Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania

Jan-Christopher Horak, Ph.D.
Editor, The Moving Image
Professor, UCLA Critical Studies
(323) 960-4805

I have tried. I have done everything to be just like everybody else. I have tried to be down to earth. Digging my hands deep into the sand pile on Sixth Avenue. Touching the ground in Central Park with my bare feet. But I remain a stranger here. There is a distance between me and every building, every street, every face.

- Jonas Mekas, December 1951

Jonas Mekas wrote these lines in his diary a little more than two years after coming to the United States. A stranger in a strange land, a displaced person, cast adrift in an alien culture. As in all of his work, whether his film diaries or autobiography, Mekas describes his acclimatization in physical terms, the tactileness of nature his measuring stick.

Others have written about Mekas’ Romantic leanings. But as I read these lines, I also imagine that at the very moment Mekas is writing down these thoughts in his tiny room in Brooklyn, I’m lying in a large basket on Ellis Island, another displaced person, but too young to know it. Like my twin brother gurgling across from me in the same basket, I’m not concerned with the masses of mostly Eastern Europeans lining up to talk to officers of the INS in that cold hall on Ellis Island on December 14, 1951. I hear foreign tongues, but only the soothing words of my mother are of interest to me. I’m unconcerned where my next bottle of milk will come from in this new land. I don’t remember the months of waiting in a Munich DP camp. At eight months old I weighed just barely ten pounds, due to malnutrition.

My descriptions are the product of stories passed down from my parents and snapshots I’ve seen of the family, in Gander, on the unpressurized DC-3 Flying Tiger, at Idlewild, my own DP Card. Only much later will I learn what it means to be a displaced person. Only much later, when I emigrate back to Europe as a teenager, will I really understand the negative force of dislocation, the alienation of what we term culture shock.