In October 1949, Jonas Mekas, a twenty-six-year-old Lithuanian writer, arrived in New York City on a United Nations ship carrying European refugees from World War II. He and his younger brother, Adolfas, who traveled with him, had been planning to go on to Chicago, but settled instead in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, among other Lithuanian immigrants. A few months after they arrived, the pair managed to buy a Bolex movie camera. Jonas, from a young age, had been a methodical keeper of journals and a poet with a gift for romantic observations of natural beauty. Now he wandered the streets of New York absorbing and filming his surroundings. In a 1950 entry from I Had Nowhere to Go, his postwar diary collection, which was recently reissued after decades out of print, Jonas wrote, “Wouldn’t it be foolish to come all this way and then rush through Broadway?”
His impulses to linger and look, and to treat his films as a diary, have made Jonas Mekas one of the twentieth century’s most prolific and revolutionary filmmakers. In the 1950s and 1960s, working at the heart of New York City’s downtown art scene, where he would collaborate with John Lennon and Yoko Ono and introduce Andy Warhol to filmmaking, Mekas rejected polished techniques and narrative storytelling. Walden (Diaries, Notes, and Sketches), the three-hour 1969 film that helped establish his reputation as a filmmaker, was a frenetic collage of street scenes and nature footage accompanied by his ruminating voice-overs on memory, loss, and the medium of film itself. Mekas also had a central part in the establishment of independent cinema, cofounding Film Culture magazine, the New American Cinema group, and Anthology Film Archives.
Mekas has made a long career of chronicling his life in extreme detail. His vast autobiographical project includes some seventy-five films, many more short videos, and numerous written works: a dream journal, a “scrapbook,” two collections of anecdotes, four volumes of diaries, and a dozen books of poetry. Today, at ninety-five, Mekas is not only active and mentally sharp but also enjoying a late-career renaissance. The Scottish filmmaker Douglas Gordon recently produced a film and book that add interpretive images to the text of Mekas’s diaries, further canonizing his life story.
Mekas has always made a point of his devotion to the present. “My video camera,” he said once, “can only record what is happening now.” But he has also been, in his words, “a historian of the exile,” chronicling, in films such as Lost, Lost, Lost (1976), how he and other Lithuanian émigrés were painfully uprooted from their homes. In his writings, Mekas emphasizes that he resisted and fled the Nazis, and that he spent time doing forced labor in Germany during the war. In 2015, the filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich asked him, “And you joined the resistance in 1941, is that correct?” “Yes,” Mekas replied. “When the Germans came in, I joined other young people in the resistance. My function was to do the typing for the underground newspaper. It was against the Germans and the Soviets.”
Mekas is revered as much for his art as for being a witness to the twentieth century’s horrors and, in the words of a Toronto International Film Festival program, “among the remaining few to have escaped and survived Nazi persecution.” But he has been elusive when he addresses the war years, about which he mixes up important dates. The Nazi occupation of Lithuania began in 1941, but Mekas has repeatedly written that the Germans arrived in 1942, including in his new book, A Dance with Fred Astaire. Because Mekas doesn’t have much interest in chronological storytelling, that error might not stand out if 1941 had not been such a calamitous year in the Lithuanian history he lived through. That summer, in the small city of Biržai, where he attended high school, 2,400 Jews, including some nine hundred children, were massacred in a single day. During World War II, around 95 percent of Lithuania’s centuries-old Jewish population was murdered, most by Lithuanians working at the behest of the Nazis. In his dream journal, Mekas notes the Biržai massacre but dates it to 1943.
On the first page of I Had Nowhere to Go, Mekas writes that during the war, he worked at two newspapers, as “editor-in-chief of a provincial weekly” and later at a “national semi-literary weekly.” To get a better sense of his life in those years, I read through these newspapers and other documents from the period, conducted an extended correspondence with Mekas, and interviewed him over three visits to his Brooklyn home. Reading his memoir and diaries in light of this other material shows that Mekas’s life during the war years was more complicated than he makes it out to be.
Mekas was born in 1922, the fifth and next-to-last child of farmers from Lithuania’s Protestant minority. He was sixteen when Hitler and Stalin secretly divided Eastern Europe between themselves in 1939. Lithuania was allotted to Stalin, and in June 1940 Soviet troops invaded the country and declared it a Soviet Republic. Mekas has often recounted watching the Red Army roll past his village; he started taking pictures of the troops, but a soldier grabbed his camera and threw the film on the ground. “My first photograph ever taken was ruined under the boot of a Russian soldier,” Mekas has said.
In 1940 Mekas was accepted into the Gymnasium, a high school in nearby Biržai, whose population of several thousand was nestled around a sixteenth-century castle. There he belonged to a clique of fellow poets who became active in the local literary scene. Like many idealistic young Lithuanians, he also became involved in underground anti-Soviet activism. Mekas disseminated leaflets surreptitiously at the Gymnasium, sometimes hiding them under his hat. He told me that he and his close friend Jonas Petronis were connected to a secret anti-Soviet group known as the Six, where his liaison was a poet and more advanced student he looked up to named Leonardas Matuzevičius.
In June 1941, the Soviet secret police carried out the first in a series of mass deportations of Lithuanians to Siberia. In Biržai, some of Mekas’s classmates disappeared. “A small group of us, students, we sat up that night,” Mekas recalls in I Had Nowhere to Go, “and we spoke about the art of Europe, its museums and its music, and how there was only one thing we wanted: a more humane human being. To stop those carloads of farmers, and our classmates, children.”
Not long after, on June 22, the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. As the Red Army began its retreat from Lithuania, an ultra-nationalist underground group called the Lithuanian Activist Front (LAF) emerged to lead the country in declaring independence from Soviet rule. Founded in Berlin in 1940, the LAF greeted the Germans as Lithuania’s liberators and spread the idea that the country’s Jews were Communist traitors. “In Lithuania, more quickly than anywhere else,” the historian Timothy Snyder has written, the Nazi mission, abetted by Lithuanians, “became mass murder.”*
The LAF-led revolt against the Soviets began in Kaunas, the interwar capital, and reached Biržai, more than a hundred miles to the north, a few days later. According to a published account by Matuzevičius, a group of Gymnasium students took over the post office, where Petronis delivered a rousing speech through a loudspeaker in the window and invited Lithuanians to join in liberating the country. In response, other activists, some of whom were already engaged in guerrilla warfare against the Red Army, gathered to form a makeshift paramilitary unit. In testimony that Matuzevičius gave to Soviet investigators in 1945, he said that upon the arrival of the Germans, his “secret circle” became the “central command of the Lithuanian Activist Front in Biržai.”
The first newspaper Mekas worked for, Naujosios Biržų žinios (The New Biržai News, or NBZ), was one of five that the LAF began to publish in Lithuania after the German invasion. Mekas told me that the paper was founded by Petronis several weeks after the Germans arrived. “I joined him immediately because he needed a proofreader,” he said. Rather than resist the Germans, Mekas’s circle of anti-Soviet activists, like LAF-aligned activists across the country, greeted them as a liberating force. The first issue of the newspaper, published on July 19, 1941, contained a two-page banner declaring, in large letters in Lithuanian and German, “We welcome the winning German Wehrmacht!”
Unlike other members of his activist circle, Mekas was not an anti-Semitic polemicist. His own writings for the NBZ were book reviews, literary essays, and poems that espoused a romantic nationalism. None of his writings is anti-Semitic. But much of what the paper published was devoted to advancing the LAF’s fascistic ideology, including its goal of achieving a state purged of Jews. There were invectives against Lithuania’s “enemies”—identified as Jews, Communists, and the Soviet Red Army—and politically charged poetry. One of Mekas’s poems, “For a Young Friend,” is printed in a grid of poems that includes Matuzevičius’s “To the Honorable German Soldier”; another tribute by Matuzevičius was titled “We’re with the Führer.” A front-page editorial from the first issue declared, “We are humans, not Bolshevist Jewish materialist ape-people.”
Mekas never refers to the newspaper by its full name, and he told me that it was “patriotic” but not pro-Nazi. It published Nazi bulletins on the front page, he emphasized, as all wartime publications were eventually required to, but also local news, farming-related pieces, and jokes. “It’s that part that people read,” he told me. But historians argue that the LAF’s wartime publishing stoked public anti-Semitism. According to a report composed by Lithuania’s Genocide and Resistance Research Center, LAF propaganda “impelled some Lithuanians to participate in the Jewish Holocaust.”
Anti-Jewish violence began in Kaunas days after the Soviet retreat and spread from there to the provinces as the LAF consolidated its influence. In July, a number of Biržai’s Jews, including the town rabbi, were killed by groups of local Lithuanians who wore white armbands to distinguish themselves from ordinary civilians. There is no evidence that either Mekas or his colleagues took part in these killings. That same month, the NBZ announced that Jews could no longer receive salaries, then published the mayor’s decree that Jews in Biržai had to leave their homes, enter a ghetto, abide by a curfew, and wear a yellow Star of David.
In the first week of August, dozens of Soviet prisoners and men from the Jewish ghetto were led to a clearing in the Astravas forest on the far side of Biržai’s large lake, out of public view. They were forced to dig two large pits, then shot and buried there. The next day, the town’s several thousand remaining Jews were forced to surrender their valuables and herded into a synagogue, where they were kept for several days, guarded by Lithuanian volunteers. On August 8, they were marched to the forest at bayonet-point. Adults were ordered to strip so that their clothing could be redistributed back in town. They were then shot in groups and buried in the pits. Mothers were forced to hold out their babies, who were shot in their hands. The looting of jewelry from the corpses began while the killing was still going on. By the end of the day, a third of the city’s population was dead. That night, one of the only Jewish survivors crawled out of the pits; he fled to the home of a local family, who hid him for the remainder of the war. In the following days, farmers were brought in with horses to tamp down the uneven, blood-soaked ground over the shallow graves.
German soldiers orchestrated and oversaw this methodical operation, but the killing itself was carried out primarily by Lithuanians—around fifty policemen and civilian volunteers from Biržai and surrounding towns, including, according to several accounts, some students from the Biržai Gymnasium. In his 1945 testimony—which should naturally be read critically—Matuzevičius told Soviet investigators that during the massacre he and other activists “had to make sure that Jewish property wasn’t looted.” In 1999, an Israeli lawyer published a “Partial List of Lithuanian Murderers of Jews in Biržai.” The names of Petronis, Matuzevičius, and Mekas do not appear.
A ninety-two-year-old Biržai native named Ona Plioplienė, who dated Adolfas during the war, told me by way of a Lithuanian friend that she was in Biržai “very seldom” in the summer of 1941, but found it “impossible” that Jonas could have been in the forest that day. She recalls him as “a young guy immersed in literature.”
At first, Mekas told me that he was in Biržai that August and already working for the NBZ. Later, he wrote me: “One thing is clear: that summer I was on the farm,” adding that he returned to the city once a week to help proofread the newspaper. But he also e-mailed me an autobiographical timeline from his personal archive that read: “July/August work in the Pharmacy of Puodžiūnas”—a drugstore located in the center of Biržai, directly in front of a Jewish school and a number of Jewish-owned stores.
In I Had Nowhere to Go, Mekas writes that during the war years in Biržai “I was, obviously, quite involved in the life around me.” But Mekas told me that he recalls little of the Holocaust’s effect on his town. “I could not really relate to, emotionally, or understand rationally, the killing of Jews,” he wrote. “I am closed to monstrous events. The Soviet deportations, the holocaust…. It’s all far beyond the normal human imagination. I react to it abstractly. No emotion. I live in a very tightly closed circle drawn around myself.”
In a 1971 interview with the filmmaker Paul Sharits, Mekas said that he rarely talks about the most traumatic parts of his wartime experiences, but that he had “touched briefly, once, upon them,” in a 1966 commencement speech at the Philadelphia College of Art. In those remarks, which were published a year later in the anthology The New American Cinema, Mekas said that during the war,
I went through horrors more unbelievable than anything I had read in the books, and it all happened right before my eyes—before my eyes the heads of children were smashed with bayonets.
This same horrific image occurs in two key eyewitness accounts of the killings at Astravas, one of them recorded by a Jewish survivor in 1946, the other by a Lithuanian witness in 2015.
When I asked Mekas about what he said in Philadelphia, he replied, “I did not say. If I said it, I said it poetically.” He said that he visited the killing site only a week later. “Just passing where they were shot—there were so many in those graves in Astravas, across, on the other side of the lake, they were almost”—he motioned with his arm as if to indicate that the graves were moving. “You could almost smell it,” he said. “So that’s real enough!”
The day after the massacre, a new issue of the NBZ appeared. On the front page was an article by Matuzevičius called “A Solid Step Toward Productive Work,” in which he wrote approvingly about Lithuania and Germany’s political collaboration. When the LAF continued to advocate for Lithuanian independence, the Germans drove it back underground. By mid-August, the NBZ no longer named the LAF as publisher on its masthead, but it remained an outlet for ultranationalist propaganda and published a series of excerpts “From the Diary of ‘The Six,’” which celebrated the group’s secret activities in the Gymnasium during the Soviet occupation. In September, in an issue with an excerpt from Mein Kampf on the front page, Mekas published a poem titled “Don Quixote’s (the Bolsheviks’) March,” about the futility of the Soviet military. It appeared alongside an article called “The Jews—Humanity’s Misfortune,” and a poem by Matuzevičius dedicated to the work of the Six.
Jonas Petronis was drafted into the German army during Mekas’s senior year of high school. “He was sitting by a linotype machine when the Germans walked in,” Mekas writes in I Had Nowhere to Go. Mekas evaded conscription, and in his friend’s absence he took over the NBZ’s operations. He told me, with evident pride, that he eventually took charge of every aspect of the paper, and that some people even thought he “had too much control.”
By 1943, Mekas had become prominent in Biržai’s arts scene. That year, an older writer invited him to help edit a paper in the larger city of Panevėžys called Panevėžio Apygardos Balsas (The Panevėžys Region Voice, or PAB). Mekas has described the PAB as “a weekly literary newspaper with some other pages for news.” The European Holocaust Research Infrastructure, an EU-funded archival resource based in Holland, uses three subject tags to describe the paper: “Nazi policies,” “Propaganda,” and “Antisemitic propaganda.” Mekas joined the PAB after graduating from the Gymnasium and worked there as a “technical editor.” But he has said that, as with the NBZ, he ended up “practically running it myself.”
Like the LAF, the group that founded the Panevėžys paper—a radical offshoot of the Lithuanian fascist movement—was disbanded by the Germans at the end of 1941. The PAB during Mekas’s time there published literary essays and local news, but also articles with titles like “The Jewish War,” as well as enthusiastic reports on German victories on the Eastern Front. One piece of propaganda called “Why We Must Fight Together with the Germans Against Bolshevism” declared, “Now the nation must choose: let itself be destroyed by Jews and Bolsheviks or defend its existence by all available means!” and remembered the year of Soviet rule as “completely controlled by Jews.” In Panevėžys, the majority of the city’s Jews were exterminated in August 1941, but some remained held in a slave labor camp at the city’s airport. A 1944 essay by Mekas about the nineteenth-century Lithuanian writer and political activist Vincas Kudirka abuts an exposé of three local Jews accused of disguising themselves as Lithuanians.
Mekas admitted to me his circle’s initial optimism about the Germans, but insisted that it was short-lived. “When the first excitement ended,” he said, “two months later it became clear that they’re not going to give Lithuania real independence, that it will remain under the German protectorate, so then of course the same people turned against the Germans.” In I Had Nowhere to Go, Mekas writes that he became involved in anti-German activity “during the years 1943–1944,” which is at the late stage in the war when most anti-Nazi activism began to occur among Lithuanians. “I joined a small underground group,” he writes in I Had Nowhere to Go,
which, among other things, was publishing a weekly underground bulletin. This consisted mostly of news transcribed from BBC broadcasts. It informed people about German activities in Lithuania and other occupied countries.
But in his public statements about these years, Mekas has described the arrival of the Nazis, his work for the resistance, and his subsequent flight as if they were a single continuous event. “By the time the Germans came,” he told one interviewer, “I was so involved that finally I had to—I was in danger of being arrested, and that’s when myself and my brother—he joined me—we decided that it’s time, we cannot stay.” In fact, he lived and worked under the German occupation for three years and fled only when the Nazis themselves were in retreat.
When I sent Mekas scans of his wartime papers and other documents, he revised much of what he had told me, denying his connection to Matuzevičius and saying that his image of a sodden killing site had been conveyed to him by others. When I repeated his earlier claim that he joined the NBZ’s staff “immediately,” he wrote me, “Not ‘immediately’ how you seem to understand that word. But gradually.” Regarding the summer of 1941, Mekas told me that his work at the pharmacy in Biržai “lasted only some two weeks.” About the NBZ, he wrote, “Calling myself editor-in-chief was obviously a bragging of a variety that a young person put in his or her job application.”
In the spring of 1944, as the war in the east turned against the Nazis, the NBZ and PAB published announcements directing readers to go work in German factories and “help in the struggle against Bolshevism.” In I Had Nowhere to Go, Mekas writes that the typewriter he was using to create an underground publication was stolen:
We couldn’t take chances on the thief selling the typewriter and Germans discovering the typeface they had been desperately searching for. It was clear to us, that in such a case, the thief would reveal the source of the typewriter. I had to make fast decisions.
Two days later, he was on the road. But the Nazis had stopped detaining Lithuanian men in June, weeks before Jonas and Adolfas boarded a boxcar in Panevėžys. By the time they fled, on July 12, 1944, the Red Army was on the advance; it captured Vilnius the following day. Mekas says that he and his brother were planning to go to Vienna, which was at the time under siege by the Allies. The Lithuanian-American historian Saulius Sužiedėlis told me that, to his knowledge, “fleeing the Nazis in 1944” didn’t conform to “the experience of 99 percent of the people” who left Lithuania then—to escape the Soviets.
Mekas told me that before he left he buried his diaries along with those of the Six, at the request of one of the group’s members. “We were naïve,” he told me. “Sometimes we wrote exactly what we did.” Adolfas, who also contributed to the NBZ and PAB and taught film at Bard College for many years before his death in 2011, wrote that he, too, destroyed hundreds of pages of his own diary from the period. His diaries, two volumes of which were published recently, begin on page 356 (the first surviving page) with an entry from September 1, 1941.
I Had Nowhere to Go appeared first in English, in 1991, then in Lithuanian, in a 2000 version with different entries. The reader has no way of knowing that the diaries were extensively edited and some entries were omitted. Mekas’s loft full of binders and boxes suggests that he is a meticulous archivist of his own life, yet when I asked him about the physical copies of his diaries, he said that he had thrown out the originals “because I did not think I will ever need them.”
Mekas told me that the last person he visited before leaving Lithuania was Jonas Petronis, who was preparing to fight as an anti-Soviet partisan. Decades later, during a trip to his homeland depicted in his film Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972), Mekas learned from his mother that Petronis had been shot. “I experienced my times,” Mekas told me. “What those occupations, all those powers, what they were all about, what they did to my friends.” In the first entry of I Had Nowhere to Go, dated July 19, 1944, he explains his decision to flee:
I am neither a soldier nor a partisan. I am neither physically nor mentally fit for such life. I am a poet…. If you want to criticize me for my lack of “patriotism” or “courage”—you can go to hell!
Ona Plioplienė recalled that, when the Soviets returned to Biržai, Matuzevičius was led away in handcuffs; he would spend a decade in a Soviet prison for his writings in the NBZ. On the night before leaving Biržai, Adolfas slept at Ona’s house, where his brother Jonas knocked on the window at dawn to set out for Panevėžys. There, Adolfas writes in his diaries, the siblings spent their last night in Lithuania in the PAB offices where Jonas still worked and “linotypes clanked away all night.” Adolfas wrote on July 12, “The war is here, the Russians are coming, the newspaper will be dead in a matter of days.”
Shortly after leaving Lithuania, Mekas has said, the brothers’ train was diverted to Elmshorn, Germany, near Hamburg. They spent eight months doing forced labor at a munitions factory, trying and failing at one point to escape to Scandinavia. When the war ended, they made their way to one and then another displaced persons camp in Germany, where they worked on literary journals and kept company with fellow Lithuanians such as Antanas Maceina, an architect of LAF ideology, who is featured, smiling, in a photograph by Jonas included in the Lithuanian edition of I Had Nowhere to Go. After finally securing refugee papers, in 1949, the brothers boarded a ship to the United States.
When I asked Mekas if he had ever dealt with the Holocaust in his art, he mentioned only a 1957 short story called “The Wolf,” which describes a creature being beaten and tortured until it expires in a manner that seems to evoke the anti-Jewish vigilantism that occurred in Biržai in July 1941. “They caught him, they closed in on him, they made a circle around him, and then they told him to dance,” the story begins. “They laughed, and this was their revenge. They did not care that he could not dance.”
But in one 1946 journal entry published in a Lithuanian-language collection, Mekas writes of Lithuanians haunted by the blood-spattered ghosts of Jews they killed and robbed. In I Had Nowhere to Go, he mentions that he is afraid to go to a certain pond in the German woods:
The slightest movement on the dark surface of the pond, the rotten, putrid, black leaves on the bottom. Everything is calling me back, wakening up memories of Astravas and Biržai.
In the final entry, from 1955, he writes of staring across a “quiet New England lake,” adding, “I suddenly had a feeling that my past had caught up with my present…. I was sitting there and trembling with memory.”
Mekas recorded a dream in 1978 in which he imagined that the office of his Film-Makers Cooperative was the office of NBZ. In the dream, police arrive and accuse Mekas’s friend and fellow-Lithuanian, the artist George Maciunas, of having killed someone. But Mekas realizes that it was in fact he who had done it, and buried the body beneath the floorboards of George’s Soho loft. “I was afraid that the corpse could get out from under the floor,” Mekas wrote. “I saw that there was a large indented hole such as I saw in Astravas over the graves of the Jews who were shot.”
I asked Mekas, by e-mail, about the painful feelings of guilt and complicity that seem to arise in some of his writings. I sent him two scanned pages from a Lithuanian journal entry about his ghost-haunted countrymen:
Murderers without iron shackles on their hands and madmen without straitjackets.
Often I think of you. A hundred times I condemn you and a hundred times I acquit you.
And isn’t a not-small part of the curse and guilt of what you did also on me?
“You should not ask me this!” Mekas wrote back. “Enough for you to read the 2 pages you sent me! As a poet I feel it deeper even than those who committed those crimes!”
Mekas has been identified so often as a survivor of Nazi persecution that his story has become associated with Jewish victimhood. He fosters this association when, in I Had Nowhere to Go, he discusses Lithuanian Jews with the surname Mekas, or when, in Lost, Lost, Lost, he pairs footage of Lithuanian displaced persons with the plaintive Hebrew prayers of the cantor Yossele Rosenblatt.
But Mekas’s experience of the war in Lithuania was nothing like the Jewish one. Lithuanians have struggled for decades with their history of Holocaust collaboration, and Mekas’s fragmentary artistic style may have helped him avoid addressing the matter. In one message, he asked me why I remained skeptical of his version of events—“me, who was there? Even if I wasn’t fully there?”
This contradiction is at the heart of Mekas’s work. The war happened “before his eyes” but he was, as he writes in the introduction to I Had Nowhere to Go, “totally oblivious of my own life,” so he has few detailed memories to report. He has the authority of a witness but none of the responsibility of one. “You are talking abt ‘difficulty to acknowledge the facts,’” Mekas wrote me.
No, it’s not for me, not at all. What’s difficult is the remembering of the facts themselves. Because there were “facts”; life consists of “facts,” but each of us concentrates in our lives only on certain “facts,” closest to each of us. The rest passes unnoticed, not essential to one’s existence, slips out of memory.