In 1944, at the age of twenty-two, Jonas Mekas left his small village in Lithuania, then occupied by the Nazis, in the company of his brother Adolfas. Mekas had begun his literary career as the editor of a provincial weekly paper and had published his first poems. He’d also had a hand in publishing an anti-German bulletin and had written a poem against Stalin; he was twice marked. Jonas and Adolfas set out for Vienna, aiming for Switzerland from there, but were instead pulled off a train near Hamburg and sent to a Nazi forced-labor camp. There, Mekas started keeping a diary.
Eventually, of course, he reached New York, where he and Adolfas founded the influential magazine Film Culture and, later, the Film-makers’ Cinematheque, which grew into the indispensable avant-garde repository Anthology Film Archives. But in the years of the diary, 1944 to 1955, as Mekas navigates postwar Europe and the immigrant landscape of midcentury New York, uncertainty was the only constant. “As I reread these diaries,” he wrote in 1985, “I do not know anymore, is this truth or fiction … I am reading this not as my own life but someone else’s, as if these miseries were never my own. How could I have survived it? This must be somebody else I am reading about.” Originally published by Black Thistle Press in 1991, the diary, titled I Had Nowhere to Go, will be reissued this month by Spector Books.
The three entries below, from January 1948, find Jonas and Adolfas in a Weisbaden displaced-person camp; Mekas is homesick and depressed but is, as he is throughout the diary, tenacious about living one day to the next. —Nicole Rudick
January 4, 1948
Spring weather. Spring wind. Wet, muddy everywhere.
11:30 AM Vladas comes in. Invites us all for kukuliai (dumplings) this evening, his mother is cooking.
Algis, Leo, Adolfas, later Puzinas, we arrive at Vladas’ for kukuliai. His mother declares she never promised to cook for us. So we all go for a walk, fool around.
In the street—two drunk Yugoslavs are trying to start a motorcycle. A crowd has gathered around them, they are all laughing.
They started! No, they fell down. They are trying again. A stout Yugoslav woman comes, takes one of the two men by the neck and literally drags/carries him away—home, I guess.
Finished reading Stanislavski.
Leo is walking around, very very low, like a black cloud. He’s complaining, he says he’s afraid he has TB. And his back is aching. Maybe it’s cancer, he says. He has to go for a check-up.
Therese. She said, “I am a modern woman. I accept the new trends. I consider that what there is today, must be necessary, and I comply with it and I live that way.” “You are a stupid woman, not a modern woman,” I told her. “You embrace fate: what comes—comes. Some day somebody may want to cut your throat: will you accept that too? Joseph picked up his family and ran away, with Mary and the Kid. We have been given the freedom of action, the choice of action. We don’t have to comply with the ‘fate.’ We don’t have to blindly follow everything that’s happening today.”
So she said I was a poet, and an idealist, and I will never see reality as it is. That’s where I quit the conversation.
We try to hide it every way we can, but it always comes out, the lyricism. A Lithuanian cannot live without nature. You can’t detach him from the wide, green fields, from the brooks, the snow, the cobwebs flying through the air in late September, or from his forests, fragrant with moss and berries.
That’s why he keeps sculpting those wooden Jesuses and placing them by the roadsides, with their faces (always) turned to the fields, looking into the fields, dreaming. Their Jesuses are always dreaming. Their Jesus is a Lithuanian, the sweet Jesus of the roadsides.
Sometimes it’s good to fall into emptiness. Be it another person, or oneself, or a junkyard…
Blessed are the hours of emptiness.
My life vacillates between the two, the emptiness and… and… whatever is the opposite of it.
Whatever it is, it isn’t fullness…
Two opinions re. modernism and literature, among Lithuanian writers.
Mazalaitė: “What is there to learn from others, for us? What is there for a writer to learn, from others? A writer, an artist is like a bird: he has to sing, he has to sing no matter what.”
Me: “Yes, sing! But stop, please! Enough, enough! Your singing is terrible!”
We are driving to the woods, with my father. The road is all beaten out, full of holes. I sit in the back of the carriage. With every bump of the wheels all my innards jump and bump—my liver, my lungs…
Once there was a man who was asked by God to do some little thing. It was just a little thing, and I don’t know what it was. Do this, he was told, and this earth will again turn into Paradise. There won’t be any kings, nobody will have to work, everybody will be free and happy, etc.
Now, this man kept thinking: to do it or not to do it. One day he thinks that he should do it, next day he isn’t sure, he thinks that maybe he shouldn’t do it. “Why do we need a Paradise? Let the people work, a big deal? It’s good for your system.” Next day again he thinks: “Maybe, after all, it would be nice not to work, not to do anything.” And so it went. He couldn’t make up his mind. Day after day he thought about it. And so he died, one day. And it’s a pity. He could have brought Paradise back to earth.
January 10, 1948
You are welcome to read all this as fragments, from someone’s life. Or as a letter from a homesick stranger. Or as a novel, pure fiction. Yes, you are welcome to read this as fiction. The subject, the plot that ties up these bits is my life, my growing up. The villain? The villain is the twentieth century.
It’s a little bit sad, in the room, right now. I am sitting and I am looking out the window. Outside—sleet. Terrible winds. The wind bangs empty biscuit tins, blows skirts, people are walking sideways, with their faces turned backwards. And the clouds—ah, how the clouds are rushing by, full of cold. And I, I sit here thinking. I wonder how the clouds are now there, in Lithuania, and becomes sentimental. But then, why not be sentimental? If it’s sad, then sad it is, and there is nothing that you can do about it, at least not now. One can try to play an optimist, a courageous, happy person: but right under your heart you feel this great lingering sadness. You can’t get away from it, from homesickness. You try to hide it, you try to talk yourself out of it, you try bluffing—but your thoughts betray you, your dreams betray you, everything betrays your homesickness. But then, that is your only comfort: as long as you feel homesickness you know that you aren’t dead yet. You know that you still love something…
January 28, 1948
Schweinfurt. From a letter to M. Bavarskas.
In the middle of February we would like to bring out a new issue of Žvilgsniai. I hope you won’t refuse to send us one short, selected piece.
What’s happening, what are you writing? Empty winds are howling across the fields of our exile literature (not better at home either). Life is too heavy a rock, we are being pressed down by the barracks, I can hear the sad steps of people in the rooms, back and forth, back and forth all day long (and one will come to you, will put his hand on your shoulder, and will ask: Any news from home?—and away he goes, they go, these people, with their eyes somewhere, in some distant past).
And then, sometimes, in the middle of writing—suddenly everything collapses: what for, for whom, for whom am I writing? Why write if nobody’s going to read this. Maybe it’s better to carry it, to burn it up inside, unborn, until it dies. Because they are killing, they are wiping out my country. Men with bloody fingers are walking all around the world aiming at my neck. They’ll strangle all my people, they’ll cut out their tongues. What sense is there then to write? For whom am I writing?
So I sit at the table again and with my eyes heavy I stare at the paper and I write. And what I write is drenched with hopelessness and the madness of the times we live in, insane crimes, insane waiting—a waiting when the only thing you have is the waiting itself. While you know that there are people, somewhere, who can work, who can do what they want—somewhere. The wheel is turning and you are such a small nothing in that huge wheel, in that huge hell brewed by the Big Powers.
Eh, but then, it would be stupid to sit and wait until they grind you up. Make them work hard, make it difficult for them… So you stand up and you begin to throw your arms one way and another and swing them around: Come, come, you there, try to swallow me! I may yet get stuck in your throats… You’ll choke yet… Or maybe a miracle, who knows? Even Goliath tumbled down, once. And when I look at the world—I have to admit that the majority still want Good, even if timidly—they’ll take it only when it’s given them, be it bread or liberty. But to work for it—God forbid… Those good ones, those passive ones… You know what the good people need in order to overcome the evil? They need a little bit of devil in them, that’s what.
So now it’s up to us to defend this earth, and write…