Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.
Tuesday, 21 June 2011
Vilnius. Photo by Philip Capper
For many years now, in the summer/Trinity term, I’ve been attending and latterly co-convening the Central European History seminar. One of our speakers this term was an Oxford graduate student who is writing his doctoral thesis on the interwar Vilnius dispute – that is, the diplomatic standoff created when in 1920 Polish troops seized the city claiming it was historically Polish, to the horror of the Lithuanians who claimed it as the capital of an independent Lithuania.
It was particularly interesting to hear Donatas talk about his research, because my grandmother grew up in Vilnius in the 1920s. Whereas Donatas talks about documents in
the British Foreign Office archives relating to the dispute, Lord Curzon’s bemused reactions and the frustrations of Lithuanian diplomats, my grandmother talks about the city’s festivals, street markets, the Jewish and Karaite communities, the divination rituals traditional on All Souls night and, indeed, sleigh-rides in the snow. Her stories make interwar Vilnius feel like the setting for a magical realist novel – back in 2002 the American novelist Jonathan Safran Foer did in fact write a prize-winning magical realist novel, Everything is Illuminated,based on his own grandmother’s recollections of her pre-war Ukrainian village.
I was struck by the distance between Donatas’ research in public archives on the diplomatic battles over interwar Vilnius, and the memories of a child growing up in that contested space, the private family oral archive, if you will. Those two narratives of 1920s’ Vilnius don’t contradict one another, but they are radically different in their textures and concerns. It’s this potentially difficult tension between a public/national history, and one’s own personal family histories, which is one of the reasons why I don’t work on 20C Poland/Lithuania, fascinating field though it is. I would find it hard to work in archives with my grandmother’s voice at my ear, hard to keep the sources at arm’s length, and hard, in fact, to stand back and (as a professional historian) study my own close relatives as historical actors.