Saturday, February 16, 2019

Visas for Life - a return to Lithuania

It is Lithuania's National Day today, and for the first time Symphony Hall, Birmingham, is to resound to The Sea by Mikolajus Čiurlionis, the CBSO conducted by Mirga Gražynitė-Tyla, with live-painted visual interpretations by Norman Perryman (see his recent guest post here). I'm going up to hear it. 

As Norman mentioned the other day, I have Lithuanian roots, or sort of. My ancestors were from a small town now called Skudas, where they lived for several centuries until pogroms in the late 19th century persuaded them to seek a new life on the other side of the world, when they fetched up in South Africa. I visited Lithuania for the first time 15 years ago, in 2004, when the violinist Philippe Graffin suggested I could come out to Vilnius to cover a world premiere that he and the violist Nobuko Imai were giving, of Vytautas Barkauskas's Duo Concertante, and do a spot of roots-finding while I was about it. This seemed like a good idea, especially as there was a heap of interest in Lithuania at that point, since the Baltic states had just joined the EU. I went - and wrote, and wrote. And found myself transformed, for press ticket purposes, into Dzesika Duciene.

Since today is today, I've been looking up some of the old articles I produced then and would like to offer you part of an extended piece I wrote for the Jewish Quarterly. 

It seems a long time ago and I am sure things have changed a lot in the intervening decade and a half.  So, please bear in mind that this article first appeared in 2004. And if you're at Symphony Hall tonight, do say hello.

Jessica Duchen

This is part of an article that first appeared in the Jewish Quarterly in 2004

The wide, lonely landscape sprawls beneath the plane, pine forests basking in Nordic evening sun that transforms the sky into an expanse of blazing gold. My heartstrings twang; my knees turn to water. I am going to Lithuania. I am the first member of my family to go to Lithuania in a hundred years. If everything had been different around 1904, then when we touch down in Vilnius, I might have been coming home.

I am visiting Lithuania not solely as a modern Jewish woman trying to find her roots, however, but specifically to attend the Vilnius Festival, which has commissioned a new work from one of the country’s leading composers, Vytautas Barkauskas. His Duo Concertante for violin, viola and orchestra is the substantial result. In it he has chosen to pay tribute to one of the most extraordinary figures of Lithuania’s Jewish history: Chiune Sugihara, Japanese consul in Kaunas in 1940, who took it upon himself to issue transit visas to save more than 6000 Jewish refugees from the Nazis, despite the censure of his government. 

Chiune Sugihara is recognised in the Garden of the Righteous at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and his story is chronicled in several books, including one by his wife Yukiko, who encouraged his actions at every turn. But, compared to Oscar Schindler’s Spielberg-enhanced fame, Sugihara’s heroism has been significantly under-recognised, not least because during the long years of Soviet occupation in Lithuania, such matters were swept under the all-embracing USSR concrete carpet. Fourteen years after the country declared its independence, Vilnius’s legacy as the ‘Jerusalem of Lithuania’ has yet to be fully acknowledged by a populace that has grown up with little awareness of its city’s tragic past.

Vilnius: The Gates of Dawn
The Vilnius Festival, which has run for eight years, is a proud, ambitious event, featuring some of the biggest names in classical music – conductor Mstislav Rostropovich and violinist Gidon Kremer are regular visitors – as well as an annual commission which to date has included symphonies, ballets and an opera. Vilnius enjoys an extraordinarily vibrant cultural life: in this city of only half a million people, there are two symphony orchestras, a National Opera and Ballet Theatre that has staged ten new productions in just two years, two chamber orchestras, a thriving theatre and literary scene, a jazz festival and much more besides. As for historical figures, the artist Chaim Soutine was born in Vilna (as it was then known), while Marc Chagall first saw daylight in nearby Vitebsk. And the great violinist Jascha Heifetz too was born in Vilna and made his debut aged seven on the stage of the Filharmonja, a beautiful concert hall combining grandeur with intimacy, which today is the setting for most of the Vilnius Festival’s performances. 

Why should the Sugihara story find its musical tribute through Barkauskas, and why now? As with many of the best things in life, much can be attributed to sheer serendipity. Vytautas Barkauskas, at 72, is probably Lithuania’s most prolific composer, but until recently he has been known abroad mainly for his dazzling Partita for solo violin, a favourite recital piece of Gidon Kremer’s. The recipient last year of Lithuania’s prestigious National Prize for his Violin Concerto ‘Jeux’, Barkauskas has now found another champion in the musician to whom he dedicated ‘Jeux’, the French violinist Philippe Graffin, whose international career spans a large number of contemporary works as well as celebrated recordings of French music and unusual repertoire for Hyperion and Avie Records. Graffin has visited Vilnius a number of times and has grown ever more fascinated by its character, its heritage and its loss of that heritage. 

Nobuko Imai, Philippe Graffin and Vytautas Barkauskas
I’m intrigued by the fact that it was such a centre of Jewish culture and yet so much has been erased from its map,’ Graffin says. ‘The Communist era put a lid over that, but today it is opening up. As you walk through the old town, you can sense the presence of generations of children playing in every yard and the spirits of the vast numbers of people who were massacred. Those generations have left their feeling in the stones themselves – you sense that Vilna in its day was a melting pot like London or New York. I feel the absence of this very strongly.’

Barkauskas, having received the much-coveted National Prize, had the opportunity to provide the 2004 Vilnius Festival with its annual commission; he had already written a violin concerto and a work for viola and orchestra, so, as he explains, ‘I was happy to put the two instruments together. But the total is more than the sum of its parts. It offers many more interesting opportunities psychologically with many more possibilities – it is like a man and a woman together, exploring a loving relationship in many different ways.’ Graffin suggested as his fellow soloist the Japanese violist Nobuko Imai – and at once the Japanese connection with Chiune and Yukiko Sugihara presented itself as a driving force in the work’s development.

JD and Vytautas Barkauskas
Barkauskas welcomed the opportunity with open arms. ‘It was wonderful to write a piece dedicated to this man. Thousands of people were murdered during the Holocaust in Lithuania and he undertook an exceptionally humanitarian act. I had heard about Sugihara and his wife Yukiko who together had helped people to leave the country within just 29 days of applying for a visa – a visa for life. It was a great humanitarian act, showing great feeling, courage and understanding; his government had forbidden it and later destroyed his career because of it. At the time this happened, I was nine years old, living in Kaunas, and my father had been thrown into jail in the first week of the Russian occupation. My Duo Concertante is not programme music; it doesn’t tell the story of what happened. But in it I aim to recapture the feelings of those times, the emotions, the psychology. I too was a victim of the war, through the subsequent Soviet occupation, so to feel this humanitarian aspect is very natural to me. Writing the Duo Concertante has certainly helped me to work through the connection.’

Nobuko Imai, who travelled to eastern Europe for the first time to take part in the premiere, was overwhelmed by the experience. ‘I found people so welcoming and warm, especially Mr Barkauskas and his wife,’ she says. ‘In a way, there is still much of the “real Europe” alive in Lithuania; people are so genuine. The Duo Concertante is a very effective piece, but also I find it human, warm and profound. In the second movement, the song about the cherry trees – a song we all grow up knowing in Japan – is beautifully used. It could have been cheap and predictable, but instead it is treated with true depth. It is melancholy, nostalgic and always beautiful; and the motif returns again and again. It seems to speak of something eternal that keeps going across generation after generation. And the last movement finishes with a tremendous sense of positive energy.’

The final movement of the Duo Concertante, recorded live in the concert

Imai adds, ‘I’m sad to say that I knew very little about Sugihara before becoming involved in this project. I read the memoir by Yukiko Sugihara and I think that if I had read it earlier, it might have changed my life. I think it is vital to keep this story alive to inspire new generations – and there is no stronger way to do this than through music.’ 

Around 90 per cent of Vilna’s Jewish population perished during the Holocaust. On my third morning in Vilnius, I wended my way through the back streets to find the Vilna Gaon Jewish Museum. What I didn’t realise was that the museum is in two parts, one dedicated to the history of Vilna as the Jerusalem of Lithuania, the other to the Holocaust itself. I found myself, unintentionally, in the Holocaust division: an old wooden house, typically Baltic and painted deep green, tucked away behind a busy street. In front of it stands a sculpture that serves as a memorial to Sugihara; inside is preserved the full horror, in memorabilia, in yellow stars and armbands and in horrific pictures, of what became of the Jewish population of this extraordinary centre of culture and learning. The museum appears to run on a shoe-string and many of the captions have yet to be translated into any language beyond Russian. That morning I was the sole visitor, alone with the full recognition of what would have become of my ancestors had they not emigrated to South Africa at the beginning of the 20thcentury. 

Statue of the Vilna Gaon
A statue paying tribute to the Vilna Gaon, the legendary figurehead for the Jewish community in the 18thcentury, stands in an out-of-the-way corner of the old town beside some characterless Soviet office blocks and an empty patch of grass. Only an exploration of a map in the Jewish Museum reveals the reason for this memorial’s position: this was the site of the Great Synagogue, a magnificent building seating more than 3,000 people, razed by the Nazis and its remains subsequently flattened by the Soviets. Nothing is left to show that it ever existed.

So does a healing process still need to take place between modern-day Lithuania – with its brand new EU membership, Vilnius’s renovated Old Town gleaming with new paint thanks to the World Heritage Fund, its growing number of tourist coaches and souvenir shops selling amber and linen – and the history so long buried under the rubble of its 20th-century nightmare? 

The process is just beginning and in many ways one cannot be surprised that it is not the country’s first priority. Lithuania, and particularly Vilnius, is currently poised on a historical cusp, undergoing a tug of war between centuries and ideologies. Ironically, this was directly represented on the very night of the Duo Concertante’s premiere, 27 June, which coincided with the presidential election (the former president, Rolandas Paksas, having been dismissed from office after allegations of financial scandal). The victor, Valdas Adamkus, president from 1998 to 2003, represents the reforming force, though his pro-Moscow opponent Kazimira Prunskiene won much support. As the managing director of the Vilnius Festival, Ruta Pruseviciene, puts it, Vilnius itself is ‘a battleground between old and new, Russian and American, values and systems. Half the members of parliament play with Russian rules and the other half with western rules and they often find no common language at all!’

Local legend has it that Heifetz was born in this house
In the midst of such intense and turbulent years, some tribute is nevertheless being paid to Jascha Heifetz, whom Graffin describes as ‘the most famous and the most mysterious of violinists’. The house where Heifetz was born still stands amid an area ripe for redevelopment on a hillside outside the former ghetto area. No plaque has been raised to him on the house (I’m told there is one elsewhere), but local word-of-mouth seems to have established that this was indeed Heifetz’s first home. A more public tribute exists in the form of an international violin competition named after Heifetz, held for the first time in 2002, with Gidon Kremer as chairman of the jury. The competition will be held again next year. 

Sporadically, there have been wider-ranging events too. Gintautas Kevisas, artistic director of the Vilnius Festival and intendant of the National Opera and Ballet Theatre, in 2002 staged the first Festival of Jewish Art Music in Vilnius, in collaboration with Tel Aviv University and the Rubin Academy of Music. ‘I had no knowledge about this music, but I knew the festival needed to explore it more deeply than just whether Mahler or Mendelssohn had some Jewish roots,’ Kevisas says. 

But even Kevisas, who has long been a prime mover and shaker in Vilnius’s cultural life and was minister of culture for a year in 2001, had had little insight into Vilnius’s Jewish culture until then. ‘I was very much surprised when I looked deeper into Jewish culture and realised that Vilna had been the “Jerusalem of Lithuania” – then historical things happened and this changed. That’s life. Every nation suffered; we are a small nation and we suffered a lot.’ Kevisas trained as a pianist at the Moscow Conservatoire, ‘where I realised that Russians and Soviets were not the same thing at all. The nation that suffered the most in the 20thcentury was Russia – the biggest number of victims were Russian.’ This perspective is typical in Vilnius. As Ruta Pruseviciene says, ‘In the end, only time can heal.’ But the 2002 festival took an interesting standpoint, inviting contemporary Lithuanian composers to write with Jewish texts – to explore, says Pruseviciene, ‘their individual view of what Jewish cultural and religious thinking means to them’.

Anatolijus Šenderovas
For next year [2005], the Vilnius Festival is commissioning a new ballet score from the city’s only Jewish composer, Anatolijus Šenderovas; the story is based partly on the legend of the Dybbuk. Senderovas, who enjoys one of the strongest international profiles among Lithuanian composers, has written numerous works for the Lithuanian-born cellist David Geringas and composed the set piece for the first Jascha Heifetz International Violin Competition. Born in 1945, he grew up in Vilnius, where his parents settled shortly after the war. They settled in ‘a normal street’ with no idea that just two years earlier it had been part of the ghetto, nor any notion of the tragedy that had taken place there. 

Vilnius, however, was a relatively positive place to be a composer, Šenderovas points out. As the Soviet system had regarded music and culture as ideologically advantageous, plenty of money had gone into cultural life and also into education, notably a network of music schools and the Čiurlionis School for the Arts, at which many of the country’s gifted young musicians, artists and ballet dancers trained. Senderovas adds, ‘At the Conservatory, we had good professors and I also had the chance to study in St Petersburg with Orest Evlachov, who had been a pupil of Shostakovich – that was very important to me because everything Shostakovich had told him, he then told me.’ 

Šenderovas has written a number of works drawing intensely on Jewish themes and the Sephardic music that he was able to study in Tel Aviv following Lithuanian independence in 1990. But now, he says, the issue is not to be solely Jewish or solely Lithuanian, but to achieve something more universal. ‘If we say somebody is a Lithuanian composer or a Jewish composer, then maybe he’s quite good,’ he remarks. ‘But if someone is a real composer, we have to say he is a good composer, not a good Jewish composer! Somebody in the future will decide what I am – maybe Jewish, maybe Lithuanian, maybe both, maybe neither, but hopefully a composer.’ 

Geringas plays Šenderovas

Barkauskas, Šenderovas and Kevisas all see Lithuania’s new EU membership as a cultural step forward. ‘It is certainly easier for my works to be played abroad now,’ says Barkauskas. ‘In Soviet times, Vilnius was seen very much as a province; most of the privileged composers were in Moscow and St Petersburg and, from Lithuania, it was difficult to get works through the Composers’ Union, which was a very powerful organisation. My works became known through individual musicians who took them up and performed them, such as Gidon Kremer, rather than through the Union.’

‘Our cultural life in general will not change so much, because it was already at a very high level,’ says Senderovas. ‘What has become easier is to travel and to invite people from overseas. The choreographer for my new ballet is Italian – under the Soviet system, this would have been completely impossible. But now we can be constantly in touch.’ Kevisas feels that greater internationalism will enhance the quality of Lithuanian culture: ‘Now maybe we will not think only locally. The Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra or the National Opera and Ballet Theatre are already very good, but now they need not be thought of as primarily Lithuanian; instead they need to be thought of primarily as good! Quality is my priority. Now we can compete for the best quality of musicians and directors, and if we succeed then we can improve, with fresh ideas and new approaches.’ 

Barkauskas sums up the atmosphere today: ‘Fantastic! There is a whole new feeling – people are hopeful and happy. It’s like springtime.’ 

My thanks to the Jewish Quarterly for commissioning and publishing a longer version of this article in 2004