Reviews A double emptiness. The loss of something that could have been
Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds page 61-62, Vol II:III-IV, 2009
Published on balticworlds.com on februari 19, 2010
The eye-catching book title is more descriptive than one might think: the “Atomic Square” is to be found in Visaginas where Ignalina, “Chernobyl’s little sister”, is located, and the porn bunnies stand dressed in net stockings in the lobby of a spa in the health resort Druskininkai. The Hitler floodgates stand abandoned: rust- and lichen-covered giants in the fleshy greenery of what was once East Prussia. Today, two Poles run a dog kennel in a dilapidated kolchos by the Masurian Canal.
Jan Jörnmark and Katarina Wikars have traveled through the Baltic States, Poland, and former East Prussia. Wikars starts the book in Narva—Joesuu and then follows the coast southwards: Pärnu, Jurmala, Karosta, Klaipeda, Nida. More or less destroyed, raised from the dead. Pärnu, for example, has survived its fouling during the Communist era, and has managed to obtain the EU’s blue bathing-water flag — at the height of the season, 20,000 tourists congregate here. But the palatial, pink-plastered mud bath has closed down. In the era of globalization, mud can be obtained everywhere; the domestic mud has become superfluous. Klaipeda, two state borders from Pämu: in the seventies one could receive Swedish television broadcasts here. Far earlier: Memel, a town in East Prussia. Then a state of emergency, a German-speaking part of Lithuania — until Hitler came. And after Hitler, the Red Army.
In Klaipeda, Wikars speaks with the war veteran Zigmas Stankus, a former paratrooper. He participated in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The soldier, then nineteen years old, was given a single instruction: everyone you meet is an enemy. Stankus has attracted a good deal of attention with his books, in which he portrays the war in a frank, unembellished manner. He tells Wikars that he began to write because no one believed him when he came home and recounted his experiences, not even his friends. “We piss against the mosque wall because we have no clue what kind of a building it is. In our search for money we tear up the cloth in which the Qur’an is wrapped, throw the book on the ground when we cannot read it. We engender an anger that is beyond all control, and we pay for our stupidity with blood.” The meeting with Stankus is one of the many openings in the text. They stand as secret doors between the lines, with white-hot handles that insist upon being opened. Everything interconnects; it is merely a matter of us remembering.
The economic historian Jörnmark writes differently, more resolutely than the cultural journalist Wikars. His approach to specific themes is also broader. In the chapter “Herberts Cukurs and the Latvian Paradox”, he portrays both the ace pilot and the anti-Semite Cukurs, and the country’s 20th century history. Together with the section “Towards the Holocaust”, this chapter becomes a journalistic reflection on one of the most gaping blank spaces in the region as whole: the space that the Jewish population left behind.
In Jörnmark’s view, circumstances in Tsarist Russia led up to the Holocaust. His retrospective gaze reaches far back in time, to the medieval kingdom of Poland—Lithuania, to Europe’s new border to the East and Russia’s legislation of 1795, which created the Pale of Settlement. While I am reading this, the news magazine Der Spiegel comes out with an interview with the controversial U.S. researcher Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. Goldhagen raised a major stir with his earlier publication Hitler’s Willing Executioners, and is still a controversial figure in Germany. According to Goldhagen, it was not the war that made the Holocaust possible; rather, the fact that anti-Semitism was accepted, even encouraged, in Germany.
Jörnmark’s analysis indicates that the guilt is so interlaced with the histories of individual nation states that there is no unequivocal answer to the question. In Latvia, for example, the interwar president Karlis Ulmanis put into practice pluralistic views on the rights of different ethnic groups. But these had unforeseen consequences in a nation whose social topography was characterized by great inequalities. Antagonisms grew, and the Jews, who were associated with industrialization, cosmopolitanism and radicalism, paid the price. All of the Baltic States were drained of a relevant part of their own history when the Eastern Jews were murdered or fled. Further, according to Jörnmark, the region lost, thereby, an essential part of its future. The disappearance of the Jewish entrepreneurs was equivalent to a serious brain drain. In order to illuminate the extent of this phenomenon, Jörnmark describes how exiled Eastern Jews contributed to the growing success of Western entertainment and information industries. Individual Jewish inventors, businessmen, and researchers became a major driving force behind the American miracle. The emptiness is therefore double: an emptiness left by the loss of real people, but also an emptiness caused by the loss of something that could have been — or could be.
Wikars, too, dwells on the traces of involuntary migration; not only the Jewish, but the German and Polish as well. She takes her departure from Stefan Chwin’s Hanemann, a novel about the objects “that are left behind when people flee, disappear, are exchanged”. The objects not only survive their owners, they make concrete the almost unimaginable violence that hides behind words like Gulag, death camp, mass flight. In The Museum of Unconditional Surrender (Muzej bezuvjetne predaje), another author, the Croatian Dubravka Ugresic, describes how Turks, Poles, Roma, Russians, and ex-Yugoslavians hawk epochs and ideologies in Berlin’s flea markets. Here, swastikas lie side by side with red stars and moth-eaten rabbit furs, all available for a couple of D-Marks. For the objects, this is the end station. Wikars feels that even Stefan Chwin’s object, that is, history itself, fits in here. This end station is itself in a state of change, I think to myself. New currency, new immigrants, new frontiers. Today, the twenty-year-olds’ home-designed T-shirts jostle imported Swedish clogs in Berlin’s Flohmärkte. The chapter on “The Conditions of Things” revolves, in reality, around the fate of the city of Danzig. With the aid of various authors’ works, Wikars weaves a fabric, a thought pattern around survival and death, object and consumption. She ends up with the impact of the financial crisis on the Baltic economies; and the surrounding world’s moralizing verdict — “they wanted too much”.
Wikars’s sensitive, thoughtful journalistic style harmonizes with Jörnmark’s analyses in an interesting way. He, too, describes the Swedish banks’ complicity in the Baltic crisis. The photographs bear witness to the very material emptiness that Swedbank in particular has left behind: the skeletons of buildings that have been started but which will most likely fall into decay before they can be completed. Emptiness is the theme that winds through the book, but emptiness must not be mistaken for meaninglessness. Nor does the book concern itself exclusively with bygone times, with what has vanished. Calle Biörsmark is a documentary filmmaker — a Swede living in Karosta, the former Russian naval base in today’s Latvia. After independence in 1994, the Russian population diminished drastically. Many could not manage the requirement that they learn Latvian, and were forced into the gray zone inhabited by the stateless and those with Russian passports. Karosta fell into decay, became violent, crime-ridden. Now it is turning around, slowly. Biörsmark, who is building houses at the moment, talks about “stabilizing an infrastructure”, further, about the misery, behind which one finds both solidarity and pride. The older children take care of the younger in a touching and responsible manner; “it is not like that in the West anymore”, he, who has chosen to stay, says.
Even though Wikar’s and Jörnmark’s book is not made up of interviews, it is the voices of the different people that stay with one after finishing the book. Swedish emigrants, Polish intellectuals and feminists, Soviet war veterans. And then there are the photographs, which wholly hold their own, tell their own story of decay and beauty. Their book is a road trip, not a field study. It could have been superficial. But here the reflections and analyses spring from interest and knowledge. In short: this is good journalism, journalism that makes one think — and that makes an appeal to the European memory.