we have nothing left – neither home, nor belongings, nor food.