Reminiscences of the translator and witness to the activities of the Lithuanian Helsinki Group (LHG), presented at the international conference Tolerance and Totalitarianism: Challenges to Freedom held in Vilnius.
Though being paradox incarnate, the world is full of yet other paradoxes. It seems that there cannot be more different things than tolerance and fight. However, the Lithuanian Helsinki Group made a reality of this paradox. It was tolerance rising from the depths of spiritual culture that united the people of different ages, nationalities, religions, social backgrounds and professions in the fight for human rights. Let us briefly remember those who as a civic group formed the Helsinki Five on 25 November 1976.
The first of them was the seventy-year-old Ona (Hania) Lukauskaitė-Poškienė (1906-1983), former political prisoner, poet and teacher residing in Šiauliai at the time. Before the war, she belonged to a group of leftist writers brought together by the magazine Culture published in Šiauliai. Following the Bolshevik occupation of Lithuania, she did not, however, turn to quislingism in contrast to many cultural activists of leftist expression, bend to the occupant, or want to serve it, remaining faithful to the ideal of freedom.
Many details from the life of Hania, that lonely bird, are truly horrifying such as early parting with her husband, an army officer, and death of her two young sons. In 1941, she joined the Hiding from the Germans Committee founded in Šiauliai. In 1946 she, together with Captain Jonas Noreika –– alias General Vėtra –– who had escaped Stutthof concentration camp –– and Stasys Gorodeckis –– alias Radžiūnas, established the Vilnius-based Lithuanian National Council seeking to become the centre of resistance to the Soviet occupation. In 1946, on behalf of the Council, she wrote the letter to the Pope about the situation in the occupied Lithuania and drafted the Appeal to the World’s Nations. Ona Lukauskaitė-Poškienė was betrayed by another poet, her neighbour resident of Šiauliai, Valerija Valsiūnienė, who had worked as an informer for a long time. In 1946, Lukauskaitė-Poškienė, together with other members of the Council, were arrested, convicted and imprisoned in forced labour camps of Kargopol (Arkhangelsk Region), Vorkuta and Mordovia.
When others obediently rhymed for Stalin, Ona Lukauskaitė-Poškienė stood up for the literary honour bravely fending off an interrogator and stating that Vorkuta is barely a temporary place of residence for Lithuanian intelligentsia. She worked in inhumane conditions until 1955. After receiving permission to return to Lithuania, she returned to Šiauliai. In 1976, seven years before her death, this woman of spirit did not hesitate to join the Lithuanian Helsinki Group.
Her Tales of Forced Labour Camps (what an oxymoron!) written in 1973 and her memoirs Lyrical Chronicle of Šiauliai City were published posthumously with the national Revival of Lithuania and the restoration of Independence (editions 1989 and 1991). Ona Lukauskaitė-Poškienė was a woman of principle, an anti-Catholic and a pipe smoker. Her last hours of life were attended by Regina Teresiūtė, sister of the Eucharistic Jesus Congregation.
The second was the sixty-eight-year-old Jesuit Karolis Garuckas (1908–1979), who was a pastor in Ceikiniai at the time and who turned into a symbolic figure in the Lithuanian Catholic struggle for freedom of conscience, human rights, and the Church's mission to the world.
In the Soviet system, separation of church and state meant not separation but quite the contrary –– the subjection of the Church to the control of the Communist Party. Therefore, the priests shunted into provincial backwaters but radiating spiritual strength wielded much greater clout than the hierarchs scared into obedience.
Father Karolis studied philosophy in Pulach at Munich from 1935 to 1938 and theology in Valkenburg, the Netherlands from 1938 to 1942. When the Soviets were pouring into Lithuania for the second time in the summer of 1944, he did not flee for the West but rather remained in his homeland. In March 1945, he moved to Vilnius engaging into pastoral work with the focus on young people. Initially he was appointed to the Jesuit Church of St. Casimir. Later, in January 1947, Archbishop Reinys assigned him the service of Lithuanian masses in Sts. Johns Church of Vilnius University. A year later, unfortunately, the church was closed and turned into the Museum of Scientific Thought. Sent away from Vilnius, Father Karolis served as priest in different corners of Vilnius Archdiocese. His last parish was Ceikiniai –– a tiny village with one hundred and twenty-one resident. Exuding tolerance and human warmth, Father Karolis lived in the village for sixteen years up until his death. Despite the impending repression, his funeral attracted crowds of believers, including two exile bishops and about 100 priests.
In 1955–1961, Karolis Garuckas translated the giant work History of the Popes (Geschichte der Päpste in 16 volumes) by Ludwig Pastor. As yet, there has been no news about the publication of his translation. It might be still be kept somewhere as a manuscript.
The third was the forty-six-year-old Viktoras Petkus (1930–), who had twice served his sentence of imprisonment in forced labour camps for anti-Soviet activities and returned to Lithuania in 1965. On 23 August 1977, less than a year after the founding of the Lithuanian Helsinki Group, he was again arrested by the KGB on his way to Moscow with LHG documents. On 13 July 1978, he was sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment, three years out of which had to be served in a prison and the rest in a maximum-security correctional facility.
Petkus returned to Lithuania in 1988 when the Lithuanian reform movement Sąjūdis was taking off. All in all, out of his forty-year-long resistance to the Soviet regime, he spent his most beautiful twenty-five years of life in Siberian forced labour camps.
The fourth was the thirty-nine-year-old writer, translator, and poet Tomas Venclova (1937–) from Vilnius. His father was Antanas Venclova, people’s writer of the Lithuanian Soviet Social Republic, winner of the Stalin Prize in 1952, author of the lyrics of the anthem of the Soviet Lithuania, statesman and politician. Tomas Venclova changed his views on the communist regime only after the 1956 Hungarian Uprising. From 1961 to 1965 he lived in Moscow and later Leningrad, where he established contact with Russian intellectual dissidents. In 1966, he founded the semiotics club at Vilnius University, and on 11 May 1975 wrote an open letter to the Central Committee of the Lithuanian Communist Party, whereby he not only explained his approach to the communist ideology but also drew attention to the literary, scientific and cultural restrictions.
Venclova joined the Lithuanian Helsinki Group when he came to know Dr Eitan Finkelstein providing legal assistance to aspiring emigrants and, a bit later, Viktoras Petkus. Soon afterwards, the Soviet authorities made two decisions. In the same year of 1977, Petkus was arrested while Venclova was granted permission to teach at the University of Berkley and leave for the United States. It was also the same year when Venclova was deprived of the Soviet passport for "the actions incompatible with the name of a USSR citizen" and then stripped of the Soviet citizenship. After receiving political asylum in the United States, Venclova worked at universities earning his Ph.D in 1985. His specialisation was Russian and Polish literature. About his life-changing decision has Venclova once said the following: "If I stayed alive, I, as most of the dissidents now, would perhaps be on the margins of the Lithuanian society, that is, I would he hardly noticeable. But it was as it was“.
The fifth was the thirty-four-year-old Dr Eitan Finkelstein (1942–) from Vilnius, doctor of physics and active participant in the Jewish cultural revival movement and champion for the right to migrate to Israel. He was interrogated in the case of the so-called Jewish refuseniks, that is, those willing to refuse the Soviet citizenship.
Finkelstein helped to organise Andrei Sakharov’s arrival in Vilnius for him to take part in the proceedings against Sergei Kovalev on 9–12 December 1975 while the ceremony of awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Sakharov was taking place in Oslo. Subsequently, Finkelstein made an interesting description of this in his memoirs titled Sakharov and the Lithuanian Helsinki Group. The memoirs put the choice of the then human rights champion No 1 in the spotlight.
Sakharov might have celebrated the Nobel cosily and comfortably in the circle of his loyal friends in Moscow as he was forbidden to go to Oslo anyway. What he did, however, was hanging around the courthouse door in Vilnius for several days only to see if he could help somehow another human rights activist accused of supporting the Lithuanian Catholic Church. This was the lesson of unity to closed, persecuted, and sometimes divided dissident groups of Lithuanian exiles, Catholics and intellectuals. On 18 December 1983, Finkelstein migrated to Israel. Later he moved to Munich, Germany and worked for the Radio Free Europe (Свобода). From 1989 to 1992, he was publishing the magazine The Country and the World (Страна и мир) in cooperation with Kronid Lyubarsky and Boris Khazanov and from 1991 to 1993 he was issuing the Jewish Magazine (Еврейский журнал) together with Shimon Markish. Currently Finkelstein lectures at university, works in George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, and writes books, in each of them coming back to Lithuania. Yet none of them has ever been translated into the Lithuanian language.
Jumble is how Eitan Finkelstein identifies the genre of his novel The Pharaoh's Shepherds (Пастухи фараона НЛО 2006). It involves all the most famous former and current Israeli politicians as well as the Russian tsars Catherine II and Nicholas II, Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, Boris Yeltsin and many other historical figures who are in one or another way related to the so-called Jewish Question. Historical chapters alternate with the story of the main character who participates in all Israeli wars, travels the entire world and, ultimately, gets lost somewhere in the heavenly passages. In the final chapter of the book, the author comes to the Heavenly Office because he wants to ask God about his stand on the Jewish history and mission, the Holocaust, and Europe renouncing Christianity. While waiting for a heavenly exchange which then extends in time, the author is put up in a temporary apartment in 10 Second Lane of Clouds, which is as two drops of water similar to Eitan’s apartment in Tauras Street, Vilnius which hosted LHG meetings and Sakharov’s visit.
While Eitan was still waiting for permission to leave for Israel, we were once sitting with Kazimieras Vasiliauskas –– not yet monsignor but a vicar of the Church of St. Raphael –– and considering the likelihood of the collapse of the Soviet empire. Everyone thought it impossible. Only the future monsignor stated his firm belief that he would still have to offer mass in the Church of St. Casimir, back in 1966 converted into the Museum of Atheism. It is a paradox but we were wrong. Eitan’s second novel The Labyrinth (Лабиринт НЛО 2008) closes with scene where in Israel the narrator is watching one of television channels most often broadcasting Christmas or New Year mass in any country and suddenly beholds the inscription Vilnius, Lithuania and recognises his old acquaintance, Father Kazimieras, celebrating Mass in the Cathedral returned to the believers of Lithuania that has restored its Independence.
However, yesterday is different from today. Once again we face a painful paradox –– it is sometimes more difficult to fight for human rights under the conditions of freedom than burgeoning dictatorship. The approach towards human rights has changed, deteriorated and inflated; even tolerance limits have blurred because in contrast to totalitarianism or dictatorship, democracy less readily exposes and defines the ills to grapple with. Now, even the words spoken for hundreds of years are expelled from the language. Yet no ban applies to swear words spilling over the public domain. Today’s approach is used for assessing the ideas expressed in quite different historical circumstances. Most importantly, such deeds do not lead to the slightest disapproval, earning reputation and even title instead.
It happens today to hear that dissidents have saved the nation’s honour while collaborators the nation’s life. “Bowing our heads to the idealism, self-denial, and national dedication of our dissidents, we have to acknowledge that the nation has been sustained and woken up not only by dissidents but also by writers and journalists, artists and scientists soiled with trade-offs (Venclova). Alternatively, there is a different opinion: “Those days the fist rested at my temple to persuade me into atheism while now the fist rests at my second temple to win my Christian forgiveness.” (Jonas Juškaitis) It is up to you to decide what is more right.