Along the Baltic

Note: I compiled this essay, with artifacts, while teaching ENGL 103P, “Rhetoric and Composition I,” at Northern Illinois University in fall 2018. I write with students to demonstrate process. In this case, the assignment was to write about a significant place.

The Greek historian Herodotus called the Baltic the “Amber Sea” to acknowledge the yellow, brown, and orange fragments of ancient tree remains that could be found along the shore. In appearance, the Baltic Sea coast varies from beach to sand spit to cliffscape to dunes to peat bog to dense pine forest. The coast of Lithuania, north of the seaport of Klaipėda until the border with Latvia, technically forms part of the Baltic Syneclise, seven hundred kilometers long and five hundred kilometers wide (see image above). A syneclise is a “large negative structure” (Usaityte 151), that is, a great depth, which, in the Baltic, averages fifty-five meters (180 feet).

Possession of the land changed with stunning frequency in the twentieth century. This part of Lithuania was governed by Weimar Germany, the Entente Powers, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union before the small country gained independence in 1991. In March 1939, Adolf Hitler spoke in Klaipėda, known to Germans as Memel, after Lithuania had ceded the land to the Nazi government.

In these dunes and forests, zones of great tranquility, the brutal authority of Nazi Germany is evidenced today by small black obelisks, of which there are 180 placed throughout the country (Valstybinis Vilniaus Gaono Žydų Muziejus 5). These commemorative markers are topped with a Star of David and point the way, ominously, to memorials where Jewish shtetl communities were massacred by rifle and machine gun beginning in the summer of 1941. This is how the Shoah started, on this sandy soil.

In the beginning, I just wanted to get to the light. The attraction was powerful, an orb glowing over the sea, enticing me toward the edge of a cliff. I had been in Lithuania less than a week. The Baltic Sea was only a vague memory from eighth-grade geography. At that point in the trip, in the summer of 2013, I had not yet encountered the obelisks dug into sand next to bike trails. In my naïveté, I had not even anticipated such remnants of the holocaust. My bicycle tires slapped over the slats in a newly constructed boardwalk that led west, toward sunlight filtering through the sixty-foot pines, tinged as with iron oxide, that guarded the route. It was between nine and ten at night, with sunset still two hours away. I reached the cliff, parked my bicycle, and found a suitable place to meditate, sand underneath and ferns on the forest floor behind.

On the route from Klaipėda to this seaside refuge, I’d ridden past moose and wild boar, which popped out, tusked and black, on the paved trail about fifteen feet in front of me. Yet here, at the water’s edge, there was no one.

Ever since I was five years old, I’ve wanted to be isolated in nature. As a child, I started digging holes, climbing trees, and riding bikes to get away. In another country, nature is always my ally. The landscape and its creatures have no human language. They don’t speak Spanish or Lithuanian or Portuguese or Thai or Creole. Language, in spoken form, had always seemed like the force that could harm me. It was the vehicle for transmitting lack of understanding or shame, typically in my family. “It’s no wonder that you want to escape in nature,” a counselor said to me. “Nature doesn’t act back at you.”

Jews, too, had tried to get away from their tormentors. I remember reading Kazimierz Sakowicz’s Ponary Diary about the columns of Jewish people forcibly marched from Vilnius starting in 1941, led toward their executions in thick forest. Occasionally, from his attic hideaway, Sakowicz saw dark figures try to flee into the pines. Most often, he heard the retort of a rifle as Einsatzgruppen gunners claimed another victim.

I sat on the sand above the slanting Baltic Sea waves feeling that I was coming to some trite conclusions: though I had succeeded in finding this paradise, completely by accident, the world remained an inhabited place. I’d be returning to that world, in which the good could be slaughtered amidst great beauty. I thought about a modern-day Lithuanian soldier’s damning comment regarding the Jewish dead: “They were unlucky.” And I wondered, looking onto the gray water, why I was alone yet again, as if I were the cartoon hedgehog in Yuri Norstein’s The Hedgehog in the Fog, the animated film fantasy in which the hedgehog becomes separated while trying to deliver raspberry jam through a labyrinthine Russian wilderness that at first terrifies, but ultimately rescues and redeems.

In the midst of my separation, I could only ask myself fundamental questions, as the hedgehog had done. I thought, “How come the whole world has gone away?” “How is the wild boar here … in the mist?”

Works cited

Usaityte, Daiva. “The Geology of the Southeastern Baltic Sea: A Review.” Earth-Science Reviews, no. 50, 2000, pp. 137-225.

Valstybinis Vilniaus Gaono Žydų Muziejus, comp. Lithuanian Holocaust Atlas. Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum, 2011.

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