The perpetrator and the victim learn the real truth, but the witness, the observer gains only an impression. The quality of that impression—is it stronger or weaker—to tell the truth, there’s no difference. One way or another, the impression will die out, become a distant, faint memory, but the victim and the perpetrator will never forget the truth. –Sigitas Parulskis, Tamsa ir Partneriai (Darkness and Partners)
I have experienced a handful of moments in my life when I felt history as a massive, unfathomable force sprawled out behind me and yet entirely present in the moment. These transcendent moments inform my work as a writer about as strongly as anything I’ve experienced. My identity conjures itself around these immovable forces.
One of them occurred when I was about seventeen years-old, standing on the corner of Michigan and Wacker, facing the Tribune Tower in Chicago. This is the former site of Fort Dearborn. I had read about it for a high school assignment, but this day I happened to look down on the ground to see the demarcation. (Photo from Chicago Detours):
In a flash, the fort and its story, the people who lived there, the people who died violently on the bank of the Chicago River…it all became real. Not a story in a book or a memory dancing amid the lightning of synapses. Not a film or a painting. I could sense the reality, unfathomable yet palpable, and how different that space had once been: no skyscrapers or metal bridges, street lights or fancy stores. I became aware of a force all around me, inside me, in which there were no longer sides to a story, enemies and friends. There was simply a human experience so overwhelming that I felt myself extinguished yet deeply connected to a great everything.
I had exactly this experience, although perhaps ten times more intense, while sitting at a table with writers Ellen Cassedy and Sigitas Parulskis. Cassedy, author of We are Here (an amazing book) was traveling around Vilnius, Lithuania collecting stories and experiences that had to do with her Jewish identity and the Holocaust in Lithuania. Parulskis had published Tamsa ir Partneriai, a novel which imagines the events of the Holocaust from the point of view of a Lithuanian photographer. She was to interview him, and I had been recommended as an interpreter.
At first I approached the conversation as I would any job. I felt a little anxiety, had brought my small dictionary along, made sure to come early. We sat at a table in an outdoor cafe, just down the street from the University of Vilnius. The conversation began and lasted a few hours.
The interview was published this past January in Cosmonauts Avenue. I highly recommend it, not just to those interested in the Holocaust, but especially to those interested in European history and questions of ethnic identity. Click here to read.
I recognized, perhaps a quarter hour into the experience, that I was witnessing something important, and I knew the conversation I was hearing—I was soon participating—would change me forever. I hope one day to write with greater detail about that afternoon—in fact, the experience inspired me to pursue the completion of a work of non-fiction. I won’t say very much about it right now, only that I’m working on it, and that it is based on a moment of transcendence. It left me understanding what it means to admit a burden and then to let it go.
I will forever remember the moment I walked away from the table with Sigitas and Ellen, and how ultra-vivid Vilnius seemed to me. An orange sun had skewered puffy clouds with shafts of glass. I walked down streets in the middle of Old Town where atrocities had taken place. I had always known about them, but now they were different. Not scenes from a book, images from photos, memories I’d heard about. I recognized the feeling, the weight of history, at once annihilating and unifying, unfathomable yet palpable, sprawled out behind me and yet entirely present in every brick and cobblestone. Indeed, it was there in my body, in a hand that trembled uncomfortably for the rest of the night.