I Had Nowhere to Go

The 24th of June. The French and the Clubbists, seeing that the affair was becoming serious, and in order to stop the rapid diminution of their supplies, decided on a pitiless expulsion of all the old and sick men, with the women and children, and sent them to Cassel, from whence they were just as pitilessly driven away again. The agony of the unarmed and abandoned wretches, tossed about between internal and external foes, was indescribable.
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Campaign in France in the Year 1792

As I reread these diaries I do not know anymore, is this truth or fiction. It all comes back again, with the vividness of a bad dream that makes you jump up in bed all trembling; I am reading this not as my own life but someone else’s, as if these miseries were never my own. How could I have survived it? This must be somebody else I am reading about.
—Jonas Mekas, August 1985

When, in 1944, Jonas Mekas left the small village in Lithuania where he grew up, he was twenty-two years old and a man of “some reputation,” as he puts it. Editor-in-chief of a weekly paper and a young poet, he had already made a mark in his country’s literary scene. But he was also involved in the local resistance to the German occupation, part of an underground group that published a weekly bulletin of news transcribed from BBC broadcasts, detailing Nazi activities in Lithuania and occupied Europe. When the typewriter on which he typed these bulletins was found, he knew he had to flee. Mekas and his brother Adolfas left for Vienna, where they hoped to study. On July 19, 1944, he wrote in the diary he would keep until the 1950s:

Today our train pulled into Dirschau, near Danzig. This is our eighth day on the road. I am neither a soldier nor a partisan. I am neither physically nor mentally fit for such life. I am a poet. Let the big countries fight. Lithuania is small. Throughout our entire history the big powers have been marching over our heads. If you resist or aren’t careful—you’ll be ground to dust between the wheels of East and West. The only thing we can do, we, the small ones, is try to survive, somehow. That’s why, if luck stays with us, we are on our way to the University of Vienna. I do not want any part of this war.

They never arrived there. Instead, Mekas and his brother were captured and sent to a Nazi forced labor camp near Hamburg. After the war, they ended up in a series of displaced persons camps in Germany, one in a suburb of Kassel. The back cover of I Had Nowhere to Go (1991), Jonas Mekas’s disarming wartime and postwar memoir, reads: “The twentieth century has produced millions of refugees, exiles, and stateless Displaced Persons.” In this, it appears the twenty-first century is little different. As of this writing, refugees from the seemingly never-ending wars and conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Eritrea—each linked, inextricably, to colonial history and Cold War politics—desperately move across the Mediterranean and Aegean seas and north through Europe, seeking safety and the dignity of a future. If the crushing wheels of East and West that Mekas wrote about so acutely have been replaced by those of North and South, it remains that to be displaced and dispossessed is apparently the essential human condition of our age. What follows is an excerpt from a “firsthand account of the life, thoughts, and feelings of a Displaced Person,” by one of the seminal avant-garde filmmakers of the twentieth century.  

—Quinn Latimer

Adolfas Mekas, Jonas Mekas, Overlooking Kassel/Mattenberg D.P. Camp (1948), gelatin silver print, 43.2 × 55.9 cm

Jonas Mekas, Found Photo (1946), gelatin silver print, 43.2 × 55.9 cm

May 29, 1945

We are at Camp Mürwik.*

We are with the Baltic refugees. There are over forty Lithuanians here and many Estonians and Latvinians. We sleep on the floor, on blankets. No beds.

Again we are in barracks. But there is a difference now: the war is over. Everybody’s in high spirits. And they give us more to eat. Every second day, besides our regular daily rations, the Red Cross gives us 300 grams of black bread, 50 grams of butter, plus some biscuits, marmalade, chocolate.

They moved the German sailors out of the barracks next to ours. They didn’t allow them to take any of their belongings. You had to see how the inhabitants of our barracks rushed for these miserable “treasures.” They are dragging, they are carrying anything they can lift, like ants. Shoes, rucksacks, cigarettes, beds, chairs.

Right now they are after the cars. It’s an epidemic. They found one in the forest, and they drove it in. Now they all want one. A bunch of them went out, to a German farm, and simply drove the German’s car out of his garden. A hundred yards further they rammed it into a tree and left it there, smashed. Now they are hunting for other possibilities.

Yesterday, the last French prisoners left our barracks for home. Tomorrow the Dutch go and a few days later, the Russians.

How happy they are to be leaving!

I am looking at them. No, they don’t look like slaves any longer. They are slowly regaining their lost centers. It will take a long time to heal all the wounds, many deep, invisible wounds—but who wants to think about that now? Their eyes are focused on their homelands. Their voices are exulted, their faces. I see it all, and I silently reflect on my own state. Ah, what will happen to us? When are we, Lithuanians, going home? No ecstasy in our faces.

I am sick of their talking. Banalities. Eternal complaining even now. They are driving me out of my mind.

Terrible noise in our room. Can’t read, can’t write. Maybe I should get up earlier. I could write while they sleep.

Jonas Mekas, Children, Wiesbaden D.P. Camp (1946), gelatin silver print, 43.2 × 55.9 cm

June 9, 1945

The last Russian war prisoner left our barracks today. For home. The “official” communists are leaving in raised, or more correctly, loud spirits, cursing Germany and all those who remain in it. Others are more silent. There are rumors that those who refuse to leave are taken by force. Some, they say, have been shot by politruks. Still others have committed suicide. If you don’t want to go home—you are an enemy of the State. A simple logic. The British and the Americans are playing “neutrals,” permitting the Soviet army to manipulate the prisoners.

Dimitri, from our barracks, racked his brain the whole week. To go or not to go. In the evening he decides one thing, in the morning another.

“You know, I can’t sleep at night. All night long I am thinking, thinking. And I am not any wiser, I can’ think it out. You understand—at home: wife and children. I haven’t seen them for four years. I have no news about them. I will go, what happens—happens. I am a simple worker. And even if they take me to Sibiria—Siberia is also Russian land …”

This morning he made up his mind, collected all his things, and walked out, still thinking, loud:

“I’ll go home. Ah, in what times we live! Four years I slaved, like a dog. I didn’t come here of my own free will: they brought me here directly from the battlefield, I defended my country. And now, when we have been liberated, I am afraid to go home. What times! You won’t understand how I feel, what’s happening inside. You go home to your own country trembling, even if you know that you are not a thief but only a poor sailor.”

Lithuanians are afraid that the Allies may send them home by force. Some didn’t sleep in the barracks last night.

The barracks—noisy, too many people around.

I can’t write, I can’t read, I can’t think.
I walk out into the fields.
I’m going through disturbing changes.
Maybe it’s my mind, maybe it’s my nerves.
Very little firm ground left under my feet.
Everything’s moving.
I argue a lot. I am criticizing everything.
I disagree.
The things I believed in are in a shambles.
I don’t believe anymore in any final, categorical ideas.
I prefer chaos, anarchy.
I am reading Lessing, Hegel, Nietzsche, Hölderlin, Spengler.

Sometimes we go out into the fields. It’s beautiful around Mürwik. We walk, we look.


July 13, 1945

Two days ago we tied all our belongings to the bikes and started our journey South.

Everybody’s telling us that the trains aren’t running yet. On our way out, before embarking on our bicycle journey, we decided to check at the railroad station, just in case. To our pleasant surprise we discovered that the train service had just resumed. So we purchased tickets to Neumünster and boarded the train, bicycles and all.

Everyone warned us not to travel to the American Zone without permits. But when we went to get permits, we were told to come back in eight days.

Eight days! They may drive us out of our minds, in eight days. We must go now! It’s time to move South. And so to the South we go!

We are also told that this kind of journey is impossible and even dangerous, at this time. Permits, checkpoints everywhere; no food, no bridges, no trains and no water.

But luck is with us. Our train is moving ahead. Most of our books, over a hundred of them, we left with a German family in Flensburg. Our train is a livestock transport train. It stinks of pigs and sheep.

Jonas Mekas, Sometimes We Escaped into the FieldsKassel/Mattenberg D.P. Camp (1948), gelatin silver print, 55.9 × 43.2 cm

July 14, 1945

The Neumünster station is completely kaputt. The entire railroad station area is one huge junkpile. Somehow they cleaned up one track, to allow passage. Other tracks are wrenched into the air, rearing up, next to the mammoth craters. Cars squashed, on top of each other, on their sides and on their heads, jumbled, scattered all over the place. The frame of the station fell on its face, locomotives lie on their wounded sides, some broken in half, helpless, a sorry sight.

Our train stopped in the suburb of Hamburg, some fifteen kilometers from Ochsenzoll where we were told there was a refugee camp. The rails are not fixed, we cannot go further. We load everything on the bikes and slowly move ahead.

While on the train, we were beginning to reproach ourselves for buying the bicycles. Now, seeing how others were dragging their belongings we were happy to have them. In good spirits, whistling and singing we pushed our bikes. On both sides lines of red-brick workingmen’s houses, long green lushy tree alleys—untouched by our axes—almost ripe fields, orchards.

Ah, Summer!
Ah, freedom!

My bike, with a smaller load, runs quite well. Adolfa’s bike is overloaded. One suitcase on the left handle bar, another on the right. He needs a lot of road space, his bike goes where it wants. Because of the suitcases he can’t move his legs freely, no clear space for the knees. He pedals with his legs spread wide, a very comic figure.

Very slowly we continue our journey.

We reached Ochsenzoll after sunset. We were happy to find a cup of cold coffee and a bed.

The D.P. campgrounds are neglected, dirty. There they are, sleeping till eleven, their bellies up, spitting at the ceiling all day, all night. And around them—pure dirt. I don’t understand how people can live like pigs, refugees or no refugees.

We spat at it and left for Hamburg, to look for bookshops.


Jonas Mekas, Wiesbaden D.P. Camp (1945), gelatin silver print, 43.2 × 55.9 cm

July 27, 1945

Finally—we are in Würzburg!
After seven long days and nights without sleep.
The head is dizzy.

A little bit about our journey from Hamburg:
After a full week of trying to secure permits to cross the river Elbe, after one week of incredible bureaucracy, we spat at it and decided to go without permits. All we had in our hands was a filled-out questionnaire, which we signed ourselves; the British captain refused so sign it. “You cannot travel now. You have to stay here,” he told us.

We were angry. We came back to the barracks, looked around. No, we said. We are going, permit or no permit. They cannot treat us like children. We go South. To the South, where the magnolia trees bloom!

Bridges in the rivers. Huge craters on both sides of the rails, Junkyards of dead war machinery.

Only the small towns are still there. Hannover, Kassel, Giessen, Würzburg: completely leveled, gone.

The trains are overcrowded with German refugees. They are going home. Some of them. Others, they are searching for home. They are just going. Anywhere, no matter where, like us. Some carry nothing but a suitcase: that’s all they have left.

Then you see others, sitting on the platforms, with piles of sacks and boxes. Waiting for trains. The trains are going without timetables, any time. If you travel light and alone, you can, somehow, jump into the train, any train. But if you are loaded with boxes and sacks—goodbye! You may sit on the platform for days, and the trains will come and go. Every train, every car is full. The heat is unbearable. And no water.

Some are returning to their hometowns. As the train pulls into the town, they squeeze to the windows, to the door. They search for their streets, houses. But all they can see is a field of bricks. No streets. No houses. And nobody is waiting.

A trainload of Russian war prisoners passes by, on their way home. Their cars are decorated with red flags, portraits of all the “saints,” na rodina (to the homeland), singing Katiusha, they shake their fists at our train, they shout curses, they stick their tongues out, they throw stones.

On Sunday we came to Bremen. The train stopped a few miles before the station. Had to walk. We sold our bikes in Hamburg. The worst part is that nobody knows where the station is. One gets easily lost in the labyrinth of broken cars and ruins. After walking a mile we sent out a sentry, to climb the mountain of bricks. He comes back and reports that there is absolutely nothing in sight—nothing to the north, nothing to the south, nothing to the east and nothing to the west. No station. A child who happened to be passing by shows us the direction to the station.

Ten at night we arrive in Hannover—that is, what’s left of it. We sleep right there, in the station, crouched on our suitcases, with our feet in the broken bricks. Tired, uncomfortable sleep. All kinds of types slinking around, looking for something to steal. We lie, half-awake, and we listen to the whistles of the locomotives in the canyons of the destroyed station.

Arriving in Göttingen we find out that there is only one small train going from there, once a day. It’s only for the military workers. No civilian traveling. You need a special permit. From there on begins the American Zone.

We ran out of our food coupons a few days ago. In Flensburg they’ve told us that there was a Lithuanian refugee committee in Göttingen. We decided to find it.

We found the committee. They gave us some soup and a place to sleep. They live like kings here. They have private apartments and their own restaurant. They aren’t really refugees: they are kings. Professor Skardžius, the linguist, works for the Committee. It’s a closed camp for some privileged refugees, they don’t permit new ones.

We revived a little bit.

The next day we go back to the station. This time we manage to get tickets. We leave for Kassel.

In Kassel we ran out of food and water. We walked miles through the ruins of Kassel searching for Ernährungsamt (Food Permit Office). Nobody in sight. Only occasionally we met someone, walking through the clay and concrete path dug out across the mountains of devastation. Sometimes on the piles of rubbish we saw men and women cleaning, collecting the bricks, putting them in neat piles. From another mountain of debris you could see smoke rising: someone must be living deep under there, under the bricks. And here—it looks like there was a church here. Their broken arms pointing upwards, without heads, scattered lie the saints.

I don’t have any idea how they’re going to clean up this mess. It’s easier to build another city in another place, and leave the old city as is, as a testimonial.

All along the road, along the railroad line, countless military trucks, guns, railroad cars, burned out tanks. Persistent young grass and tall weeds are beginning to cover everything. The weeds are reaching up to the backs of the trucks, are growing into the mouths of huge guns. Some burned out trucks have been made into living, other rather “living,” homes. Families of refugees, children. On the burned-out tanks they are drying lines of clothes. Children are climbing the guns, it’s their playground, their kindergarten. These will be the great memories of their lives.

We see many children on the road. Alone. Here is one, maybe ten years old, maybe eleven. A great time to be a child … He is pulling his rucksack with him, trying to hold onto a moving train. We help him in. His father was killed at the front. His mother was killed by bombs. He had to join Hitlerjugend, was taken into the depths of Germany from Strassburg.

“There is one thing of which we have a lot,” say the Germans, “and that is time.”
“Time will straighten out everything,” they say. Nobody’s in a hurry. Apathy in their faces, in their bodies.

A young woman, her face looks as if she lived one hundred years.
A young man, his face without a drop of energy. He has resigned himself to his fate.

Oh, yes. Time will straighten out everything.


He walks around the pile of rubble, picks up a brick here, a brick there.


Jonas Mekas, Waiting to Be Transported to Another Camp, Kassel/Mattenberg D.P. Camp (1948), gelatin silver print, 55.9 × 43.2 cm

August 14, 1945

Arrived in Heidelberg. Once you leave organized D.P. camps, nobody gives you food. We are hungry, our heads are dizzy. But at least we are free. At least we know why we are hungry. We figured we can last 3–4 days without food. On the fifth day we must find a place to settle down.

Ah, Heidelberg!
Ah, what a good feeling here.
Ah, mountains, hills, bridges, the Neckar!

Many bookshops. But our rucksacks are too heavy already. Ah, how we’d like to have all these books. But we can’t carry them with us.

We sleep at Marienhaus, Luisenstrasse.

August 15, 1945

All day we wander through Heidelberg, drinking it in.

Here is a board with an inscription. In this house slept Goethe. And in this one, during his professorship days, lived Hegel. In this one—Brentano. And in this one—Hölderlin.

The university is still closed. It’s going to open soon, we were told. We asked if there is any way for us to get in, to register, and get food. No, nothing doing. Only the medical department is open. But ready as we are, for anything, we don’t feel we are ready for medicine.

In the afternoon we leave for Frankfurt.

We sleep in the station’s bar. Somebody is playing accordion. Some are dancing. Others are drinking beer. Still others are sleeping. We put our heads on the table and sleep.

August 19, 1945

We are in Wiesbaden.

We decided to put an end to our travels. We just can’t take any more. We need rest and food.

The first impressions of Wiesbaden helped us decide to stay. White. Sunny. The Rhine is nearby. Orchards. Vineyards.

The D.P. camp of Wiesbaden is a city in itself. Army barracks. There are over 1600 Lithuanians here, several thousand Poles, Latvians, Estonians and Yugoslavs.

All rooms have been taken. They gave us a room with six or seven other families, but no beds. Since we promised never again to live in a communal room, we established ourselves on a large table, in the corridor. It’s a large table used to distribute the food. A ping-pong table of sorts. A good table. Since all the windows in the corridors have been blown out by the bombs, we have a lot of fresh air. At night a strong cold wind comes from the Rhine valley and blows around our heads. But it’s fine. What matters is that we are free!

In the morning, with the first noises, we get up, take our bundles under our arms, and we go. Cheap and practical. We have become the talk of the barracks. Some tell us it’s no good to sleep like that, not healthy. Come, boys, they say, we’ll make room for you inside.

But we prefer our corridor table.

“How can you sleep on such a hard table?” they ask us. We have no mattresses.
“Ah, the boards of this table are sweeter than your noisy company!”

On our arrival in Wiesbaden, they stopped us at the camps gate. An MP came up to us, looked us over, called for help. “Take a good look,” he said. “See what’s in those suitcases and bags.”

They open one bag—books. They open another—books … They open the suitcases—more books.
They are shaking their heads. They don’t understand.

“Where are your things?” one asks.
“We have no things,” we say.

We point at our books, we say these are our things.
They look at us as one looks at the insane, they shake their heads again.

“O.K., let them in,” says the MP.


Jonas Mekas, German Children, Kassel/Mattenberg D.P. Camp (1948), gelatin silver print, 43.2 × 55.9 cm

October 11, 1945

Got involved. Permitted myself to be persuaded to act as a liaison man for “artistic” activities in the camp. I don’t know how I got involved in it. Everybody refused, so I said, O.K., I’ll do it. Now I am wasting a lot of my time organizing music and literary evenings, organizing students. As if that wouldn’t be enough of a punishment, I agreed to act as editor of a daily information bulletin. It’s a mimeographed sheet of sometimes two, sometimes four pages. A lot of detail work. My helpers are Algirdas Landsbergis, a young poet from Kaunas; Vladas Saltmiras, a student of Slavic languages and literature (who constantly recites Pushkin, he knows him by heart); Antanas Bendorius, a professor of geography; and Prof. Cesnulevicius. Their function is basically simple: to listen to the radio (which they do anyway) and write down all the “interesting” news. I myself collect the “local,” camp news. Every Saturday we bring out a larger issue, with a “literary” supplement.

We are still in our attic.

The weather got cold. A thick mist seeps through the cracks around the window. Without an overcoat (which I bought yesterday) it would be impossible to work. Nights are cold, very cold.

Our neighbors have jobs with the American army. In the evening they come home drunk. A lot of signing and hollering.

Yesterday I saw Chaplin’s Goldrush.

Slowly, slowly the war misery is leaving the body and spirit, slowly.

No date. 1945

I prefer to go into the future blindly. I do not want to take any of your junk on this blind journey. This blind journey is not of my choice. The generation before me, your generation, the generation that put me on this journey, didn’t produce any reliable maps or compasses I can trust.

No, I don’t want any life preservers.
I plunge into the deepest unknown.
Those who are afraid—let them cling to the carcass of Western Civilization.


June 1946

I wasted eight months editing the camp’s daily bulletin. Now—it’s finished. I quit.

In May, Adolfas and I registered at the University of Mainz to study Philosophy.
Why did I choose philosophy and not literature? I don’t know.
You can’t learn to write in universities.
Of course, they can’t teach you to think, either.

Every day we take the Mainz-Kastell trolley. One hour and a half one way; one hour and a half the other. Five to six hours at the university.

The worst part is that if I go for the 9 AM lecture I have to kill time until 3 PM for the next lecture. So I walk through the town, or I sit in on any lecture, in any department. Medicine, or art history (I sat through a series of lectures on the caves of Altamira). Shakespeare. Some Swiss professor has a series on Joyce, I sat there. Anything.

We eat once a day, in the morning, and take some sandwiches with us, for the rest of the day. We eat them with wine, in town. We arrive back home late, tired like dogs.


Summer evening.
We are sitting under the lilac bushes, on a wooden bench.
We can hear a motorbike, somewhere, very far away, in another village, behind the river.

Spent a few days in Tübingen. I stayed at the Gasthof zur Linden.

Snooping through the bookshops. Rich in religion and philosophy. No money to buy any. I was amazed, how much one can get from a book just by holding it in your hands, looking at a page here, a page there. There are many ways of absorbing a book.

I tried to enlist in the Philosophy/Theology department. Failed. They told me to come back in two weeks, the head of the faculty was out of town, it’s he who makes all the decisions.

Visited Heidelberg, Stuttgart. On foot.

Walked through the villages, orchards, dusty little roads. Slept in the triple-soft beds in small Bavarian villages, in rooms smelling of two centuries.

June 1946

We are sitting and talking about what we’d do if we were to come to America.

Vaitkus: “I have so much unfinished work. I would work and work and work.”
Vladas: “I would eat. That would be the main point of my first day in America. On the first day I’d do nothing but eat and eat and eat. On the second day I’d read Ibsen. But I wouldn’t finish it, I’d only read the beginning, ten pages maximum. On the third day I’d work on my English, for three hours …”
Puzinas: (putting in order some sheets of paper) “No, they aren’t waiting there for that sort of people, no.”
Levis: “The first day I’ll get drunk. On the second day, I’ll sleep with a hangover.”
Puzinas: “I’d wash dishes probably.”
Giedraitis: “I grew up without sentimentality … Whatever comes, comes …”

In the street, under my windows, three old men. One is Lithuanian, one Polish, one is Yugoslav, I think. None of them speaks the other’s language. I watch them about thirty minutes, through the open window, and they keep “talking,” and laughing. But the only sounds that I can hear are:

“Hmm … hmm …”
“Ha … ha … ha …”
“Hmm … hmmm … hmmm …”
“Ohoho ... ohoho ... oh ...”

They are perfectly happy and gay and it looks to me as if they understand each other perfectly within the laws of their strange esperanto.

I leave the window and go back to my books, abandoning the three old men to the life of the street.

My political statement/warning to the Big Powers:
“… Giants dwelt therein in old times .. but the Lord destroyed them …” (Book 5 of Moses, 2:20)

Blessed is the yawn, for it betrays our politely hidden boredom.
Blessed are auditoriums in which we are allowed to whistle and boo.

I have seen people made of dreams; but these here are made of boredom.

Jonas Mekas, Kassel/Mattenberg D.P. Camp School (1948), gelatin silver print, 43.2 × 55.9 cm

July 1946

The Poles crashed a Lithuanian dance party. A panic in the barracks … Some are jumping through the windows, some through the door … The Poles are trying to catch the cashier …

The Lithuanian barber announced that he won’t serve Poles this week. So the Poles came and turned the place upside down.


green lizards on warm moss

Mouths are atrophying. The tongue is in the process of atrophy. The words—yes, we can still pronounce the words … But we do not know the sounds any longer. Nobody makes any foolish sounds, silly sounds; nobody can imitate (or wants to imitate) birds, animals, nature sounds.

A new thought is like a newborn baby—it can’t be brought into the bright sun immediately.

I was wondering today, what would happen if everybody in the Soviet Union would stick to the Jesus principle: give God what belongs to God, and give Caesar what belongs to Caesar. Would the government need to use all the terrible means it has been using? But while the communists are promoting atheism, they don’t realize that they aren’t dealing with Christians: they are dealing with pagans. These people—so called civilized westerners & Christians—they don’t want to give anything, either to Caesar or God: they want to keep everything for themselves.

I hear that word every day. Every hour.
The word is WORK.
And I see a robot.
A steel robot going through its motions.
Ah, time is money!
How much is your heart? I’ll buy it.


I see millions of slaves digging canals, damming rivers, hacking our tunnels, building roads, sweating in factories, and the whole globe of earth begins to stir and move like a huge oil drill. There they make the torpedoes, tanks, atom bombs, needles to stick under fingernails, scalpels to peel the nails off—everything and anything.


No heart trembles, no hand.

I am getting cold and I am searching for a warm heat, eyes—but the machines have blended all eyes and hearts and hands into one big molten mass.


Stop working! Stop!
Ah, the dry rivers, bare fields, poisoned waters!
Iron dust, bombs falling on a screaming terrified city.
Lay down your hammers, gas pipes, dynamite—
close all the horror factories,
walk out into the fields.
Let everything stop.
Let the grass grow over everything.
Let the snakes and tigers come, and let them multiply.
We are celebrating the death of the robot.


No date. 1946

It’s more difficult for a mother to forget one child than for living humanity to forget all the millions who died in this war.

A German woman on the train from Munich to Frankfurt. She is talking to a wounded soldier.
“I understand you,” she says, “I also had a son, he is dead now. I had only one son and he died in Stalingrad.”

The wounded soldier is looking at her, listening, but he doesn’t seem to understand what the woman is saying. He giggles, laughs. He doesn’t understand German.

I am looking at these people, lodged here in these dark corridors, attic spaces, crowded into the tiny rooms, these army barracks, and I am thinking how much they resemble the dusty old useless objects—cast-offs that are usually thrown into attics, or get piled up in corridor corners. Even their conversations do not lift them above such objects. They are all about bread, eating, and some primitive scheming (how to get more food, where to find women). Their faces: when I look at their faces, this could be an insane asylum. Even their songs, they aren’t folk songs—they are weird collages of international pop junk songs, never in tune and never in melody. The largest part of their vocabulary is an amazing conglomeration of curses: from their own national vocabularies, tripled and quadrupled now with the best of Russian, German, French and American. So they seem to fit perfectly here, in these miserable bombed-out military barracks. War scrap.

When a crowd of them, twenty or fifteen get together—which in these rooms is very natural—and I find myself inescapably there—I don’t know why I haven’t lost my mind yet. Sometimes I just run out of the room.

But now, we have what we call our own room, “our own” in quotation marks. The only thing that separates us from them are these thin wooden boards. We can hear every sound behind then, their vapid conversations, jokes, every fart. And nights, when they bring home German and international prostitutes, we hear their fucking too, and we can see their insane faces, eyes bulging out from eating too much fat in the American army kitchens, where they work.

Does the baby, about to be born, in the mother’s womb, as we two, as we work on ourselves in this little room—our own little womb—trying to be born for the second time—does an unborn baby hear the clatter and stupidity of the world outside in the same way, through the thin walls of a mother’s womb—as we do now, from behind these thin walls—and is it equally upset and does it curse the outside world, as we do?


November 1946

When I was a child, I often watched the gypsy wagons roll along the muddy, wet roads. They would sit surrounded by bundles and crates, wrapped up, with their faces hidden, wet, cold, blown by the winds.

But whenever we spoke to them, they seemed to be very happy.

At the edge of the woods, where our village ends, there they used to set up their tents and we saw their fires burn all through the night. A miserable bunch, but they danced and they sang. Their wagons contained all their belongings. They carried their world with them. While their civilized brothers had the rest of it.

In the morning, they would be gone. We used to run, we children, to where their tents and fires had been—but they were gone, and the fires were out.

How we envied them their freedom! We ourselves dreamed about travels, distant countries.

Many years have passed since then. Now I am myself on a train, with only what I can carry along, without possessions and without a country.

I am a gypsy. I am the eternal Jew.
I am a D.P.
But I neither dance nor sing.


Jonas Mekas, Wiesbaden D.P. Camp (1945), gelatin silver print, 43.2 × 55.9 cm

August 1947

Good-bye Wiesbaden.
Good-bye Rhine.
Good-bye orchards.

They moved us to Kassel. Actually, it’s a suburb of Kassel, about five miles from the center of the city. In the small town of Mattenberg. Most of the Lithuanians and Yugoslavs from Wiesbaden were transferred to these miserable structures built as housing for workers. We got a room of our own. So that is progress, if nothing else.

The bad part is now we cannot take the trolley to the University of Mainz. We are a ten-hour train ride away. We must stay in Kassel, nobody will keep us in Wiesbaden or Mainz: there are no longer D.P. camps there, they have been closed. They are concentrating all D.P.s in certain selected camps. So we have no choice but sit here and think about what to do.

One thing is good: there is a fine American library in Kassel. So we are catching up with literature.


Summer noon. Siesta time.
The older brothers are pulling the net along the river, wading in water up to their chests. We children follow them along the shore, and they throw fish at us, and we collect them in wet dripping bags.


Do you know the story of the man who could not live anymore without knowing what’s at the end of the road and what he found there when he reached it? He found a pile, a small pile of rabbit shit at the end of the road. And back he went. And when people used to ask him, “Eh, where does the road lead to?” he used to answer: “Nowhere, the road leads nowhere, and there is nothing at the end of the road but a pile of rabbit shit.” So he told them. But nobody believed him.

(To be continued)


November 2, 1947

Went to Kassel. Snooped through the bookshops. The trolley doesn’t run today, had to walk on foot.

Had a haircut … Did laundry … Sold my typewriter, bought some bread and apples. Now I am writing by hand.

Snow and mud.

Children: these pieces of broken rotten wood are the sheep.
The girl is feeding the doll … Dresses it up. Takes it to bed. It is alive, there is no doubt.
The little boy is pouring sand on wheels—gasoline. And, like a motorcycle himself, beating the ground with his little feed and making the sound “pu-pu-pu” he runs across the road.
This piece of wood, this branch can magically turn into anything he wants: a sheep, a soldier, a train, a boat.


His life is passing through his eyes …
He sees himself as a shepherd slouched at the edge of the field, in hot sun, in rain—gathering berries, sweet red—ah, how they smell—wild strawberries—into freshly made alder tree bark baskets.


November 17, 1947

I wake up, I lift my head: it’s snowing. The roofs, the ground, all white. The streets are full of shouting, screaming children.

By noon the snow melted. But the fields are still white.
I picked up three heads of cabbage—our weekly portion.

Mailed a letter to Canada, to Port Arthur, Chamber of Commerce, asking whether they need wood cutters, or workers in the paper factories. There is an epidemic here these days to send such letters.


November 21, 1947

It seems you live like everybody else. My life, their lives: all the same. But one never really knows. All I can see is the outside. I can never compare their lives with mine, not knowing what’s really going inside. Yesterday the MPs were searching for pigs. It’s forbidden to keep & grow animals in the barracks. Some bureaucrat decided so.

Algis’ father stuck his pig into a bag and sat on top of it. But the stupid pig kept moving. He kicks the bag with his foot, bump bump—but the pig moves even more. So he pretends that he’s itching, he keeps moving and scratching himself, to camouflage the real situation. It worked.

Everybody’s signing up for Canada. Mostly they are looking for tailors, shoemakers, professions like that. It’s enough to know how to sew a button on—you are hired. No requests for poets yet …

Yesterday they were signing people for Morocco—bricklayers, carpenters, and truck drivers. Somebody brought a Canadian newspaper with a huge picture of thirty men from our camp posing in a deep forest, somewhere in Canada, in front of a pile of logs.

Under our window this terrible truck noise. Hell, can’t they park them somewhere else?

Our money ran out. We have ten marks, that’s all. We used to sell our coffee and cigarettes, even meat—at least some of it—up to 200 marks we would collect that way weekly. Now it’s finished. They give us so little food that there is nothing to sell. We’ll have to earn money some other way, we’ll have to invent something. I get a few marks for my journalistic scribbles weekly, but it’s peanuts.

Our neighbor, Albinas, the friseur, had a party last night. Drank with his Polish buddies. Hired German musicians, an entire band. Played and made a lot of noise all night, drunk and happy.

The farmers are moving manure out of the stables into the fields. Some are plowing.


Jonas Mekas, Myself, Kassel (1947), gelatin silver print, 55.9 × 43.2 cm

Undated, 1947

I just sit. Or I walk and walk.

Or I stand somewhere looking at one spot. And it seems to me as I stand there that I am totally disconnected from the rest of the world around me. Nothing, absolutely nothing connects me with it.

The world around me goes on being busy, conducts its wars, enslaves countries, kills people, tortures. The real world …

My life till now seems to have slipped through this real world without participating in it, without caring about it, without any connection to it. Even when I was in the very middle of it, I wasn’t really there.

My only life connection is in these scribbles.

Here I stand, this moment, now, with my arms hanging down, the shoulders fallen, eyes on the floor, beginning my life from point zero.

I don’t want to connect myself to this world.

I am searching for another world to which it would be worth connecting myself.

December 7, 1947

Ah, these objects here. I have never seen them.
I have touched them for twenty years. Maybe every day.
But today I am seeing them for the first time.
The hardness. The softness. Colors. Smells.
The room, the table, the chairs, the stove. Everything is here for the first time and I don’t know how to touch tem, how they feel, what they are for.
Potatoes. Bread. Flour.
A cold stream of water on my hands. The coolness of water from the sink on my hands as it runs down my skin.
And the earth.

I step down from the sidewalk and I walk along the strip of the street not covered by concrete. I want to feel the earth under my feet.
Ah. what a feeling, this new feeling of touching the earth, my foot coming in contact with it.
Ah, finally a contact!
I am connecting. I have a connection …

With every step, every movement of my foot I can feel the earth tearing itself away, I have to tear my foot away. With every step I feel how the earth seeps, rises upwards through my body …

Yes, I am part of it. A small fragment of it, but I am a part of it.
I keep walking. I catch myself whistling.

December 11, 1947


No clock in the house where I am sleeping tonight. The woman said she’ll bang on my door at five-thirty. The train leaves at six-thirty. I wake up in the morning—silence everywhere. The church clock is striking four. I fall back into a deep sleep.

I wake up again—it feels like six. I grab my bag and run to the station. Just made the train.

The train crowded all the way.

In Kassel I find Leo. Brought a new issue of Kunstwerk devoted to abstract art. We devour it. Talk until the morning hours.

A new issue of Gintarai. Mazalaitė is attacking the modernists. She says, they don’t suit the Lithuanian spirit. She speaks of course about us. Ah, she is so smart. She knows the Lithuanian spirit like a dead fish. I hope some day we’ll be as smart.


December 14, 1947

Adolfas washed out the room. We are all in a very festive mood. A pot full of pea soup is boiling. Got up early—Poškus woke us up. He hauled Leo out, to work on the decor for the Christmas play.

I am reading S. Lewis’s Let Us Play the King.

The weather is mild, but very damp. It’s a warm winter this year. Algis opened the window and shouted, “CHRISTMAS!”

“Don’t say Christmas,” I said, “it doesn’t look like Christmas. Look at the rainy sky. No snow.”

Leo came back. He is sitting now on the edge of this bed with a piece of paper on his knees, a pencil in his hand. Translating Rilke’s Duino Elegies. For a change he has shaved! That is a big event. So he is shining like a young moon. He says, he shaved only because he wants his moustache to stand out: all the girls are crazy about his moustache, he says. That is his opinion.

Adolfas and Algis just completed a game of checkers. Picked up their coats and went out somewhere.

I walk out too. I cross the sports court. Some Germans, all muddy, are playing handball.
I make a circle around the barracks and return. Leo is still working on Rilke. Poškus is visiting, but Leo doesn’t want to talk to him. Poškus is looking through an old issue of Masques, talking mostly to himself, about how idiots and insane asylum inmates are much smarter than any of us. So I walk out again.

December 15, 1947

Snowing badly.

With Leo we traveled to Kassel to hear Beethoven’s First and Ninth symphonies. Came back on foot, late at night through deep soft snow, very excited about the music and the snow.

December 16, 1947

Received log cutter’s certificates.

We are reorganizing our room. We piled up everything in the middle of the room and painted all the walls and the ceiling deep blue. The only kind of paint we could get. We dusted everything off, washed everything, and now the room is neat and clean.

We decided the room now looks a little bit too clean. And too morbid. A little bit like an old -castle tower attic. Leo is climbing all over the beds and books right now, with a pail of paint, writing on the walls, all around the room, a very long incomprehensible sentence—great poetry!—from Heidegger,. The sentence has gone already three times around the room and no end yet in sight.

December 19, 1947

In Mainz I picked up my stipend. Sat through a long lecture on Joyce by a bearded Swiss professor. Took 9 PM train to Frankfurt. Traveled with Prof. Biaggioni, I am taking his course in Italian and Pirandello.

The night ride to Kassel. Luckily, now they have lights in some of the cars, so I can study our magazine treasures. Lancelot. Merkur. In the back issues of Lancelot I read the letters of Romain Roland and L. Masson and the poems of Alain Borne.

My feet are freezing, wet. A lot of wet snow comes into the car at every stop.

From Kassel we walk home on foot, with Algis, through the deep, wet, mushy snow, frozen like dogs. Algis is sick, he is wobbling like a chicken, feverish. But we manage to reach the barracks alive.

December 21, 1947

Collected the weekly food ration. Did laundry.

The snow has melted. Mud and water everywhere. And the wind. Nobody dares to go out. You cross the street—you are wet to the bones. My shoes are full of holes, and they aren’t waterproof. My feet are always wet now.

Leo just came home, from working on the Christmas play, making the sets. He took off his boots and now is warming his wet cold feet in front of the stove. Luckily, we have some coal left.

December 24, 1947

No more rain, but puddles and mud remain.
I am 25.
It is 1 AM, which means, it’s Christmas. Just came back from church.
I am sitting alone in this blue room. The Christmas tree with half-a-dozen candles, a couple of toys strung up.
Ah, to be sitting at a table, Christmas evening, among friends and family … Maybe with a few flowers on the table. The women busy around the stove, excitement … And maybe a cat, and a dog curled under the table, snoozing …

I lived, years ago it seems, I lived at home, surrounded by the people I knew, the world I belonged to. but I neither really knew them nor really saw them. My father, my brothers, my mother, sister. And the house in which I grew up. I lived unconscious of all this. And now, when I feel I am just beginning to live, just beginning to feel that I am alive—that whole other world is gone. Only what memories call back still exists. So I am getting drunk on them.

I am 25 years old so it would seem it’s time to begin to walk more firmly, to live. But it all looks like first steps.

Where is my family, home? Life is so unsure. And what I’ve written till now, it’s all very insignificant. I have to work so much harder than my friends, Leo or Algis. They received a good regular education, they grew up in the cities. My education was fragmentary, always in a hurry. My language—at home we didn’t even speak the written dialect, we spoke a local dialect.

The fourth Christmas away from home. I have no idea, when I sit now in this blue room, if any of my brothers are alive, or my mother, or father. I don’t know if they are sitting now around the table of my childhood.

I do not want to think about it now. And when you forget about it, it looks as if everything is absolutely fine.

But there, at home …

… Evenings before Christmas we used to come home from the sauna, all of us, with red burning faces, clean fresh linen shirts, and we used to sit around the richly set table—and we all ate and drank and sat late, talking and laughing—and we slept on freshly stuffed pillows and mattresses full of fragrant hay. Ah, the smell of dry field flowers …

Our good-bye was short. We were never too sentimental, in our family. Our mother left us at our uncle’s house and we stood and looked at her and she stopped just before turning the corner of the house and waved and tears were rolling down her face.

And now it’s Christmas and it’s night. Blue room.


January 10, 1948

You are welcome to read all this as fragments, from someone’s life. Or as a letter from a homesick stranger. Or as a novel, pure fiction. Yes, you are welcome to read this as fiction. The subject, the plot that ties up these bits is my life, my growing up. The villain? The villain is the twentieth century.


February 2, 1948

Yesterday, in Kassel, I attended a lecture on Buddhism, by a certain Tao Chu. In his soft Chinese voice—he is about sixty, I think—he spoke about differences between East and West, about Leiden (suffering) about the purposelessness of life, and how the arguments and disagreements about the purposelessness of life have produced Faust, and Peer Gynt, and the whole Western thought which looks very silly to the Easterners … The West, he said, is almost identical with Denkakt, the act of thinking, reason. He spoke about Ich, I, Me, which a child only around the fourth year begins to be aware of—the second birth. He also said, that the only times that we really deeply experience joy, sadness and beauty, is when we do not think of it. Denkakt kann nicht(s) geniessen. (Thinking can experience/enjoy nothing.)

Antaeus … Unbeatable as long as he held to Mother Earth which filled him with life and strength. Yes, Mother Earth, now cut off from under me. How long can I hold out, uprooted?



Adolfas Mekas, Jonas Mekas with Friends (Algirdas Landsbergis, Leonas Letas), Kassel/Mattenberg D.P. Camp (1948), gelatin silver print, 55.9 × 43.2 cm

*These camps became known as Displaced Persons camps, or D.P. camps. They were established by the Allied Forces to accommodate 8,000,000 forced laborers, survivors of KZ camps, war prisoners and political refugees (mainly anti-Soviet), liberated by the Allies. Within a year after the German surrender some 6,000,000 of them returned of their own will or were pressed into returning (as some of the Soviet war prisoners were) to their respective countries. The other 2,000,000, among them Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians, refused, mainly for political reasons, to return to their homelands, now occupied by the Soviet Union. The United Nations created a special International Refugee Organization (I.R.O.) to take care of the political refugees. Although there were no restrictions on the movements of the refugees, every refugee had to belong to a D.P. camp in order to receive food and lodging, and to receive assistance with emigration.