Updated: Oct 6, 2020
This morning I woke up to a glow of pink coming through the skylight in the dormer over my bed. I went into the kitchen and opened the little window that faced onto Alderstrasse. There it was—the sunrise. As a warm pink and orange glow spread over the rooftops of Wiesbaden Altstadt, I thought—due East is Lithuania.
The morning sun showed me exactly the direction where Lithuania lay in relationship to my new home for a month. When I am in my studio in Juodkrantė, I time my waking hour with the sun. As the first glow of morning light reflects against the dormer above my bed, I roll out of my warm comforter and like a moth drawn to the light wander across the street towards the bay. There I stand and watch as the orange orb of the sun emerges into blue daybreak and begins its ascent as silent tense fishermen—who have no time for such nonsense as gazing at the sunrise—load their boats and begin their day.
“Drang nach Osten…” Why do Hitler’s evil words come to mind just now as I am aglow in the brightness of sunrise? And why today? On the day of the 30-year anniversary of the reunification of Germany?
The need for land to spread out and populate enticed Hitler’s armies East, and Japan’s into China. We are all still trying to recover today.
Today I am reveling in having found myself in one of Germany’s cultural centers. Yesterday, walking through the streets of Wiesbaden to meet with Hartmut Holzapfel, former Minister of Culture for the State of Hessen, and lovely Madelyn Rittner, the representative from Hessicher Literaturrat, a literary organization hosted by Ministry of Culture, and my hosts while I am in Germany, I stopped to peruse of the many bequem book shops that line the streets. I ended up purchasing Wiesbaden, Der Literarische Stadführer for the sonderpreis of three euro. I resolved to visit every literary site listed in this book. At least those are my ambitions.
At the cash register I generated small talk with the book shop owner. I talk to everyone and anyone in an attempt to jumpstart my German. My mother tongue, English, may be the international language, but I have a personal rule that whatever foreign country I find myself in, I will attempt to speak that language. When I lived in Beijing for two years and learned enough Mandarin to get by, I found it amusing when visitors would come from Lithuania and with confidence and pride speak in their newly acquired English with the Chinese in restaurants and shops only to be surprised that no one understood them. In China only the educated class learn English. Service personnel in shops, restaurants, hotels, and taxi drivers, come from the provinces to earn a living in the city. For them even standard Mandarin is a challenge.
Yesterday evening Madelyn met me when I arrived and showed me around the apartment she had rented for me. She laughed and told me she thought it was wahnsinnig to drive from Lithuania, but then added that all their writers were a little Wahnsin. The German writer who would be traveling to Lithuania, hosted by the Culture Council of Lithuania, has chosen to travel by ferry to Klaipėda, a 21-hour trip, she told me.
At lunch I established with my hosts that we would converse only in German, but that if a word failed me, I would ask for that word’s translation from English. I stumbled in a few places, but for the most part, I was able to hold an intelligent conversation.
I call my 97-year old friend, Nijolė Bražėnaitė, regularly. Out of curiosity, I asked her how many languages she spoke. Like any educated European, she spoke five fluently: Lithuanian, German, English, Italian, French.
The waitress came to take our order, her face protected by a plastic shield. We were given permission to take off our masks to eat. Madelyn filled in a form with our contact information in case anyone in the restaurant tested positive for coronavirus.
My hosts suggested I order Schnitzel, as it was a traditional German meal, and on my first day in Wiesbaden I ought to taste German food. I agreed. I ordered the local apple wine as well. Herr Holzapfel told me that it was a shame that because of the American army soldiers in the area, who prefer sweet over sour, that restaurants felt compelled to add a sweet spritzer to traditional apple wine.
My wine came and it was sour.
I asked Herr Holzapfel his opinion of Trump. These days, this awkward question is one that Americans feel compelled to ask upon first meeting a new acquaintance. It establishes values and prevents embarrassment further on in the acquaintanceship. It also gives me the opportunity to avoid awkwardness by making it known that I am not a Trump supporter.
Herr Holzapfel answered elegantly: “Like any civilized European, I am horrified by Trump’s lack of humanity.”
Madelyn said she did not believe Trump actually tested positive for corona. She felt the announcement of his illness is a media ploy to play up sympathy and drama after the debacle of the presidential debate with Joe Biden.
Madeline and I transitioned from “Sie” to “Du.” She explained the transit system, wrote up a list of what to see, explained where to shop for groceries, warning me to stock up on provisions, as everything would be closed that weekend for the reunification holiday.
Over lunch Herr Holzapfel told me the story of how he together with the director of Litauisches Gymnasium, Andreas Schmidt—or Andrius Šmitas in Lithuanian—rescued the Gymnasium in 1999 when it almost dissolved into bankruptcy. While Lithuania was an occupied country, like the other schools that were originally schools for refugees from Soviet occupied territories in the postwar years, the German government funded the Lithuanian Gymnasium. After Lithuania became independent, the German government wrote a letter stating that now that Lithuania was a free country, the mission of the Gymnasium, which was to preserve Lithuanian language and culture, was no longer relevant. Therefore, the Lithuanian government must fund the school. After 1999 the German government stopped funding the Lithuanian Gymnasium, arguing that its students could travel to Lithuania to study. Andrius Šmitas went to see the Minister about procuring the funding to save the school. Minister Holzapfel explained that the only way the Lithuanian Gymnasium could receive the funding it needed was to accept German students to study there and to change the program by adapting it to the German school system, yet offering Lithuanian language and culture classes as electives to the students of Lithuanian heritage.
“Andrius looked me in the eye,” Herr Holzapfel said, “and said, ‘We did not fight Russification all these decades to now give in to Germanization!”
With those words, he turned and left his office.
Over the next year the Gymnasium’s economic situation became dire. Andrius Šmitas returned to the Minister’s office. “I believe we have not yet concluded our conversation,” he said.
Together, they saved the Lithuanian Gymansium in Hüttenfeld, the center of Lithuanian cultural life in Germany since World War II.
The Gymnasium was saved.
The Gymnasium saved me.
In the early 80s the suburban New Jersey high school I attended was overwhelmed with drugs. Hardly any learning went on. I was a child during the hippy era—which I embraced actually—and a teenager in the era of hard drugs. Only, by nature I am not a partier. I have no interest in recreational drugs. I hardly drink alcohol, and only rarely. I gave away most of the bottles of old whiskey I inherited from my grandfather as gifts.
This is not because I am particularly high minded or principled. I am simply not one of those people who does not enjoy or need drugs or alcohol to relax or feel happy. I have a hard enough time keeping my imagination in check, so why make it any worse? Also, my body isn’t strong enough for the endurance needed to live a life of using substances. So, I was an odd fish in my high school. I was tired of the peer pressure. I wanted out.
I’d heard about the Gymnasium from a friend who had spent a year there and described it as a good place to be. I decided I wanted to go—against my parents’ wishes, of course.
I had no money to pay the tuition. I worked a paper route. I took a summer job at an electrolysis office but was let go after three days. By the end of the summer, I had hardly earned enough to pay for tuition, much less for a flight to Germany. The situation seemed hopeless.
I wrote a letter to the Gymnasium. In my letter, I wrote what I genuinely felt. I explained that my Lithuanian language was slipping away from me with my adolescence. I wrote that I wished to attend the Gymnasium to learn Lithuanian and German, and to learn more about Lithuanian culture. I mailed the letter and said to myself: I’ve done all I could. The rest is up to fate.
Two weeks later I was surprised to receive a response from Director Andrius Šmitas. He wrote that the World Lithuanian Fund was awarding me a full tuition scholarship and paying for my airfare.
I was overwhelmed. It seemed hardly possible that my dream of going abroad would be fulfilled.
When I think back now, that was when my life of living from scholarships began…
My mother sewed a band the colors of the Lithuanian flag onto the sleeve of my white jacket so the Frau Lutz would recognize me in the airport and drive me back to the school. My mother’s childhood friend, Laima, whom I was named after, was the stewardess on my flight. She served me my first champagne and introduced me to the pilots. It was my first taste of adult elegance. I was sixteen.
The plane made a stop in Iceland. I was fascinated by a family of tow blonde travelers from Sweden. I was mesmerized by how free and open Europeans seemed compared with more uptight Americans. And so, my wanderlust began.
I arrived at the Gymnasium in time for lunch. I was assigned to a table of German girls. I looked around and noted that each student was uniquely individual. Each had their own style of dress, their own manner, their own sense of being. The high school I had come from was one were everyone conformed to one look, one way of thinking, one way of being. Anyone who deviated, was ostracized. From that moment onwards, I knew that I had much to learn. I did not speak a word of German. I listened and I just spoke, however I could. My utterances often elicited laughter. The same with Lithuanian. I just listened to how the students from Lithuania spoke and copied their words.
On that first day, standing in Andrius Šmitas’s office, he narrated the story of how he had procured my scholarship. He chain-smoked as he talked, a hazy glow of blue smoke encircling him. I can still feel that specific nicotine taste in the back of my throat. In all the years I knew Andrius, he always smoked. He told me how a Lithuanian-American dignitary from Chicago, the head of the World Lithuanian Organization, came to visit the school. He stood in his office and boastfully narrated how dedicated he was to maintaining the Lithuanian language in the diaspora and how much he had done for the Lithuanian community. Andrius let him talk. And talk. And talk. When the man was finished with his narration, Andrius slid open his desk drawer, pulled out my letter, and handed it to him.
“Here is a letter from a young girl in America who would like to attend our school and learn Lithuanian,” Andrius said.
He read the letter.
He had no other option than to write out a check in the amount of my tuition.
In this manner, one by one, Andrius collected the sixty students who studied that year at the Gymnasium, 1982-1983. We were mostly children of displaced persons. We’d grown up in Lithuanian diaspora communities in America, Canada, Australia, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay. There was Gabija from Mali, half Lithuanian and half African. Then there were the German-born Lithuanian students. They were the children of those DPs who could not immigrate abroad, usually because of tuberculosis or other illnesses. And then there were the children of the so-called Vilko Vaikai, the “Wolf Children.” They were Germans who’d lived in East Prussia and who were orphaned during the Soviet invasion, left to wander the countryside, half starved, ending up eventually in Lithuania. The lucky ones were able to immigrate to Germany. We were all children of history, a history we hardly knew, but one that influenced us deeply in more ways than we were able to understand then.