An Amazing Evening
Allow me to write about an evening I experienced some thirty years ago. It was a gathering of old friends. In my mind’s eye, this particular dinner, this one incredible evening, set a standard I hope to meet someday myself, surrounded by my closest friends when in our winter years.
The place: Vilnius, Lithuania
The year: 1975
The attendees: My parents’ friends
I must provide a bit of background here. My parents were both actors in the Lithuanian National Theater in the years before the start of World War II. Lithuania had achieved independence in the aftermath of the First World War (after centuries of Polish, then Russian rule). The country was experiencing a renaissance, a mini-“Enlightenment.” My parents were there in the thick of the bubbling artistic pot. They were young, and they were stars. Their circle of intimate friends included playwrights, poets, artists, directors, composers, singers, dancers, musicians and writers. They constituted the nation’s cultural intelligentsia.
Most were fated to die young…and cruelly.
War came. Germany blitzkrieged through the country in its push towards Moscow. People died in the streets. People died for their beliefs. The Jews were eradicated (Vilnius was once known as the “Jerusalem of the North”). No more. The temples were ransacked and destroyed. The actors, playwrights, artists and writers scattered. Most joined the underground resistance. Then it got worse. Much worse. The Russians came. As the Germans retreated, laying waste to everything in their wake, the Russians came like a pack of mad wolves. Stalin mercilessly pounded the small Baltic nations with his iron fists…it was the death knell for a nation and its brightest minds.
As it turned out, my parents escaped (via separate personal odysseys). They subsequently found each other and married, producing two offspring who accompanied them on their exodus. Other family members were not so lucky. Most died in the frigid Siberian wasteland. My parents’ friends, by and large, were killed or enslaved, exiled or forever blacklisted. The suffering was universal, although each suffered in a uniquely personal Hell.
Thirty years later…thirty years gone…my parents set foot again on their native soil (for the last time, it turned out). I was with them.
I was seeing my tortured motherland for the very first time.
I tagged along with my father as he searched for his past companions. Although the Soviet State maintained a tight grip on its people, and these long-lost friends were invariably under constant surveillance, word spreads in mysterious (but highly efficient) ways. Old friends ventured forth from the shadows.
I saw this scene replayed time and again: My father walking slowly down an ancient, narrow street…a man approaches from the other direction. They stop a few feet from each other. Names are uttered, posed as questions. Eyes strain, trying to focus on the face last seen when the visage was young and the eyes bright. Tears flow. “I thought you had died!” “I thought I would never see you again!” They collapse into each other’s arms…sobbing…and rejoicing.
I saw this scene played and replayed many times. I cried every time.
And so it came to pass that these sundry and bedraggled survivors declared they absolutely must meet for dinner. Meet they did.
I was there.
I don’t remember the food, other than to note it was an eclectic and humble assortment of victuals brought by each to be shared by all. I remember the vodka, the ubiquitous Soviet vodka. I’d say everyone brought a bottle or two. The vodka flowed freely that night. We cavorted in a sea of vodka. The dinner progressed in a drunken cacophony.
I don’t remember the faces. I can’t remember any names. Frankly, I can’t recall many specifics at all. No matter. What I do remember were the laughter, the tears, the fellowship, the brilliance, the passion, the courage, the wit…the blinding magnificence of the indomitable human spirit.
I sat silent, completely wasted, utterly awed. My father would lean towards me and whisper: ...he was the conductor of the Lithuanian symphony; she was a journalist who published the underground newspaper during the war; he was a novelist whose books have been translated into fifteen languages; he was a fellow actor; he is an artist whose paintings can be found in the Louvre and the Hermitage; he was the lead baritone in the opera; she was the National Poet; he was a member of Parliament...I was surrounded by human excellence and my emotions swirled and soared.
They told snippets of their individual stories. Their torture years, their prison years, their exile years. The utterly amazing thing is that they focused on the humorous aspects! Imagine finding the humor in starvation and torture…yet, they did. Laughter rose in gales as they spoke of their tiny triumphs in the face of cruelty and death. To be sure, more than a few tears fell that night. I believe I cried far more than most, but never for long, for there would then come a toast, conveyed with sparkling wit or intense love. There would come an aria sung a cappella and beautifully. There came countless jokes about Stalin and Soviet life. I was regaled with verses of poems, witticisms to rival the best of Bernard Shaw, splashes of spiritual splendor. Dawn arrived before dinner ended. Never, before or since, have I witnessed such magnanimity, such warmth, such courage, such intellect, such grace, such mirth… such blinding magnificence of the human spirit.
It was, truly, an amazing evening.