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Francesca Jūratė Sasnaitis is an Australian-born writer and artist of Lithuanian background. Originally from Melbourne, she now lives in Perth where she is a doctoral candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Western Australia. She has recently completed her first novel, Summerlands, which is partially based on her family’s experience of war and forced migration. Her research interests include catastrophe, exile, alienation, the burdens of transgenerational memory, and image embedded text. In collaboration with artist and printmaker Marian Crawford, she has published several limited-edition artists’ books, including GINTARAS—AMBER. Her poetry, short fiction, and essays have been published online and in various print journals, including the Poetry d’Amour anthologies, Donnithorne Street Press publications, Southerly Journal, Mūsų Pastogė Australian Lithuanian Weekly, Cordite Poetry Review, Westerly Magazine, Meniscus Literary Journal, and Pasaulio Lietuvis, amongst others.

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Graphic Novels

Francesca Jūratė Sasnaitis, Ignas, 2 metų.

 

By Francesca Jūratė Sasnaitis

 

Writing, in its noblest function, is the attempt to unerase, to unearth, to find the
primitive picture again, ours, the one that frightens us.
—Hélène Cixous

 

Sometime I would like to write a book (I have written a book)
            but here I begin by telling a story. There is not enough time or space
            to tell the whole story
            but at least I make a beginning.

            There are many ways to begin, all involve digging—

            Excavation.

            One way to begin is with a book. Another is with family,
            those who remain, and those who do not.
            Another way is with a photograph
            and another way is with a journey. Yes,
            all involve unearthing, dismantling,
            taking to pieces the past and the future,
            but no matter what people say, regardless of the vehemence of their denials,
            the first story begins with family.

Let me begin with mine—

            My name is Francesca Jurate Kristina Sasnaitis. And I am Australian.
            No, that can’t be right.
            I am—Aš esu
            Pranciška Jūratė Kristina Sasnaitytė. Ir aš esu lietuvaite.

            Am I Lithuanian? No,
            that’s not right.

            My parents are Lithuanian, I was born here, in Australia.
            My parents were refugees.
            They came to Australia and met in Torquay, Victoria,
            places that sound British—I should have been English.
            No, that’s impossible. My parents should never have met.
            I should not be here.

Perhaps I should begin with a fairy-tale—

            My parents are Hänsel and Gretel abandoned in the forest.
            The world outside is the forest full of wicked, dangerous beings.
            The outside world is not to be trusted.
            The gingerbread house is their salvation.
            The gingerbread house is built of their hopes and dreams.
            The experiment is bound to fail.

My parents saw terrible things in The War—

            I have the piece of shrapnel that wounded my father in the neck
            and saved his life. I remember the day
            my mother locked the door of her home
            and threw the key into the gutter—
            she was thirteen. I see her clearly
            but I don’t remember the day I first heard that story.

            Their common background and experience brought my parents together.
            Fear made them cling to each other.
            The marriage was not happy.

            These are statements of fact.

Francesca Jurate Sasnaitis a01
Francesca Jurate Sasnaitis a02

I grew up with tales of Home:
            my father’s rural idyll;
            my mother’s cosmopolitan city inhabited by sophisticates and intellectuals
            (my job is to reconcile the two).

            My parents bequeathed to me a nostalgia for places I have never seen;
            for places I can never visit
            because they have been obliterated
            or because they never existed, these
            places that exist only in a lost time.

            My parents bequeathed to me a nostalgia for people I have never met
            because they are dead, or distant,
            and events I have never experienced
            because those, too, are impossible.

            Scholar Marianne Hirsch coined a term for what I remember
            and why those memories are more important than my own—
            ‘postmemory’[1] (or ‘fictive memory’,
                                         if you prefer).

Today I began with family.
But I might have begun with a book—

            the ideal book, the apotheosis of a book, the one repository
            of all knowledge, all connection, all elaborations.

This Book is a museum.

This Book contains—
            wilful silences and unintentional silences
            repressed and half-remembered memories
            fantasies
            dreams
            nightmares      

This Book is always in process—
            always attempting
            a journey (the journey is in the writing and the reading).

            To turn the pages of this book is to remember
            and remembering is essential
            to verify the world; to redeem the past.

This Book, with which I began a second time
            has become the idea of a book, my idea,
            a receptacle filled with thoughts, concepts, visions,
            which might be an actual book or
            a reticule, album, work of art, article, artefact or

            a photograph.

            ‘The true content of a photograph is invisible,’ wrote John Berger,
            ‘for it derives from a play, not with form, but
            with time.’[2]

            Absence is what gives photographs their emotional charge.
            Why not say it straight out? Not absence, loss, I’m talking about loss.
            Loss is the reason looking is so painful.
            Yes, I am looking for something (who? what?) and find only loss—
            which brings me back to
            excavation
            and the impetus behind this excavation of the past—family
            or the absence of family.

Francesca Jurate Sasnaitis a03

My grandmother died in 2000—she was nearly ninety-seven.
            Before she died, she saw her beloved mother again,
            the mother she had not seen since 1940. 

            A little over a year later in New York City, the World Trade Centre fell.
            The world watched as I read Fury (2001) by Salman Rushdie.
            The book seemed prophetic (I have never been able to watch
                                               the footage
                                               the fall).

            For some reason, I associate my grandmother’s death with the fall of the towers.

My father died in 2006.
            In 1990, when I ‘returned’ for the first time to Višeikiai (a town that is missing from Google Maps), the house in which my father grew up was still standing, a sad, decrepit version of itself. Now only a barn and the foundations of a farmhouse remain.

            The village, at the centre of which stood my father’s family home, at the heart of which his family was loved and respected no longer exists. Instead, there is a stone set by the side of a muddy track through a seemingly empty landscape commemorating the families who once lived there—čia gyveno

            Bumeliai
            Burkai
            Čepinskai
            Dunauskai
            Frankos
            Galiūnai
            Juknos
            Kazakevičiai
            Kazilioniai
            Leimontai
            Luičvaikiai
            Mazurevičiai
            Mažuknos
            Pakelčiai
            Pašiškevičiai
            Petrušoniai
            Pinkevičiai
            Ramulioniai
            Rimgailos
            Ruoniai
            Sasnauskai (my family, before my father changed his surname to Sasnaitis in a
                               youthful act of patriotism)

            Stasiūnai
            Šimoliūnai
            Špakiai
            Tankūnai
            Užpurai
            Zuokai

One after another, names graved on a polished slab.
Granite—
all that remains of a vanished way of life.

Francesca Jurate Sasnaitis a04
Francesca Jurate Sasnaitis a05

That might have been mine, I cannot help thinking,
            mano paveldėjimas—my inheritance; I might have ‘belonged’
            I think, and my heart breaks. I have no place there;
            I have no place here—I do not fit.
            Don’t we all feel that way?
            Or only the children of refugees? of Displaced Persons? of survivors?
            And the survivors themselves? How does it feel to escape
            mass destruction, mass dislocation, genocide?

In 1948, on her way to Australia, my twenty-one-year-old mother wrote her diary in English to practise for her new country:

How nice would it be to travel under normal conditions, to do whatever you like. But we are only Displaced Persons and can enjoy life only from the outside, we are no longer enough to be members of world society. I am sometimes afraid this depressing feeling will never leave me. It will be twice as hard for me as my character asks to be accepted as full member of society.

I am blessed to have the few pages of her diary, which she did not feel obliged to excise, which she gave to me many years ago, and which I have used verbatim, with only slight alteration, to lend veracity to the fictions I have invented from my parents’ lives.

In 1955, the Yiddish writer Chaim Grade returned to Lithuania from exile in Russia and published his detailed impressions of the remains of the Vilnius ghetto in The Seven Little Lanes (Der mames shabosim, Chicago, 1955).

            ‘None of us are saved. We merely survived,’[3] wrote Grade.

I do not claim the experience of the Holocaust as my own, neither the enormity of that horror nor the enormity of that loss, or only in as much as we must all feel the horror of that genocide, of every genocide, and the unremitting pain of that loss.

            The pain of loss, the pain that has broken a heart,
            this enormous pain,
            this pain fills the space of a life.

In 2015, too late to share my discovery of the genealogical website for the Memel/Klaipėda Region[4] with my grandmother, I found out that she, a widow, was listed as the resident of Nr. 7 Ferdinando gatvė (No. 7 Ferdinand Street) from 1929 to 1942, when the records stop.

            Nothing remains of my grandmother’s residence. The street was bombed, the house destroyed. Perhaps the street has been renamed; perhaps its route was changed.

In 2015, before my mother died, I found out what happened to her childhood friend. This was not easy to do. Her friend’s name was Sigi Simon, which is like asking someone to find out what happened to my friend John Smith. Naturally, she didn’t know his father’s name, he was always Mr Simon, but she did know that they lived across the road from Nr. 7.
            I found out that Ida Burstein, the wife of Chatzkel Simon, businessman and factory owner, was listed as the owner of Nr. 6 Ferdinando gatvė from 1926 to 1935. Their children, Hanna, Shashana, and Siegfried ‘Sigi’ Jakob Simon, my mother’s best-friend, lived in No. 6 with their parents.

            Between 1935 and 1942, there are no records.

            By 1942, there is no further mention of a Burstein or a Simon.

Chatzkel SIMON
            born 1897 in Kretinga, died 1941 in Lithuania (city unknown)
            cause of death: Holocaust

Ida BURSTEIN-SIMON, wife
            born 1902 in Pilkalnis, died 1941 in Kaunas
            or died 1944 in Stutthof concentration camp (you choose)
            cause of death: Holocaust

Siegfried Jakob SIMON, son
            born 1931 in Klaipėda, died 1941 in Lithuania (he was only 10 years old)
            cause of death: Holocaust

            Yes, the website really uses that term—
            Todesursache: Holocaust

And there are more—
            Chatzkel’s two daughters and his two brothers
            Ida’s mother, two brothers and three sisters
            their spouses and children and more
            and more
            died in Klaipėda, Kaunas, Vilnius (perhaps)
            died in Lithuania or Stuffhof (Sztutowo, Poland)
            died in 1941, 1944, 1945.

            By 1945, the family of my mother’s best-friend are all dead.

In 2015, I confirmed what my mother already knew.
            I cannot say she was ‘happy’ to have her fears confirmed,
            only that it is better to know.

The book is the Book.
            Still to be read,
            still to be written,
            always already written,
            always already paralysed by reading,
            the book constitutes the condition for every possibility of reading and writing.[5]

Sometime I will open the book
            and begin—

My mother died in 2016. After the death of my mother
            I fear I will never again be called by name,
            the name I grew up with
            spoken in the accents of my childhood.
            The Australian version of my name makes a stranger of me,
            something I have learned to live with.

I am not the same person at home as I am in world—
            I fear no one will recognise me.
            In the street, no one will stop me and say, Aha!
            you must hail from the Klaipėda Region;
            your face belongs in Pakruojis.

            I trawl through mountains of photographs
            and find my semblance in images I have never seen before (each parent kept a hidden stash). Here and there I recognise—

            my forehead
            my nose
            my cheekbone
            my mouth
            the tilt, the droop, the fault of time
            but never my whole self in one face

Francesca Jurate Sasnaitis a06
Francesca Jurate Sasnaitis a07
Francesca Jurate Sasnaitis a08
Francesca Jurate Sasnaitis a09

I am frantic with searching.
            I fear I will never find what I seek.
            I find only younger versions of people I cannot have known,
            people whose lost youth I mourn as if it were mine;
            for whose losses I must somehow compensate.

In Lithuania, there are archivists, genealogists, historians of place, collectors of faces, photographs, and memorabilia
            honouring what once was.
            But I do not know them
            and they do not know me.

In Australia, I am the last of my family.
            It is strange to be the last in a line, to hold all that past
            to no purpose; with no one to treasure these memories after I’m gone.

Here—
            I build a narrative from fragments
            to reclaim what is lost; to enshrine
            what I alone remember

            the last witness.

 

[1] Hirsch, Marianne. ‘The Generation of Postmemory’. Poetics Today 29 1 (2008): pp 103-28.

[2] Berger, John. Understanding a Photograph. London: Penguin, 2013. p. 19.

[3] Grade, Chaim. The Seven Little Lanes. Trans. Curt Leviant. New York, N.Y.: Bergen-Belsen Memorial Press, 1972. p. 28.

[4] ‘Family report, local heritage book Memelland’. genealogy.net. Web. Accessed 15 Feb.

  1. http://www.online-ofb.de/famreport.php?ofb=memelland&ID=I90433

[5] Blanchot, Maurice. ‘The Absence of the Book.’ Station Hill Blanchot Reader: Fiction and Literary Essays. Barrytown, NY, USA: Station Hill, 1999. p. 471.

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