Review | Anna Halberstadt’s Vilnius Diary

Multiple Unbelongings

Anna Halberstadt, Vilnius Diary, Mudfish Individual Poet Series 9, New York: Box Turtle Press, 2014.

My mother went to school in Vilnius in the 1950s and 1960s. Based on her memories and the stories she tells me, it was the happiest time of her life. Although early years were marked by post-war bleakness, in high school she wore indecently short skirts, swung her hips to the rolling rhythms of Paul Anka and Elvis Presley, and went on dates with boys who impersonated the Beatles on self-made electric guitars. The Vilnius of my mother’s youth is a happy, energizing, and insouciant place despite unremitting anxiety about the KGB interrogation of both of her parents, bugged phones, and limited (to put it mildly) future prospects. Anna Halberstadt, the author of a collection of poems called “Vilnius Diary,” was my mother’s classmate, but she does not share the same happy memories. To her, Vilnius and, indeed, all of Lithuania was “the country that you had dreamed / of escaping since you were twelve” (Baltic Elegy, p. 25), but it has a powerful, albeit painful, spell on her, and she returns to it thirty odd years later because “the crooked streets / must have been imprinted in your unconscious” (Baltic Elegy, p. 25) and because “the need to forget gradually / turned into a need to remember” (Lithuania, p. 23). Halberstadt’s first published collection of poems does take her down memory lane. It is her autobiography, of sorts, a look back on her life that started in Vilnius and continued in Moscow, where she went to university; after a short spell in Vienna and Rome, she emigrated all the way to New York. She has lived and worked as a psychologist there for the last thirty years. However, the collection is primarily and above all a book of return to her origins, to the city of her birth and first un-belonging. The book fittingly opens and closes with poems devoted to Vilnius. The first one is dreamy, with a touch of longing, and the last is a painful lament dotted with shrieking Lithuanian phrases that sound like an eternal accusation: “Kodėl aš buvau gimusi šiame mieste? / Why was I born in this city? / […] Čia nieko nėra! / No one is here!” (Long Poem about Vilnius, p.115-116).

Halberstadt’s un-belonging to Vilnius and Lithuania is threefold—historic, cultural and personal. As one of the sites of mass extermination of Jews, Lithuania is a place that annihilated her “grandmother Frieda and uncle Ruvim / Frieda’s one hundred and two year old mother / my mother’s parents Liba and Moshe / her twenty two year old baby brother Liebale (Leo) / a blond boy with gentle green eyes, / her first love the handsome socialist Arye / six year old Sara / shot in the arms of aunt Alta / who would not give her away / mother’s twelve year old cousin / whose name I do not recall” (I was Reborn, pp. 55-56). It is a locus of collective trauma, which Halberstadt is a part of. She is of the second generation of the Holocaust survivors and, as such, a product of communal pain that makes it impossible for her to feel remotely at home in the city of her birth and early life, the more so because the crimes against her family and other Lithuanian Jews have not been appropriately condemned and responsibility for them fully assumed: “Where I come from / there are some signs telling the occasional tourist / of so many people exterminated / by this or that building or a wall. / There is no plaque however / at the church where the very first victim / of the Holocaust, a Jewish woman, / together with several communists / was shot. / June 1941” (Venetian Candleholder, p. 53). This is just one of the many markers of un-belonging stemming from the memory of the Shoah in the book. Furthermore, linguistic and cultural differences, the fact that Halberstadt grew up speaking Russian in Lithuania and went to a Lithuanian language school, added another layer of unbelonging to her upbringing: “First day of school / terror and swallowed tears / in the class where instructions are given in a language I understand / but do not speak” (Vilnius Diary, p. 58). Finally, Halberstadt’s poems are shot through with bittersweet memories of everyday hostility experienced by a child of Jewish origin growing up in Vilnius in the 1950s: “At six, playing with your neighbour Alfredka / […] One day you discover you understand Lithuanian / when Alfredka’s grandmother / […] says something about the Jews / that makes me stand up and make my way towards the door” (Nostalgia, p. 46). The only two indications of the shared time and space with my mother in the book are these lines: “During recess in the spring / running out into the yard / being pushed around by tall merginos (young women, young girls in Lithuanian)/ but excelling in gymnastics and ballet. / […] Despising girly pursuits of knitting / crocheting and baking pies / but secretly practicing the dance moves / to Paul Anka’s “You Are My Destiny” / and the Beatles “Yesterday” (Vilnius Diary, p. 58-59). It is no coincidence that the poem dedicated to my mother tells stories of several of their classmates—then and now—portrayed in the graduation photo, capturing the ravaging passage of time, of life. However, tropes of marginalisation such as “being pushed” and “secretly” in the lines quoted above create a sense of being ousted, placing my mother’s and Halberstadt’s memories in contrast.

The Moscow period considered in the collection is dominated by a memorable portrait of Halberstadt’s first husband, the father of her son, Slava, who “used to listen to jazz naked / […] and possessed bad temper” (My Men, p.15). Vivid portraits sketched just in a few traits are a charming and invaluable feature of the collection. In the poems evoking memories of their emigration, profound sentiments of never-more, as well as the surreal state of transition and non-identity, are most poignantly conveyed by condensed metonymic images, such as Halberstadt’s son’s “blue knit winter hat with a pompom” lost on the road that travels through the book, as the container of the pain of leaving everything behind, including the boy’s father.

The mood of the New York poems is much lighter—colored with the author’s mischievous and slightly dirty sense of humor, offering a respite from the grimness of Vilnius and Moscow, with the exception of the poem “Take the “F” Train,” conjuring early memories in the USA. In the poem “Rome to New York,” Halberstadt shares the first impression of New York, the place of her last un-belonging: “Greystone hotel on the Upper West Side / looked drab, but solid / there was plenty of hot water / and the room was warm. / Quite a relief after the winter / of struggling with the cold / in a Roman flat with fancy marble floors (p. 66).  As every one of Halberstadt’s identarian facets—Jewish, Lithuanian and Russian—seem to have conflicted and menaced one another in Europe, New York offers relief as it grants something other places did not—normalisation and acceptance of a multiple incongruous identity: “New York was unfolding gradually / page by page / however / my ability to read it and absorb it / was limited / […] It was not familiar / but felt unthreatening / and blissfully indifferent / to yet another immigrant thrown onto its shores / by yesterday’s historical upheaval. / I felt that I belonged in it / no more, no less / than everybody else / and knowing this provided comfort / I’d never experienced before” (Public Library, p. 87-88). The main source of comfort here comes from the legitimisation of non-belonging. A migrant’s inability to fully coincide with one identity only is turned into a positive in a place where nobody belongs more than others.

Although poems in this collection often tell one story, they are always set in at least two time planes, often even more than that, and several stories weave together, falling into a coherent whole in the course of the book. The poems always speak with the voice of the mature, present Halberstadt, who is, nevertheless, able to peel off the layers of consciousness and provide the reader with glimpses into her former selves: “I no longer look like the person on my green card application / that I filled out almost thirty years ago: / the young woman was thin and had long hair. /  The look in her eyes was that of a new immigrant – / forlorn, but also hopeful. Whatever happened to her?” (My Men, p. 16). The rhymes of the poems are crooked like the streets imprinted into the unconsciousness of the poet, the ring and occasional words of all three languages Halberstadt masters produces an uncanny effect that lures the reader by its troubling familiarity. Halberstadt’s fellow poet Eileen Myles is right: “She guides us wisely, richly, and satirically across continents, tough choices and the gorgeous pithy details of otherwise overwhelming tragedies and truths” – do take that trip, it is not often, that an American Vilnius-born Jewish lady takes you on a poetic voyage through her life.

Anna Halberstadt was born and raised in Vilnius, Lithuania. At the age of eighteen she moved to Moscow to study psychology at Moscow State University. She immigrated to New York twelve years later and earned a degree in social work. Since 1980, she has worked as a clinician, teacher, and administrator of mental health clinics specializing in the adaptation of immigrants, with a special interest in immigrants from the former Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries. Anna has published many works in the field of psychology but has found poetry to be a more adequate and condensed way to expand on the same themes—growing up as a child of Holocaust survivors in a country still struggling with past trauma, living in three countries (Lithuania, Russia, U.S.), and immigration. Her creative work has been accepted by Bluestem, Forge, Amarillo Bay, Cimarron Review, St. Petersburg Review, Tiferet and Mudfish, and appeared in translation in the Lithuanian journals Literatūra Ir Menas and Šiaurės Atėnai.
Dr. Eglė Kačkutė gained her PhD from the University of Vilnius in 2011. Her monograph Savi svetimi tapatumai naujausioje britų ir prancūzų moterų literatūroje (Familiar and Strange Identities in Contemporary British and French Women’s Writing) was published by Vilnius University Press in 2012. Her research interests include contemporary women’s writing in English, French, and Lithuanian, gender and contemporary feminist theory. She is currently working on narratives of mothering in a culturally and linguistically foreign environment at the Vilnius University Gender Studies Centre. In October 2014 she held a Visiting Fellowship at the Institute of Modern Languages Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London.