A Diplomat’s Diary – Part 2

Fragments from the Period

Lithuanian in the 1920s

Robert W. Heingartner

Heingartner was a diplomat sorely disappointed to be in Lithuania, and his early observations are unfailingly negative.  City hall was dirty and filled with people waiting for something. This description is applied to the opera theatre, and the banks as well. His impressions are not that different from those of people who wander into the poorer parts of Indian cities today.

He complained that there is too much drinking in the town, but there hardly seemed to be anything else to do. Among the more picturesque of his observations:

-chained prisoners are forced to walk through the streets, but not on the sidewalks. They must walk on the road itself.

–  single horse-drawn streetcar runs on rails on the cobblestones main thoroughfare.

– when the local diplomats and Lithuanian government officials partied, they partied all night, drive to the local spa of Birstonas in the morning and then return to Kaunas to drop in on friends in the early afternoon, where their fatigue finally began to take over. They sound like characters out of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies.

Birstonas Spa - The Boozers' Destination

– streetlights were turned off during nights of the full moon in order to save money.

– in the winter, it became dark by three-thirty in the afternoon, and people shuttered up their windows, so the only sound from outside was that of sleigh bells passing in the night.

– Mrs. Smetona, the wife of the president, smoked imported cigarettes and drank Benedictine, complaining that her husband was too impractical, too much an intellectual to rule efficiently, yet we know he ruled as an authoritarian right until the end.

– meat in Kaunas was as cheap as apples. Vegetables were expensive.

– Prime Minister Voldemaras appeared unshaven and drunk with chest hairs sticking out between the buttons on his shirt, yet he was an intellectual who spoke twenty-three languages. Together they drank cognac from 1830.

Augustinas Voldemaras - A Drunken Intellectual

– one September, there were 17 Jewish Holidays in the month. This circumstance was inconvenient because most of the tradesmen were Jews.

– for Christians, the most important holiday was Easter. There were turkey and ham on all tables. On the first day, the men went out visiting. On the second day, the women took their turn.

– unlike military officers in other countries, those in Lithuania wore spurs when they went to dances – a hazard to all the others.

A Diplomat’s Diary – Part 1

A Diplomat’s Diary – Part 1

Lithuanian in the 1920s

Robert W. Heingartner

If Jonas Budrys’s memoir of his directorship of counterintelligence in the 1920s forms the foreground of my next novel, the background is richly fleshed out by this quirky and insightful diary from the American consul to Kaunas from 1926-1928.

Heingartner was a scrupulous diarist with an eye for detail in the new country, which he called a “provisional” country because he doubted whether it could succeed. A cultured American who had been consul in Vienna for many years, he was disappointed by the “hardship” posting in a town with no coffee houses, hideous streets, and a single awful hotel where all the government receptions were held.

He said the houses were desolate, the people poor, and the roads disgraceful, although it hardly mattered because there were only 570 cars in the country of three million. However, there were many cows and many children.

Clearly disappointed not to be in Vienna any longer, he nevertheless comes around to reconciling himself to the place. He describes a lunch buffet with a Lithuanian minister that includes vodka, soup, boiled salmon, partridges, vegetables, and ices. At least he ate well.

He provides exquisite detail for a novelist searching for sources – for example, all houses were required by law to keep rain barrels to help fight fires. A Jewish painter would not work on the Sabbath but he would oversee and assistant who did. There is some casual anti-Semitism in his diary, but also interesting observations. Jews keep to their own restaurants and a Jewish girl will not walk on a street with a Christian for fear of reprimand from her people. Christians and Jews seem to belong to two solitudes, or rather, two of many solitudes, because Polish speakers and Orthodox Russians form separate coteries as well.

Heingartner comes to measure the quality of receptions by the amount of caviar, and French wines, champagne, and cognacs (krupnikas and vodka are always available). Of course, at the time, the USA was under prohibition, so the alcohol availability was welcome, although he came to moderate his intake because he found the locals drank far too much.

I’ll post a few more of his observations later, but I want to mention that Heingartner is practically a Dickensian character. He suffers from acute sinusitis, and so his nose is one of his primary concerns. His search for an appropriate nose doctor consumes him, and eventually leads him to go out of the country for a suitable one.

And he occasionally writes sentences worthy of a novelist. The city of Kaunas lies at the confluence of two rivers, so her refers to the place in winter as “A bottle of champagne on ice.”

A lovely memoir of her grandfather was told by Nancy Heingartner at the recent AABS conference in Chicago.

More later.

Sources

Lenin once said that power was lying in the streets, just waiting form someone to pick it up.

Memoir of a Provincial Counterintelligence Agent

I have been taken to task for quoting Lenin before, but the comparison I am trying to make is just too apt. The same is true of narratives, of stories which lie around us unnoticed until someone chooses to write about them.

The recent mania for the television series, Downton Abbey, led to a series of articles about its sources. Its primary one seems to have been a memoir by a kitchen maid named Margaret Powell.

Source Material for Downton Abbey

In 1968, she penned a memoir called Below Stairs, about what it was like to work in a great house in England before and after the First World War. Amazingly, almost no other source material for this world exists, but this nugget went on to become the inspiration not only for Downton Abbey but an earlier series, called Upstairs Downstairs.

The Lithuanian equivalents are lying around as well, and they are valuable because they give a picture of a little-know part of Europe in the last century.

As my parents’ generation has died out, its books have been tossed or found their way to church bazaars where I pick them up for a quarter. The same is somewhat true in Lithuania, where the table of the used bookseller on Laisves Aleja in Kaunas is one of my favourite haunts.

The books which interest me most are memoirs, often self-published. These are unvarnished and raw and all the better for it because the authors reveal themselves in ways that more practiced writers would not.

One of my most recent finds is a self-published memoir by the late Jonas Demereckis, called Savanorio ir Kontrazvalgybininko Atsiminimai (Memoirs of an Army Volunteer and Counterintelligence Agent).

Born in 1897 Demerckis was a barely lettered village youth who volunteered for the independence army in Jurbarkas. He paints a funny picture of young men in the winter of 1919, travelling out to Kaunas on horse-drawn wagons, accompanied by an accordionist whose bellows came apart due to the wet snow. They were periodically harassed by Bolshevik agitators who encouraged them to join the Red Army.

In Kaunas, during basic training, an officer called out for men who had completed elementary school (grade four) or even had some high school education. Demerckis was one of them. They were taken to a hall and made to write a dictation, and those who could write reasonably well were drifted into office work.

The book is full of colourful anecdotes, mostly having to do with the primitive conditions under which they lived and worked – a barracks without a kitchen – a mission with a wagon to Kybartas to pick up banknotes for a bank – the catching of a Czech spy (?) who had maps of the country rolled into the metal tubes of his bicycle.

Eventually Demereckis was assigned to counterintelligence and worked out of Musninkai, north-west of Vilnius, guarding the frontier with Poland’s closed border (the countries were in a state of war until 1938). There he dealt with Communists, Poles, and smugglers and had various adventures, including fighting off a pack of marauding wolves on winter’s night.

This view of everyday life is particularly valuable to me because it complements the memoirs of Jonas Budrys, who was head of Lithuanian counterintelligence in the early twenties.

But there is so much more good material like this out there, lying around, waiting for someone to pick it up.

Film Option

I am so pleased to have sold the option to Underground

to Tomas Donela of Donelos Studija.

I saw his film, Atsisveikinimas, in the European festival that played in Toronto last fall, and was particularly impressed by the cinematography.

It would be great to see this project come together.

 

Update: May 31, 2016:

The Lithuanian Ministry of Culture awarded twenty-eight thousand Euros for development, so a few years later, this project is still alive.

Vanished Kingdoms, by Norman Davies

The English/Welsh historian, Norman Davies, first became widely known with his God’s Playground, a history of Poland, and then shot to wide acclaim with Europe, in 1998, perhaps the first popular history book to consider Central and Eastern Europe as very important parts of the narrative of that place. Up until then, Europe was loosely thought of as the western part, at least by westerners.

What was ground-breaking in Davies was further enlarged upon by the late Tony Judt in Postwar in 2005, and more recently by the brilliant Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder in 2010. In other words, the idea of Europe became bigger through these books and the story of the east became important, or in the case of Snyder’s book, central to the story being told.

Norman Davies’s latest book, Vanished Kingdoms, is dedicated to “those whom historians tend to forget”, namely the peoples of kingdoms that have vanished from the earth. He says we should study them as well, for not to do so betrays a bias toward victors, while the stories of victors tell only one part of history.

Among the kingdoms he writes about, two stand out for me with my interest in Eastern Europe.

The first is a place he calls “Litva”, which at various times included Lithuania, Belorussia, Ukraine and even Poland. While the story of the rise and fall and reappearance of Lithuania has been told widely, Davies brings many new elements into the story. He writes vividly, for example, of the melancholy of the last Jagiellonian king, Zygmunt August (ruled 1548-72) who believed that after him would come the deluge (and it did, eventually). Davies writes interestingly about the scattering of the Metryka Litevska, the archive of the empire that was dispersed across Poland, Sweden, and Russia and made reconstruction of the history of that region so difficult.

The chapter on Prussia struck me as particularly fresh, because Davies, never one to accept western clichés, sets out to demolish the story of a militaristic, jackboot iron kingdom that got what it deserved. He points out that the Prussians were no more aggressive than the Russians in the first world war, and he goes into some detail about the annihilation of Prussia during and after WW2. Then, 2.2 million East Prussians were killed or deported, and more were forced out of West Prussia. Their melancholy fate, he says, was like that of Carthage – “They create a desert and call it peace.”

Timothy Snyder, in a review of this book in the Guardian, called it “romantic”. The story of vanished kingdoms does indeed smack of romantic melancholy, but sometimes that is just the right reaction to have.