Neris, Salomeja (1904–1945)

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Neris, Salomeja (1904–1945)

Lithuanian poet who remains the most popular poet of the Lithuanian language. Name variations: Salomeja Bacinskaite-Buciene or S. Bacinskaite-Buciene. Born Salomeja Bacinskaite in Kirsai, Vilkaviskis-Vilkavishky Raion, Russia (now Lithuania), on November 17, 1904; died in Moscow on July 7, 1945; married Bernardas Bucas (a sculptor); children: one.

Selected works:

Anksti ryta (Early in the Morning, 1927); Pedos smely (Prints in the Sand, 1931); On Thin Ice (1935); Diemedziu zydesiu (I Will Bloom Like the Wormwood, c. 1936); Egle 'alciu karaliene (Egle, Queen of the Snakes, 1940); "Poem to Stalin" (1940); "Yasnaya Polyana" (1942); "Bolseviko kelias" (The Path of the Bolshevik, early 1940s); Dainuok, sirdie, gyvenima (Sing to Life, My Heart, 1943); Lakstingala negali neciulbeti (The Nightingale Cannot Help But Sing, 1945); My Land (posthumously published in Russia, 1947).

Salomeja Neris, Lithuania's most beloved poet, once called her land a "droplet of amber." Situated on the Baltic Sea, with beaches that yield much of the world's amber, Lithuania has a complex history. Despite its small population (estimated at 2.5 million in the mid-1920s and nearly 4 million in the year 2000, though a high percentage are ethnic Russians), medieval Lithuania was for a considerable period one of Eastern Europe's great powers. In 1410, Grand Duke Vytautas, who ruled over a large empire extending from the Baltic to the Black Sea, radically changed the power balance of Eastern Europe by winning the battle of Grünewald, decisively crusing the Teutonic Knights with his Polish, Russian, Czech, and Tartar allies. Lithuania slowly declined after this, with its aristocracy becoming Polonized. Only illiterate peasants continued to speak the Lithuanian language and celebrate traditional folkways, but these would be revived by the Romantic movement of the 19th century. A small but growing group of intellectuals defied the tsarist policy of Russification, calling for a linguistic and cultural renaissance based on the Lithuanian language and spirit. Among the peasantry, the names of pagan divinities, once central to an ancient national mythology, would surface again and again, both in their songs and common speech. Dreams of a free Lithuania had to wait until the world began to change radically in 1914. World War I, which brought about an eclipse of Russian power in the Baltic region, made possible the creation of an independent Lithuanian state in November 1918.

Born Salomeja Bacinskaite in the village of Kirsai near the town of Vilkaviskis, Salomeja Neris could later look back on the first decade of her life as being almost idyllic. Her family were prosperous peasants and, until German troops occupied Lithuania in the autumn of 1915, food was always plentiful. She grew up with a love of the rural landscape and the rich folklore, lyrical folk songs and fairy tales that were an integral part of Lithuania's peasantry. Although a virtual civil war raged until 1920, Salomeja's life was tranquil, as she immersed herself in books. She devoured the classics, Russian, German and other masterpieces of world literature. Soon she began to write verse, and in 1923 saw her first poem appear in print. In 1927, she published her initial collection of verses, Anksti ryta (Early in the Morning). The poems were influenced by the spirit of Romanticism and a conservative Roman Catholic Weltanschauung. A dreamer and idealist, Neris found her favorite authors in those who most deeply stirred her emotions. These included the Romantic and idealist masters Heine, Mickiewicz, and Schiller. She was also influenced by the writings of Goethe, Pushkin, Baudelaire, and Verlaine, and, among her contemporaries, Anna Akhmatova , Rainer Maria Rilke, and Alexander Blok. Throughout her writing career, she cherished these authors' works and translated them into elegant Lithuanian prose and verse.

In 1928, after graduating from the University of Vytautas the Great in Kaunas, Neris began teaching at a rural secondary school. During the next few years, besides writing poems, she witnessed much poverty, for despite having achieved independence, Lithuania remained a poor agrarian country. In the 1920s, estimated adult illiteracy was about 30%, and compulsory education for the population would not be introduced until 1930, largely because of a severe shortage of Lithuanian-speaking teachers. Political repression also marred Lithuanian public life. Early in its independence, the country had abandoned democracy on the pretext of combating an alleged "Communist threat." In December 1926, representing only a minority of the Lithuanian national political spectrum, an anti-Marxist, anti-democratic dictatorship was established through a coup d'etat.

During her first years as a teacher, Neris eagerly sought out new experiences. She traveled to Western Europe and discovered a vibrant intellectual scene that was barely hinted at in her languishing homeland. In the West, she was introduced to the ideas of such innovative writers as Louis Aragon, Bertolt Brecht, and Federico Garcia Lorca, whose influences left their mark on her next book of verse, Pedos smely (Prints in the Sand). This 1931 collection of poems was hailed by critics and embraced by readers for being as melodious as it was passionate.

In 1931, Neris joined a left-wing artists' organization, The Third Front, some of whose members were sympathetic to Communism. To be thus affiliated in an anti-Marxist dictatorship entailed risks, but Neris felt that she had to take a stand, and began to publish poetry of social criticism in Trecias frontas (Third Front), the journal of her new circle of friends. She announced her break with the notion of art for art's sake, vowing: "From now on, I consciously oppose the exploiters of the working class and shall try to combine my work with the actions of the oppressed masses so that my future poetry will become a weapon in their struggle." She declared her sympathy with the revolutionary cause: "I am with those who are not afraid to swim in raging seas." Between 1931 and 1934, many of her verses appeared in the illegal newspapers and journals of the banned Lithuanian Communist Party.

Despite the sometimes dry, humorless ideological prose that Neris chose to use when expositing on her political ideals, she remained a productive artist throughout the 1930s. In her third collection of poems, On Thin Ice (1935), she portrayed the working people of Lithuania as they attempted to free themselves from poverty, ignorance, and oppression. Her next book, Diemedziu zydesiu (I Will Bloom Like the Wormwood), has been read by thousands of Lithuanians. For them, diemedziu (wormwood) symbolizes the continuous, eternal thread of life, and expresses one of the eternal motifs of poetry, the duel that goes on between life and death.

Before I was born
The lilac had blossomed
And after I die
It will bloom as before….

In 1937, Salomeja Neris and her husband, sculptor Bernardas Bucas, settled in Lithuania's capital, Kaunas. Even though her views were abhorrent to the ruling elite, they had to concede that she was a poet of distinction, and her job as a teacher of Lithuanian literature in one of the capital's leading gymnasia, where she was adored by her students, gave her a degree of economic security that few writers had in the 1930s.

The late 1930s marked the rapid end of Lithuania's illusory period of independence as an independent Baltic state. In March 1939, Nazi Germany seized the port city of Memel (Klaipeda), a center through which passed annually three-quarters of Lithuania's exports and two thirds of its imports. In October, after Nazi Germany had defeated Poland in a Blitzkrieg that marked the first act of World War II, Lithuania was forced to sign a pact with the USSR granting the Soviets garrison privileges in the country. In return, Lithuania gained the city and district of Vilnius (Vilna), which had previously been part of Poland. In mid-July 1940, Lithuania's precariously retained independence ended when it was annexed by the Soviet Union, which on August 3 formally admitted it as the 14th constituent republic of the USSR. Although most Lithuanians despaired over these changes, Neris and her friends looked upon them as a dream come true. She wrote an adulatory "Poem to Stalin" and read it as a deputy to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, at the session in which Lithuania was admitted to the Soviet Union. Not everything that flowed from Neris' pen in the fateful year of 1940 was as propaganda-laden, for she also published Egle 'alciu karaliene (Egle, Queen of the Snakes), a narrative poem derived from traditional folk motifs.

Neris had long feared a fascist attack, and it came suddenly in the early hours of June 22, 1941. She was evacuated along with her baby, first to Penza and Ufa, and then finally to Moscow. Neris now felt compelled to write poetry that would rally the people, and her poems became part of spirit of the new Soviet patriotism that Joseph Stalin, abandoning the dogma of Marxist internationalism, would use to win "the Great Patriotic War." With Leningrad besieged by Hitlerite hordes and with advance Nazi columns sighted in the Moscow suburbs, Neris vowed that "the fascist tanks will not pass." Although these words seem prosaic now, at the time they were resonant. Neris wrote simple yet eloquent war poems that spoke of the justness of the Soviet cause, the evil of fascism, and the certainty of final victory. These poems were published immediately, appearing in journals and newspapers not only in Lithuanian but in Russian and other languages

of the Soviet federation. Her verse was circulated in the front-line Lithuanian units of the Red Army and also dropped by Red Air Force planes into Nazi-occupied Lithuania.

Although her health was precarious (she was described by Eduardas Miezelaitis, one of her former students, as "a fragile woman with a courageous heart"), Neris visited combat units as they departed for the front. On one such occasion, in autumn 1942, she read poetry to members of the 16th Lithuanian Infantry Division, which had assembled in Yasnaya Polyana prior to moving to the front. Facing the soldiers who stood in a semi-circle, she read her verse to them from on top of an army truck. Later that day, Neris and Miezelaitis paid a brief visit to the grave of Leo Tolstoy, whose headstone had been desecrated during the occupation of his home by the Nazi invaders. The gravesite had been temporarily restored by some of the Lithuanian troops, and the entire incident so moved Neris that she wrote "Yasnaya Polyana," in honor of the Soviets who had shed so much blood.

Soon after, news filtered back to her of the fierce battles into which the Lithuanian soldiers she had met in Yasnaya Polyana had been thrown. Many, and probably most, of those young men now lay dead on the battlefield. Neris was particularly shaken by one episode related by soldiers who had survived the carnage. After the battle, they had found the body of a dead soldier, his chest riddled with machine gun bullets. In the breast pocket of his tunic, against his heart, there was a blood-stained scrap of newspaper with verse by Neris:

We love our country
By deeds, not words….

Although her wartime poetry was occasioned by the needs of the hour, much of it remains powerful. Writing evocative lyrical poetry was as natural for Neris as breathing, and thus even in works that are blatantly propagandistic, like the long poem Bolseviko kelias (The Path of the Bolshevik), the reader is struck by the juxtaposition between tender lyricism and "harsh, wooden Stalin-worshiping rhetoric." In 1943, with the war still raging, Neris published the book that many readers would later look upon as her artistic testament, the collection of poems and tales in verse entitled Dainuok, sirdie, gyvenima (Sing to Life, My Heart). Still a favorite in Lithuania is the poem that begins:

Sing, my heart, sing without pause,
Of life, and the sun, and the sky,
Of the warm caress of the sandy path,
And of clouds adrift on high.

Salomeja Neris' health collapsed in 1944, and although she was briefly able to return to Lithuania, she soon had to return to Moscow for medical attention. It was here that she died, greatly mourned by her friends and readers, on July 7, 1945. Just before her death, her last collection of poetry, Lakstingala negali neciulbeti (The Nightingale Cannot Help But Sing), was published in recently liberated Kaunas. After her death, the fame of Salomeja Neris continued to grow. For her collection My Land, published in a Russian translation after her death, Neris was posthumously awarded a State Prize of the USSR in 1947. For her wartime efforts, she received the Order of the Great Patriotic War, First Class, and in 1954 was posthumously awarded the title of People's Poet of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. She was also honored by being depicted on a Soviet 40-kopeck postage stamp issued on November 17, 1954. Because of her immense talent and the love of her land which permeates so much of her verse and transcended her political allegiances (and limitations), Salomeja Neris remains hugely popular in post-So-viet Lithuania.


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia