Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Vilnius: City of Strangers

by Laimonas Briedis
Baltos Lankos, 2008
Robert Rudolph, Reviewer

Commemorative Medal for the Fighting Against the Soviets in 1919

Napoleon's Grand Armée marched from Vilnius. (Historically the city bore many variations on the name, most commonly Vilna.) The survivors of the disastrous march to Moscow returned to Vilnius—but not to safety. They died on a hill outside the city and were secretly buried by the Russians. Their bodies were uncovered only after the fall of the Soviet Union. Dostoevsky visited Vilnius, then the third-largest city in the Russian empire. He found himself surrounded by Jews and Poles and barricaded himself in his hotel room.

The traveler and naturalist Johann Georg Forster settled in Vilna to teach at the university, after publishing an account of his service on Captain Cook's second South Sea expedition. The ambitious Forster was unhappy in this remote Baroque city, which he described as mostly Jewish. He refused to learn Polish, lectured his students in dog Latin, and moved on to Paris, where he enthusiastically supported the French Revolution.

The Viennese physician Johann Frank and his wife Christine Gerhadi, the well-known operatic soprano, settled in Vilnius. He also taught medicine and had no prejudice against the local languages—rather the reverse. During his lifetime, Frank's patients included the Polish nobility, the eastern Jews of the ghetto, and members of three different imperial families.

The Germans took Vilnius in World War I. The retreating Russians took their statue of Pushkin with them. A German officer wrote a whimsical guidebook during his stay here. For centuries, Vilna's ghetto was an important center of Jewish learning. Jewish Vilna was swallowed up forever during the Second World War. Even the old Jewish cemeteries have vanished.

Laimonas Briedis's Vilnius is a city of anecdotes, a haunted borderland with many well-told stories. For centuries the city was a mix of cultures and nationalities, each with its own name for the city. This city—Vilna/Vilno/ Vilne/Wilna/Wilde/Vilnius—built by a pagan prince after a remarkable dream, protected from hostile Teutonic knights by marshy ground passable only in the dead of winter, and visited by puzzled papal legates. Its rulers negotiated long and hard before the city converted to Christianity.

Rather than writing a chronological history, Briedis makes journeys through the city in different periods, viewing it through the eyes of travelers. Each culture had its own map of Europe and fitted Vilnius into a different system. The section on Vilnius under German occupation would interest any student of the First World War. However, a reader could start almost at random with any of Briedis's eight chapters—each the story of a different culture's Europe, in a different age—and find it excellent reading.

Robert Rudolph

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