Rare glimpse into a lost world

  • 2001-02-15
  • Howard Jarvis
RIGA - Lithuania Minor is a region most Lithuanians hold dear. The first Lithuanian book was published there in 1547. In the decades leading up to Lithuanian independence in 1918, as Lithuania rediscovered its national identity, it was a major source of cultural and literary inspiration. But where exactly is it?

Lithuania Minor is part of historical East Prussia, the northern half of which is now RussiaÕs beleaguered region of Kaliningrad. Most Western historians quietly avoid using the term, nervous it might hide some Lithuanian nationalist claim on the area.

Folklore expert Norbertas Velius claims in his book ÒLietuvininku krastasÓ that the heart of Lithuania Minor is a triangle between the Nemunas and Pregolya rivers, including the towns of Tilze, Isrutis and Labguva.

Today, the land around Sovietsk, Chernyakhovsk and Polessk, as these towns are now known, is a concrete desert of post-Soviet smog and indifference.

As part of German-ruled Prussia, which extended as far north as Klaipeda, Lithuania Minor was considered an isolated backwater inhabited by a different people who managed to preserve their language and customs throughout the centuries. The first books in Lithuanian, mostly religious, were published in nearby Koenigsberg.

As the period of national awakening reached its climax at the end of the 19th century, the center for Lithuanian-language publishing switched to Tilze (Tilsit in German).

Books and periodicals were smuggled from there across the River Nemunas into Lithuania, then occupied by czarist Russia. If caught, the "book-carriers", as they were called, risked long prison sentences and deportation to Siberia.

Domas KaunasÕ ÒMazosios Lietuvos veidai ir vaizdaiÓ (Faces and Images of Lithuania Minor; Vilnius: Seimas Publishing House, 2000) captures these fascinating times perfectly. It is a collection of old photographs from the family album of the Lithuanians, dating from the 1880s to 1940.

Unfortunately, there is no English translation of the Lithuanian captions, only German, but long bodies of text are avoided (unusual for Lithuanian books of this sort). Kaunas leaves it to the expressions and poses of the people in the pictures to tell their story.

A wonderfully glum old lady sits in her national holiday costume. Children, some named, others unknown, stare silently at the camera, unaware of coming wars.

There are farmers and fishermen, soldiers and sailors, merchants and peasants, placed next to rare glimpses of how the beautiful provincial capital of Koenigsberg once looked.

Among the photographs of cultural figures in the book, the Symbolist dramatist Vilius Storasta (1868-1957), known as Vydunas, stands out, his thick wave of hair and charismatic stubble distinguishing him in group portraits of Lithuanian folklore societies.

Coffee table albums on this part of East Prussia are rare and certainly non-existent in book stores in Kaliningrad. This book helps to fill the void, but you are left begging for more information about this lost world.