When Laimonas Briedis, a writer and scholar of history, literature and the geographical imagination of Lithuania, was researching and writing about his home city of Vilnius the story took him way beyond the city limits and all around the world.
He found that primarily because of the city’s diaspora, who have settled far and wide, “writing about Vilnius always, always means writing about other places.”
When he started planning his award-winning narrative non-fiction title Vilnius: City of Strangers (published in China by Beijing: New Star Press) he started intertwining the Lithuanian narrative, the Polish narrative, the Jewish narrative, the Russian, Belarussian and German narratives, and so on, but he realised he needed more.
“I realised while doing research and writing, that every time I came to those narratives into this city, they would leave me out of the city, because of the extensive diaspora.”
Vilnius has long had a very large diaspora, and after World War II there were more people living outside Vilnius who were considered to be native of the city than actual residents of the city itself.
“In a way Vilnius is a very old city, but is also a kind of immigrant city. It always has new people coming. So in a way to tell the story of Vilnius, I always feel that you have to tell the story how Vilnius is connected to other places,” he said, speaking ahead of his appearance at the 5th EU-China International Literary Festival.
“By telling the story of walking through Vilnius with these strangers, travellers and all kinds of different characters, I create a historical narrative that also places Vilnius within Europe,” he said. “So in a way, it’s a kind of geography of Europe, but also a history of Vilnius. It’s an historical narrative, but I am a cultural geographer, by profession, so it’s also a geographical story too.”
Since it was established in the 14th century, Vilnius has always been a multicultural, multiethnic, multi-religious city.
“Vilnius was always an extremely, if you want to use that word, globalised city. Small and very often poor, but nonetheless still very much had an international component to it.”
The challenge for a writer now studying somewhere like Vilnius is that it has so many languages, cultures and facets to explore and comprehend, he said.
“Vilnius is a character, and yet it has split personalities. So the challenge is always that this character speaks in literally tongues, always had very different languages. None of them easily communicate with each other, so writing about Vilnius there is always, always a process of translation. So no matter what you do, no matter how you do it, you’ll become a translator from one to another,” he said.
THE SHANGHAI CONNECTION
With the extensive diaspora and their histories, everywhere Briedis goes he finds Vilnius connections.
“It is a gift of Vilnius, in a way that for a city that is not very well known around the world yet almost everywhere you go you’ll find some kind of evidence of that city,” he said, and China was no exception.
As Breidis writes in the foreword for the Chinese edition of Vilnius: City of Strangers, more than ninety per cent of Jews in Lithuania perished during World War II and out of sixty thousand Jews of Vilnius, only a handful survived German occupation.
At that time more than 1,000 Jewish refugees from Vilnius fled to Shanghai, via Japan.
“That is probably the largest group of Vilnius Jews who survived the Holocaust intact as a community. For four years, more or less, a Jewish community from Vilnius lived and survived in Shanghai,” he said.
Lithuania and China are tied to each other by the survival of the refugees from Vilnius in Shanghai, who lost everything they ever knew, yet still were able to save the language and memories of their homeland for future generations, Breidis wrote.
“Throughout many years, I have met some of the Shanghai survivors in different places around the world and from them I learned a side of my own native of town, Vilnius, I had never known,” he said.
“In Shanghai, by encountering, listening to and reading stories of the refugees from the Vilnius list I found something I had long been searching for in Lithuania: narrative ties that could make the country part of an extensive global story, both on the level of individual, and on the level of communal belonging. Following this revelation, I came to see China as being so much closer to Vilnius than one would ever imagine it to be.”
For his latest research project Briedis is going through Soviet archives and examining how the KGB once monitored his grandparent’s correspondence. In the post-war period his grandfather was in Canada while his grandmother and mother were in Lithuania and they corresponded for 30 years – but the correspondence always had to be written in some kind of code for fear of spying eyes.
His story is a narrative with three versions. One is from his 104-year-old grandmother who is still alive and lives in Canada now. Another is from those family letters, “because so much is unsaid in those letters”, and the third strand is the KGB surveillance notes and what they said about the correspondence and his grandparents.
“It’s a fascinating and frightening experience to see your family from, literally, the KGB perspective and discover in many ways how all those three parts, those three components come together,” he said. “That’s my biggest challenge now, to write that story. It’s a saga that comes literally from those three different angles.”
The saga brings him back to Vilnius. Although he has lived in Canada for three decades his links with his home city remain extremely strong, particularly as he can continue to discover elements of Vilnius elsewhere on his travels around the world.
“I would consider myself to the last day that I’m a Vilnius native. I would say that [living abroad] does not necessarily make me less involved with the city. In fact, I would say it even increases my involvement, so to speak.”