Today the Bernard Olcott story returns to Vilnius, May 1985. From my post “BOOMERANG THROWN,” you learned that I was in Lithuania for 5 days that year, hunting down my family roots. The first day was remarkable.
My second day in Lithuania featured an old fashioned get-on-the-bus touristic outing with my Intourist group. The destination was the town and castle at Trakai, about 30 km to the west of Vilnius. Built in the 15th century as the home to the Lithuanian Grand Duke, it was considered as the unofficial capital of Lithuania, which, as part of the united Polish-Lithuanian kingdom, stretched from the Baltic to the Black Seas in its prime. Today the ancient castle is in good condition – for a structure that is 600+ years old – and is scenically located on an island in a pristine clear water lake.
United together in a commonwealth, Poland and Lithuania successfully fought off its aggressive neighbors in the 15th century like Sweden, the Ottoman Empire, New Jersey, the Tsardom of Russia, and the Teutonic Knights. The Knights were an interesting opponent. Originally a military group that invaded Palestine in the middle ages during the crusades, they reinvented themselves as an army invading the Baltics ostensibly to “Christianize” the heathens.
Over time, however, the union did not hold and the aggressive neighbors mentioned above poured in. First were the Swedes, followed shortly thereafter in succession by Peter the Great of Russia, the plague, and then famine. By the mid-19th century, a depopulated Lithuania, under the Russification policy of the Tsars, even lost its identity, becoming known as ‘Little Russia.”
Going forward, Lithuania became contested between a resurgent Germany, Poland, and Russia until independence in 1918 and then again in 1991. In between were some more hard periods including the Ponary Massacre which was discussed in my post (SOUR) LESSON OF HISTORY.
There was plenty of oppression to go around.
In the days to follow, I would wander often around the old town of Vilnius, a beautiful historic ramble of old streets (and home of that horrible Ghetto in World War II). On the loose, I could practice my 50 word (50 cent) vocabulary of Lithuanian language (I had found a tutor before my trip). My efforts were deeply appreciated by family and strangers alike. A foreigner speaking Lithuanian with an American accent was a very rare thing.
Stopping by a baroque church, I found myself inside St. Casamir’s, built in 1618. The odd thing about this magnificent church was that it had been converted by the Soviet Union into a “Museum of Atheism.” The church has since been reconsecrated as house of worship in 1991.
The main entrance in 1985 of St. Casamir’s as the “Museum of Atheism.”
An exhibit inside the “Museum of Atheism” featuring Inquisition torture, 1985.
St. Casamir’s Church, today. Notice that the bilingual sign “Museum of Atheism” to the left of the main door is gone now. Photo by By Pudelek (Marcin Szala).
After my tour of Trakai on my second day, I was invited to dinner at Eugenija’s brother Stasys and his family at their apartment in Vilnius. I ran back to my room at the Hotel Lithuania, grabbed my Monopoly board game as a present, and went downstairs to find the local bus stop for a 10 minute ride to their apartment. I was pleasantly surprised to be taking an inner city bus, instead of being driven around or accompanied by an Intourist guide. It gave me a chance to mingle with the local yokels (as Dad would say). By myself. Or so I thought.
In Lithuania, as in the rest of Europe, waiting for the city bus is a very orderly affair (as opposed to waiting in a ski lift line – where all bets are off!). People line up, so I queued up right behind a Red Army soldier in uniform. He was a strange guy who showered me in stink-eye as he caught a glance of my Monopoly board. Then he turned to me, aggressively posturing his cigarette, and addressed me in Russian; I could easily tell the difference between it and Lithuanian. Unlike Boris’ conversation with the highway patrol, this time I had no idea what he was saying to me. So I responded with a simple, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand Russian.”
Surprisingly, a gentle female voice appeared over my right shoulder. “Ignore him, he’s drunk,” she said in perfect English. I looked over and saw a diminutive woman lining up for the bus behind me. The man continued to murmur things, although it could have been more to himself than anyone else. The mystery woman said nothing more to me and appeared to ignore me completely. Was she sent to follow me that evening on the bus?
Dinner with the Arlauskas family that evening was a transcendent affair. For one thing, Vilnius is further north than Amsterdam, Berlin, or London. This means that in the middle of May, dinner is taken during daylight hours. I even managed to return to my hotel before dusk. The highlight of the meal came after plates were cleared when Stasys’ son Arunas took to the piano and effortlessly serenaded us with gifted interpretations of classical music. As he tickled the ivories with delicate and precise notes, I felt that the universe was swirling around us and that I was, in the words of Lou Reed, Jesus’ son.
Stasys, Stase, Audinga, and Arunas Arlauskas under a horse chestnut tree in Vilnius, 1985. Today, Arunas is an architect living and working in Belgium. Photo by the author.
As I noted in my post “BOOMERANG THROWN,” family roots in this small, little-known country in Eastern Europe was something my Dad and I shared. In writing these stories about my trip to Lithuania, I have come to realize that my love for discovering family roots, foreign travel, and adventure was not the only thing motivating me.
By the 1980s, Dad frequently surprised me, sometimes in harsh ways. As explained in my posts “SOMETHING ABOUT DAD (PARTS 1 and 2),” I was ambivalent about accepting Dad’s offer to join him at Olcott International. There was a lack of permanence in his personal life. Already by the early Eighties, he had chewed through 4 marriages.
I loved and admired my Father. Still do, for that matter. However, the man displayed traits of a cannibal from time to time. Did I really want to set up camp on his island? What would I do when I heard the drums?
Eventually, I did join Dad in the family business for the reason that it was a fantastic international business that captured my imagination. I had grown up with it. Whenever I expressed doubts about my Dad’s character, I was always met with the (in hindsight, insufficient) response, “James, he’s your father, you have nothing to worry about!”
Well, I was worried. Any way you slice it, there was a lack of stability on his life. Nothing was sacred. Was I kidding myself that I was absolutely positively immune from Dad-generated turmoil?
However, I threw caution to the wind and decided to throw my lot in with him in terms of a career. Which looked great. As long as I could survive it.
Maybe in my voyage to meet our family in Lithuania, I felt it was one way to strengthen our father-sons ties together and beat the curse of impermanence so evident in his life. A way to insure that I would never end up in his cauldron. What I did not fully understand was my Dad’s own personal sense of escape from the old culture and peculiar language of his childhood home. Especially, in light of what I surmise was his own troubled relationship with his mother.
A woman who probably openly expressed favoritism towards his older brother in the Lithuanian language. And probably a lot more.
Did I happen to learn, to his sensitive ears, some words from the language of his childhood oppression? The one he had escaped from? How could I have known this at the time? I was only trying to get closer.
One man’s glorious trip to the county of national origin could well be another’s memory of tyranny. Did I throw a boomerang and then get hit by it?