SURPRISE, SURPRISE: On Oct. 29, 1939, the Lithuanian army, covered with flowers thrown by locals, marched via the streets of Vilnius, which was not envisaged by two former Vilnius residents, Felix Dzerzhinsky (who died in 1926) and Jozef Pilsudski (who died in 1935), who shaped the history of Russia and Poland.
In December, Arvydas Juozaitis, Riga-based Lithuanian philosopher, writer and former Lithuanian diplomat, presented his play, written in the genre of tragic farce. It is titled “The Heart in Vilnius.” The presentation of the drama took place in the Museum of Lithuanian Theater, Music and Cinema in Vilnius.
The main personages of the drama are Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, the founder of the modern Polish state and its authoritarian leader (who died in 1935) and who is worshiped by many in Poland still today, and Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret service (who died in 1926) whose portraits were in every office of the KGB until the very collapse of the USSR.
Both were born into the families of Lithuanian nobility. Both families, as is custom, possessed picturesque coats of arms of the family. Both families were of Lithuanian origin: Dzerzhinsky, rather historically (he was born near Minsk) due to his noble roots, while Pilsudski could be called ethnic Lithuanian (he was born in Zalavas, not far from Vilnius), but both of them chose to be Poles.
Juozaitis said that such self-Polonization started from the top of Lithuanian nobility, beginning with the Battle of Grunwald/Tannenberg (or “Zalgiris” in Lithuanian) of 1410, and going little by little down from the very top of the Lithuanian society’s pyramid. This process was stopped, and even reversed, to some extent, by the Lithuanian national awakening at the end of the 19th century. Interestingly, now the meetings of the Lithuanian Royal Union of Nobility, which is comprised of descendants of ancient nobility, are held only in the Lithuanian language, and there is no pro-Polish mood in that union.
“There is no joy to write about such personalities,” Juozaitis said about the presented drama. However, he said he even tried somehow to justify both main personages.
Poland cherishes Pilsudski, while Dzerzhinsky was the cult personality of Soviet ideology. Polish Independence Day is celebrated in Pilsudski Square in Warsaw and flowers are laid by state leaders at the Pilsudski monument there.
Dzerzhinsky was condemned in Russia after the collapse of communism, but the situation there changed slightly when KGB officer Vladimir Putin came to power. Juozaitis said, “I know that the Russian embassy called to find out about this presentation related to their hero and, I guess, the Polish embassy will also make a call.”
Both Pilsudski and Dzerzhinsky spent their youth in Vilnius. During the Soviet occupation, the museum of Dzerzhinsky functioned in the house in Vilnius where he spent his youth. Now the nearest museum of Dzerzhinsky is situated near Minsk and that museum is personally cherished by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Pilsudski’s heart, after his death, was buried in Vilnius. It was buried together with his mother, whose body was exhumed in the cemetery of Suginciai village near the Lithuanian town of Moletai, and brought via the demarcation line between Lithuania and Poland (then Lithuania did not recognize the border established after the Pilsudski-initiated military capture of Vilnius in 1920). The grave, with the inscription “Mother and her son’s heart,” is a place for pilgrimage of Polish tourists and there were angry remarks about theatrically loud and aggressively chauvinistic behavior by these tourists from the audience during the discussion over Juozaitis’ drama in the Museum of Lithuanian Theater, Music and Cinema.
Neither Pilsudski nor Dzerzhinsky joined the Lithuanian national movement of the beginning of the 20th century. Neither envisaged an independent existence for Lithuania. Both are considered as the darkest historical personalities in Lithuania. Both were typical ‘Poles’ of the Vilnius region: one was a Lithuanian-turned-Pole while the other arrived from modern-day Belarus. Pilsudski could speak Lithuanian. Izidorius Simelionis, a Lithuanian born in the territory which now belongs to Belarus, wrote in lrytas.lt that, in 1928, he and other schoolchildren met with Pilsudski, who then was the Polish state leader, and their conversation was held in the Lithuanian language.
According to Juozaitis, Pilsudski and Dzerzhinsky, being schoolboys, were possibly smoking in the same yard during breaks between lessons because both of them attended the same Russian school in Vilnius. The school was situated in Vilnius University. The university then was closed by the Russian czar due to the uprising of Lithuanians against the occupation by czarist Russia. Many years later, Pilsudski, as the head of the Polish state, recalled that Dzerzhinsky “distinguished himself as a student with delicacy and modesty.”
Juozaitis told the audience that, despite similarities in their biographies, the characters of Pilsudski and Dzerzhinsky had some differences. Pilsudski had many women in his life. “At one time, he was married to two women,” Juozaitis said. The religious beliefs of Pilsudski were unclear until his death: Christians of various denominations still discuss it in Poland. Dzerzhinsky, in his youth, was a very devout Catholic. He planned to study in a seminary for future Catholic priests. He avoided women in his youth. Later, Dzerzhinsky kept to only one woman, his wife Sofia, whom he loved madly and was faithful to her till the end of his days.
During the presentation of the new drama, Juozaitis accented that both Pilsudski and Dzerzhinsky were brought up in a typical way for a majority of that era’s families of Lithuanian nobility, which believed that the huge Lithuanian Grand Duchy, with close ties to Poland, should be recreated.
After their school years, Dzerzhinsky and Pilsudski turned into revolutionaries. Dzerzhinsky was a member of the Lithuanian Social Democratic Party and, consequently, became one of the founders of the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania. Pilsudski was a member of the Polish Socialist Party. Pilsudski was persecuted by the czarist regime for being indirectly involved in the anti-czarist plot, where the elder brother of Lenin was active. According to Juozaitis, Dzerzhinsky and Pilsudski could have met during one of their imprisonments, in 1900, in the same Warsaw Citadel prison (Poland was a part of Russia then).
“Pilsudski faked insanity in the prison. The czarist administration was humane: a straitjacket was put on him and he was brought to Saint Petersburg for treatment, but he escaped there and became a terrorist,” Juozaitis said.
Juozaitis said ironically, “We should thank Pilsudski that Vilnius has no tram.” In 1908, Pilsudski, with a group of socialists in Bezdonys near Vilnius, attacked the train going from Saint Petersburg to Vilnius and carrying 200,000 Russian czarist rubles for the construction of a tram line in Vilnius. The attackers took the money. Such attacks were popular in those times among Russian revolutionaries. In 1907, Stalin organized an identical attack on a train carrying money near Tbilisi.
During the presentation of the drama performance, documentary movies were shown, such as the march of Polish troops in Vilnius in the 1920s. “The Lithuanian troops marched through the same street, just in the opposite direction, in 1939,” Juozaitis said.
The performance by Juozaitis presents dialogues between Dzerzhinsky and Pilsudski in Purgatory, which was placed by Juozaitis, in the drama, under the foundation of the building of Gate of Dawn, the Vilnius Catholic shrine with its miraculous painting of St. Mary.
Theater actors Gediminas Storpirstis and Aleksas Kazanavicius played the roles of Pilsudski and Dzerzhinsky, presenting some pieces of the “The Heart in Vilnius.”
“I wanted to conquer Moscow and to create Rzeczpospolita [the Polish word meaning ‘republic’ and referring to the historical commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania] with you, not with Lenin and Stalin,” Kazanavicius-Dzerzhinsky said, talking further about “the Vilnius empire,” and adding, “I was lonely in the sea of Slavs.”
“And Poles are not Slavs?” Storpirstis-Pilsudski asked.
There are more personages in the drama. Pilsudski’s mother, appearing in the drama, complains that her son disturbed her after her death. Another two Lithuanian nobility-origin personages (both were Lithuania-friendly and died in the 2000s) also come to Purgatory: Nobel Prize-awarded poet Czeslaw Milosz and France-based writer Jerzy Giedroyc. “I showed Giedroyc as a giant of culture and a unifier of both nations,” Juozaitis said, adding that Milosz is presented in the drama as a jolly drunkard.
Balys Sruoga, Lithuanian writer and professor at Vilnius University who, in 1943, was imprisoned by the Germans in the Nazi concentration camp in Stutthof (now Poland) together with a big group of Lithuanian intellectuals and Catholic priests for the successful boycott campaign of Lithuanian SS troops (such troops were never created due to that boycott) also appears in Purgatory. “Sruoga recognized Pilsudski as a killer of Lithuanians and took him by the throat,” Juozaitis said about the episode in the performance.
Vladas Turcinavicius, head of the Museum of Vincas Kreve-Mickevicius (a writer, Vilnius University professor and politician who died in the USA in 1954), was the moderator of the presentation of the performance. Turcinavicius said that the Polish imperialism factor struck him when he was investigating the activity of Kreve-Mickevicius, who was also the head of the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union which, in 1923, was active in capturing the Klaipeda region for Lithuania from the French administration – then Poland also had the desire to take control over Klaipeda.
Turcinavicius pointed to the still flourishing belief of some Poles in their nation’s messianic mission in this world. “Germany was capable of rejecting its ideology of the messianic mission of the Germans. So, Germany is a higher civilization,” Turcinavicius said.
Juozaitis disagreed with this statement, pointing out that Germany was forced by other powers to reject its messianic ideology after WWII. However, Juozaitis agreed that the messianic worldview is very strong in Poland and the ideas about Poland and the Polish language as the ultimate good for all the neighbors is a religious-style common conviction there, while the personality of Pilsudski is worshiped “without any reservation” in Poland. “Germans were in power in Latvia for 800 years, but they did not force Latvians to pray in German,” Juozaitis said about the historical differences between German and Polish attitudes in Latvia and Lithuania.
“The messianic beliefs of Poles were fueled by their feeling of being a victim of czarist Russia and Germany,” Juozaitis said.