Greetings from Sejny: Sounds & Images from the Borderland
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default, Greetings from Sejny: Sounds & Images from the Borderland, Basilica of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Sejny, photo: Andrzej Sidor / Forum, bazylika_sejny_sian_251017_73.jpg
Cultural revolutions, intellectual movements and world-famous musicians – all in one small city near Poland’s Eastern border? Culture.pl presents the story of how the capital of the least populated county in Poland became ‘a little centre of the world’.
The memory & oblivion of a lost age
It all started with the Yotvingians, but the only remaining traces of this Baltic tribe, now erased from history by its expansive neighbours, are the local geographical names – including, most likely, the name ‘Sejny’. Later on, the post-Yotvingian frontier was populated by two waves of settlers – one coming north from Mazowsze, and the other from Lithuania.
There have been many more such intercultural encounters in the city’s history. In 1593, Jerzy Grodziński began the construction of a town around a freshly bought manor. Ten years later, childless and so without an heir, he wrote a will that left the city to the Vilnius chapter of the Dominican order, founding a church and monastery. The city was famous for its enormous church fairs, which happened several times a year and attracted thousands or even dozens of thousands of pilgrims in the summer. In the second half of the 19th century, Sejny became a shtetl, as the number of Jews amounted to 70% of the city’s population. But this city in the Suwałki region was also home to Russian Old Believers, as well as, in fewer numbers, Germans, Tatars, Ruthenians and Roma people.
Tomas Venclova once said that Sejny was just as important to the Lithuanian culture as Vilnius to its Polish counterpart. Vincas Kudirka, the author of the lyrics to the Lithuanian national anthem and the father of Lithuanian positivism studied in the local seminary before he was kicked out for ‘not having a calling for the priesthood’. (Kurdika’s face was present on the largest banknote in circulation before Lithuania’s accession to the Euro-zone – 500 litas.)
Antanas Baranauskas (or Antoni Baranowski in Polish), considered to be the first Lithuanian Romantic poet, was the Bishop of Sejny from the years 1897 to 1902. He earned his place in the history of Lithuanian literature as the author of the epic poem Anykščių Šilelis (The Forest of Anykščiai), which refers to Adam Mickiewicz‘s Pan Tadeusz. He also worked on translating the Bible into Lithuanian and was in favour of Polish-Lithuanian cooperation against the imperial policies of Russia. Another artist from Sejny, the painter Vytautas Kairiūkštis (Witold Kajruksztis in Polish), became an important figure in the history of the Polish and Lithuanian avant-garde as one of the founders of the Blok and Praesens groups.
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Postcard from Sejny, 1918, photo: National Library / Polona.pl
Many Lithuanian newspapers were published in Sejny, including the magazine Šaltinis (The Source), one of the most popular publications in Lithuania, first issued in 1906. Earlier, between the 1863-1864 January Uprising and the Revolution of 1905, Russification policies prohibited the publication of Lithuanian works written in the Latin alphabet. Illegal books were printed abroad, and numerous so-called ‘book-carriers’ travelled to Sejny from East Prussia. The seminary in Sejny was a transit point for literary contraband – from there, Lithuanian books were distributed to other parts of the country.
The Jewish community began settling in Sejny in the second half of the 18th century, following an invitation from the local monks. In his book Wedrówki po Guberni Augustowskiej w Celu Naukowym Odbyte (Travels across Augustów Governorate Underwent for Scientific Reasons, 1859), Aleksander Połujański recounted a story. According to it, Wawrzyniec Bortkiewicz, the prior of the Dominican monastery, ‘who wanted to attract the Jews to Sejny and use their help to increase trade’:
built a wonderful synagogue which attracted the people of Israel very strongly […] To thank their benefactor, the Jews have held prayers for Bortkiewicz ever since, even though the synagogue itself has grown old and lost its lustre.
According to local legends, Prior Bortkiewicz and the rabbi carried the tablets with the Ten Commandments into the new synagogue together.
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In the 1860s, the town saw the construction of a yeshiva, which quickly became famous even outside of the region. Thanks to this school, Sejny became an important centre for the maskilim, the promoters of the Jewish Enlightenment or Haskalah. Interest in the school was so great that it alarmed the Russian authorities, who promptly decided to close the Yeshiva down and to exile its founder, Moses Issac Avigdor. Right next to the yeshiva, the writer Tuvye Pinkas Shapiro founded a Hebrew secondary school, one of the first Jewish secular schools in Poland. In 1885, a new temple was built in Sejny, the White Synagogue, which today remains the only standing Jewish place of worship in the Suwałki region. Each of these three buildings will serve an important role later in this story.
At the turn of the 20th century, emigration led to a drastic reduction in the population of the Jewish community living in the city. The number of Jewish citizens in Sejny fell from 3,300 in 1897 to just 817 in the interwar period. Morris Rosenfeld was the most famous of those who left Sejny at this time. A graduate of the city’s secondary school and the son of a fisherman from the nearby village of Boksze, he moved to New York, where he became a poet of the Jewish proletariat – low-paid factory workers and inhabitants of tiny, run-down flats on the Lower East Side (one of the most overpopulated places in the world at the time). He was often called ‘the teardrop millionaire’, and his poems, translated from Yiddish into other languages, garnered him international fame.
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The 20th century left many open wounds in Sejny. One of them was the conflict between Poles and Lithuanians, which cast its shadow over the relations between these two nations for many decades. The conflict around which of the young countries should ultimately control Sejny made for battles between neighbours. In the years of 1919 to 1920, Sejny changed hands 11 times.
World War II transformed the city completely, as only a handful of Sejny’s Jews survived the Holocaust. The year 1941 saw the beginning of deportations of Lithuanians, Belarussians and Old Believers from the Suwałki region to the USSR. No one truly discussed these tragic events during the Communist regime in Poland. If the history of the city was ever mentioned, it served only as ethnographic trivia, as in the 1966 short documentary about the local painter Jerzy Szrednicki (which is actually interesting on its own). The voice-over mentions the ‘echoes of the past diversity of Kresy’ there, adding that ‘only here might someone still spot an impressive beard of an Old Believer’. The topic of the Jews and other ethnic minorities is never mentioned, even though Szrednicki often referred in his work to the old Sejny he remembered from his childhood. As he says in the movie: ‘One city can sometimes contain many cities.’
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A new chapter in the restoration of memory began with the arrival of two married couples in Sejny at the end of the 1980s: Małgorzata Sporek-Czyżewska and Krzysztof Czyżewski and Bożena and Wojciech Szroeder. They developed a friendship on the basis of their common interests and experiences, having contributed to the counter-culture of the 1980s and alternative forms of theatre (the Czyżewskis worked for 10 years with Gardzienice, while the Szroeders worked in Słupsk’s STOP Theatre). When many of their peers took advantage of the opportunity to travel West, they moved together to the East in order to look for Poland’s multicultural heritage. And what a journey it was: a four-month long trek, with all their belongings and children in horse-drawn carriages. After all, they decided to settle there for good. Back then, the mythical borderland was in a way the end of the world – the impenetrable border separating Poland from the USSR was only 12 km away.
Although they reached Sejny as a theatrical group, they stepped down from the stage there to instead became ‘animators of active culture’. The idea of creating a cultural centre in the city gained influential supporters: the painter Andrzej Strumiłło and the director Andrzej Wajda, who served at the time as a senator from the Suwałki region. The year 1991 saw the creation of the ‘Borderland of Arts, Cultures, Nations’ Centre, which was given custody over the remaining buildings of the formerly Jewish district. Until 1980s, the synagogue housed a warehouse for artificial fertilisers, the yeshiva housed a shoe factory (called ‘papuciarnia’ by the locals, from ‘papucie’ – a word for slippers), and the Hebrew school housed a post office.
Similarly to positivist organic workers, they began reconstructing the multicultural history of the city, repairing broken community connections by ‘building connective tissue’. The latter phrase was written by Czesław Miłosz, who gave the Borderland Centre a manor in the nearby Krasnogruda, which had previously belonged to the Kunat family – the poet’s mother’s side. After a thorough renovation, the manor was turned into the International Centre for Dialogue in 2011.
One of the first events organised by Borderland, which gave the centre a direction for future work, was a meeting held in the White Synagogue called ‘Pieśni Starowieku’ (Songs of the Old Age, a name referring to the works of Stanisław Vincenz). It gathered representatives of the nationalities and religious groups inhabiting the region, including the Poles, Lithuanians and Old Believers. Krzysztof Czyżewski later commented on it in an interview with Polityka:
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That night we took care of our memory, and we could hear doors, which had stayed shut for many years, creaking open.
One of the attempts at restoring the missing intergenerational links was The Sejny Chronicles, a long-term project conducted by Bożena Szroeder in collaboration with Sejny schoolchildren. What eventually became a performance began with the exhibition Nasze Stare, Dobre Sejny (Our Good, Old Sejny), created together with the citizens who shared their personal archives. The exhibition was accompanied by a school competition for the best stories about family and local history.
The Sejny Chronicles was performed not only in the city, but in many other places in Poland and Europe as well. It also reached the Off-Broadway La Mama Experimental Theatre Club (where Jerzy Grotowski earlier put on his Constant Prince and Tadeusz Kantor his Dead Class). Andy Webster of the New York Times wrote:
The hourlong show is a modest, gentle expression of cross-cultural appreciation, conveyed by a cast impossible to resist. It’s a humble triumph, but its cause is always well worth fighting for.
When asked about her recipe for making such young actors perform in such a mature way, Bożena Szroeder said: ‘I don’t hurry, I’ve got lots of time.’
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It is impossible to highlight all the activities of the Borderland Centre from the last 27 years, but we will now turn our attention to another long-term project: the Sejny Theatre Klezmer Orchestra.
Cross-border rafts & bridges
No one planned on creating an orchestra. At the end of the 1990s, the Sejny Theatre produced a play based on Szymon An-ski’s The Dybbuk. They needed a wedding band, which later turned into a separate klezmer band. It grew so much that it became an orchestra, and Wojciech Szroeder has been its leader from the very beginning.
The staging of The Dybbuk is connected to a series of unusual events and ground-breaking encounters. Once, during rehearsals, the synagogue was visited by Max Furmansky, a cantor and rabbi born in Sejny. Michał Moniuszko, the bassist, arranger and manager of the Orchestra (and one of its first members) remembers the encounter:
During the production of The Dybbuk, we learnt about Jewish traditions, but we’ve never actually met anybody who remembered the old Jewish Sejny. During one of the rehearsals, Max entered the building with his oldest son and told us the most amazing story. As a young Holocaust survivor, he cursed this place and promised to never return here. But his oldest son asked him to see the mythical Sejny, the city of his father’s childhood. And so, they ended up at a rehearsal of The Dybbuk. This was extraordinary for us as well, because we learned things we couldn’t even imagine: what a typical day looked like before the war, how the synagogue’s interior looked… He was also a great cantor, and we had this wonderful opportunity to perform with him – all that happened in the synagogue where he had always wanted to sing as a child.
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It was not merely a coincidence, but a miraculous twist of fate: had Max arrived in Sejny ten years later, he would have seen the synagogue turned into a warehouse for artificial fertilisers. His view of Sejny as a cursed city of ashes, where his entire family had died, would have been confirmed. Instead, he decided it was his duty to return to the city every year to meet with young people and tell them about the old Sejny.
When The Dybbuk was performed during the Jewish Culture Festival in Kraków, the band met David Krakauer, one of the leading figures of the contemporary revival of klezmer music. Their encounter led to an all-night jam session in Kraków’s Austeria bookshop – and the idea to invite the New York musicians to Sejny. This resulted in ‘Musician’s Raft: New York to Sejny’, a series of meetings with the klezmer musicians Michael Alpert, Stuart Brotman, Frank London, Deborah Strauss, Jeff Warschauer and Paul Brody. As Moniuszko puts it:
The entire tradition of klezmer music was preserved thanks to emigration, most importantly to the United States. We rediscovered Central-Eastern European music thanks to New York-published vinyl records of bands from the countryside, which gave concerts for those who wanted to reminisce about the past. That’s how this music came back to us. And it’s amazing, when you think about our ‘Musician’s Raft: New York to Sejny’, that the people who visited us were New Yorkers. We felt that we had just completed some kind of circle, one which had appeared irreparably broken before.
Both destinations benefited greatly from these meetings. Michael Steinlau shared:
It’s impossible to study Jewish culture in New York or Jerusalem without being connected to this Sejny, Polish and Central-European landscape, without having a sense of this place.
Since it comes from the borderland, the Orchestra’s music combines klezmer motifs with Romani, Balkan, Polish and Lithuanian influences, while also leaving enough room for jazz improvisation and funky grooves. They reinterpret traditional songs and perform compositions created specifically for them by other musicians. Dominika Korzeniecka, who has been the Orchestra’s drummer for the last ten years – but has also performed in bands such as Tania O, Pochwalone, Banda NellaNebia and Haunted River – told us how they work on their repertoire:
We all meet in the winter in Krasnogruda and collectively select songs from old records and sheet music. We work on the proposals that receive the most votes.
The summer is particularly busy for them, as they perform three times a week in the synagogue. Additionally, on Sundays, a smaller band accompanies Małgorzata Szporek-Czyżewska as she sings Yiddish songs in the Miłosz Manor in Krasnogruda. There, last year, they also worked on the composition Strażnicy Ognia (Guardians of Fire), together with David Krakauer, the South African pianist Kathleen Tagg and musicians from Syria, as Orkiestra Niewidzialnego Mostu (The Invisible Bridge Orchestra).
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There is also the Sejny Jazz Cooperative, a stage in the old yeshiva dedicated to contemporary music and improvisation. As Dominika Korzeniecka described it:
The Jazz Cooperative has been operating for 10 years now! We really engaged with it from the very beginning, and I think it’s a place that’s very dear to us. In the summers, we basically never leave it. After concerts in the nearby White Synagogue, we organise jam sessions in the Cooperative, we invite guests, set up tables, people sometimes dance until the morning. But most important, we host bands and work with other musicians on the material we later perform at the Cooperative’s stage. […] Today, the Cooperative has many longtime friends.
The list of its friends is indeed impressive. Among musicians who performed and/or gave workshops there are Marcin Masecki, Macio Moretti, Raphael Rogiński, Paweł Szpura, Paweł Szamburski, DJ Lenar and Mikołaj Trzaska. The latter visited the Sejny Jazz Cooperative multiple times and invited the Orchestra’s musicians to record the soundtrack for the movie Wołyń. He justified his choice by saying: ‘They are musicians who understand emotions perfectly.’
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There are many other musical projects created around the Borderland Centre’s stages. There is, for example, the Muzyka Miejsca project, which combines the traditions of the Sejny region with electronic music. Marian Szaryński’s Marycha Brass Band (named after the local river) is a group where future talented klezmer musicians gain experience by practising New Orleans jazz standards. To join, they don’t have to pass complicated exams– all that matters is their dedication, as the skill will come in time.
The Orchestra has already showcased several generations of musicians from Sejny and the surrounding area, and there are even some multigenerational projects (this summer, Michał Moniuszko will perform at the Borderland with his daughter). They continue to focus on creating and performing, rather than releasing records. Their much-expected album, however, is set to premiere at the end of this year:
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We didn’t think about releasing our music publicly, because it changes its sound every couple of months. This band is created anew every day: new, young people join us, or somebody leaves for other projects and takes their experience with them. This is a community-oriented band, a kind of idea we want to promote. But the plan to perform our current repertoire with our friends did come to fruition. We decided to record an album with David Krakauer, Frank London, Michael Alpert, Mikołaj Trzaska and Raphael Rogiński. The second half contains our very own vision of klezmer music.
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Originally written in Polish by Patrick Zakrzewski; translated by MW, Jun 2019