The Cerulean Bird.jpg

Matilda

The Unlocked Diary: The Diary and Poems of Matilda Olkinaitė

Matilda Olkinaitė, translated by Laima Vince

The Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore: 2020

The Cerulean Bird

Matilda Olkinaitė

June 6, 1922 - July 10, 1941

A Performance Piece by Laima Vincė

The Olkinas family lived near the train station in the village of Panemunėlis.  Noachas Olkinas was the local pharmacist.  He was well known in the community for his kindness, often administering medicine to the sick free of charge. Olkinas would say to his customers, “Only pay me if my medicine helps you get better.”

Noachas Olkinas was an intellectual who read Pushkin, Lermontov, and Dostoyevski.  Noachas Olkinas was Jewish, a Litvak. He was a close friend of the Catholic parish priest, Juozapas Matelionis. They drank tea together in the rectory every Sunday afternoon after mass. In the 1930s, as a gesture of friendship to Father Matelionis, Noachas Olkinas donated an ornately carved oak confessional to the Panemunėlis Church. The confessional is still in use today.

Asna and Noachas Olkinas’s daughter Matilda was well known in the Rokiškis region as a gifted poet. Although Matilda was fluent in Yiddish, Russian, German, French, she wrote her poems exclusively in Lithuanian. From the age of 13 she began publishing her poems in Lithuanian literary journals. She was often invited to recite at literary evenings in Rokiškis, and then later in Vilnius, when she studied French and Russian Literature at Vilnius University in 1940 – 1941, the last years of her life. Matilda's friends recalled that Matilda was warm, sincere, but at the same time reserved. During breaks between classes she would walk the corridors deep in thought. She would pause and gaze out the window. When her friends saw her like this, they would say, “Shush, be quiet, Matilda is composing poetry.”

In the summer of 2018, I spent an afternoon with 93-year-old Liucija Neniškytė-Vizgirdienė. Liucija's grandparents lived across the street from the Olkinas family and operated a mill. As a child, Liucija became the best friend of Mika and Matilda.

On Saturdays both the Jewish family and their Lithuanian friends and neighbors observed the Sabbath together.  At Sabbath dinner the children would read, put on plays, and entertain the guests.  Matilda’s early poems were full of exuberance and love of nature.

 

Liucija remembers Matilda's father encouraged creativity and self-expression in his children. “I'm not sure whether he was serious or half-joking,” Liucija recalled, “but Mr. Olkinas would say to Matilda, 'I want to read a new poem written by you every Sabbath.'

 

From Matilda’s diary:

 

August 17, 1940

 

“I hear a cricket singing. He took up residence with us tonight. They say that crickets bring good luck.

So there—good fortune has come to live with us.

To work and to create, and to love, and—to be loved!”

 

The last time Liucija saw Matilda alive was when she went to visit her in the room she rented across the street from the synagogue on Pylimas Street in Vilnius. Matilda told Liucija that she had dedicated a poem to her and that she should look for it in a specific magazine. Liucija recited the poem to us from memory. The poem was written the day Liucija’s family home and mill in Panemunėlis were privatized and the family forced to leave.

Your tiny room

Was white, filled with sunlight.

And your shutters were white too.

You dried mint on your windowsill.

 

Every spring you picked violets

And kept them in water on your table.

And every night you wound

Your ancient clock.

 

Tell me, why, that night,

The wind blew out your candle?

Who rapped on your window,

Paused a moment, then left?

 

It was your fate calling, knocking

Quietly on your white shutters.

It stopped your old clock.

It snuffed out your white candle.

 

Your tiny room

Was white and filled with sunlight.

But the world is so wide.

Where will you go, beloved?

 

Matilda showed Liucija a pair of beautiful, expensive, Czech shoes. She smiled and said, “My love gave me these.” Liucija asked if Sheras, the son of the Rokiškis pharmacist, gave her the shoes. “Oh no, my true love,” Matilda answered mysteriously. Liucija remembers Matilda was very happy that day. She was content with her life. That is how she likes to remember her. A few weeks later, the Nazis occupied Lithuania and Matilda's young life of love and poetry was cut short.

 

My People

 

A pair of dark eyes ignite once again

With a pain that cannot be extinguished.

And they—they just keep walking past and away.

But for me, Lord, there are no words.

 

Do you hear? Do you hear that awful laughter?

The hills, even the hills shake with the sound—

And the rivers will faint, and the seas will faint—

And the stone will cry, the stone will cry.

 

You are laughing? You walk past and keep on walking.

But for me, Lord, there are no words for my horror.

That laughter—that awful laughter...

And dark eyes flash with an undying, relentless pain.

 

As early as 1938 Matilda began to write about her premonitions that a terrible fate will befall the Jewish people. In March 1940 she wrote this poem in her notebook:

A Jewish Lullaby

 

My tiny little baby

Why won’t you fall asleep?

Longing overwhelms you tonight.

Longing crouches beside your cradle.

 

The nights are long and dark,

And the road leads far into the distance.

On such a night you will leave me,

My tiny little baby.

 

And suffering will wait for you,

Like a beloved friend, beside the gate.

Great suffering and hardship

Will carry you silently through long generations.

 

Long generations carry suffering

From the cradle to the grave—

Suffering immense and deep,

And as endless as the night.

 

Fall asleep now. It is a long road

That will lead you into the night...

Go to sleep. I will sing to you,

My tiny little baby. 

Sometimes, in her diary Matilda confused her premonitions with her anxieties over the young man she elusively referred to as “her love” or simply “Him” written with a capital “H.”

 

August 15, 1940

 

“It’s been a strange summer this year. Every goodbye is painful. And it seems, as though everything is passing and will soon be gone forever. When I parted with my love, I felt as though I’ll never see him again.

I walked home from the station late at night. The moon was full, and so bright that you could read a book by its light. A long shadow trailed after me as I walked. And it seemed, as though this were the last night of summer: Bright and humid and restless to the point of tears. Often, he does not even see me, and he doesn’t understand me. I asked him to write something for me. He took that as my whim and wouldn’t write anything. But I so wanted to have a few words that I could take away from this evening, which felt as though it were our last together.

I wanted to read him a poem in French today, but already by the second line I sensed that he was not interested. So, I stopped reading. After such moments, when he becomes serious and asks me if I would agree to leave everything behind and run away with him, the sound of his words are painful to me, and I feel as though he were mocking me.

It’s no good. It can’t be that love will always be like this for me? Before I always thought

 (or perhaps I was just trying to convince myself?) that my feelings will always match his (which were unknown to me then).

He is not keeping a diary now. He sleeps soundly.

I wish him well.”

 

Matilda’s young man—her diary reveals—showed her affection and then withheld it. Matilda impetuously penned this poem between diary entries eight months before her death. Her handwriting is rushed, as though she wrote the poem hastily, expressing emotions weighing on her. Was this a premonition? Or was she frightened by the war that was drawing closer and closer to Lithuania?

 

Oh, how many have gathered

In my home of mourning.

I hold an infant in my arms,

And my infant—is Death.

 

They brought a silver sash

And armfuls of lilies, white.

And I cannot thank them,

And I cannot smile.

 

All around me are lilies, white, white,

And faces wearing bright smiles.

But my hands are so cold.

A black ribbon is tied in my hair.

 

Someone has trampled my love—

The whitest of the white blossoms.

And among the wilted lilies,

I see them, I speak to them.

 

Oh, how many have gathered

And no one will see love.

I hold an infant in my arms—

And my infant—is Death.

 

 

Many of Matilda’s poems express a premonition of death, but on the pages of her diary, Matilda would often ponder the meaning of life:

 

September 11, 1940

“I’m thinking now about what a person’s natural state of being is: whether it is to live a simple gray everyday life, where we approach things with a light and open touch, or whether it is to live in an enlightened state of being, where between us and phenomenon a deeper feeling arises that raises the level of our thoughts, which gives everything meaning, placing it all on a higher plane. Is a person’s nature gray and mundane, and only very rarely does it rise into a higher spiritual plane? Or is it full of light—call it sacred—and only by force pushed down into the level of gray everyday existence? And where is the true me? Is it the me who gossips about others, chatters away, gets angry, and has little patience? Or is it the me who rises above and creates, who loves, who trembles in eternal bliss, when the evening spreads across the vast fields and the heavens overhead are wide open and endless, and when in this sacred silence you hear the word of God speaking to you.

What is the natural state of a human being? Perhaps both are natural to us? Just like hate and love, like destruction and creativity, like keeping watch and sleeping.”

 

In her diary, Matilda wrote about her family, their shared moments of warmth, but also their squabbles. Despite the Soviet occupation Matilda hoped to one day publish a collection of her poems. On September 1, 1940, Matilda noted: “Today it is exactly one year since the war began.  The newspapers have marked the occasion by writing their headlines all in capital letters. It is horrific when you think about it. But I’m not taking it to heart.”

 

She continues in that same diary entry:

 

“The day that I must leave is drawing closer. This year I will need to study hard and put all my energy into my work. I am considering studying Slavic languages as an elective. But I will give it some more thought. Maybe. Whatever I end up choosing, I would like to work very seriously at my studies this year. I’d like to improve my grade in the Lithuanian language. I will need to take a few exams. And then, and then—I wish to publish my book. I want to resolve my relationship with Him. If I see that we do not have that thing that is called, Wahlverwandtshaft,[1] then I will sacrifice everything and step aside.”

 

A few days later, on September 4, 1940, Matilda expressed doubts about her collection of poems. She observed that her poems were not consistent with the dominating Soviet ideology and feared that her poems would not be published:

 

“Today I shouldn’t write in my diary. It has been a day without sadness and without joy. I read a book in three hours, I walked around in my bathrobe all day long, my throat hurt, the battery in my radio died.  What I should do is sit down and work on editing several poems.  Oh, that poetry collection of mine!  I am working on it with no inspiration, knowing that no one will publish it anyway. There is nothing in my poems that is relevant.  I write about the pain of suffering over centuries at a time when we are required to sing about how happy we are today and about our bright tomorrow.”

 

In her diary, Matilda criticizes one of Lithuania’s most beloved poets, Salomėja Neris, for writing odes to Stalin. Matilda remained true to her poetic vision. She refused to change her poetry to suit the politics of the times. Matilda writes about how she disliked the Soviet regime because she felt they were common and because they tried to control artists. Yet her brother, Ilya, joined the Communist Youth, quite possibly out of idealism. Matilda noted with irony: “We received a letter from Ilya. It was a patriotic letter about our Soviet homeland. Ilya is one of those enlightened people who believes in communism.”

 

As 1940, the year of the Soviet occupation progressed, the wish to lead an ordinary life becomes a pervasive theme in Matilda's diary.

 

November 20, 1940

 

“If only I had a baby to care for, I would calm down. And not because I would beat down all my passion, but because I would have someone to give all my fire, all my love, all my life. I would like a healthy, beautiful baby, one with brown eyes, or with blue eyes, like His... A healthy, beautiful baby. That would be my compensation for my difficult, heavy days, for all my days of longing, all my restless nights.”             

 

On August 31, Matilda wrote in her diary: “I went to a dance this evening. I danced and I danced, as though I wanted to dance away all the pain in my soul.”

 

In Autumn 1940, Lithuania was incorporated into the Soviet Union. Fears of war reaching Lithuania grew.  Matilda’s poems became more preoccupied with the impending doom  she sensed was coming to her country, and to the Jewish people.  She longs to utter one single word that could bring all the world back to its senses.

 

A Word

 

It is so difficult for me. I’d like to utter just one word.

That unspoken word trembles within me.

I see processions, generations, gliding past.

And a blue longing and shivering suffering.

 

And joy, quivering in tiny rays of light,

And the pain of an aeon of shattered hopes.

But I—am that unspoken word and shadow.

I carry that unspoken word in my heart.

 

It is so difficult for me. I’d like to utter that one word.

Just one word for the crowds and for the nations.

The processions would pause. Time would come to a halt.

All the generations would stop and listen.

 

And my word would flutter above the mountains and the seas.

Above flowing rivers and rough waters.

And longing and trembling suffering would cease,

And the pain of an aeon of shattered hopes.

 

Matilda knew that World War II would impact her generation very directly. In a poem, written October 11, 1939, and titled simply, “For My Dear Idealist” Matilda expresses the fears that every young woman faced, knowing the man she loved may be called to war.

 

For My Dear Idealist

 

The Sun has drowned in the sea.

And You? What awaits You?

The world’s road is bloody,

Without love, without heart...

 

The Sun has drowned in the sea,

And the night will be dark.

Oh, but your eyes are brilliant,

And full of love, full of heart.

 

The Sun has drowned in the sea

Beyond blue hills...

Will You return our Sun?

Will You bring her back?

 

The world’s path is bloody

Without love, without heart.

Perhaps Your brilliant eyes

Will lead us to the Sun?

 

In a poem dated October 19, 1938 Matilda describes a vision that the Sun, her symbol of hope, joy, and life, is carried off beyond the Three Hills by a Black Angel.  Below the poem she scribbled a notation: “Written during the gnosiology lesson.” I could only imagine that Matilda quickly penned this poem during a lecture, moved by intuition. 

 

Beyond Three Hills

The Sun went down.

It was dusk

When we set out.

A Black Angel

Carried off the Sun.

Beyond Three Hills

The Sun has set.

Farewell, farewell—

We will never return—

We’ve already gone,

Beyond the Three Hills.

And we did not find there

Our beloved Sun.

We only found

The dark night—

Beyond Three Hills

The Sun has set.

Oh, farewell, farewell.

We will never return.

And flowers will bloom

In the early morning—

In the early morning,

We will never return.

 

 

The last entry in Matilda's diary is dated February 28, 1941. There are plenty of blank pages left, so it is not clear why Matilda stopped writing at this time. 

 

The Nazis entered Lithuania in June 1941. Matilda could have fled East with her brother Ilya and his wife, Liza, but she chose to go home to her family in Panemunėlis instead.

 

When the Olkinas family and the other Jews of Panemunėlis were arrested, friends and neighbors came forward to help, bringing food, some offering to rescue them by hiding them. They did this at the risk of their own arrest and execution.  However, these people were powerless in the face of the war machine of the Nazis and their local collaborators, known to local people as “baltaraiščiai” or the “white armbanders.”

Father Matelionis managed to negotiate with their captors and get the Olkinas family out of the train station where they were being held captive. For a week, he hid them in the rectory beside the church. However, late one night, Noachas Olkinas went out for a walk and saw a notice stating that anyone caught hiding Jews would be executed. He immediately feared for his friend’s life and weighed the moral responsibility. He turned himself in to the Nazis that same night.

The Olkinas family knew that those who helped them risked death and they refused to put other people in danger to save their own lives.  In this moral equation they consciously chose their own deaths over the deaths of others.

On a beautiful hot day in early July 1941, at a bend in the village road that leads out of Panemunėlis towards Kavoliškis, the white armbanders arrived on bicycles.  They left their bicycles in the forest across the road from an isolated farmstead that belonged to the farmer, Petras Šarkauskas, and began digging a ditch.

Tree roots prevented them from digging very deep, so, they gave up and took their shovels to the other side of the road and began digging in the peat bog that belonged to the Kavoliškis manor. The grass grew lush there, but recently the farmers had harvested the hay, leaving the field flat and empty.

Then they left, only to return shortly afterwards, riding their bicycles alongside a wagonload of people pulled by two horses over the rutted road. An armed guard sat at the front of the wagon and another in the back. More armed men rode alongside the wagon on bicycles. The captives were blindfolded, and their heads were bowed.

When the wagon reached an incline, the captives were ordered to climb out and walk the rest of the distance. At gunpoint, they were led towards the crest of a hill where the field met dense forest. The guards beat them with clubs as they trudged and stumbled up the hill.

Hidden behind a haystack, an eight-year old girl named Aldona watched.  She was the daughter of a local farmer, Petras Šarkauskas.  Their hired laborer, Bronius, ran to find the farmer to tell him what was happening. The farmer came into the yard and climbed up onto the hayrack. The farmer, his little girl, and the hired hand, soon could no longer see what was happening, but they could hear the screams and cries, which continued for a few hours before the final gunshots came.

 

The Cerulean Bird

 

Off in the distant skies

Soared the cerulean bird,

Flying endlessly ecstatic,

Singing a golden hymn

About happiness eternal,

Joy that cannot be broken,

A smile that never ceases.

 

Alongside barns, hillocks,

Through forests, deserts,

With heavy footsteps the giant

Made his way with a bitter glance,

Scanning the landscape, searching

For the cerulean bird,

Who flew along the heavens,

Singing a golden hymn

About happiness eternal.

 

Off in the distant skies

Soared the cerulean bird,

And three arrows pierced her,

Carrying black death within.

And they tore open the breast

Of the cerulean bird.

 

And the heavens were shattered,

And not with the ecstatic hymn

About happiness eternal,

But with the cry of the cerulean bird,

Her last trembling breath,

Her bottomless longing.

 

Oh, the quivering bow,

Why ever did you release

That most poison arrow?

Who will sing now,

About happiness exquisite

Ecstasy that never ceases,

And a hymn that rings eternal?

 

That day no one dared approach the killing site.  The next day Mrs. Šarkauskas and the neighbor, Mr. Vaitkevičius, walked across the field to take a look.  They found a shallow grave. Šarkauskas pushed his rake handle into the earth. The bodies were covered with only a few centimeters of soil.  He covered the bodies with more soil and branches, forming a burial mound.

No one quite knows the circumstances, but before the Olkinas family was killed, Noachas Olkinas managed to pass his daughter’s notebook of poems to his friend, Father Matelionis.  The priest hid the notebook inside the Great Altar of the Panemunėlis Church. Three years later, the Soviets drove the Germans out of Lithuania. In 1950 Father Matelionis was deported to Siberia.  The notebook of poems remained hidden. During the Soviet occupation, Alfredas Andrijauskas, a linguist and organist at the Panemunėlis church, recovered Matilda's notebook of poems and brought them for safe keeping to Holocaust survivor Irena Veisaitė in Vilnius.

In Autumn 2017, I visited Irena and took photos of the pages of the poems and diary with my phone, so that I could translate them. I could only think that if I had died so young, just as I was beginning to find my voice as a poet, I would have wanted someone to find my notebook and to share my poems with the world. It is my wish for my translations to breathe life back into these poems written out long ago with a fountain pen on the brittle yellowed pages of an old school notebook.

 Poetry speaks to us at our deepest level of humanity.  A poem invite us to live the experience of another. Matilda absorbed the tumultuous times she lived in through the language of poetry.

Matilda was barely nineteen years old when she was murdered.  She’d only just begun to find her voice as a poet.  And yet, being so young, she documented the horror of her times and expressed it through poetry.  She perceived the Shoah, and at the same time sensed the fundamental tragedy of humanity that repeats itself age after age.  Despite it all, she reveled in the fragile beauty of provincial life.  It was a time of shadow, but also a time of light.  It was a time of shattering contrasts—good and evil playing out on the world stage.

 

The Sun expired. The Sun died.

And you died along with the Sun.

And now you lie and gaze at the violets,

And the butterflies among the blooms.

 

 

July 14, 1938

 

 

[1] This is a reference to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1809 novel, Die Wahlverwandtschaften (Soul Mates).

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Laima Vince reads a performance piece about Litvak poet Matilda Olkinaite (1922 - 1941) that includes Matilda's poetry and excerpts from her diary.

Photo slide show about Matilda Olkinaite. Singer songwriter Liucija Vaicenavičiūtė performs her song, "The Past" that was composed from the lyrics of Matilda Olkinaite's poem, "Praeitis" translated into English.

Webinar: The Poetry and Fate of Matilda Olkinaite: A Diary of Jewish Culture in Lithuania

© 2020 by Laima Vincė

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