Michael Casper

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Michael Casper *Ti­mothy Sny­der, “Ne­glect­ing the Lithua­nian Holo­caust,” NYR Daily, July 25, 2011.

I Had Nowhere to Go by Jonas Mekas A Dance with Fred As­taire by Jonas Mekas I Had Nowhere to Go by Dou­glas Gor­don The Adol­fas Di­aries Book 1: Septem­ber 1941–De­cem­ber 1946 by Adol­fas Mekas The Adol­fas Di­aries Book 2: Fe­bru­ary 1947–Oc­to­ber 1949 by Adol­fas Mekas

I Had Nowhere to Go by Jonas Mekas. Spec­tor, 469 pp., $25.00 (pa­per)

A Dance with Fred As­taire by Jonas Mekas. An­thol­ogy Edi­tions, 451 pp., $55.00

I Had Nowhere to Go by Dou­glas Gor­don. Ker­ber, 320 pp., $49.95

The Adol­fas Di­aries Book 1: Septem­ber 1941–De­cem­ber 1946 by Adol­fas Mekas. Hal­lelu­jah, 138 pp., $22.00 (pa­per)

The Adol­fas Di­aries Book 2: Fe­bru­ary 1947–Oc­to­ber 1949 by Adol­fas Mekas. Hal­lelu­jah, 102 pp., $22.00 (pa­per)

In Oc­to­ber 1949, Jonas Mekas, a twenty-six-year-old Lithua­nian writer, ar­rived in New York City on a United Na­tions ship car­ry­ing Euro­pean refugees from World War II. He and his younger brother, Adol­fas, who trav­eled with him, had been plan­ning to go on to Chicago, but set­tled in­stead in Wil­liams­burg, Brook­lyn, among other Lithua­nian im­mi­grants. A few months af­ter they ar­rived, the pair man­aged to buy a Bolex movie cam­era. Jonas, from a young age, had been a me­thod­i­cal keeper of jour­nals and a poet with a gift for ro­man­tic ob­ser­va­tions of nat­u­ral beauty. Now he wan­dered the streets of New York ab­sorb­ing and film­ing his sur­round­ings. In a 1950 en­try from I Had Nowhere to Go, his post­war diary col­lec­tion, which was re­cently reis­sued af­ter decades out of print, Jonas wrote, “Wouldn’t it be fool­ish to come all this way and then rush through Broad­way?” His im­pulses to linger and look, and to treat his films as a diary, have made Jonas Mekas one of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury’s most pro­lific and rev­o­lu­tion­ary film­mak­ers. In the 1950s and 1960s, work­ing at the heart of New York City’s down­town art scene, where he would col­lab­o­rate with John Len­non and Yoko Ono and in­tro­duce Andy Warhol to film­mak­ing, Mekas re­jected pol­ished tech­niques and nar­ra­tive sto­ry­telling. Walden (Di­aries, Notes, and Sketches), the three-hour 1969 film that helped es­tab­lish his rep­u­ta­tion as a film­maker, was a fre­netic col­lage of street scenes and na­ture footage ac­com­pa­nied by his ru­mi­nat­ing voiceovers on mem­ory, loss, and the medium of film it­self. Mekas also had a central part in the es­tab­lish­ment of in­de­pen­dent cin­ema, co­found­ing Film Cul­ture magazine, the New Amer­i­can Cin­ema group, and An­thol­ogy Film Ar­chives. Mekas has made a long ca­reer of chron­i­cling his life in ex­treme de­tail. His vast au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal project in­cludes some sev­enty-five films, many more short videos, and nu­mer­ous writ­ten works: a dream jour­nal, a “scrap­book,” two col­lec­tions of anec­dotes, four vol­umes of di­aries, and a dozen books of po­etry. To­day, at ninety-five, Mekas is not only ac­tive and men­tally sharp but also enjoying a late-ca­reer re­nais­sance. The Scot­tish film­maker Dou­glas Gor­don re­cently pro­duced a film and book that add in­ter­pre­tive images to the text of Mekas’s di­aries, fur­ther can­on­iz­ing his life story.

Mekas has al­ways made a point of his de­vo­tion to the present. “My video cam­era,” he said once, “can only record what is hap­pen­ing now.” But he has also been, in his words, “a his­to­rian of the ex­ile,” chron­i­cling, in films such as Lost, Lost, Lost (1976), how he and other Lithua­nian émi­grés were painfully up­rooted from their homes. In his writ­ings, Mekas em­pha­sizes that he re­sisted and fled the Nazis, and that he spent time do­ing forced la­bor in Ger­many dur­ing the war. In 2015, the film­maker Peter Bog­danovich asked him, “And you joined the re­sis­tance in 1941, is that cor­rect?” “Yes,” Mekas replied. “When the Ger­mans came in, I joined other young peo­ple in the re­sis­tance. My func­tion was to do the typ­ing for the un­der­ground news­pa­per. It was against the Ger­mans and the Sovi­ets.” Mekas is revered as much for his art as for be­ing a wit­ness to the twen­ti­eth cen­tury’s hor­rors and, in the words of a Toronto In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val pro­gram, “among the re­main­ing few to have es­caped and sur­vived Nazi per­se­cu­tion.” But he has been elu­sive when he ad­dresses the war years, about which he mixes up im­por­tant dates. The Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion of Lithua­nia be­gan in 1941, but Mekas has re­peat­edly writ­ten that the Ger­mans ar­rived in 1942, in­clud­ing in his new book, A Dance with Fred As­taire. Be­cause Mekas doesn’t have much in­ter­est in chrono­log­i­cal sto­ry­telling, that er­ror might not stand out if 1941 had not been such a calami­tous year in the Lithua­nian his­tory he lived through. That sum­mer, in the small city of Biržai, where he at­tended high school, 2,400 Jews, in­clud­ing some nine hun­dred chil­dren, were mas­sa­cred in a sin­gle day. Dur­ing World War II, around 95 per­cent of Lithua­nia’s cen­turies-old Jewish pop­u­la­tion was mur­dered, most by Lithua­ni­ans work­ing at the be­hest of the Nazis. In his dream jour­nal, Mekas notes the Biržai mas­sacre but dates it to 1943.

On the first page of I Had Nowhere to Go, Mekas writes that dur­ing the war, he worked at two news­pa­pers, as “ed­i­tor-in-chief of a pro­vin­cial weekly” and later at a “na­tional semi-lit­er­ary weekly.” To get a bet­ter sense of his life in those years, I read through these news­pa­pers and other doc­u­ments from the pe­riod, con­ducted an ex­tended cor­re­spon­dence with Mekas, and in­ter­viewed him over three vis­its to his Brook­lyn home. Read­ing his mem­oir and di­aries in light of this other ma­te­rial shows that Mekas’s life dur­ing the war years was more com­pli­cated than he makes it out to be.

Mekas was born in 1922, the fifth and next-to-last child of farm­ers from Lithua­nia’s Protes­tant mi­nor­ity. He was six­teen when Hitler and Stalin se­cretly di­vided East­ern Europe be­tween them­selves in 1939. Lithua­nia was al­lot­ted to Stalin, and in June 1940 Soviet troops in­vaded the coun­try and de­clared it a Soviet Repub­lic. Mekas has of­ten re­counted watch­ing the Red Army roll past his vil­lage; he started tak­ing pic­tures of the troops, but a sol­dier grabbed his cam­era and threw the film on the ground. “My first pho­to­graph ever taken was ru­ined un­der the boot of a Rus­sian sol­dier,” Mekas has said. In 1940 Mekas was ac­cepted into the Gym­na­sium, a high school in nearby Biržai, whose pop­u­la­tion of sev­eral thou­sand was nes­tled around a six­teen­th­cen­tury cas­tle. There he be­longed to a clique of fel­low po­ets who be­came ac­tive in the lo­cal lit­er­ary scene. Like many ide­al­is­tic young Lithua­ni­ans, he also be­came in­volved in un­der­ground an­tiSoviet ac­tivism. Mekas dis­sem­i­nated leaflets sur­rep­ti­tiously at the Gym­na­sium, some­times hid­ing them un­der his hat. He told me that he and his close friend Jonas Petro­nis were con­nected to a se­cret anti-Soviet group known as the Six, where his li­ai­son was a poet and more ad­vanced stu­dent he looked up to named Leonar­das Matuze­viþius.

In June 1941, the Soviet se­cret po­lice car­ried out the first in a se­ries of mass de­por­ta­tions of Lithua­ni­ans to Siberia. In Biržai, some of Mekas’s class­mates dis­ap­peared. “A small group of us, stu­dents, we sat up that night,” Mekas re­calls in I Had Nowhere to Go, “and we spoke about the art of Europe, its mu­se­ums and its mu­sic, and how there was only one thing we wanted: a more hu­mane hu­man be­ing. To stop those car­loads of farm­ers, and our class­mates, chil­dren.”

Not long af­ter, on June 22, the Ger­mans in­vaded the Soviet Union. As the Red Army be­gan its re­treat from Lithua­nia, an ul­tra-na­tion­al­ist un­der­ground group called the Lithua­nian Activist Front (LAF) emerged to lead the coun­try in declar­ing in­de­pen­dence from Soviet rule. Founded in Ber­lin in 1940, the LAF greeted the Ger­mans as Lithua­nia’s lib­er­a­tors and spread the idea that the coun­try’s Jews were Com­mu­nist traitors. “In Lithua­nia, more quickly than any­where else,” the his­to­rian Ti­mothy Sny­der has writ­ten, the Nazi mis­sion, abet­ted by Lithua­ni­ans, “be­came mass mur­der.”*

The LAF-led re­volt against the Sovi­ets be­gan in Kau­nas, the in­ter­war cap­i­tal, and reached Biržai, more than a hun­dred miles to the north, a few days later. Ac­cord­ing to a pub­lished ac­count by Matuze­viþius, a group of Gym­na­sium stu­dents took over the post of­fice, where Petro­nis de­liv­ered a rous­ing speech through a loud­speaker in the win­dow and in­vited Lithua­ni­ans to join in lib­er­at­ing the coun­try. In re­sponse, other ac­tivists, some of whom were al­ready en­gaged in guer­rilla war­fare against the Red Army, gath­ered to form a makeshift paramil­i­tary unit. In tes­ti­mony that Matuze­viþius gave to Soviet in­ves­ti­ga­tors in 1945, he said that upon the ar­rival of the Ger­mans, his “se­cret cir­cle” be­came the “central com­mand of the Lithua­nian Activist Front in Biržai.” The first news­pa­per Mekas worked for, Nau­jo­sios Biržǐ žin­ios (The New Biržai News, or NBZ), was one of five that the LAF be­gan to pub­lish in Lithua­nia af­ter the Ger­man in­va­sion. Mekas told me that the pa­per was founded by Petro­nis sev­eral weeks af­ter the Ger­mans ar­rived. “I joined him im­me­di­ately be­cause he needed a

proof­reader,” he said. Rather than re­sist the Ger­mans, Mekas’s cir­cle of anti-Soviet ac­tivists, like LAF-aligned ac­tivists across the coun­try, greeted them as a lib­er­at­ing force. The first is­sue of the news­pa­per, pub­lished on July 19, 1941, con­tained a two-page ban­ner declar­ing, in large let­ters in Lithua­nian and Ger­man, “We wel­come the win­ning Ger­man Wehrma­cht!” Un­like other mem­bers of his activist cir­cle, Mekas was not an anti-Semitic polemi­cist. His own writ­ings for the NBZ were book re­views, lit­er­ary es­says, and po­ems that es­poused a ro­man­tic na­tion­al­ism. None of his writ­ings is anti-Semitic. But much of what the pa­per pub­lished was de­voted to ad­vanc­ing the LAF’s fascis­tic ide­ol­ogy, in­clud­ing its goal of achiev­ing a state purged of Jews. There were in­vec­tives against Lithua­nia’s “en­e­mies”—iden­ti­fied as Jews, Com­mu­nists, and the Soviet Red Army—and po­lit­i­cally charged po­etry. One of Mekas’s po­ems, “For a Young Friend,” is printed in a grid of po­ems that in­cludes Matuze­viþius’s “To the Honor­able Ger­man Sol­dier”; an­other trib­ute by Matuze­viþius was ti­tled “We’re with the Führer.” A front-page ed­i­to­rial from the first is­sue de­clared, “We are hu­mans, not Bol­she­vist Jewish ma­te­ri­al­ist ape-peo­ple.”

Mekas never refers to the news­pa­per by its full name, and he told me that it was “pa­tri­otic” but not pro-Nazi. It pub­lished Nazi bul­letins on the front page, he em­pha­sized, as all wartime pub­li­ca­tions were even­tu­ally re­quired to, but also lo­cal news, farm­ing-re­lated pieces, and jokes. “It’s that part that peo­ple read,” he told me. But his­to­ri­ans ar­gue that the LAF’s wartime pub­lish­ing stoked pub­lic anti-Semitism. Ac­cord­ing to a re­port com­posed by Lithua­nia’s Geno­cide and Re­sis­tance Re­search Cen­ter, LAF pro­pa­ganda “im­pelled some Lithua­ni­ans to par­tic­i­pate in the Jewish Holo­caust.”

Anti-Jewish vi­o­lence be­gan in Kau­nas days af­ter the Soviet re­treat and spread from there to the prov­inces as the LAF con­sol­i­dated its in­flu­ence. In July, a num­ber of Biržai’s Jews, in­clud­ing the town rabbi, were killed by groups of lo­cal Lithua­ni­ans who wore white arm­bands to dis­tin­guish them­selves from or­di­nary civil­ians. There is no ev­i­dence that ei­ther Mekas or his col­leagues took part in these killings. That same month, the NBZ an­nounced that Jews could no longer re­ceive salaries, then pub­lished the mayor’s de­cree that Jews in Biržai had to leave their homes, en­ter a ghetto, abide by a cur­few, and wear a yel­low Star of David. In the first week of Au­gust, dozens of Soviet pris­on­ers and men from the Jewish ghetto were led to a clear­ing in the As­travas for­est on the far side of Biržai’s large lake, out of pub­lic view. They were forced to dig two large pits, then shot and buried there. The next day, the town’s sev­eral thou­sand re­main­ing Jews were forced to sur­ren­der their valu­ables and herded into a syn­a­gogue, where they were kept for sev­eral days, guarded by Lithua­nian vol­un­teers. On Au­gust 8, they were marched to the for­est at bay­o­net-point. Adults were or­dered to strip so that their cloth­ing could be re­dis­tributed back in town. They were then shot in groups and buried in the pits. Moth­ers were forced to hold out their ba­bies, who were shot in their hands. The loot­ing of jew­elry from the corpses be­gan while the killing was still go­ing on. By the end of the day, a third of the city’s pop­u­la­tion was dead. That night, one of the only Jewish sur­vivors crawled out of the pits; he fled to the home of a lo­cal fam­ily, who hid him for the re­main­der of the war. In the fol­low­ing days, farm­ers were brought in with horses to tamp down the un­even, blood­soaked ground over the shal­low graves. Ger­man sol­diers or­ches­trated and over­saw this me­thod­i­cal op­er­a­tion, but the killing it­self was car­ried out pri­mar­ily by Lithua­ni­ans—around fifty po­lice­men and civil­ian vol­un­teers from Biržai and sur­round­ing towns, in­clud­ing, ac­cord­ing to sev­eral ac­counts, some stu­dents from the Biržai Gym­na­sium. In his 1945 tes­ti­mony—which should nat­u­rally be read crit­i­cally—Matuze­viþius told Soviet in­ves­ti­ga­tors that dur­ing the mas­sacre he and other ac­tivists “had to make sure that Jewish prop­erty wasn’t looted.” In 1999, an Is­raeli lawyer pub­lished a “Par­tial List of Lithua­nian Mur­der­ers of Jews in Biržai.” The names of Petro­nis, Matuze­viþius, and Mekas do not ap­pear. A ninety-two-year-old Biržai na­tive named Ona Plio­plienơ, who dated Adol­fas dur­ing the war, told me by way of a Lithua­nian friend that she was in Biržai “very sel­dom” in the sum­mer of 1941, but found it “im­pos­si­ble” that Jonas could have been in the for­est that day. She re­calls him as “a young guy im­mersed in lit­er­a­ture.”

At first, Mekas told me that he was in Biržai that Au­gust and al­ready work­ing for the NBZ. Later, he wrote me: “One thing is clear: that sum­mer I was on the farm,” adding that he re­turned to the city once a week to help proof­read the news­pa­per. But he also e-mailed me an au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal time­line from his per­sonal ar­chive that read: “July/Au­gust work in the Phar­macy of Puodžinj­nas”—a drug­store lo­cated in the cen­ter of Biržai, di­rectly in front of a Jewish school and a num­ber of Jewish-owned stores.

In I Had Nowhere to Go, Mekas writes that dur­ing the war years in Biržai “I was, ob­vi­ously, quite in­volved in the life around me.” But Mekas told me that he re­calls lit­tle of the Holo­caust’s ef­fect on his town. “I could not re­ally re­late to, emo­tion­ally, or un­der­stand ra­tio­nally, the killing of Jews,” he wrote. “I am closed to mon­strous events. The Soviet de­por­ta­tions, the holo­caust .... It’s all far be­yond the nor­mal hu­man imag­i­na­tion. I re­act to it ab­stractly. No emo­tion. I live in a very tightly closed cir­cle drawn around my­self.”

In a 1971 interview with the film­maker Paul Shar­its, Mekas said that he rarely talks about the most trau­matic parts of his wartime ex­pe­ri­ences, but that he had “touched briefly, once, upon them,” in a 1966 com­mence­ment speech at the Philadel­phia Col­lege of Art. In those re­marks, which were pub­lished a year later in the an­thol­ogy The New Amer­i­can Cin­ema, Mekas said that dur­ing the war,

I went through hor­rors more un­be­liev­able than any­thing I had read in the books, and it all hap­pened right be­fore my eyes—be­fore my eyes the heads of chil­dren were smashed with bay­o­nets.

This same hor­rific im­age oc­curs in two key eye­wit­ness ac­counts of the killings at As­travas, one of them recorded by a Jewish sur­vivor in 1946, the other by a Lithua­nian wit­ness in 2015.

When I asked Mekas about what he said in Philadel­phia, he replied, “I did not say. If I said it, I said it po­et­i­cally.” He said that he vis­ited the killing site only a week later. “Just pass­ing where they were shot—there were so many in those graves in As­travas, across, on the other side of the lake, they were al­most”—he mo­tioned with his arm as if to in­di­cate that the graves were mov­ing. “You could al­most smell it,” he said. “So that’s real enough!”

The day af­ter the mas­sacre, a new is­sue of the NBZ ap­peared. On the front page was an ar­ti­cle by Matuze­viþius called “A Solid Step To­ward Pro­duc­tive Work,” in which he wrote ap­prov­ingly about Lithua­nia and Ger­many’s po­lit­i­cal col­lab­o­ra­tion. When the LAF con­tin­ued to ad­vo­cate for Lithua­nian in­de­pen­dence, the Ger­mans drove it back un­der­ground. By mid-Au­gust, the NBZ no longer named the LAF as pub­lisher on its mast­head, but it re­mained an out­let for ul­tra­na­tion­al­ist pro­pa­ganda and pub­lished a se­ries of ex­cerpts “From the Diary of ‘The Six,’” which cel­e­brated the group’s se­cret ac­tiv­i­ties in the Gym­na­sium dur­ing the Soviet oc­cu­pa­tion. In Septem­ber, in an is­sue with an ex­cerpt from Mein Kampf on the front page, Mekas pub­lished a poem ti­tled “Don Quixote’s (the Bol­she­viks’) March,” about the fu­til­ity of the Soviet mil­i­tary. It ap­peared along­side an ar­ti­cle called “The Jews—Hu­man­ity’s Mis­for­tune,” and a poem by Matuze­viþius ded­i­cated to the work of the Six.

Jonas Petro­nis was drafted into the Ger­man army dur­ing Mekas’s se­nior year of high school. “He was sit­ting by a lino­type ma­chine when the Ger­mans walked in,” Mekas writes in I Had Nowhere to Go. Mekas evaded con­scrip­tion, and in his friend’s ab­sence he took over the NBZ’s op­er­a­tions. He told me, with ev­i­dent pride, that he even­tu­ally took charge of ev­ery as­pect of the pa­per, and that some peo­ple even thought he “had too much con­trol.”

By 1943, Mekas had be­come prom­i­nent in Biržai’s arts scene. That year, an older writer in­vited him to help edit a pa­per in the larger city of Panevơžys called Panevơžio Apy­gar­dos Bal­sas (The Panevơžys Re­gion Voice, or PAB).

Mekas has de­scribed the PAB as “a weekly lit­er­ary news­pa­per with some other pages for news.” The Euro­pean Holo­caust Re­search In­fra­struc­ture, an EU-funded archival re­source based in Hol­land, uses three sub­ject tags to de­scribe the pa­per: “Nazi poli­cies,” “Pro­pa­ganda,” and “An­tisemitic pro­pa­ganda.” Mekas joined the PAB af­ter grad­u­at­ing from the Gym­na­sium and worked there as a “tech­ni­cal ed­i­tor.” But he has said that, as with the NBZ, he ended up “prac­ti­cally run­ning it my­self.” Like the LAF, the group that founded the Panevơžys pa­per—a rad­i­cal off­shoot of the Lithua­nian fas­cist move­ment— was dis­banded by the Ger­mans at the end of 1941. The PAB dur­ing Mekas’s time there pub­lished lit­er­ary es­says and lo­cal news, but also ar­ti­cles with ti­tles like “The Jewish War,” as well as en­thu­si­as­tic re­ports on Ger­man vic­to­ries on the East­ern Front. One piece of pro­pa­ganda called “Why We Must Fight To­gether with the Ger­mans Against Bol­she­vism” de­clared, “Now the na­tion must choose: let it­self be de­stroyed by Jews and Bol­she­viks or de­fend its ex­is­tence by all avail­able means!” and re­mem­bered the year of Soviet rule as “com­pletely con­trolled by Jews.” In Panevơžys, the ma­jor­ity of the city’s Jews were ex­ter­mi­nated in Au­gust 1941, but some re­mained held in a slave la­bor camp at the city’s air­port. A 1944 es­say by Mekas about the nine­teenth-cen­tury Lithua­nian writer and po­lit­i­cal activist Vin­cas Kudirka abuts an ex­posé of three lo­cal Jews ac­cused of dis­guis­ing them­selves as Lithua­ni­ans.

Mekas ad­mit­ted to me his cir­cle’s ini­tial op­ti­mism about the Ger­mans, but in­sisted that it was short-lived. “When the first ex­cite­ment ended,” he said, “two months later it be­came clear that they’re not go­ing to give Lithua­nia real in­de­pen­dence, that it will re­main un­der the Ger­man pro­tec­torate, so then of course the same peo­ple turned against the Ger­mans.” In I Had Nowhere to Go, Mekas writes that he be­came in­volved in anti-Ger­man ac­tiv­ity “dur­ing the years 1943–1944,” which is at the late stage in the war when most anti-Nazi ac­tivism be­gan to oc­cur among Lithua­ni­ans. “I joined a small un­der­ground group,” he writes in I Had Nowhere to Go,

which, among other things, was pub­lish­ing a weekly un­der­ground bul­letin. This con­sisted mostly of news tran­scribed from BBC broad­casts. It in­formed peo­ple about Ger­man ac­tiv­i­ties in Lithua­nia and other oc­cu­pied coun­tries.

But in his pub­lic state­ments about these years, Mekas has de­scribed the ar­rival of the Nazis, his work for the re­sis­tance, and his sub­se­quent flight as if they were a sin­gle con­tin­u­ous event. “By the time the Ger­mans came,” he told one in­ter­viewer, “I was so in­volved that fi­nally I had to—I was in dan­ger of be­ing ar­rested, and that’s when my­self and my brother—he joined me—we

de­cided that it’s time, we can­not stay.” In fact, he lived and worked un­der the Ger­man oc­cu­pa­tion for three years and fled only when the Nazis them­selves were in re­treat.

When I sent Mekas scans of his wartime papers and other doc­u­ments, he re­vised much of what he had told me, deny­ing his con­nec­tion to Matuze­viþius and say­ing that his im­age of a sod­den killing site had been con­veyed to him by oth­ers. When I re­peated his ear­lier claim that he joined the NBZ’s staff “im­me­di­ately,” he wrote me, “Not ‘im­me­di­ately’ how you seem to un­der­stand that word. But grad­u­ally.” Re­gard­ing the sum­mer of 1941, Mekas told me that his work at the phar­macy in Biržai “lasted only some two weeks.” About the NBZ, he wrote, “Call­ing my­self ed­i­tor-in-chief was ob­vi­ously a brag­ging of a va­ri­ety that a young per­son put in his or her job ap­pli­ca­tion.”

In the spring of 1944, as the war in the east turned against the Nazis, the NBZ and PAB pub­lished an­nounce­ments di­rect­ing read­ers to go work in Ger­man fac­to­ries and “help in the strug­gle against Bol­she­vism.” In I Had Nowhere to Go, Mekas writes that the type­writer he was us­ing to cre­ate an un­der­ground pub­li­ca­tion was stolen:

We couldn’t take chances on the thief sell­ing the type­writer and Ger­mans dis­cov­er­ing the type­face they had been des­per­ately search­ing for. It was clear to us, that in such a case, the thief would re­veal the source of the type­writer. I had to make fast de­ci­sions.

Two days later, he was on the road. But the Nazis had stopped de­tain­ing Lithua­nian men in June, weeks be­fore Jonas and Adol­fas boarded a box­car in Panevơžys. By the time they fled, on July 12, 1944, the Red Army was on the ad­vance; it cap­tured Vil­nius the fol­low­ing day. Mekas says that he and his brother were plan­ning to go to Vi­enna, which was at the time un­der siege by the Al­lies. The Lithua­nian-Amer­i­can his­to­rian Saulius Sužiedơlis told me that, to his knowl­edge, “flee­ing the Nazis in 1944” didn’t con­form to “the ex­pe­ri­ence of 99 per­cent of the peo­ple” who left Lithua­nia then—to es­cape the Sovi­ets. Mekas told me that be­fore he left he buried his di­aries along with those of the Six, at the re­quest of one of the group’s mem­bers. “We were naïve,” he told me. “Some­times we wrote ex­actly what we did.” Adol­fas, who also contributed to the NBZ and PAB and taught film at Bard Col­lege for many years be­fore his death in 2011, wrote that he, too, de­stroyed hun­dreds of pages of his own diary from the pe­riod. His di­aries, two vol­umes of which were pub­lished re­cently, be­gin on page 356 (the first sur­viv­ing page) with an en­try from Septem­ber 1, 1941.

I Had Nowhere to Go ap­peared first in English, in 1991, then in Lithua­nian, in a 2000 ver­sion with dif­fer­ent en­tries. The reader has no way of know­ing that the di­aries were ex­ten­sively edited and some en­tries were omit­ted. Mekas’s loft full of binders and boxes sug­gests that he is a metic­u­lous ar­chiv­ist of his own life, yet when I asked him about the phys­i­cal copies of his di­aries, he said that he had thrown out the orig­i­nals “be­cause I did not think I will ever need them.”

Mekas told me that the last per­son he vis­ited be­fore leav­ing Lithua­nia was Jonas Petro­nis, who was pre­par­ing to fight as an anti-Soviet par­ti­san. Decades later, dur­ing a trip to his home­land de­picted in his film Rem­i­nis­cences of a Jour­ney to Lithua­nia (1972), Mekas learned from his mother that Petro­nis had been shot. “I ex­pe­ri­enced my times,” Mekas told me. “What those oc­cu­pa­tions, all those pow­ers, what they were all about, what they did to my friends.” In the first en­try of I Had Nowhere to Go, dated July 19, 1944, he ex­plains his de­ci­sion to flee:

I am nei­ther a sol­dier nor a par­ti­san. I am nei­ther phys­i­cally nor men­tally fit for such life. I am a poet . . . . If you want to crit­i­cize me for my lack of “pa­tri­o­tism” or “courage”—you can go to hell!

Ona Plio­plienơ re­called that, when the Sovi­ets re­turned to Biržai, Matuze­viþius was led away in hand­cuffs; he would spend a decade in a Soviet prison for his writ­ings in the NBZ. On the night be­fore leav­ing Biržai, Adol­fas slept at Ona’s house, where his brother Jonas knocked on the win­dow at dawn to set out for Panevơžys. There, Adol­fas writes in his di­aries, the sib­lings spent their last night in Lithua­nia in the PAB of­fices where Jonas still worked and “lino­types clanked away all night.” Adol­fas wrote on July 12, “The war is here, the Rus­sians are com­ing, the news­pa­per will be dead in a mat­ter of days.”

Shortly af­ter leav­ing Lithua­nia, Mekas has said, the broth­ers’ train was di­verted to Elmshorn, Ger­many, near Ham­burg. They spent eight months do­ing forced la­bor at a mu­ni­tions factory, try­ing and fail­ing at one point to es­cape to Scan­di­navia. When the war ended, they made their way to one and then an­other dis­placed per­sons camp in Ger­many, where they worked on lit­er­ary jour­nals and kept company with fel­low Lithua­ni­ans such as An­tanas Ma­ceina, an ar­chi­tect of LAF ide­ol­ogy, who is fea­tured, smil­ing, in a pho­to­graph by Jonas in­cluded in the Lithua­nian edi­tion of I Had Nowhere to Go. Af­ter fi­nally se­cur­ing refugee papers, in 1949, the broth­ers boarded a ship to the United States.

When I asked Mekas if he had ever dealt with the Holo­caust in his art, he men­tioned only a 1957 short story called “The Wolf,” which de­scribes a crea­ture be­ing beaten and tor­tured un­til it ex­pires in a man­ner that seems to evoke the anti-Jewish vig­i­lan­tism that oc­curred in Biržai in July 1941. “They caught him, they closed in on him, they made a cir­cle around him, and then they told him to dance,” the story be­gins. “They laughed, and this was their re­venge. They did not care that he could not dance.”

But in one 1946 jour­nal en­try pub­lished in a Lithua­nian-lan­guage col­lec­tion, Mekas writes of Lithua­ni­ans haunted by the blood-spat­tered ghosts of Jews they killed and robbed. In I Had Nowhere to Go, he men­tions that he is afraid to go to a cer­tain pond in the Ger­man woods:

The slight­est move­ment on the dark sur­face of the pond, the rot­ten, pu­trid, black leaves on the bot­tom. Ev­ery­thing is call­ing me back, wak­en­ing up me­mories of As­travas and Biržai. In the fi­nal en­try, from 1955, he writes of star­ing across a “quiet New Eng­land lake,” adding, “I sud­denly had a feel­ing that my past had caught up with my present .... I was sit­ting there and trem­bling with mem­ory.”

Mekas recorded a dream in 1978 in which he imag­ined that the of­fice of his Film-Mak­ers Co­op­er­a­tive was the of­fice of NBZ. In the dream, po­lice ar­rive and ac­cuse Mekas’s friend and fel­low-Lithua­nian, the artist Ge­orge Maci­u­nas, of hav­ing killed some­one. But Mekas re­al­izes that it was in fact he who had done it, and buried the body be­neath the floor­boards of Ge­orge’s Soho loft. “I was afraid that the corpse could get out from un­der the floor,” Mekas wrote. “I saw that there was a large in­dented hole such as I saw in As­travas over the graves of the Jews who were shot.”

I asked Mekas, by e-mail, about the painful feel­ings of guilt and com­plic­ity that seem to arise in some of his writ­ings. I sent him two scanned pages from a Lithua­nian jour­nal en­try about his ghost-haunted coun­try­men:

Mur­der­ers with­out iron shack­les on their hands and mad­men with­out strait­jack­ets.

Of­ten I think of you. A hun­dred times I con­demn you and a hun­dred times I ac­quit you.

And isn’t a not-small part of the curse and guilt of what you did also on me?

“You should not ask me this!” Mekas wrote back. “Enough for you to read the 2 pages you sent me! As a poet I feel it deeper even than those who com­mit­ted those crimes!”

Mekas has been iden­ti­fied so of­ten as a sur­vivor of Nazi per­se­cu­tion that his story has be­come associated with Jewish vic­tim­hood. He fos­ters this as­so­ci­a­tion when, in I Had Nowhere to Go, he dis­cusses Lithua­nian Jews with the sur­name Mekas, or when, in Lost, Lost, Lost, he pairs footage of Lithua­nian dis­placed per­sons with the plain­tive He­brew prayers of the can­tor Yos­sele Rosen­blatt.

But Mekas’s ex­pe­ri­ence of the war in Lithua­nia was noth­ing like the Jewish one. Lithua­ni­ans have strug­gled for decades with their his­tory of Holo­caust col­lab­o­ra­tion, and Mekas’s frag­men­tary artis­tic style may have helped him avoid ad­dress­ing the mat­ter. In one mes­sage, he asked me why I re­mained skep­ti­cal of his ver­sion of events—“me, who was there? Even if I wasn’t fully there?”

This con­tra­dic­tion is at the heart of Mekas’s work. The war hap­pened “be­fore his eyes” but he was, as he writes in the in­tro­duc­tion to I Had Nowhere to Go, “to­tally obliv­i­ous of my own life,” so he has few de­tailed me­mories to re­port. He has the au­thor­ity of a wit­ness but none of the re­spon­si­bil­ity of one. “You are talk­ing abt ‘difficulty to ac­knowl­edge the facts,’” Mekas wrote me.

No, it’s not for me, not at all. What’s dif­fi­cult is the re­mem­ber­ing of the facts them­selves. Be­cause there were “facts”; life con­sists of “facts,” but each of us con­cen­trates in our lives only on cer­tain “facts,” clos­est to each of us. The rest passes un­no­ticed, not es­sen­tial to one’s ex­is­tence, slips out of mem­ory.

Jonas Mekas in Lithua­nia, 1971; pho­to­graphs from A Dance with Fred As­taire

Jonas Mekas, Yoko Ono, and John Len­non in the In­vis­i­ble Cin­ema, a screen­ing room at An­thol­ogy Film Ar­chives de­signed by Peter Kubelka, New York City, early 1970s

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