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From the Borderlands - The Other's Voice
On November 26, 1998 at the Toronto Reference Library, Books in Canada co-sponsors the first of a series of conversations with authors speaking on crucial issues arising at the crossroads of the millennia. We titled this series fabula rasa, which indicates the as yet unwritten narratives of the turn of the century.

Our first guest is Krzysztof Czyzewski, who speaks on the topic, "On the Crossroads of Nations and Cultures in the East-Central European Borderlands".

Krzysztof Czyzewski is an essayist and the editor-in-chief of "Krasnogruda", a cultural quarterly featuring the literature and tackling the socio-political dilemmas of the small homelands of East-Central Europe. The journal is published in a small town in eastern Poland, and has recently seen its first English-language issue published jointly in Sejny and Stockholm. He launched the Borderland Foundation in 1990, and established the Borderland of Arts, Cultures, and Nations Centre. Czyzewski is also the creator of the Arka Theatre and "The Meeting Village Project", which has drawn alternative theatre and performance artists from all over Europe. Recently, he was awarded the Gabor Bethlen Prize for Central Europe's 1998 Man of the Year.

In this new column, we present "The Other's Voice", an essay in which Czyzewski ranges from the small towns along the Polish-Lithuanian-Belarussian borders to wartorn Bosnia in the post-Communist years. Here, he broaches upon issues of nationality and nationalism, of living in a multicultural community and the alterations in perceptions that accompany the move from a monocultural society, of the complexities of tolerance, of centre versus periphery, of learning to listen to the voice of the other as an internalized voice of the self. These topics deeply touch those who come from regions of ever-shifting borders, and stand as an acute reminder of the sensitive negotiations that constantly take place in the goal of true interhuman communication.



There's a problem with the borderland-namely, you can never possess for your own that which is so precious to you, you must always share it. And if no one apart from your own people lays claim to this place, then that which was so precious to you is no longer.

I'm not certain if these words were uttered by Victor Vinikajtis, with whom I had stood on the high escarpment of the monastery in Wigry in northeastern Poland, or if it was someone else's voice. The autumn of 1990 was coming to a close. He took a bunch of keys from the caretaker's lodge below, and in between opening and closing doors to the church, hermitage, and catacombs, switching lights on and off, shuffling up and down the stairwell, he questioned me about my intentions in moving to the borderlands. By the time we had stopped on the escarpment and let our gaze sink long and silently into the eastern shore of the lake, I was listening only. Whose voice was that? That "last Camedolite monk", as we called Vinikajtis, was no longer among us, but I still carry on a dialogue with the voice which I heard then, with the voice of the Other.

From the beginning, I was convinced that it was hiding in another language, another nationality, another religion. This wasn't so far-fetched. I also noticed that my sensitivity to the voice of people who thought differently had heightened. And I felt I was gaining a distance to reality, I was becoming allergic to monologue, to ideology, to the exclusivity of a single viewpoint...

I remember how, as a child, I ran up to my mother to tell her how my friends at the playground had hurt me. And how my brother then came and filled in additional details which I had passed over and, moreover, interpreted the entire course of events differently. I was angry that my story could not be the final word, that my brother was against me, that I couldn't cut out his tongue, that I had to live with him, that I couldn't confide only my truth to Mother.

Is this not similar to the situation of a history teacher (a Lithuanian) who would discuss the topic of the Polish-Lithuanian War of 1918-1920 with a class of both Polish and Lithuanian pupils? He'd prefer to have only Lithuanian pupils because the Polish ones have their own version of the event. This is probably why each side wants to have purely Polish and purely Lithuanian schools. And probably why the above-mentioned lesson is completely made-up: because in Sejny schools, they speak of various wars around the world, but never about the one in which the pupils' grandfathers fought each other, about the one of which family memoirs speak, and about the one whose graves of the murdered are visited ceremonially each year.

There's a problem with the Other's voice. In school, it can be silenced, but in life, this silence can never be muffled. It's unbearable to live with it, but here, on the borderlands, we have no choice.

How much quieter a city like, for example, Bialystok would be if there were no such fellow as Socrates Janowicz. "This Belarussian nationalist living in a Polish city is quite a good writer," an irritated journalist pointed out to me, "but his views are untenable." Saying this, the journalist nervously thumbed through Socrates's book looking for statements that underscore his "drivel". He did find some examples but he wasn't completely satisfied, so he said briefly: the Belarussian people have free choice; no one forces them to give up studying Belarussian or pretend to be Poles; this is their wish. This time, Socrates held firm and stated that as long as the Belarussian minority in eastern Poland didn't have an opportunity to know Belarussian history and culture, then there could be no talk of free choice. But even Socrates Janowicz himself doesn't acknowledge the peace in his bordertown of Krynki to which he returned from Bialystok a few years ago. Krynki, along with Socrates's farm, was divided in half at the end of the Second World War into the Belarussian side and the Polish side. For the local priest, God only understands Polish. After so many years of clashes, Socrates could somehow come to terms with the Poles. In the end, all the cards have been put on the table, and they knew each other extremely well.

Then, quite unexpectedly, on his Belarussian property appeared the Ukrainians. That is, some of those who up until then had been of the "hereabouts" began to call themselves Ukrainians. In Bielski Podlaski, just south of Bialystok, they're even publishing a magazine, Nad Buhom i Narwoju. Sociologists, ethnologists, and linguists are starting to write serious dissertations in support of regional research. Socrates has his arguments, he reaches for his pen, he gets involved in disputes. He's conscious, however, that he's not able to flatten reality into the shape of his reason, that a borderland dynamic, once set in motion, directs itself according to its own laws, that his voice is barely one note of the flute.

I try to make the Other's voice that entered my life so unexpectedly here on the borderland my own. Sometimes I have the impression that it doesn't come from out there at all, but that someone is speaking inside me, that it is my voice without which I couldn't be myself any longer. And if that's the case, then what would its absence, its suppression or partial muffling mean?


"And who are you?" I asked Vinikajtis after I told him I was a Pole and a Catholic. He recoiled a bit as though I had not spoken normally but had screamed or at least spoken much more loudly than our conversation called for. He responded with an enigmatic smile and a murmur that implied, "and why should anyone know that...", whereas what he said was rather, "quiet... relax man... quietly". What did he mean by that? That it was better not to betray oneself with such national or religious declarations because you never know? ... No, that wasn't the point. I felt rather like a guest whose behaviour had disturbed certain rules established long ago by the man of the house. I had behaved impertinently, but why? Jerzy Stempowski helped me to understand. In "In the Dniestr Valley", he described his disillusionment after arriving in Central Poland where he met with "nationalist feelings manifested in a loud, provocative, somewhat shameless manner." "Such demonstrations," he explained, "seemed to me in bad taste, suitable only for upstarts and simpletons."

I know what Stempowski means because this "style" is in fashion nowadays. I never noticed it until now because it was so common, obvious, and natural as to be transparent. An uninterrupted match was underway everywhere in which the fans' task was to brag about their own team and the team's task was to shoot at the other team's goal. Can one behave any other way in a stadium? Viewed from this perspective, for example, the years-long dialogue between Nobel prizewinning poet and Berkeley professor emeritus Czeslaw Milosz and Lithuanian poet and Harvard professor Tomas Venclova about their hometown of Vilnius, about Poles and Lithuanians, is a two-sided shooting at one's own goalpost. We call this simply "suicide". In the stadium, it signifies defeat, but unlike me apparently, they weren't raised in a stadium. Where then? On the borderland? It would appear that the borderland is the stadium in which a ceaseless battle of one against the other is underway.

The voice issuing from the conversation with Vinikajtis seemed to speak about completely different binding principles for borderland inhabitants. Perhaps not many of those who preserved the memory of these principles are still living; perhaps adapting to the changing reality around had proven a bit too difficult; perhaps they had submitted to a general forgetting... At least Victor had mastered a certain forgotten tongue. Later on, I met such people in various places on the borderlands; I could easily recognize their voice in everyday life, in art, in politics... They possessed a certain secret which one can compare to the art of being oneself in a many-voiced song, or to the art of building bridges joining the steep banks of a rushing river which contains in itself the shape of a quiet beauty, a sublime line, a precious ornament, and lightness. Ivo Andric would have called them neimar (a builder of bridges). He valued their art, conscious that when it would be forgotten, Bosnia and the whole of Yugoslavia would be transformed into a hell. This art is not insignificant, since the least inattention or transgression can lead to falsity, disharmony or destruction.

I met these people in places that reminded one of the town in Werner Herzog's film, The Glass Heart. I'm thinking about the situation of a human community suddenly deprived of a secret (here, the secret of melting a special glass), which up to this time has made their life bearable, meaningful, and full. When those who have stood on watch die without leaving behind followers, life (like a mosaic) shatters into small pieces-torn, stunted, lost, and unconscious of the whole. If after such a collapse there appear people with the ancient knowledge, no one is going to understand their language, no one is going to listen to their voice, they're not going to be able to pass on their secret to anyone. They live apart, among their own, departing unnoticed, just as the "last Camedolite monk" did.

It was clear that Vinikajtis was trying to put me on the scent of that ancient knowledge. As befits a borderland man, he didn't do this in a straightforward manner; he cautiously circled around each problem, never approaching it head on, usually concentrating his attention on a minute detail tangential to the main thread, speaking in half words, at times keeping silent so that I could eavesdrop. When I began to ask about national affairs, about some Pole, or Lithuanian, or Catholic, or someone else, the very gesture of his body gave me to understand that it was not necessary, that here, contrary to what I had imagined, no one prattles on about such things on every street corner. Only those coming from the outside ask about these things. My friend from Sejny would say that when "he gives it to Vovka in the kisser", he doesn't care if Vovka's a Russian and an Old Believer, just that he pissed him off with his stupidity. But the journalist can turn my friend's spontaneous behaviour and natural reactions into a "national" or "religious" affair. That paralyzes.

However, this wasn't Vinikajtis's sole concern in restraining me from demanding a declaration of nationality.... Rather, it was the question of taste to which Stempowski had drawn attention. We need only interpret the intention of the old men of the house who, in establishing principles of good taste, knew the location of the border beyond which begin falsity and devastation. I was convinced on many an occasion about the wisdom hidden in the capricious aesthetic sensibility of that gentleman from a noble family from the Dniestr Valley.

In 1995, when I reached the city of Tuzla, situated in northern Bosnia, the war was still going on. I asked my friends there why they call the ones shooting at them from the neighbouring hills "Chetniks"? It seems there is no correlation to the para-fascist groups, the "Ustashas" (Croats) and the "Chetniks" (Serbs), that were active during the Second World War. What was important was to not call them Serbs. Why? Because Serbs are also their neighbours in the apartment building, sometimes members of their own families, citizens of Bosnia. And my friends continued to believe in the multicultural Bosnia in which they have come to live with others. It was better to speak of Chetniks; it was better not to invoke the names of nations which unleashed such demonic powers. The war will end, after all, and they will have to live normally again.


From the tatters of remembered words, insinuations, and signs left by Victor Vinikajtis, I try to discern the Other's voice. It's not easy, for it is similar to the process of reconstructing a forgotten tongue, during which individual words or formulations begin to reveal their full meaning only when they can be contextualized. To understand, we must begin to speak and live with them, to reach past the habitualness in which they were immersed.

Not long ago, Gdansk writer Stefan Chwin compared his work on Haneman, a novel that reconstructs the Germano-Slavic world of Gdansk, to the work of a paleontologist. ... This is currently the fate of people finding themselves not only within the living boundaries of a national state but also in the rubble of lost civilizations. Searching for our own place and ourselves, we acquire a respect for old objects, we carefully interpret the traces of the past. And all in the hope of uncovering the paradigm of that from which we have been disinherited and which is the hieroglyph of this earth.

Thus, it is not a question of returning to the past-or at least, not of this alone. It is not a question of the ressentiment and the nostalgia of older generations. Deciphering this paradigm is essential for life today since in it is hidden the key to several treasures, to the gates of the town and region, to the ethos of people living in the centre. It is no longer so important to inquire why the gates were slammed shut and who is at fault. It is more important to gain the key. Without it, we will continue to live feeling "not-at-home", or rather, feeling "at-home" on the borders and peripheries, convinced that our roots lie in these subcultures, ghettos, mono-cultural neighbourhoods where we have built stadiums. One can be a Pole, a German, a Lithuanian there... We've already learned this just fine. However we are still unable to become citizens of the centre-meaning that we are unable to coexist with one another in some way other than in the stadium.

This is particularly noticeable from the perspective of the borderland. Every once in a while there are clashes; there's an inability to cooperate in solving problems; attempts at dialogue end in monologue; there are more and more enemies and suspicion toward those who first hold out their hand. And no one knows why this happens; it's all so involuntary. For no one wants this, or at least there are not many who do. However, they don't know how to deal with the situation. Even those with the best intentions find themselves in a dead end under a heap of problems and-not able to go further-they begin to withdraw, embittered and resigned.

September 1995 was the date of the next conflict in Sejny in northeastern Poland. Lithuanian organizations complained to Bishop Ziemba (as well as to the Vatican, Cardinal Glemp, the Episcopacy of Lithuania, etc.) about a church hierarchy that did not allow them to have services in their native tongue. They accused in particular the dean of the Sejny parish of "taking deliberate action to harm the feeling of national identity". The fact is that several churches which had held masses in Lithuanian stopped holding them. The reason was that there was no Lithuanian priest who knew Lithuanian. Perhaps the church hierarchy acted a bit too sluggishly, not appreciating the import of the problem for Lithuanians. Perhaps it was difficult to find someone willing to take up this post after the incident in which the parishioners from Punsk took chilly leave of their parish priest, Father Dziermeyka, and didn't allow him into their homes when he was singing with the carollers. Long histories of events, of course, precede these facts. I won't bring them up now. What is important now is that Father Kazimierz Gacki, the dean of the Sejny parish, lost patience. Przeglad Sejnenski published his bitter and rancorous speech that took a very aggressive stance towards Lithuanians. Bronislaw Makowski, the leader of the Council for the Lithuanian Community in Poland, responded in turn. However, he did not allow himself to be drawn into a polemic, but only limited himself to general statements of the type: "we, conscious of our rights and obligations in the Church and state...." In both speeches, it was difficult to discern even a subtle intention of entering into dialogue, doubt in one's own reasoning, a critique directed towards one's own community.

In the eyes of the dean, Makowski was a nationalist, one of those activist-criers who consciously incite confrontations and conflicts, and who end up only poisoning life for people. In the eyes of the leader, the priest was an enemy of Lithuanians, a representative of a backward nation with whom it was not even worthwhile to engage in a polemic.

Not too long ago, Father Kazimierz Gacki came to Sejny with the best of intentions, full of goodwill towards Lithuanians, whom he considered his friends. He thinks of himself as a tolerant person and is 100 percent certain of this. The leader, Bronislaw Makowski, who is also a well-known historian and author of the book, Lithuanians in Poland, has no bad intentions toward Poles either. He considers himself a defender of a threatened minority in Poland and a very tolerant person-of this he is 100 percent certain. They both have the respect of many people, and their thinking and actions do not differ in any particular way from ours. Except that when they met on the borderlands, they came into conflict. The score was thus: (Tolerance & 100 percent Right) + (Tolerance & 100 percent Right) = (Zero Tolerance & The Conflict of Reason).

Like many of us, Gacki and Makowski are involved in a matter which we regard as right and necessary. So why doesn't everything work out then? Certainly, much could be said about the lack of competence. One can try to change things by organizing meetings and educational programs, by teaching methods of conflict resolution and open dialogue. One can create special organizations, plenipotentiaries of governing bodies, churches, and minorities, councils. One can create and fine-tune the law with a mind to minorities, to the weak, to tolerance. Of course, this is all helpful and useful, for it points to areas of neglect and gaps which should have been taken care of long ago. But nothing more. The borderland hieroglyph will continue to remain unread. Tolerance? Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, during a TV interview, argued that the basic guarantor of tolerance is not the law. A regulation can help a lot, but it won't decide that a society will be tolerant. "I repeat," said Kolakowski, "tolerance is protected less by law and more by strengthening an ethic of tolerance."

So what? To think of oneself as a tolerant person (and which of us thinks otherwise?) is one thing. Tolerance in the borderland situation, the situation of experimentation, is another. For years, I have tried to discover in the Other's voice knowledge about the tolerant human being, but I was never able to locate the characteristic which can be possessed and by means of which one becomes tolerant. It's strange, but everything points to the fact that the issue is rather one of overcoming, of silencing... Today I think of a tolerant man as one who doesn't trust his own conviction of his own tolerance, who constantly doubts it.


Ever since that evening's talk with Victor Vinikajtis, the consciousness that he was inhabiting a region to which I had no access unsettled me. I was envious of him. Whenever he wished he could find himself in my world, the gate through which he entered without any problem. Besides, he knew this world thoroughly, he could move about in it easily. We spoke many times about historical events still going on in the borderland. From time to time he would come over to our stall in the "White Synagogue" to purchase the books of Lossowski, Makowski, Greimas, Zukas, and others. His historical knowledge was impressive. He knew the sources of conflict and how they were running their course today. He foresaw problems which overwhelm the newcomer to the borderland. You must persevere in the situation between the rock and the hard place even though it bothers you that you are not-your-own. Stay not-your-own and don't judge naively that you'll be able to reconcile the rock and the hard place. Instead, seek a third way for yourself, which will always run closer to the individual man than to the collective. After a time, you may find you're not alone. Remember, this isn't Warsaw, where sometimes in order to solve a problem, you have to stir up public opinion, organize a protest or demonstration, take media action. On the borderlands, you would start a fire that would be difficult to put out. If you want to achieve your goal, never look straight, always look a bit higher or a bit lower, a bit to the side.

This piece of good advice was able to efface the border between the surrounding world and what was most intimate. It was clear that he didn't want me to separate the reality of the borderland from my own weaknesses; he wanted me to go further, leave behind the state, national, and cultural borders, and make towards the truth of myself.

I observed Vinikajtis as he led guests through the monastery, passing fluently from Polish to Lithuanian. Each thought he was of their own, or rather, they wanted him for their own, though everyone felt that they were only passersby in the place that was his home. He knew their languages and customs. Even though he opened various doors before them, led them through the catacombs and up the tower, he would leave them finally and always before the gate which he alone could pass through, and enter the very inside. That was the place he inhabited-a citizen of the centre.


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