I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
[To honor the passing of Jonas Mekas, BOMB presents his series of diary excerpts and introduction, first published in the Winter 1989 issue.]
As I reread the pages that follow I do not know anymore whether this is truth or fiction. On the one hand, it all comes back, real enough again, with all the vividness a bad dream has to make you jump up in bed all trembling. On the other, I am reading this not as my own life but someone else’s, as if these miseries were never my own. How else could I have survived? It must be about somebody else.
When I began making these entries, I was being held in a forced labor camp inside Germany. Some things had to be kept out of the diary. Among them was the main reason for my being in Nazi Germany.
During the years 1943 and 1944, when Lithuania was under German occupation, I got involved, like many other people my age, in various anti-Nazi activities. I joined a small underground group which, among other things, was publishing a weekly underground bulletin. This consisted mostly of news transcribed from BBC broadcasts. It informed people about German activities in Lithuania and other occupied countries. It was one of several such published by underground groups throughout the period of German occupation. German secret police did everything to uncover our publishers. The only clues they had were in the distinctive typefaces for each typewriter used to type up the bulletins.
The way I come into this is that I was assigned to do the typing. Once a week informational materials were delivered to me, and I prepared the pages. I lived at that time in the attic of my uncle’s house in Birzai. My uncle was a Protestant pastor and the house he lived in belonged to the church and stood on a lakeshore, quite remote from other houses. There was a barn there too, and a huge stack of firewood for heating the house in winter. I used to hide the typewriter in the firewood stack. I felt it was quite safe there. But I was wrong. One night I went to pick it up and the typewriter was gone! I had no other explanation but that a thief had snooped it out and stolen it. I reported this to the underground and we all agreed that the best thing for me was to disappear. We couldn’t take any chance on the thieves selling the typewriter and having the Germans discover the typeface they had been desperate to trace. It was clear to us, that in such a case any thief was bound to reveal the source of his typewriter.
I had to make my decisions fast. There were several ways of “disappearing.” One was to join the partisans and wait for the Germans to retreat. But there were two big problems there, one being that my constitution was very frail in those years; the other that there were two partisan groups, the pro-communists and the nationalists. The communists I couldn’t join. I had published an anti-Stalin poem and I knew I was a marked man. (In 1971, during my visit to Lithuania, my mother told me that the Russian secret police were waiting out behind the house, in the bushes, every night for a year, counting on my coming home—they thought I had joined the partisans. My books and writings were carted away, my brothers arrested and jailed, and my father was interrogated again and again, until he died.)
The nationalists I did not want to join either. I was seriously and wisely advised by some older people with more experience than myself—and primarily, by my uncle—and only years later was I to find out how right he was—and it’s to him that I must be grateful for being alive today—that it made no sense joining either group: all diverse groups were sure to be wiped out, either by retreating Germans, or advancing Soviets, or the local nationalists. What I was urged to do was to leave immediately for Vienna. My uncle’s opinion was that it was best for both of us, my brother Adolfas and myself, to disappear—the farther away the better. So, according to the carefully fabricated papers in our possession, now we were students on our way to the University of Vienna. Our uncle gave us names of people to contact once we got there. Of course, we expected to run into troubles and inquisitions, but we figured we could manage to talk our way out. It was a risk we had to take. The Vienna contacts would then guide us into Switzerland and safety.
In two days we were on our way, into the unknown.
And it’s here that my diary begins.
July 19, 1944
We crossed the Nemunas river at Titëe (Tilsit). I thought of Vydunas and Bagavad-Gita; I read it first in his translation, and it’s the only book that I took with me, on the train. This is his town. He must be somewhere out there, in one of those little houses.
We reached Koenigsberg at sunset. The setting sun was burning gold on the steeples of Kant’s churches, the harbor waters red with the heat of the day and the rage of war.
The posters shout: EVERY TURN OF THE WHEEL IS FOR THE VICTORY! Yes: always with the wheels! I look at their faces, good German faces, and I see death there. Every turn of the wheel betrays death. The train is moving across the countryside, we are looking at the clean, neat rows of houses. In a few days they’ll be nothing but rubble.
July 21, 1944
Goodbye, Vienna! At least, for now.
Oh, how naive we were! Even after all these years of war, we haven’t really understood yet that THIS REALLY IS WAR.
Yesterday they brought us to Elmshorn, a suburb of Hamburg. We protested that we were students on our way to Vienna. There must be some mistake, we insisted. But the Germans looked at us and laughed. “Vienna?” they said. “Now you are here, you stay here until we tell you. Germany doesn’t need students: Germany needs workers. Every turn is for the victory!”
Soldiers took us to a camp for war prisoners. They informed us that we’ll have to live and work with war prisoners. I tried to protest but someone whispered that I shouldn’t because human life held little value here. I remembered how one soldier had struck Adolfas across the face, in Dirschau, when he stepped off the train to search for water. I immediately shut up.
August 27, 1944
Air raid. The “Tommies” will be over Elmshorn any second. The factory vibrates with the sound of sirens.
The sound is frightful, all pervasive, but the workers, that is, slaves, greet air raids with laughs. Air raids mean one hour’s rest. The factory stops, we run into the shelters. Some of us, that is. Others are simply lying outside, sprawled on the grass, sleeping. As the bombs fall on other parts of the town, they don’t budge. Still others are sitting on steel pipes, talking their international jargon, half the words curse words.
The siren keeps wailing.
Germans—that is, women, children, invalids and old people—by whatever means they have available are fleeing the town, most of them on bikes saved up specifically for this purpose.
The radio voice in a blurrying buzz keeps giving out kilometers and minutes.
Ten minutes. Five minutes. Five minutes means that the bombers now over our heads are within five minutes flying time of the heart of Hamburg. The white bellies of the bombers shine in the sun. Four minutes. A few bombs explode on Elmshorn suburbs. Three minutes. Two. Now from the direction of Hamburg a loud thundering starts. You can hear Germany’s Gateway to the World collapsing. One after another waves of bombers move across the sky. One hour. Two hours. Three. The thundering continues. Then, suddenly, there’s complete silence and a cloud of smoke covering the city.
A new siren announces the end of air raid.
The workers stand up and go back to the machines. Fuer den Sieg. For the victory. And it goes on day and night.
December 5, 1944
They transferred us out (me and Adolfas) to another room. Just in time. Our room was getting to be too congested with Bulgarians and Croatians. Terrible noisemakers and pigs. They are real pigs although they all claim aristocratic blood. I have no idea where that kind of ambition comes from.
For one thing I have to give them credit: they are first-class fakers, in this they are masters. Rubbing themselves with all kinds of plants until all swollen up, with blisters on their feet and arms, they get a doctor’s permission not to go to work, they fake entire blister epidemics all in order to scare the Germans.
Nicola, the Bulgarian, keeps talking about liberty, all the time. He really is getting on our nerves. He works 12 hours, and is always tired. He resembles Don Quixote; in body, tall, lean, legs long and thin, neck same. I think he must have posed for Doré. His head is an inexhaustible source of all kinds of ideas on liberty and humanism. He does insist that present European cultures should be drenched in kerosene and have a match put to it.
One of the Croatians is a barber. I have never met such a loudmouth. Now, separated by three rooms, we can still hear his sharp, piercing voice.
The old Italian is snoring, the barracks are trembling. Nerri has a string attached to the old man’s bed, and when the snoring becomes too unbearable he yanks on the string a few times.
Then it is Night.
People speak of you as something mysterious, dark and menacing.
Ah, man is always suspicious of what he can’t have completely. He fills you with his own darkness.
But now the man is asleep, all his fears and evils are sleeping with him.
February 25, 1945
We are still working as woodcutters. German women come to us, to complain about the wood shortage. These trees that we are cutting is all wood for the factories.
Our daily meals consist, these days, of one loaf of bread (one kilo) for seven persons; cabbage soup for lunch, with a tiny piece of margarine. That’s all. And it’s always the same.
The Russian prisoners do not understand why neither Adolfas nor I do any trading in firewood with the Germans. Everybody’s doing it, the French, the Italians. But we can’t. We just can’t. We’d feel like goddam beggars.
There are Germans to help us, anyway. Since we started working on this job, it very often happens that German women run out to us from the houses, hurriedly stuff sandwiches into our pockets, and run back in.
Now we go through five, six air raids every day. Dog fights take place right above our heads, and we run to the shelters, bullets popping around us. Yesterday they destroyed our railroad station, only three blocks away. Believe it or not: we slept tight through all that.
It’s time to get out of Elmshorn. The bombing, in the last few days, turned out to be more than we can take. The planes fly over, skimming rooftops and spraying bombs and bullets everywhere. They have no fear, not anymore. The Germans are building fortifications all around the mouth of the Elbe.
We are still cutting down trees. We are working in the sun, out in good healthy air. We cannot imagine how we ever managed to survive these months inside the factory. Many others did not.
It’s our job to number the trees, and as we walk through the woods, pine trees by a small lake, it’s almost like being in Paradise. And yet, just to bring us close to reality, this little forest is called Sibirien (Siberia).
Our supervisors cast a favorable glance on us and keep giving us the more interesting chores. Our present foreman, before he was called up for the labor brigades, was a teacher. He says his entire family on his mother’s side, back to his great-grandmother, were teachers. A very good man, he constantly mumbles under his nose, no matter whether anyone even listens. He grew up wild, he said, having spent his whole life in his forest. He walks and talks with the trees. I have started talking with trees myself, only to get him to lift his head from the marker, look at me and laugh. I do it to keep him amused.
May 8, 1945
We are cleaning the stables, moving out deep layers of manure. We load huge cartfuls, we walk knee-deep in dung.
It’s Spring. The hedge rows suddenly opened up green, exploded.
Wherever we go, all the hedges, all the roadsides, everything’s blooming.
Five days ago Germany capitulated to the British and the United States, we found out today. But the Germans in Berlin are still holding against the Soviets.
July 13, 1945
Two days ago we tied all our belongings to the bikes and started our journey South.
Everybody’s been telling us that the trains aren’t running yet. On our way out, before embarking on our bicycle journey, we decided to check at the railroad station, just in case. To our pleasant surprise we discovered that train service had just resumed. So we purchased our tickets to Neumuenster and boarded the train, bicycles and all.
Everyone warned us not to travel to the American Zone without permits. But when we went to get the permits, we were told to come back in eight days.
Eight days! They may drive us out of our minds, in eight days. We must go now. It’s time to move South. So now, we’re off.
We were also told that this kind of journey is impossible and even dangerous, at this time. Stops for permits, checkpoints everywhere; no food, no bridges, no trains, and no water.
But luck is with us. Our train is making progress. Most of our books, over a hundred of them, we left with a German family in Flensburg. Ours is a cattle-transport train. It stinks of pigs and sheep.
July 14, 1945
The Neumuenster station is completely kaputt. The entire railroad yard is one huge junk pile. Somehow they cleaned up one track, to allow passage. Other tracks are wrenched into the air, rearing up, next to mammoth craters. Cars crumpled, now strewn, jumbled everywhere. The frame of the station fell on its face, locomotives lie on their wounded sides, some broken in half, helpless, a sorry sight.
Our train stopped in a suburb of Hamburg, some fifteen kilometers from Ochsenzohl where we were told there was a refugee camp. The lines are not yet fixed, we cannot advance by train. We load everything on the bikes and slowly move on.
August 19, 1945
We are in Wiesbaden, having decided to put an end to our travels. We just can’t take any more. We need rest and food. We are weak and dizzy. Our first impressions of Wiesbaden helped us to decide to stay. It’s bright and sunny. The Rhine is nearby with orchards and vineyards.
The DP camp at Wiesbaden is a city in itself. Army barracks. There are over 1600 Lithuanians here with several thousand Poles, Latvians, Estonians, and Yugoslavs.
All the rooms have been taken. They gave us a room with six or seven other families, but no bed. Since we have sworn never again to live in a communal room, we established ourselves on a large table, out in the corridor. It’s a long table which is being used to distribute the food. A ping-pong table of sorts. A good solid table. Since all windows in the corridor have been blown out by bombing, we can count on a steady supply of fresh air. At night a strong cold wind slams in via the Rhine valley and blows around our heads. But that’s fine. What really matters is that we are free.
When morning comes, with the first noises of the arriving food distribution crews, we get up, and our bundles under our arms, off we go. It’s cheap and practical. We have become the talk of the barracks. Some tell us it’s no good to sleep like that, not healthy. Come on, boys, they say, we’ll make room for you in the inside.
But we prefer our serving table.
“How are you able to sleep on such a hard table?” they ask us.
They know nothing about the sweetness of freedom.
When we got to Wiesbaden, they stopped us at the camp gate. An MP came up, looked us over, and called for help. “Make sure you look,” he said. “See what they have in those suitcases and bags.”
One bag they open—books. They open another: more books. They open the suitcases—find still more books.
They are shaking their heads, sons of Franklin and Jefferson. They don’t understand.
“Where are your things?” one asks.
We point at our books and say: “These are our things.”
They look at us as though we were insane and shake their heads again.
“OK, let them in,” says the MP.
November, 25, 1947
They took a truckload of us into the woods, for log-cutting exams. They handed us the saws and axes, and said: Go ahead and chop. The examiners—two Germans and a Pole—walked around, looking on to see how we perform. Myself and Adolfas, we passed OK, being old hands at this kind of work. But there were people who had never laid hands on an ax. I was afraid they’d chop their legs off, the ax was going wildly. But they are so desperate to emigrate they are willing to try anything.
The forest is still full of snow. It’s good here. Just to look at a tree makes me feel better. To touch a tree, even if I am cutting it down.
February 11, 1948
Came back from the photographer. They are issuing new identification papers. Long lines. People come out, stand and stare at their pictures sceptically, make hopeless gestures, walk away.
I spent three hours searching for flour. Suddenly we had this craving for pancakes. I couldn’t find any flour on the market and gave up. So we sprinkled some sugar on bread and ate that, drinking it down with water. Then we left for Kassel. Trolley overcrowded. Spring is here: children are making too much noise by the ditches.
February 13, 1948
End-of-semester in Wiesbaden went OK Drank a lot of Rhine wine. Zita Case bought a bottle of Curasseau. The students? A mixed bunch. One old and grayish; another tiny and short and very young; one girl huge as a mountain; another one a thumbkin; still another with a mind of a thumbkin. Some of them refused to drink wine.
An hour later.
Juska fell off his chair, drunk. We sang a lot and shrieked a lot (shrieked mostly). Krasauskas and one female student I never saw before (“Her legs aren’t round, they are square,” Viadas said) sang duet. Algis ate a lot of brownies and a lot of Beleckiene’s sausage (good sausage). Silbajoris, with his spectacles all misty, banged away on a piano. Beleckas, with his great engineering talents, managed to stack all the chairs in one corner, and now there were a few couples dancing.
Dragunas got drunk first, and was going around, kissing everybody and everything, man, woman, mineral and plant. He grabbed the mountain woman and carried her around the room as if she weighed nothing. Viadas started attacking Algis for tempting him with decadent literatures, which means, everything written after Pushkin and Dostoevski. Then he turned on me and delivered a long sermon in which he. instructed me to abandon modernism in all its forms and return to classicism and the rural life. Then he went out to dance.
Late that night, the dance fever had boiled over: We sat and talked. Viadas again got involved in some argument with Beleckas. Right now they are talking or rather arguing about ships, Aristotle, Spinoza. Algis, Stikliute and Dragunas are arguing about financial aid to students. Zita Case is trying to persuade me that life is nothing but sadness and all our young dreams will soon be shattered to pieces. She says her husband is an American and he isn’t at all what she thought he’d be. Juska is attempting to change Her mind, he is talking in absolutely philosophical, abstract terms about the meaning of life, while quoting Buddha, Jesus, and Confucius. Silbajoris is listening and smiling through his sweating spectacles, like a Buddha. Then we sing (i.e., howl), and Krasauskas and lady friend join in another duet.
Arrived at the train station dragging a huge bundle of newly acquired journals and books. We sang all the way to Hochheim—and then proceeded to Floehrsheim—Viadas, Algis, and myself. The people staring at us must think we’re crazy.
Jonas Mekas’s latest films include: Paradise Not Yet Lost (1980), and He Stands in the Desert Counting the Seconds of his Life (1985). He has written extensively on cinema in Sight and Sound, Cahiers du Cinema, the New York Times, American Film, and Film Quarterly. He is Editor-in-Chief of Film Culture and director of The Anthology Film Archives.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee