My Photo
Location: Midwest, United States

Monday, April 13, 2009

From the Ghetto

I come from a ghetto. No...No...Where I came from is nothing like Cabrini-Green in Chicago, Harlem, East LA, or Warsaw (circa 1940-1943). No, I’ve been spared true suffering. I am most grateful for that.

Still, I am a child of a ghetto...and all ghettoes are much the same.

I grew into my adolescence in the Lithuanian ghetto on Chicago’s south side. Like all ghettoes, the Lithuanian enclave had defined boundaries. Within that hotly defended perimeter, Lithuanian families tried to make sense of their suffering, their losses and exile. They tried to replicate the life they once knew. But a ghetto is not/cannot be benign. The community these refugees established reflected the sorrowful truths of the residents’ existence. They were mortally wounded, exiled from their motherland, stripped of their dignity and reduced to beggary. Prosperous doctors became histologists. Actors became janitors (or house-painters). The formerly wealthy were penniless.

The main thoroughfare through the heart of the ghetto was lined with taverns. Each night, the barstools would prop up the broken, the shattered, the despondent and the crazed. The patrons would bequeath their paltry paychecks to the barkeep before stumbling home to beat on a spouse or a child. I know what that means and
I've seen what that does. Perhaps that’s why all of my closest friends came from the ghetto, too. We all know (and understand) the stories.

Many years later, as a man with silvered temples, too far along in life to change course, I realized something fundamental about life in a ghetto: There are no dreams.

There are no dreams.

Oh, make no mistake, there were dreams...once. Many of the ghetto-dwellers once clutched their dreams within their grasp. But dreams don’t stand a chance against brutality, destruction and death. And so these shattered dreamers came to seek comfort within a community of sufferers in a land so very far from their very own. They no longer spoke of dreams. Simply survival. Nor did they speak of dreams to their children.

And the children never came to understand the beauty and the power of dreams.

* * *


Blogger Ponita in Real Life said...

But now... no longer being in the ghetto... you can have dreams... you can.

Mon Apr 13, 06:21:00 AM  
Blogger Woman in a Window said...

Jonas, powerful. And you married it with the most evocative of pictures. And what you write of the Ghetto I think is true of any poor, marginalized community. I can see that it might apply to some of the Native Reservations up here today. I see that it would apply to the Irish ghettos in the U.S. as well. To the more recognizable ghettos of New York, or even Toronto and Vancouver.

But now, for you, man of silver temples, dream~

Mon Apr 13, 06:38:00 AM  
Blogger Snowqueen said...


When I lived in Warsaw, I lived in the area of the old Jewish ghetto. In Ulica Sienna. There is a sense of history and courage in the face of adversity. One of the most interesting things I did in Warsaw was to spend weekends doing historic walks, Also in Krakow in the Oscar Schindler areas. I visited Auschwitz as well. Ghettoes breed despair and hope in equal measure; joy and sadness in equal measure; compassion and brutality, in equal measure; but most importantly; COURAGE.

Mon Apr 13, 07:57:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This post really speaks to me as a first-generation American from two people who never recovered from their shattered dreams. They came from a better life to one of hardship, cruelty and mountains of disappointments. One of the saddest things my father ever told me was to not desire...that desire had cost him his life. He said desire...but to me...I heard dream.

Mon Apr 13, 10:47:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

my maternal grandmother was an aristocrat back in the old country. my grandfather escaped at a tender age of 14, alone, on a boat to america, but he was from a poor mountain village. she felt the deprivation, he did not, having been used to suffering. they married when she was just 16 and he 20. it was all uphill for him, being in america. he carried her uphill with him. he restored her dreams, or rather helped her to build new ones. aside from certain cultural predilections, and ideas of the forbidden and/or not, their children (my mother especially) still had dreams, though not many of them were fulfilled. i am very lucky, great post jonas.

Mon Apr 13, 01:00:00 PM  
Blogger Jonas said...

I haven't done the question of dreams justice. Perhaps I'll return to the subject another day. I've always been a dreamer. Nevertheless, I was in my mid-twenties when it dawned on me that the content and scope of my dreams differed from those dreamt outside "the ghetto".

Europe offers many reminders of the World War(s). It's quite a shock to glance at a river in France and see a bombed-out troop transport rusting mid-channel. There was the Anne Frank Haus in Amsterdam that reduced me to a puddle of tears...the vacant plots of land in Lithuania that once marked the locations of synagogues...It wasn't all that long ago, and it affected the course of my life...and the lives of countless others.

So many stories to tell...

Mon Apr 13, 08:58:00 PM  
Blogger Cheesy said...

Wow... I suppose I have been blessed-- always having dreams and desires. If you can't wish for a life fulfilled what do you live for? It is a concept beyond my tiny dreaming mind~

Mon Apr 13, 09:49:00 PM  
Blogger Jonas said...

I'm thinking I really should post a few more thoughts about "ghetto dreams". It's something I've been pondering for decades...essential notions I once dreamed to pass on to my children.

Funny thing. Despite the fact that I've been pondercating on all this for decades, I'm still not sure I can put it all in words.

Dreams. Powerful stuff.

Mon Apr 13, 10:00:00 PM  
Blogger Cheesy said...

Pass on to your children? Who's my daddy! lol.. sorry couldn't resist. Must be the smeared blueberries?

Mon Apr 13, 10:04:00 PM  
Blogger shadowlands6822 said...

You captured something that few are aware.

I do not have this reality in my life, but I do have lost dreams. I have had to survive the losses of businesses and then of Dan to cancer.

One of the hardest thing is to still dream when you feel that there are no more left...

But, then there is hope...can't define it, just know I cannot live without it...

Tue Apr 14, 07:50:00 AM  
Anonymous Roads said...

How wonderful to stay in touch with your roots, Jonas. The localisation of different communities within the cities is one of the great defining aspects of America, I think -- and increasingly of other world cities as well.

I can remember being impressed by the international feel of Toronto once, many years ago, where I first came across immigrants from the Pacific rim, and in Melbourne, too (who would have thought that an Australian state capital would be the third largest city in Greece?).

Modern London epitomises the trend towards urban globalisation and localisation. There are now at least as many different languages spoken in this city today as there are days in the year, and we are all the richer for it.

Amongst the more famous enclaves we have the famous Brick Lane with its Bangladeshi textilers, Soho's Chinatown (where I enjoyed crispy duck on Easter Monday in Gerrard Street), Turkish Dalston and Irish Kilburn. Aussies and Kiwis have lived in Earls Court and there has been a Jewish community in Golders Green for many decades now.

We host a French community in South Kensington, tennis-playing Scandinavians in Wimbledon, a broad beach of Caribbeans in south London and especially Brixton, whilst the western suburbs towards Heathrow are the modern home to many communities from the subcontinent (as featured in the film Bend it like Beckham.

The cultural and ethnic make-up of the city has changed beyond all recognition over the past two generations. The interesting thing is that the boundaries come and go with time even now -- most recently within the early years of this decade we built up a half million-strong Polish community in Acton (west London) and many of these have now left the country in the wake of the recession and the fall in the value of the pound sterling.

Perhaps these aren't ghettoes in their grimmest sense, but at the same time they enrich all our lives within the metropolis. When you sit and look around you on the Tube sometimes it's quite amazing to think about the journey that your fellow passengers and their forebears have made to be here now.

I must admit that I'm a country boy at heart, but the bright lights of the city have much to offer for their excitement and diversity.

South Side Chicago, 22 miles -- so now I can finally understand why that blue plaque was there beside the marathon course and sited high above the street. Young Jonas lived here, in Lithuanian Chicago. Fantastic story -- many thanks!

Wed Apr 15, 10:14:00 AM  
Blogger Scott from Oregon said...

There is no ghetto in the US too big to simply walk out of.

I had a friend, last name Klevinskis (sp?) whose parents were Lithuanians. They found a nice spot in America and had a fine life.

Fri Apr 17, 11:33:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There aren't ghetoes here, and yet I undersatdn the effects of abject pverty since I work with it every day. It's hard.

Fri Apr 17, 07:11:00 PM  
Blogger Maria said...

I know. I see this daily at my job and it just makes me want to weep.

Sat Apr 18, 11:05:00 AM  
Blogger lu said...

This is what I see as the larger part of my job, to teach children to dream, to see outside of their circumstance into what is possible.

Do you ever read The Sun Magazine?
Your writing reminds me of the kind of pieces they often publish.

Tue Apr 21, 01:37:00 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Get a playlist! Standalone player Get Ringtones