Finding a unicorn
in Little Lithuania
How Lena Grigoleit became the voice
of the multi-ethnical Memel-Region
As told to Annika Kiehn, July 2020
Can one person resemble a whole region, one timespan even? When the German journalist Ulla Lachauer found the old farming lady Lena Grigoleit, born as a Prussian turned into a Lithuanian, it was like winning the jackpot of a lottery. A supposingly ordinary woman, who was the last one of her kind – a unicorn. She resembles the old Memelland, “Little Lithuania”, like no other person. So she wrote about her story: Paradiesstraße. It became a bestseller and until today it serves as a literary witness of a time of peasantry wisdom, multi-ethnical region near Rambynas Nationalpark, where you can visit an open exhibition about Lena’s life.
GETTING ATTACHED TO LITTLE LITHUANIA
I was 31 years old and had just quit my job as a historian. I started working as a freelance journalist, when I decided that I would like to write my doctoral thesis – but I had no clue what topic I should choose. My doctoral supervisor said to me: Write about expelled people, that topic is so often seen from a far right angle, it’s time to see it from a different one!
And I sighed and thought: Oh my, this political stuff kept annoying me since I was a child! But then I found by chance those refugees of the Memelregion. This spirit of a long lost time, which had been locked under the Iron Curtain since 1945, immediately appealed to me. I was full of cliches and kept digging into the topic. I thought I would never be able to visit the region, but then came Michail Gorbatschow and suddenly there was hope.
I first visited Lithuania in November 1988. I was 37 years old and working as a journalist. It was shortly before the Independence claim of Lithuania, which was still a Soviet Zone of occupation, became an urgend topic. I knew change was bound to happen and I had the mission to shoot a film about it.
We entered the country illegally by taxicab, I had gotten a translator from somewhere, it was kind of into-the-blue-like. We came back in September 1989. One of the places I definitely wanted to shoot were Bitenai and the old Prussian Götterberg Rambynas, the scenes of the literary works of the Tilsit born writer Johannes Bobrowski. He was my guiding star by the way he describes the clash of nationalities and different cultures of this multi-ethnical region lived by Lithuanians, Polish people, Germans and Jews. After we had shot the places, I was still unsatisfied because I hadn’t found, what I was looking for. We were just about to leave for good, when a man passed our way and I asked him, if he knew a person, who could tell us from the times „back then“. He replied: Lena Grigoleit! You will recognize her house on the many dahlias.
And there she was: A small woman with tousled hair, wearing rubber shoes and an old fashioned apron, a personified image of Bobrowskis‘ tales. Standing at the fence, she kept talking and talking, while we were filming. While I was listening to her, I thought: Oh my god! What a terrible fate this woman had to endure! A German, who stayed in her village with her Lithuanian husband and her two daughters while everyone else had escaped on the trek towards West. Later on the family was deported by the Soviets to Siberia. When they returned in 1956, she and her husband were employed in the local Sowchose – a huge farming estate, run by the state. For decades they had lived a life in poverty and fear, but she was a bright and vivid person, smiling a lot. She was a witness of a time, nobody knew anything about. She was very eager to talk and I had an immediate crush on her at that sunny evening in 1989. I said goodby, convinced that I’ll be writing down her story.
I went back to Germany and we kept in touch writing letters. Those letters are now archived in the „Nordost-Institut“ of Lüneburg. I also sent her parcels with sunflower oil, because she was allergic to the Lithuanian one, poppy seeds, anchovies and rat poison, whatever she desired.
We developed a very close relationship, and I longed to visit her again. In March 1990, while I was in Klaipeda visiting a Jewish friend, a politically tense climate arised due to the Lithuanian governments‘ claim for independence against the Russian government. It was quite frightening. Helicopters were flying around, tanks were rolling through the streets, everyone was anxious on how the Soviets would react. I then went to Vilnius and again there were tanks, which were surrounding the parliament, demanding the Lithuanians to surrender.
I somehow got into the parliament building and like everyone else, I was tense and awaited the outcome of the situation, wondering if the Lithuanians would stay calm. Just before the ultimatum was to come to an end, I hopped on the last plane back to Berlin. I stayed in contact with Lena, although the slow postservice made correspondence difficult. I was very worried about her and her family. Due to the August putsch in Moscow in 1991 Lithuania was liberated – I was on my way to Lena as soon as I could.
LIVING WITH LENA
When I was a child I had often spent my holidays at my relatives in the countryside, hence the time at Lenas reminded me a lot on my childhood – the simple food, taking a bath in the river, or rather neglect hygiene, crawling into damp bedlinen at nights with a hot stone, it was very cozy.
Lena used to live in her parents house, it was actually quite ruined – unrenovated, brine barrel, earth loo. She grew vegetables her big garden. I slept in the servants room and even in spring it was damn cold in there. But we ate a lot of Kugelis, a Lithuanian speciality, made of potatoes, bacon and sour cream. I could not get enough of them.
Lenas family once owned 28 hectars, of which they were expropriated. In 1991 the Lithuanian government granted her three hectars back, the rest of the land was to follow later on. Lena was already an old woman in her 80s, nonetheless she wanted to be a proper farmer – so she was happy I was there to help. We lent us a horse and ordered the field. You needed the right connections in the village to get access to certain things. We planted potatoes by hand, and sowed carrots, beetroot and a bit of poppy near the forest. For the interviews we used to sit at the kitchen table most of the time, but often, I also enjoyed talking to her while we worked at the cemetry, the field or when we were sitting at the Memel river. At night, I quickly wrote the words down in my journal. To me it felt as if I was on holiday, reminding myself: Why am I actually here again?
LENAS PRIVATE SIDE
I remember one remarkable sentence of Lena: The world is just as colourful as a world can be! She was super curious, despite the hard times she had gone through, and the darkness, she had to overcome, she remained a very fearless person. Her daughters instead, who were born 1935 and 1940, suffer from a more of a gloomy nature. They said to their mother: You had such a carefree upbringing, but we grew up with all these horrors. They also experienced the time Sibiria. Especially Birute, the oldest, suffered a lot. Lenas grandchildren grew up under the Soviet Regime but they took advantage of the liberation of 1991 in order to follow their own paths. The youngest Mindaugas, came back to Lenas house and started a new life a farmer.
Lena had a strong self-esteem, which was based on a resolute mind. She had not the slightest shame to tell me what she wanted me to bring her from the West – like Monsoon-soap or laced tissues. I was very moved, when she confessed her fondness on beautiful night gowns. In January 1995, the book was not published yet, I went to see her and I brought her a portemonnaie with 1500 D-Mark in it. It was part of my retaining fee, she was very happy about it. As a gesture, she gave me Rubel-money, so I could buy me a Bernstein-neglece. I still wear it though.
The most private scene between us was probably, when she asked me to trim her nails. „I want them to look like those of the ladies in the city!“, she said. Her nails were cracked, so we bathed them before I trimed them. I somehow made her happy. I truely cherish this moment of unsaid words. Three months later, on 22. April 1995 she died.
The book was published in 1996, shortly after Lenas death. It became an instant success. It was translated into several languages: Russian, Polish, Lithuanian, even Icelandian. The Lithuanian version „Rojaus kelias“ is being renewed in 2020. Until today the book has quite a strong impact on how people percieve the Soviet World. How do we percieve this episode of World History, were people got expelled, divided, lost? Lenas story is not driven by ideology. It is rather a remarkable story of a person, whose life reflects a century in a multi-ethnical region, which was shaped by political and economic change. I recieved a lot of positive letters from readers, I remember a banker writing to me: „I would have never expected an old woman in an apron to speak such truthful words. It really made me reflect my own fate.“
Living with Lena allowed me to explore her story from a rather emotional perspective than an intellectual one. It probably set the tone for the book. I tried to get a feeling for her sound, it was quite a challenge to find a written style for her spoken words. I had to invent vocabulary to give an idea of her singsang-voice and the neat words she used, which resemble that she belonged to a different era. It was much of an ethnographic challenge, I wanted to stress the wisdom of a farmers intellect. I think especially we Germans underestimate this way of thinking.
Lena was my bridge to this region, this beautiful country. My husband and I visit it every second year or so. We actually became part of Lenas remaining family, there are still people in the village, who call me „Ullachen“, which I appreciate. Our families both prayed and hoped for the best outcome for Lithuania. I experienced this Baltic liberation on a more intense level than the German liberation, though.
When the Wall fell in November, I watched the scene with my father in front of the television. We cried like dogs. And again I felt this longing coming up inside me to talk to my father about his time as a soldier in Russia but he would not let it happen. It was our last chance for an honest talk, but we missed out. Like so many other post-war-children, I secretly wondered to what extend my father might had been involved in the crimes commited by the Nazi Regime. So I guess my intention to visit the Baltic region was probably driven by getting into the topic myself. In order to imagine what this war might have meant to him and to establish a kind of empathy for him despite it. While researching in Lithuania I also found out, that my uncle had fallen as a soldier in Vilnius in summer 1941. When I read the day of his death, it was somehow a relief, because he died before the mass murder on the Jews began. But still it is a painful feeling for me.
Lena Grigoleit was the last witness of a world at the Memel river that is gone forever. It kind of makes me angry, that today people hardly listen to the voices of people from the village. We rather schmeicheln/appreciate those with an academic background, who are supposed to be the guidelines for all of us. Underestimating and neglecting those, who have a precious knowlegde of the world differentwise, a wisdom connected to nature and who might not be able to speak with such eloquence, is a damn shame. They bury a certain ability of living inside them, which is not of great use in the city, but nevertheless true, just in an other context and not outwordly. It really bugs me when I notice how others feel superior to people from the countryside.
My publishers sometimes asked me to write about celebraties. I find it not appealing at all. I am rather interested in the mileu of so called „ordinary people“. Rural worlds just like Lenas. To me as a modern and urban person, they provide a kind of alieness and exoticism, which totally fascinates me. But seeing these worlds slowly vanish – be it due to forced circumstances or due to the course of time – and it saddens me a lot. As a decendend of a Westphalian farmer family, I am very familiar with this kind of transition and the topic of vanishing village life. But it somehow is also alien to me and I am glad that due to Lena, I was able to experience it again.