Updated: 6 days ago
Today I drove out to the Litauisches Gymnasium in Hüttenfeld, a small village in the Lampertheim region. I visited with Marytė Šmitienė, who taught at the Gymnasium for 44 years, and who together with her husband, Andrius Šmitas, formed the vision and the program for the Lithuanian Gymnasium for decades.
I have not been back to the Gymnasium since I came to the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2002. It has been 18 years. Andrius was still alive then. I stood in his office as we reminisced about all the students I had studied together with. Facebook was not a "thing" yet, so there really was no way to keep track of everyone except through the occasional letter or phone call, or through the gossip chain. I haven't spent time with Marytė for years, but I immediately felt familiar with her again, as though all those years had not been there in between the time when I was a shy sixteen-year-old student from America, and she was my teacher, a young woman from Maryland, who came to teach for a year, fell in love, married, and who together with her husband, full of idealism, worked towards a positive vision for the school's future. Back then all the teachers were idealists. I didn't know this at the time, but Marytė told me that for many years their full-time monthly pay was 600 Deutsch Marks (300 Euro) and that was all they had to live on. It was all the school could afford to pay.
I am not particularly nostalgic or sentimental. I am not usually one to go backwards in time and reminisce. Especially not if everything in the past was resolved, had closure. I only tend to go back when there is a lack of closure, when things have yet to come to their full resolution. However, as we walked through the village to the Gymnasium, and then visited the castle, Schloss Renhoff (otherwise known as Romuva) and other buildings, memories came flooding back to me.
I remembered how my friend from Canada, also named Marytė, and I were given a job cleaning house for an older German man in the village. We were paid five Deutsch Marks each twice a week to iron his underwear (which I found bizarre, actually), fold his laundry, cook his meals, and wash the floors. For me, five Deutsch Marks was a lot of money back then and worth the work. But what I really earned were Herr Thomas's stories. He had been one of the sixteen-year-olds taken into Hitler's army at the end of the war, when the war machine was desperate for cannon fodder. He was a soldier on the winter march into Russia.
"Es war so kalt, so kalt" (It was so cold, so cold) Herr Thomas would narrate, showing us his right arm, thin and twisted from frost bite.
He explained that they did not have the proper clothing to endure the cold. All his life he has struggled with injuries from frost bite.
He also had stomach cancer. Every day a crate of beer was delivered to his home. Herr Thomas explained that the government delivered the beer because he had to drink it to cure his stomach cancer. Thinking back as an adult, I can only wonder if this was actually true...
One day Herr Thomas pulled out Tarot cards and read mine and Marytė's futures. He laid out the cards for Marytė, studied them, and with great enthusiasm told her two things: "You will be a doctor and a millionaire."
Privately, I doubted that either would come true. However, oddly enough, today Marytė is both a Doctor of Psychology and a millionaire from successful real estate deals. Who would have thought?
Then he read my cards. He grew sad and disconcerted.
"You will have a tragic life," he said. "I feel very sad for you."
He knotted his brow, laid out the cards again, and came to the same conclusion.
"What?" I thought, "how could that be? Nonsense. Marytė will be a doctor and a millionaire, and I will have only sadness?"
"Your sadness will come from two men, both of whom you will meet in the next few years. Both will love you, but you may only choose one. You will need to choose between them. Do not make the wrong choice. The consequences will be dire."
"How will I know which one is the right one?" I asked.
"The right one, may call you a blöde Küh, but don't pay any heed, you will know he is the right one."
To this day, this advice remains a mystery to me... Stupid cow? Why would I ever want to marry someone who called me a stupid cow?
I never had a chance to seek clarification. The next week when I went to Herr Thomas's house to clean, a woman called out to me from a window above the street, "Der Mann is tot! Tot!"
The man is dead. Herr Thomas is dead.
Just like that. This elderly teenage soldier was gone.
In 1982 there were many armless or legless older men who spent their idle hours convening on the streets in our village to tell each other war stories.
They were all gone now.
The farm across the street from the school was gone. We would cover our ears on the days they slaughtered the pigs. Their screams sounded like human screams. The betrayal of trust between pig and farmer in that final moment before death came was simply too much to bear.
Marytė and I walked into the castle parlor. It had not been damaged too much when the castle caught on fire in 1984. Since the renovation, it looked more or less the same. I gazed down at the parquet and remembered how on Saturday nights we would hang up a disco ball from the ornate plaster ceiling, turn on strobe lights, and dance, all of us teenagers twisting and swaying lost in our own private worlds, as seventies and eighties music played in the background.
The bronze plaque of the school's benefactors still hung in its place of honor on the wall. The exact amount of dollars each diaspora community was able to contribute was clearly counted and put on display. Brazil, with all its economic instability back then, could only offer $20, but even that was duly noted, and appreciated. I loved having Lithuanian diaspora classmates from Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia. They were the children of displaced persons, like I was, but their parents' ships had taken them to South America, not North America. My chain-smoking tow-blonde Colombian friend Diana told me a story in her lovely Spanish accented Lithuanian about how her DP mother, then a young girl, boarded a boat to South America, while her family boarded a boat to North America. She thought: "North America, South America, how far apart could they be?" She arrived on a tropical beach wearing a fur coat. She traded her fur coat for a bunch of bananas, ate the bananas, and then set out on the streets of Bogota, looking for work. A Lithuanian priest who had emigrated to South America in Czarist times took her in to work as a maid. That was how her family got their start in Colombia.
Marytė explained that because South American currencies were so weak, the school would take them, even though they could only pay a small portion of their tuition.
"Andrius would say that we will just cover the rest," she explained.
When the first director from Lithuania came to replace Andrius, she stopped accepting the students from South America because they could not pay their tuition.
That was when things began to change.
Back then we diaspora Lithuanians were a community. We helped each other. We relied on each other. We donated, we gave, we supported. I remember that during school vacations those of us from overseas who could not afford to fly home would always find some place to go. Andrius would look through his "kartoteka," his card file of emigre Lithuanians in Europe, and pick out a few names of people he thought could take us in for the holidays. Then he would make a call. That was how I ended up with Ponytė in Munich, in the heart of the Lithuanian underground, over Christmas 1982.
The Gymnasium was a center for the Cold War Lithuanian underground but was also infiltrated with teachers and students reporting back to their handlers in Soviet Lithuania. Everyone knew who was on which side. But we all politely got along, nonetheless.
I remember Ponas Lukošius, a very tall, elderly journalist with snow white hair who had been involved in the anti-Soviet resistance, and who ran a sort of information news center out of the Gymnasium. Marytė and I would go see him to borrow newspapers and he would give us chocolate candies with polar bears on the foil wrapping. I was thin and always very hungry then, so I was grateful for the calories from the candy.
One time Andrius fooled the entire school into believing that the elderly Ponas Lukošius was taking a bride. An older woman came to our school from Berlin—was she a writer? I don't remember? Andrius put out a rumor that she was coming to marry our dear Ponas Lukošius. We formed a welcoming committee, when they arrived together in the director's car from the train station. We began planning their wedding ceremony in the school park, peppered them with questions about how they met, their relationship, and so on. We were all exasperated when we learned later it had been one big joke on us—a joke that lasted the entire day and into the evening.
The education I received in my two years at the Gymnasium could not be compared with the thorough private school educations students receive today. It was more a school that taught life lessons. However, one teacher who shaped my character was Kunigas Dėdinas, an elderly priest who survived World War II, operated a ham radio out of his bedroom, loved the opera and sometimes brought us along with him to Mannheim to "receive culture" at the opera. He was a strict and exacting teacher. If you were drowsy in his class, he'd make you go outside and run around the building three times as the rest of the class watched through the window as you ran. He taught three subjects: Religion, Politics, and Lithuanian. His lessons on Politics still influence me today. He taught he us to recognize the difference between "innen und aussen Politik"—domestic and global politics. In his class for the first time I watched films showing food waste in Europe as people went hungry. In Religion class he taught us about the seven dimensions and where the human mind ceases to comprehend rational thought and enters the realm of the spiritual. Every day at noon he would stop whatever he was doing, stand completely still, and pray for world peace.
One day we came to class and Dėdinas told us to sit down and write our parents a letter wishing them a good death. Immediately, the German students were in an uproar. Only a few decades had passed since World War II and in Germany then it was a matter of national priority to teach young people to think for themselves and to argue their opinion. And so we did, we argued all time with our teachers and with each other.
Dėdinas listened patiently until we exhausted all our arguments. Then he explained that in the Catholic tradition wishing another a good death was the kindest and most merciful blessing one could give.
Then we understood.
There are so many more memories I could reach back and bring to life in this remembrance. Like the time we decided to have a protest (why we didn't know) and camp out in the hallway instead of going to class and sing protest songs. On that very day, by coincidence, the state school inspector paid an unexpected visit. After the inspector left, Andrius came out into the hallway, where we were all sprawled on the floor, someone strumming a guitar, the rest of us singing protest songs.
He said to us in a calm voice: "You have lost the privilege to address me as Andrius. From now on, I am Herr Schmidt." Then he turned and returned to his office.
Nothing more needed to be said.
I could go on, but I will end here. Perhaps we did not have science labs then, or a proper gym, or even art classes, or music—other than someone cranking out polkas on an accordion. The Lithuanian Gymnasium is a proper school now, fully renovated, with many course offerings. Yet I would not trade those days back then for anything. For me, those years were an eccentric school of life. Oh, but somehow along the way I did learn Lithuanian and German, history, literature, and fell in love with the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke and Vincas Mykolaitis Putinas.