The Road Traveled by the Lithuanian Book

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The road traveled by the Lithuanian book after its appearance 450 years ago wound through villages rather than towns, whose inhabitants often did not even speak Lithuanian. And if the Lithuanian book encountered storms on that road, it found shelter only there – under a thatched roof, not under arches or cupolas. There, in the school of hardship by the spinning wheel, our native language was preserved: Lithuanian books would not exist without the Lithuanian language.

Nowhere else in the world was a nation forbidden to use its native language to pray, teach its children, and publish and read newspapers, not to mention books. That is like tearing the tongue from the mouth or the heart from the chest, the heart which can love not only one's neighbor but also one's native country. We are an exception unknown to the world: for several generations our ancestors experienced the prohibition of their native language. Lithuania alone smuggled books, an activity completely unknown to the rest of the world. For whom did the book smugglers, despite great danger to themselves, bring books published abroad in a forbidden language? Obviously, not for the townsfolk, who spoke Yiddish, Polish, Russian, or German. The books were sold in the villages; ploughmen read them under their thatched roofs during autumn and winter evenings.

It is hard to believe, but historian V. Merkys maintains (and he has facts to back him up) that circa 1900 the books smuggled into Lithuania from Prussia were printed in editions of 10 to 15 and sometimes even 20 thousand copies. Naturally, books were printed in such quantities to meet a demand, for in those days there was a market economy, and the czarist government did not subsidize the publication of Lithuanian books, except perhaps with free trips to Siberia.

Lithuanian villages were never as ignorant and illiterate as claimed in Soviet textbooks. There was always a Lithuanian book on a countryman's table beside a loaf of bread, and bookcases were unknown only because books were often kept in lofts, hollow tree trunks, beehives, granaries, or other hiding places. In Prussia these forbidden books were transported openly; only in territory under czarist rule did they have to be concealed.

While writing these words, I remembered that there are some of those books in my home library, and most of them were found on the outskirts of villages. One of them, published in 1879, is "Stebuklai Diewo per K. Krasignola ir iš kitu naujos gadines rašėju sulasinėta ant didesnės garbės Diewo," which I came across near Dieveniškiai, in the village of Rimošiai (where some claim that the people never spoke Lithuanian, much less read it). Another is a book published in Tilžė in 1890 and brought from Vėžaičiai called "Mišios ir aukštosios giesmės, surinktos ir surašytos nabaštninko Frydryko Wilhelmo Frumakerio." Then there is "Antano Strazdo parinktieji raštai mokyklai," a rare book given to me as a gift by an old teacher from Molėtai. Especially valuable ismy first edition (1913) of V. Krėvė's book "Dainavos šalies senų žmonių padavimai" (then called "Sūrūs vandenys"), which had been mouldering in a pile of straw. Books disappeared during wars and plagues, during the reorganization of villages and the exile of their inhabitants.

Prohibition and destruction are the ill-starred fate of the Lithuanian book. Even the "Catechismus" of Mažvydas, our first book, our first primer, had this painful experience: it could not be distributed in Catholic Vilnius, for it had been published in Protestant Königsberg. Evidently for this reason even the Vilnius University Library (which is older than the University itself) did not have a copy of this book for the longest time and obtained one from abroad only after four centuries. Unbelievably, the first Lithuanian book, published by the Baltic Sea in the middle of the 16th century, came to Lithuania from Odessa by the Black Sea in the middle of the 20th century!

Public book burnings have been rare in Lithuania, but books have gone up in flames without fire and without smoke. In the 1920's the authorities of independent Lithuania persecuted the readers of Communist literature. To be sure, Guzevičius said that he and his friends studied Marxism in Kaunas Prison, but a prohibition nevertheless existed to a greater or lesser degree. After the war, as a child in Pazapsiai and later in Petroškai I saw how magazines and even children's storybooks were torn and trampled by the "stribai" (Communist soldiers and collaborators whose purpose was to subdue Lithuania). I also saw how the wind rustled schoolbooks that lay scattered in the yard of neighbors who had been exiled: a Latin grammar, exercise books, history and geography books. Sent into exile with their parents, these secondary school pupils continued their studies not in classrooms, but in cattle cars.

Libraries, mainly public ones, continued to be purged of books even after Stalin's death. No book at all was allowed to remain that could remind the reader that we are Lithuanians, that we once had our own country and national state, that we believe in God. When it seemed that nothing was left, purges were still necessary: the author of one book had fled to the West, that of another was in prison for his political beliefs, or one more book harmful to Soviet man had been foolishly overlooked during an earlier purge. All the activities of those who stoke a fire without smoke once existed and still exist.

There are other reasons why books are less often seen on a villager's table. Their place beside a crust of bread was taken by a bottle of home-distilled vodka. Perhaps, today's book is itself partly to blame: it is no longer read because there is nothing to be learned from it. All this is temporary and not that terrible. Lithuania is gradually recovering from the Soviet occupation like a patient from a serious illness, grabbing at anything to be found at hand. Ultimately people will distinguish medicine from poison. And books will return to our villages, this time to find refuge not under a thatched roof but a tile, tin, or slate one. And we will once again live a normal life.

These excerpts have been translated from the article,
"Knyga, kuri panaši į duoną" [Books, Which Are Like Bread], by Romas Sadauskas,
which appeared in the newspaper LIETUVOS AIDAS, October 14, 1997, Nr. 201

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