From the borderlands

I’m writing from Vilnius, the beautiful capital of Lithuania, after four days at the Polish town of Sejny, in the Polish/Lithuanian borderlands.   I was there as a guest of the Sejny-based Borderlands Foundation, to attend an event called the ‘European Agora’ as part of the centennial of the poet Czeslaw Milosz which is being celebrated in various ways across Poland.

The Borderlands Foundation is a unique experiment that began twenty years ago when a group of artists, actors and directors decided to relocate from Warsaw to Sejny, a small and remote town with a population of 7,000, near Milosz’s family home in Krasnogruda near the Polish/Lithuanian border.

The main aim of the Foundation is the promotion of inter-cultural dialogue, and its activities include education, community arts projects, concerts, a publishing house and literary journal, and a documentation centre that contains films and photographs on the ethnic history of this complicated borderland area, and a well-stocked library on the ethnic and cultural minorities of the Central European borderlands in general.

All this has transformed Sejny into something of a cultural and artistic hub, which regularly attracts world-class classical and musicians, and writers, intellectuals, and philosophers from Central Europe and beyond. The ‘Agora’ event was intended to launch a new International Centre of Dialogue at Milosz’s restored family home’ It began with a speech from the Polish president at Krasnogruda and ended with a concert by a local band playing the old Jewish klezmer music of Central Europe.

In between there were talks from the philosopher Zygmund Baumann, symposia on Milosz’s influential autobiographical exploration of his own roots in Native Realm in Sejny’s former synagogue, heated debates and polemics, poetry readings in a ‘Cafe Europa’ that exuded the cosmopolitanism of Austro-Hungarian Vienna, the performance of a specially-written oratorium in the local basilica.

There were also lunches near the now-defunct Polish/Lithuanian border, debates about Central Europe and the future of Europe in general, and endlessly stimulating conversations with members of the Foundation and various people from Poland and across the world, all of whom have been drawn into the Foundation’s orbit in various ways.

It was all very MittelEuropean and a fine tribute to a poet whose poetry and essays shaped an entire generation of Polish intellectuals during the communist era. The creativity and generosity of spirit at the heart of the Borderland Foundation project is really quite astonishing, and what they’ve achieved in this little town in the middle of ‘nowhere’ is a model of socially-engaged cultural activism, from its celebration of multiculturalism, its determination to involve local people, particularly young people in its activities, and its excavation of the lost history Polish/Lithuanian borderlands – a history that in the case of the region’s Jewish population, was largely obliterated by Nazi barbarism.

I’m still dizzy from the experience, and the ideas and atmosphere that I was privileged to breathe in during those four days will remain with me for a long time to come.