Marks of Civilization
In Vilnius the streets are cobblestone, the buildings baroque. The dorms we sleep in are crumbling. Outside, statues echo against each other, argue for space. The world crumbles and rebuilds itself. Gender is formal. Women are tall and wear long skirts and high-heeled shoes that clap ferociously on the stony street. Men are angular and handsome. Trousers and cigarettes. The air smells of fresh pastries and smoke.
I am interested in old cities—the way they always feel more substantial. The places I come from are newer, with clean IKEA angles. Light. Plastic. Impersonal.
I am here to write. The literary organization I am traveling with plans lots of trips to historical sites. Our sister Jewish program plans to go to the forest where Jews were killed during World War II, and I don’t want to go there. I imagine sitting on dirt, pebbles strewn, trying to read the earth and not finding anyone I love, and this thought scares me.
Neither one of my grandparents would have ever gone back to Europe. They operated on a solid principle. Once you leave something you can’t go home. Their kind of justice was old fashioned. You leave what hurts you. You have a need to protect yourself. The human world will not save you.
In 2009, before I leave on my trip, my boyfriend and I watch Letters from Iwo Jima, which is a movie about World War II, told from the perspective of the Japanese.
He tells me that women’s anxieties about war are different than men’s. I won’t face being at the frontlines, surrounded by all that carnage, the weight of arms, the threat of bodies.
He says I will never understand this fear, in the same way he could never understand what it means to have a period. That there are some experiences which are not universal, which some people will get and others will never understand.
The only way to bear witness accurately is to be like an anthropologist investigating a tribe and taking notes. Interference alters experience. Likewise, be wary if you are too close to the source. Impartial observers are best, because that way you can figure out what is true, and what is true is what is important.
At night we see a different side of Vilnius, walking home with the rabbis from Chabad. It takes many rules to be a good Jew, and some bother me, like the fact that in the Orthodox tradition women and men do not pray in the same room: they pray in separate rooms with a curtain between, so that the women do not distract the men. Often the women can’t see anything at all. They are just praying to a wall. Other traditions I like, like the welcoming of strangers, the breaking of bread. I like the sounds of the prayers, rather than their meaning.
On the way home Vilnius is not pretty and quaint but a dense alleyway to get through. The streets wind, and we have to pass non-Jews. Many people are perplexed and annoyed at our presence. Many point. Some mutter things in Lithuanian. A friend tells me someone spits at her feet.
My friend who travels often tells me that I should not trust my initial judgments because they are so marred by the culture that I come from, but if that is true then how do I interpret anything at all?
I know that my perceptions are small and relative. I know that I anger quickly when I don’t like the moral to a story, so much so, that sometimes it doesn’t matter whether or not it is true. I don’t know at the end of the day why I came to Vilnius, exactly.
95% of Jews in Vilnius were lost.
People try to come up with a lot of reasons for why this might have happened.
I cry at the end of Iwo Jima, even though it is something that I could not have ever experienced because I am not a Japanese man and, even if I was, I was born too late to have ever fought in World War II. The main protagonist is a soldier deep in the trenches, and the stench of human flesh is everywhere. He hears the sound of bombs. He is wounded and tired and hungry, and he exists in a culture where it is right to kill yourself in order to retain your honor, but he doesn’t want to do that. All he wants is to return to simple things, the bakery he and his wife worked at, the feel of his head pressed up against his wife’s kimono past her breasts to belly, where he whispers into her ripe tummy to his small one that he will be home soon.
If someone were to visit my world, the way that I am visiting Vilnius, I should hope that they would treat me gently and judge me kindly.
I can see the anthropologists now crouched behind my bookcases, snapping pictures of me in my natural environment, taking notes on my relationships, noticing how many times I get up early or late, how often I am even-tempered, how many times I do a good deed, whether or not I am assertive enough or how often. I can see them watching my more basic daily actions, amused and bewildered with my laundry habits, the way I take out trash, the way I tend my garden, the newspaper articles I read and those I ignore, the time I go to sleep, the things that I eat and the things that I won’t even touch.
I know they might be bewildered at times and try to make justifications for my actions, like when my friends bring up a subject which is only philosophical or political in nature but still hurts me deeply for reasons I am not sure that I myself even understand. I should hope that they pause a bit before making judgment on my visceral response to simple stimuli, like my balking at the very notion that a man might understand a subject better than me because he experiences it differently that I do, or my small and intermittent hatred for cities that did not save people during the war. They will say I am an excellent example of my tribe: that Americans are good at being outraged about injustice, but bad at looking at it dead on, and this is why they are dangerous travelers, eager to colonize anything larger than their own frame of reference. They will point gingerly at my delight at American goods in a Lithuanian supermarket, catch me chastising the traffic patterns, the fact that no one smiles enough, as evidence of something more sinister, maybe.
Civilization is often marked by violence, but violence is not the only mark of civilization. Kindness is also a part of civilization, not because civilization requires it, but because being kind is something human beings do, more often than not, and that is why most people take it for granted, unless they are in a place where everything is foreign to them. This is when kindness becomes worthy of study. It is just as pervasive as violence. It is an epidemic.
In Letters from Iwo Jima there are many scenes of kindness, which puncture the scenes of war. In the film an American who is injured becomes a prisoner of war. One of the generals had been to America and had dined with American soldiers. He takes pity on the boy (he couldn’t have been much older than a boy) and seeks to administer appropriate medical care. But it is too late; the boy dies. The General proceeds to read a letter out loud, which he found wedged in the American soldier’s pocket. It is from the boy’s mother. There is nothing particularly profound about the letter. A bit of motherly wisdom. A bit of concern. An I love you. A Be safe.
The Japanese soldiers are shocked. How could the enemy have a mother so similar to their own? How could she want such basic things for her son? The same things that their own mothers wanted for them?
The people of Lithuania make all sorts of small, kind gestures for me, struggling to speak a bit of English, to offer advice or suggestions.
But this is not what I remember most vividly. At night, in my dreams, what I think about are the ghosts of my ancestors. And I wonder what has brought me here. I wonder how anyone would want to go back to a place with that much heaviness and history when we have newer places with clean IKEA lines and simple furniture, which may be less beautiful to contemplate, but are nonetheless safer, cleaner, more modern, easier to carry and set up. Who are these Jews who keep coming back here, and why am I among them?
In “Everyday Use,” a short story written by Alice Walker, we are introduced to a black family who lives in the South. The older daughter has left home and comes back to visit the place her mother and sister still live, a place filled with bad memories. She has changed her name to an African one, which her mother cannot pronounce. She wants to rescue old blankets her mother and sister have made, put them on a wall so that people can remember. She argues her dumb sister will just use them as usual, not aware of these relics’ importance. She insults her mother for staying in a culture that was cruel to her.
In the story we know that the older daughter is the disrespectful one, the one who is rejecting the good along with the bad, the one who has abandoned her family name, who is rejecting the more immediate past, along with the older, more painful one.
Who is the good character in this story?
I believe that justice is nestled in a very fragile place in the heart, somewhere between hope and history.
Later that summer, I think about what I should have told my boyfriend when he told me I would never understand what it is like to be in battle. I should have said I don’t know what it is like to be at war, but I know what it is to honor the things you love, no matter how complicated they may turn out to be. That I know that life is filled with all these small betrayals and at the end of the day it is very hard to make sense of them, or even be at peace with them. That I know that I also share a stake in this story.
In the modern art museum we enter a darkened room with six separate screens showing different places and times—an ocean, a cityscape, a forest in the woods. We hear time ticking slowly from behind us, where there is a screen showing a clock on a wall, but every screen shows things happening in a different tempo—The water hits the shore in rhythmic little bursts; an empty room with a white bed is quiet; the cityscape erupts in fireworks, colors filling the sky and then dissolving.
This exhibit stands out from all the others because we suddenly find ourselves in a world without people, without buildings, without the conflict of the past, or the ushering of the future. A still place of reflection. A world where we can pretend we are observers as impartial as the sun or a stone.
In Vilnius we see an old bum wearing a dirty hat singing America, America loudly outside the coffee shop we pass every day. He hands a girl my age a flower. It could have just as easily been me.
Arielle Bernstein is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at George Washington University and American University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review, South Loop Review, and The Puritan, and she has twice been listed as a finalist in Glimmer Train‘s Family Matters Short Story Contests. She is Associate Book Reviews Editor at The Nervous Breakdown.