For All Nails #44A: Un Québécois Errant
by Randy McDonald
"Un Canadien errant,
banni de ses foyers"
-- Traditional 19th century song
It is a matter of common knowledge that we Québécois constitute a nation that traces its ancestry from the soil, from a dynamic colonizing peasantry deeply attached to soil. Too often, we neglect to realize that we Québécois are the products of innumerable soils: not only the heavy soils of the St. Lawrence valley, but Irish peat and Breton rocks, Lithuanian loam and Flemish marshlands, and innumerable others. In the course of our nation's modernization, we have absorbed as our own individuals from dozens of different peoples to become an authentically planetary people.
Le Devoir's award-winning journalist André-Philippe Maeterlinck is a Québécois journalist whose ancestry -- habitant, Irish, Flemish, and Lithuanian -- reflects the diversity of our nation. Here, in the pages of Le Devoir, M. Maeterlinck shall explore in five parts the sources of his nation and himself. We can only understand ourselves if we understand all of the component strains of the Québécois nation; these articles are intended for the benefit of all Québécois.
Gratien LA BONTÉ, Editor-in-chief, Le Devoir de Montréal
La Presse, 31 August 1972
Section E "Séjour on the Daugava"
My mother Joanne Marie Malinauskas was the daughter of a good habitant woman from Trois-Rivières -- Marianne Trudel -- who went to the West End of Montréal to marry a Lithuanian Catholic, Leonas Malinauskas. I knew that my grandfather was Lithuanian, and I could find Lithuania on atlases of the world. What I knew of my grandfather's ethnicity, though, came from things that I learned in passing: He spoke French with an unusual accent; his brothers' and parents' name sounded Latinate; he was even more Catholic than his wife; and, the closest major city to his home farm was Daugavpils. Leonas Malinauskas wasn't interested in talking about his life before he came to Québec, and so when he died one bright spring day at the Hospice St. Sulpice in 1955 his family remained ignorant of that part of his life.
I never suffered from this vagueness -- this ignorance -- with respect to my other grandparents. This lacuna in my family history made it inevitable, then, that I would go to Lithuania before I visited Brittany, or Ireland, or Austrasia, and so I went. Coming to Lithuania was easy: Scandinavia is a free-trading state par excellence, and the Baltic grand duchies that are part of that happy kingdom in all but name and sovereign are even more committed to limiting passport checks than the Kingdom proper. As the customs officer in Kaunas said to me with a smile when I handed him my passport at the aeromobile tarmac, "Where would Lithuania be without the Russian transit trade to Germany and the Ukrainian trade with Scandinavia?"
Or without its emigrants. Lithuania is a nation of emigrants. There are five million Lithuanians inside the country of Lithuania, another half-million in the Memel, Suwalki, and Vilnia districts, and two million Lithuanians living outside geographical Lithuania. As elsewhere in central Europe, this emigration was driven by poverty, and, in the generation after independence, by no small measure of political instability. Quebec received a few of these emigrants around the beginning of the 20th century -- one hundred thousand, the Congrès lithuanien du Québec estimated in last year's report -- but far more went elsewhere, to the Confederation of North America and the United States of Mexico, to Argentina and Australia. The Global War closed down most of Lithuania's traditional outlets of emigration, and the current generation of Lithuanian emigrants now makes its home in Latvia and Scandinavia.
The province of Latgale has produced more than its share of Lithuanian emigrants, since Latgale is the poorest province of Lithuania. As it so happens, not only is there a Latgalian genealogical research centre of some kind hard by the Daugava FN1, but Latgale's capital is Daugavpils. I wrote a letter to the Genealogical Institute requesting the institute's help in tracking down one Leonas Malinauskas, a man who emigrated from Latgale in 1908 at 21. Marija Himputas, the centre's director, wrote back to me in excellent French to inform me that if I could come to Daugavpils, she would be more than happy to help me navigate the centre's files.
And so I left for the Old World.
I spent ten days in Lithuania, and this proved to me that Lithuania is a distinctive country that rarely, if at all, fits into a single category imposed on it from the outside. Unlike the other two Baltic grand duchies, and certainly unlike the Kingdom of Scandinavia, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania is an overwhelmingly Catholic country; of its five million citizens FN2, more than 90% profess Roman Catholicism. Lithuanian Roman Catholicism is quite fervent; I spent two Sundays at Kaunas Cathedral, and on both days the church was filled, almost to the point where the crowds spilled out on the Rotusès aikstê plaza.
The Church in Lithuania has earned itself an enduring position in the hearts of Lithuanians by its defense of Lithuania's nationhood. It was only the conversion of Lithuania's Grand Duke Jogaila that saved the Lithuanians from meeting the same fate at the hands of the brutal Teutonic Knights suffered by the Prussians; it was only the Roman Catholic Church that preserved Lithuania's language and traditions under a century of brutal Russian rule. Without the Roman Catholic Church, Lithuania would be extinct. It certainly came close enough.
Lithuania, somewhat like France, is a country that lost its empire and has never recovered from the shock. The historical Grand Duchy of Lithuania was, in the 14th and 15th centuries, a vast state that extended over all Minsk and deep into Poland and the Russias, with a mostly Slavic population. The modern Grand Duchy of Lithuania covers only a fraction of that territory, not even the entire ethnic population of Lithuanians: The Polish district of Suvalki and the Minsk district of Vilnia each have their own large Lithuanian populations, Vilnia once having been considered Lithuania's future capital. In the German Empire, the city of Memel has historically been peopled by Lithuanians; to this day, they say that if you walk down the streets of this German port city on the shore of the Nieman river you are as likely to hear Lithuanian spoken as German. Vilnia, Suvalki, and Memel aren't likely to be included in the country of Lithuania, though, regardless of whatever ethnographic claims could be legitimately made on Lithuanians' behalf.
Once, Lithuania was threatened by Russia. The 19th century was the century that saw the rebirth of Lithuanian language and culture; it was also the century that saw the Tsarist knout, and the tsarist terror in the Bloody Eighties. Roman Catholicism was persecuted; the Lithuanian and Polish languages, both, with their script, banned from print and even speech; ambitious plans made but never drafted to alternatively resettle the Lithuanians in Siberia or to bring a million Great Russians to raze Lithuania's forests and build their homes from the debris. Lithuania's emigration began in the Bloody Eighties. In the goodness of time, Tsardom fell and Lithuania was freed by its people from the Russian yoke.
Now, always present in the mind of Lithuanians is the vast German Empire that, directly or through its satellites states, almost entirely surrounds Lithuania. The Lithuanian Ministry of Defense hasn't let even the vaguest inkling of its defense plans to percolate from its brick headquarters in Kaunas, but everyone knows that if the unthinkable happened Lithuania would be lucky to last even a week against overwhelming German forces. Lithuania is immensely vulnerable, and not all of Scandinavia's security guarantees can change this basic fact. At any moment, the latest generation of the Teutonic Knights could cross into Lithuania and initiate a new phase of the drang nach osten after Karl Bruning. Kaunas could become the next Metz before anyone could act on Lithuania's behalf.
But enough of these depressing meditations on a possibility that shall surely never come to pass. These dark prospects, though, are absent from the fabric of Lithuanian life. Lithuania is an anomaly in the neat, rationalized, post-Lutheran culture of greater Scandinavia, but it is a refreshingly human anomaly. Lithuania is Central European like Poland, but I've seen in Kaunas and Daugavpils a greater energy -- a brilliant grounded whimsiness, if you will, an ability to leaven even the most difficult things -- that is lacking in Krakow and Warsaw. Their Catholic faith is important, of course, but it is leavened by freedom. The Lithuanians have their imported monarch, just like the Poles, but Lithuania's Grand Duke Michael has shed his Danish ancestry to be a strong Roman Catholic who rolls his "l"s like any Samogitian peasant. They say that Poland's king still speaks Polish with a German accent. FN3 The Lithuanians have a marvellous capacity for assimilation, for enduring the vagaries of climate and cruel empires to reach the present day intact.
Kaunas is the largest city in Lithuania, and it is the richest city in Lithuania, but it does not lack for competitors. Memel, for instance -- what Lithuanians call Klaipeda -- is Lithuanian in all but name: When the Russian Empire banned the use of Lithuania's Latin alphabet, it was the Lithuanians of Memel who kept written Lithuanian alive, and daytrips into this detached corner of Lithuania are apparently quite common. There is also Siauliai, that ancient city FN4 and its magnetic Hill of Crosses (since the 14th century, Lithuanians seeking to memorialize their dead and their faith have contributed to what is now a veritable forest of crosses).
And then, there is Daugavpils.
Daugavpils was first mentioned in historical sources in 1275, when the Teutonic Order began to build a stone castle -- Dinaburg -- to replace the wooden castles of Latgale and securely administer this distant German colonial frontier. Around the castle a trading city built up, and in the 15th century the castle was conquered by the Lithuanians. Lithuanian Daugavpils has remained despite the inevitable name changes: The city has been Polish Dinaburg, briefly Russian Borisoglebsk, then Dinaburg again, then Russian Dvinsk, and only after independence Lithuanian Daugavpils.
Daugavpils is the centre of the eccentric province of Latgale. Lithuania is a homogeneous society, more so than Scandinavia or even Latvia with their own well-established minorities and recent immigrants. The near-totality of Lithuanians speak Lithuanian and practice Roman Catholicism. There was once a large Jewish community in southern Lithuania, but their poverty has caused most Lithuanian Jews to emigrate, before the Global War to the New World, after the Global War to Scandinavia. (Even now, they say that almost all of the Jews in Stockholm and Copenhagen are first- or second-generation Lithuanian émigrés.) The fringes of historical Lithuania are more heterogeneous, between Germanized Memel, Polonized Suvalki, Minsked Vilnia, and the vast territories once part of the historic Grand Duchy, but then there are not part of the modern Grand Duchy. It is only in Daugavpils, and its province Latgale, that this heterogeneity comes close to collapse.
For a time in the 19th century, Latgale came close to being part of Lutheran Latvia -- Latgale is firmly Roman Catholic, but the Daugava river that runs through it meets the sea at Rîga -- but perhaps fortunately this fate was avoided. Driving along the locopiste from Kaunas, I saw that the Latgalian countryside was different from the countryside of the rest of Lithuania in that it was pristine: greener, with a brighter sky, with more contented cows feeding. It was a landscape that would not have changed much from my grandfather's time, but would have been vastly different from the snows and pavement of west-end Montréal. I wonder, driving in the locomobile, how he managed the psychic shift from peasantry to urbanity. It's always easier to think of the Québécois and Lithuanian transitions from rural peasant societies to urban mass societies in general, in terms of entire populations thrust forward by inevitable forces; thinking of individual people effecting this shift is more difficult.
Daugavpils is a pretty city, even if it doesn't seem to have any industries. The transit trade from the Associated Russian Republics to the German Empire, and to the Latvian port of Rîga, seems to provide the city's residents with some of their sustenance -- certainly Latgalian agriculture isn't very productive given the tariffs applied by the German Empire and its satellites to Lithuanian meat and grain and Scandinavia's open markets. Latgale must rank as one of the poorest provinces in all of greater Scandinavia, but Marija Himputas for one is unconcerned.
"So, we Latgalians are poor," she shrugged when I ventured upon this subject. "Our material poverty exists, but it is hardly deprivation: We are not Vietnamese or black Victorians, we are not destitute. If the material poverty is that bad, you can always leave, but we stay more often than not." Himputas smiles as the breeze comes off of the river, and continues: "We Latgalians are no longer so deprived that we cannot recognize our spiritual heritage. Latgale -- and all Lithuania -- is a frontier, is the northernmost Catholic region in Europe. We have a special mission, to our Scandinavian friends and to our German and Russian neighbours. We are proud."
And what of Leonas Malinauskas? I read neither Lithuanian or Russian, and so I depended heavily on Madame Himputas and her translating skill to understand the masses of parochial and state records that constitutes perhaps the most complete genealogical registry to exist in all of Europe, fully on par with our own genealogical registries. With the meagre information that I could provide, Himputas traced the name Leonas Malinauskas to one child of nine in a farm family in the Rezekne district, hard by the Russian frontier. His parents were Lithuanians, but his mother was half-Polish and they owned a country store that catered to the needs of the peasants of Rezekne. When I left Kaunas for Austrasia, I left with the copies and a few translations of the records of the Malinauskas. Even as I write, I am sending the originals over to Montréal for translation into French.
Of the man Leonas Malinauskas, I learned very little. Now, I know that I have relatives in Rezekne, and I have at long last the statistics of Malinauskas' family and his native Rezekne district. I only know the reasons for his existence, the factors that formed him as a personality; his personality remains beyond Earthly recall. But then, I never expected to learn as much as I did.
- By André-Philippe MAETERLINCK, Daugavpils
(Forward to FAN #44B: A Québécois on the Scheldt.)
(Forward to 12 September 1972: A Stiff Northerly Expected.)
(Return to For All Nails.)