Peace of Klaipėda
Michael Buozis

From my paternal great-grandfather’s journal. Translated from the Lithuanian by Martynas Jodis of the Latvian Society of Philadelphia, July 2010.1

March 15, 1887. Klaipėda (Memel).

Catholics always speak first. Sometimes they give the only account.

My mother and six sisters are Catholic. My father and I are Protestant.2 I never gave this a second thought until my mother told me how this schism came to be. My impression, all through childhood, was religious affiliations were split strictly down gender lines. Women were Catholic. They wore blue frilled dresses to Sunday services. Men were Protestant and wore dark suits, and most of the time never attended church. Of course, I never paid attention to the many men who attended my mother’s church, and I knew of, but never considered, plenty of women who sat dowdy in dark dresses on Sunday mornings in their parlors, reading Bible passages, but often not leaving their homes.

My mother told me early this past Sunday morning how our family divided itself hundreds of years ago, and why it has remained divided ever since. I tried to ask her if the family she spoke of was her own, or if it was my father’s, but she did not look up to see my protestations as she tied Aldona’s3 blonde hair into curls and smoothed the skin on her sharp nose with powder. My mother’s big arms shook as she worked. I always dread the summer months when she wears her dress without the sleeves. It’s obscene, and very Catholic. The other five girls left their brown hair straight, as is the fashion with young women these days. They powdered their own sharp noses. I sat in my shirt and pants, kicking my polished shoes under the chair. My jacket stayed folded in the cupboard.

‘For centuries in this city, the Protestants and Catholics got along well. They traded at the market. They farmed next to each other in the fields. They strode down the same cobbled streets, drank from the same wells and ate meals in the same banquet halls, though you might’ve found a wall or two between their neighborhoods. You might also notice all of the Catholic churches are built on the western side of the city, and all of the Protestant churches on the eastern side. This was a peaceful way of being. But then problems started to arise.’ My mother pulled Aldona’s curls tight. She tied them with rough bands of fabric, so Aldona’s forehead showed red marks of strain up to her hair line. My other sisters sat on the windowsills. They looked down to the street to see irreligious young men walking home from the taverns in the harbor quarter. From the back, my sisters all looked the same, just different sizes, some taller, some fatter. They all wore the same blue frilled dress.

‘Our city became a magnificent port, the gateway to the Baltic Sea. Everyone continued to be fruitful and to multiply. The Catholics and their churches moved eastward, and the Protestants and their churches moved west. But after hundreds of years4 of being a peaceful city, things began to go horribly wrong.’ My mother pulled Aldona down from the bed and flattened the frilled shoulders of her dress. Aldona ran to the window to sit with my older sisters. She already dreams of the rough young men below, though she can not know why.

My mother pulled an onion and a loaf of stale bread from the cupboard. She brought them with a knife and board to the bed and bit into the onion and cut small pieces from the bread. My father shouts at her when he sees her eating this peasant breakfast, but he sleeps too late on Sundays to catch her.

‘There was a great priest in our city. He is something of a saint now. Saint Vytautas. But this is a sad story and he became a saint because of martyrdom, not because of good deeds. He was desirous of great things, but ended up in the lowest of circumstances.’ I smelled my mother’s breath from across the large room.

‘Vytautus wanted to bring the great architectural wonders of the west to our humble city. He wanted the newest Catholic cathedral to be built in the grand style of Prague. He wanted to walk down great stone halls and hear his footsteps echo in the foundations of the whole city. He wanted to stand in his chamber and see the forest from a grand window on one side of the room, and spy the sea from an even grander window on the other side.’ The floorboards creaked above us. My mother stopped speaking, and my sisters turned away from their windows. We all waited for my father to move again upstairs, but the sound never came. The young men in the street started singing an obscene song about the smell in the stalls at the fish market and the smell between the girls’ legs in the cobbled alleys in the harbor. These smells, they sang, were quite the same. Of all my sisters, only Aldona did not laugh.

‘Vytautus’s workmen began on the foundation of his new church, which abutted Baltijos Street, more or less the center of the city at the time. A group of Protestant leaders approached Vytautus, before the workmen finished digging, with an edict from the tsar.5 The tsar had declared the Catholic Church could not build upon lands it did not own before any duchy converted to Protestantism. Vytautus was furious. He tore up the edict and continued to build his new church.’ My mother tore up a piece of bread to show her anger and satisfaction.

‘These Protestants were dark men. They smiled and waited for Vytautus to complete his church. They gathered at the work site and gave vodka and salt potatoes to the workmen. The workmen became lazy and built the grand structure all wrong. They built the floor too soft, so no footsteps could be heard in the great halls. In Vytautus’s chamber they cut the windows at incorrect angles, so one looked out onto the treeless banks of the river and the other looked over the stables.’ My mother’s face gathered all together towards her mouth, her greatest show of disgust. She looked like a meat pelmeni.6

‘If this was not enough, the deceitful Protestants came back in the evening after the structure was finished. They waited for Vytautus in his chamber as he marched up and down the great hall below, stamping his sandaled feet. They saw him, as they peered down from a rubbish hatch, lifting his legs high into the air and slamming his feet down onto the stones, trying to make some grand noise. The scratch of his sandals sounded like a rat struggling, stuck in the wall.’ My mother offered me some of the onion but I refused. Aldona ran and picked it from my mother’s hand. She’s the only one who will still eat my mother’s peasant breakfast. The other sisters worry too much about their breath and the young men in the street.

‘When Vytautus satisfied himself the floor would not make the sound he desired, he retired up the steps to his chamber. The Protestants hid behind the velvet curtains and under the great bed in his room. They waited quietly and when he entered, they sprung upon him and lifted him off of his feet and held his face to the floor. They told him what they thought of his finery, of his Pope and of the wonderful building they had sabotaged.’ My mother spit some onion from her mouth into a piece of cloth.

‘They lifted our poor Saint Vytautus into the air and pushed open the window over the stables, and threw him out. He fell into a huge pile of horse manure and broke not a single bone in his body.7 But he swore, with shit smeared on his lips, he’d never let a Catholic soul be fooled by a Protestant again in this city. Surely they’d tear down his buildings someday, but he’d use the power of God to prevent them from ever winning another convert.’ My mother crossed herself and kissed her oniony fingers and touched them to a Virgin Mary icon above the bed.

‘So every Catholic in all of Klaipėda joined together with Vytautus and vowed to never again allow a Protestant to claim a Catholic soul. We will let you marry our daughters, they said, but you will be tormented all your life with their stubbornness and devotion. Our daughters will bear many daughters and all of them will be Catholic, and they will almost never bear sons. You can have these few, because in our city, your sons will have no religious zeal.’8 My mother began tidying herself up. She used the cloth to clean the crumbs from around her mouth and to rub the onion juice from her fingertips.

Above, the floorboards creaked again. At first my mother, my sisters and I waited quietly to hear them creak again, but then my mother went back to her tidying and my sisters giggled at the young men in the street. But again, the floorboards creaked, this time loud as an apocalypse. My mother ran to the cupboard and put away her peasant breakfast, the half-eaten onion, the stale loaf, the knife and board. She grabbed Aldona’s hand and pulled her from the windowsill and all of my sisters came down with her, one after another, still taller and fatter. They ran out of the room with little marching steps, all in the same sleeveless Catholic dress.

When they’d gone, my father opened the door to the room and sat in a chair by the cupboard. He brushed the white hair off of the thick ridges of his forehead and sniffed. I could see he smelled the onion, but he did not mention it. His eyes hurt from vodka and his face was red.

He turned, in his dark suit, to the cupboard and opened a door to pull out his great black Bible and my jacket. I walked to him and took the book and the cloth. When I’d put on my jacket and sat back in the chair, I read to him his favorite Psalm. When I finished, he sat quiet for a long time. He brushed the white hair off of his forehead when it fell down again and rubbed his eyes when they turned red and dry. He coughed and I knew to read the Psalm again, and we sat there like this until my Catholic mother and sisters came home from the church on Baltijos Street.9 Then his anger at them showed. My mother and sisters disappeared into the rites of their church, coming home in blue frilled dresses, cracker crumbs on each breast, lips stained red with wine. He surely thought these women of his were the wicked, and only himself and myself the righteous. But first, I read again and again.

Do you indeed decree what is right, you gods?
Do you judge the sons of men uprightly?
Nay, in your hearts you devise wrongs;
your hands deal out violence on earth.

The wicked go astray from the womb,
they err from their birth, speaking lies.
They have venom like the venom of a serpent,
like the deaf adder that stops its ear,
so that it does not hear the voice of charmers
or of the cunning enchanter.
O God, break the teeth in their mouths;
tear out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord!
Let them vanish like water that runs away;
like the grass let them be trodden down and wither.
Let them be like the snail which dissolves into slime,
like the untimely birth that never sees the sun.
Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns,
whether green or ablaze, may he sweep them away!

The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance;
he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked.
Men will say, ‘Surely there is a reward for the righteous;
surely there is a God who judges on earth.’

1 As discussed in relation to other entries, Jodis does not speak Lithuanian fluently, but convinced me his recognition of certain words allows him to provide a reasonable translation of my great-grandfather’s journal. For this entry, Jodis and I drew up a contract, stating I’d pay him a reasonable sum, much more, in fact, than in previous cases, and he would ensure the accuracy of the text he provided. When he presented me the finished document and I proffered the check, he refused payment, saying he enjoyed his work too much to deserve compensation. He said he’d be cheating me if he were to take any of my money. I think he cheated me just the same.
2 My own grandmother and four aunts were Catholic, and my father and grandfather were Protestant. My father dressed my only sister in blue lace Easter finery until her blonde hair turned brown, and I have a fondness for the pysanky my grandmother painted and left to us. Otherwise this religiosity has been lost on my generation. My father reads his Bible quietly every day, but his good book is gaudy with mirrored binding and some new title, The Extreme Word. My mother, before she died, had only pop songs to remind her of God. There is a time for laughing, crying, healing, killing. My sister and I are atheists.
3 I have an aunt named Aldona. My sister and I, and all of our cousins, only know her as Aunt Gypsy. I never understood the name, and never connected it with the gypsies of Eastern Europe until I saw a picture of her walking down the street in Brooklyn in the early 1960s holding my father in her arms soon after he was born. She was Gypsy all right, a babushka tied over her dark hair and a striped sleeveless top over strong sinewy arms. Funny enough, when I lived in gentrified 21st century Brooklyn, I heard a story on public radio concerning legends of gypsies who roamed the borough in the 50s and 60s. The story cited a popular warning of the time for children not to go outside after dark or the ‘gypsies will steal you.’ Gypsy looked like she could steal a whole borough of children.
4 There are already two mentions of ‘hundreds of years’ in this document. I can not determine if the hundreds of years mentioned here are the same hundreds of years from the previous page. If they are, then I think my great-great-grandmother is talking about the Thirty Years’ War, though I didn’t think such partisan clashes occurred so far east as the Baltic states, which would have been thoroughly pagan not too many hundreds of years before her time.
5 Here, I believe she’s referring to Mikhail Romanov I, the founder of the only lineage of Russian nobility to rival the Habsburgs and Tudors in authority and longevity. He officially took the throne on July 22, 1613, after years of absentee rule, secreted away in a monastery with his mother. Mikhail I had four more children than my great-great-grandfather, but only two sons. Only one of his sons, Alexei, lived into adulthood. Alexei, known as Tishayshy or ‘most quiet’ was a less than fanatical Catholic who nonetheless indulged gluttonously, if quietly, in the rites of the church. Unfortunately, I think her story, or Jodis’s translation of her story is historically inaccurate. Like much of the rest of the world, she has forgotten the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of the 16th and 17th centuries. The tsar wouldn’t have controlled her city until the late 18th century
6 The use of the word ‘pelmeni’ here, makes me believe my great-great-grandmother might have come from Russia or Ukraine and not Lithuania. My great-grandfather would not have learned such a word from his father, since pelmeni, a type of meat dumpling, are not popular in Lithuanian cuisine. In this case, the history my great-great-grandmother relates is her husband’s, not her own. Of course, my translator, Mr. Jodis, might be stretching his translation for the apt metaphor. I cannot find this word in the original text. But this proves nothing, as I can not distinguish any of my great-grandfather’s words for myself.
7 This incident reminds me of the Second Defenestration of Prague, a contemporaneous show of muscle by a group of Protestants not too far west from my great-great-grandmother’s city. This removal by window of a priest and Catholic officials from their offices shows the age to have been more genial in its political and religious upheaval than our own. When the Nazis and Soviets cleared their cities of Jews and Catholics and gypsies, they didn’t have such a sense of humor. My great-grandfather’s generation may have been the last to share such a personal and public history openly.
8 I’m always skeptical of the tendency of religious people to suggest an entire congregation, let alone an entire denomination, can speak with a unified voice. The religious We, a flock of believers who, in joining their voices to create a thunderous unanimity, forfeit the ability to speak for themselves, has always frightened me. The truly zealous, the Evangelicals, might consider this fear a sort of holy obstacle, the beginning of my own testimony, the hurdle I can leap only with Jesus’s boost. When my mother’s older half-brother died, I heard the corporeal manifestation of this mystic voice. At the funeral, when the young minister in blue jeans finished his short eulogy, my mother’s family, the most ordinary non-practicing non-denominational New Jersey Christians, began, without encouragement or prompting, to recite the Lord’s Prayer. I knew all of these people so well and had never heard any of them speak a single word of God, yet here they were bowing their heads and chanting together in soft brown tones. I was horrified.
9 After first reading Jodis’s translation of this document, I called him and asked if he was Protestant or Catholic and he said, ‘I haven’t considered it lately, but I was born a Cossack, so I think that makes me neither.’

Michael Buozis lives in Philadelphia. His stories have appeared in Able To…, The Benefactor, The Foundling Review, Foliate Oak, Unheard Magazine and Bartleby Snopes. He is a contributor to The Bent Spine, a blog of literary horror criticism.