I couldn’t decide whether to write about my mother, who died six years ago today, or the Battle of Grunwald, which occurred 600 years ago on July 15th. I’ve written a lot about my mother in the past. She was almost 85 when she died; she’d been suffering from ovarian cancer for a year. In these past six years I’ve thought about her often, perhaps less so since the book has been accepted and will be coming out soon—I feel I can move on to other themes. She’s a major focus of White Field, Black Sheep: A Lithuanian-American Life. She would have liked the book (then again, she liked everything I wrote); she comes across (I hope) as funny, loving, smart, and a bit neurotic.
I’ve also written, very briefly, about the Battle of Grunwald. When I was in Lithuanian Saturday School, my favorite teacher, Juozas Kreivenas, would talk about the battle in a steady, confident voice, pausing now and then for effect; we third graders were convinced he’d been there himself. He drew diagrams on the blackboard detailing how the wily Lithuanians outwitted the Teutonic Knights. The battle , which we knew as Zalgirio Musis, zal from the work zalias, or green, and girio, from giria,, forest–the same as its German counterpart—was one of the most important events in Lithuanian-Polish history, allowing for the unification of the two countries; they remained a dominating force for several centuries.
I mistakenly typed in Zalgiris instead of Grunwald when I was looking for more information on the internet; one of the first sites that popped up was the homepage of the Zalgiris Euroleague Basketball team. Based in Kaunas, Zalgiris, named after the battle, produced a number of great players, including Arvydas Sabonis. I took this as a sign that there was too much symbolic significance, too many patriotic implications attached to the name (and the event) for me to write anything coherent about it.
Here are links to two poems that say so much more about the battle than I ever could. The first is an excerpt from Zalgiris, written by Sigitas Geda, one of Lithuania’s greatest poets. It’s written from the viewpoint of the Grand Duke Jogaila and appeared several weeks ago in Draguas. (You have to kind of dig around for it on the site.) It’s in Lithuanian:
The second is by the Polish poet Oriana Ivy. My friend John Guzlowkski introduced me to her terrific poetry. The poem is called The Two Swords of Grunwald. It’s in English and is thought-provoking from a number of different angles. . .
My mother opposed patriotic breast-beating of any kind. She abhorred nationalistic self-congratulations. She loved the poetry of Sigitas Geda, and she would have loved The Two Swords of Grunwald.