Sejny and St. Nazaire share a borderland, although they are a thousand miles apart
While I lived in the former Yugoslavia, I never thought of visiting Poland or any other country in the Communist bloc. Go west, young man, was what I was interested in. Why go east, to the monochromatic world of the totalitarian regime, when I was free to travel west with my Yugoslav passport? Despite my great admiration for the literature and movies of the eastern part of Europe, I did not want to go there. Most of their best writers lived in exile anyway, and those who stayed were subjected to rigorous censorship. The place was definitely no paradise.
It still does not look like paradise, I realized during my recent trip to Poland, but it is part of Europe and it is going through some important changes. At least that’s what I heard from the people I met on the train. I was on the train a lot. Actually, I spent most of my time on the train, going from one city to another as one of the participants in a literary festival. The idea of the festival organizers was to have writers read in as many cities as possible. So I arrived in Warsaw one day late in the evening, and early the next morning I was on the train going to Sejny, all the way to the east. It took five hours to get there. Next morning I went back to Warsaw, where I had to change trains and go to Krakow. Altogether I spent almost eight hours on the train that day. The following morning I went back to Warsaw (another three-hour train ride) for the final reading and round-table discussion.
At first I thought that the festival must have been sponsored by the Polish railway, but when I asked my hosts, they all laughed. It was not such a bad idea, I told them. Actually, the whole festival should take place on many trains, and writers should read their poems and stories to audiences commuting between those beautiful Polish cities that the writers would never see. More laughter. I tried to tell them that I was serious, that writers had no need for reality anyway, they had their imagination. No laughter after that. It is not easy to talk about reality in Poland, I guess. Perhaps it is not easy to talk about reality anywhere in the world. I know it’s not easy in Alberta, with house prices going down, jobs disappearing and tar-sands projects being postponed or cancelled. In Sejny, however, we did talk about reality because it meant talking about dreams and ghosts.
The town of Sejny is very close to the Polish-Lithuanian border, which makes it a perfect place for the Borderland Foundation, devoted to helping and documenting borderland culture in general. Sejny is also a Jewish ghost town, one of many, I suppose, in that part of Europe, and some of the Foundation’s activities take place in the old Jewish synagogue and yeshiva. The Documentation Center of Borderland Cultures, which is the very heart of the foundation, is in the old Jewish high school building. The main activity of the Center is collecting cultural products from the former eastern Europe as well as the former Yugoslavia and other Balkan states. It is a beautiful, well-designed place with large collections of books, magazines, videos, CDs, records, newspaper clippings and old photographs. Since most of them come from these former places, I felt “former” too when they found some of my early books on one shelf. I promised to send them some of the new ones, although, I told them, I do not live in a borderland territory now. Or perhaps I do? There are several First Nations reserves around Calgary and so there is a sort of shared borderland between them. Wherever two cultures lie next to each other, there must be a sort of cultural borderland that they share. Imagine it as a semipermeable membrane: some things pass through and are accepted by both cultures, while other things remain with their orginal creators.
It is the sharing part, the things that pass through the membrane, that interests Krzysztof Czyzewski, the president of the foundation. However, in order to share, people from different cultures must first talk about it. Dialogue is vital for borderlanders, argues Krzysztof, and if there’s no dialogue, there’s no sharing. That’s why he and his wife Malgorzata are so keen to transform yet another of their dreams into reality. It involves the manor that belonged to the family of the great Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz. Once the big house in Krasnogruda, in the forest, is renovated, it will host the International Dialogue Centre.
In one of his articles Krzysztof wrote that he became interested in borderland culture when he realized that citizens from former Communist countries are less open-minded to other cultures. I remembered his words a couple of weeks later. During a conversation in St. Nazaire, France, where I took part in another literary meeting, somebody said that citizens from countries with long democratic traditions tended to be less open-minded to immigrants in general. It was almost the same sentence as Krzysztof’s. One of them, I thought, must be wrong—but which one? The one coming from a democracy or the one coming from a dictatorship? And, I thought, what if both of them are right? After all, negative feelings toward members of different cultures are not necessarily the product of the political system itself. They are, rather, the product of our feeling that these newcomers are going to deprive us of certain benefits we get from our system.
At that point I realized that there was a symbolic borderland between these two places even though St. Nazaire and Sejny are in two opposite areas of Europe: St. Nazaire is on the Atlantic coast, almost as far west as possible, and Sejny is close to the eastern European border. Both of them believe in the importance of dialogue. For their cultural and educational activities they use buildings deserted after World War II. In Sejny, where there are no Jews left, they use the synagogue and other Jewish buildings, and in St. Nazaire, where there may be a small number of Jews, they use parts of a huge concrete submarine base built by German troops during the war. The concrete walls and ceilings are so thick that no bombing could destroy them; and it would be too expensive to demolish them now.
So, it’s all about history once again. Although Sejny and St. Nazaire are completely different, it is the overwhelming presence of history that unites them. The silence one hears inside the synagogue in Sejny is not the same silence that one finds inside the submarine base in St. Nazaire; after all, they come from different sides. And yet, in a strange way, I felt the same in both buildings: very small and lonely, with an enormous sense of loss, and my heart began to play some kind of syncopated rhythm. The bossa nova of history, I thought at first, but bossa nova is too gentle. My heart played the hip-hop rhythm of history among grey concrete walls, and soon I was dizzy and breathless.
A young woman stopped and asked me something in French. When I didn’t reply, she said in English: “Are you sick?” How do you explain to somebody that your heart has just experienced a stroke of history? There are no words for that. I looked at her and lied: “No, I am not. I feel fine.” But she did not believe me. She disappeared for a moment, returned with a blanket in her hands and just stood there, ready to cover me in case I fell asleep.