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Searching for Leonard Cohen

And finding him—in Vilnius

Frances Brent
December 11, 2019
Photo: Milda Juknevičiūtė
Photo: Milda Juknevičiūtė
Photo: Milda Juknevičiūtė
Photo: Milda Juknevičiūtė

“Tell us more about the gypsy pancake” has continued to be the refrain when I recount the story of finding Leonard Cohen in Vilnius, or rather, finding the recently completed life-size sculpture of Leonard Cohen standing under shoots of climbing vines in the cobblestoned courtyard of a Lithuanian restaurant in the old city quarter. The menu there includes selections with evocative names like “peasant’s dream”—a concoction of smoked sausage, potatoes, pickled vegetables, and ajika (an impossible-to-describe spicy sauce)—or “zeppelins,” blimp-shaped dumplings made with savory ground meat wrapped in pockets of shredded potatoes. We ordered the “gypsy pancake,” a plate-size potato pancake topped with sausages, sauerkraut, and a dollop of sour cream. It was a great success.

My husband is director of the YIVO Institute, which was headquartered in Vilnius before the war, and he travels there a few times a year for work. When I learned we would be going to Vilnius in the fall, I did some Googling. I was hoping on this trip to find something new for us to do together. The restored town center is a small architectural gem with neoclassical and Baroque buildings, towers, spires, and red tile roofs interspersed against patches of greenery. Pastel-colored buildings are painted in sugary yellows, pinks, and blues with brick and stucco as well as some palazzo-styled facades. But the charm is overlaid with lingering reminiscences of the Soviet period and, further back, the German occupation, the Vilna ghetto and the massacre at Ponary, where approximately 100,000 Polish and Lithuanian Jews were shot in the killing pits in the magnificent pine forest. During the last few years my husband’s work has involved directing conservation, digitization, and ultimately curation of an enormous collection of books and documents smuggled out of the original YIVO building by Jewish slave laborers in defiance of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg. Many of the materials are prized by bibliophiles, like the unbound Midrash Tilim, published in Constantinople in 1512 (the oldest catalogued so far), while some of the archival materials are cursory, sketches or doodles on lined paper, jottings from random meetings that might have happened sometime in the middle of WWI. Taken together, they carry the fingerprints of much beauty and many horrors.

(Photo: Milda Juknevičiūtė)

(Photo: Milda Juknevičiūtė)

What came up while I was searching the internet was a series of articles about the Aug. 31 unveiling of a bronze statue of Leonard Cohen, designed by the beloved and recently deceased Lithuanian artist Romualdas (Romas) Kvintas, known throughout the country for his wonderfully humane public sculpture. This statue is “said to be the first in the world” of Cohen and was commissioned by John Afseth, a businessman from Oslo whose wife, Aušrinė Baronaitė, is Lithuanian. Kvintas died before he was able to complete the project and it was finished by a gifted younger artist, Marynas Gaubas. For the past six years, Afseth has invited friends and family to celebrate his wife’s birthday at a restaurant in Vilnius, but this year the event also honored the inauguration of the statue that was situated there. The mayor of Vilnius and his wife spoke at the opening ceremony and 150 people took part in festivities where the Four Winds Quartet performed Cohen’s songs “in the Jewish tradition” and the Django Reinhardt Band played good dance music. News about the event included statements from city dignitaries like the head of the Old Town Renewal Agency who said, “What an amazing inspiration for us, for the city, for the capital of the country where the Cohen family originated! What an honor it is, for us.” Over the years, Cohen gave concerts throughout Eastern and Central Europe; although he was a Litvak, he didn‘t cross the border into Lithuania during his lifetime. His maternal grandfather had been a scholar-rabbi in Kovno before he emigrated in 1923, first to England and then to Canada and the United States. His great-grandfather on his father’s side had also come from Lithuania, arriving in the 1860s in Montreal, where he became head of a brass foundry and a dredging company, as well as president of the oldest Ashkenazi synagogue in Canada.

For a long time, I associated Leonard Cohen with a place that seemed as far from Lithuania as any spot on the planet. I heard his first album in 1968 when I was a freshman at a women’s college in Baltimore. Though this wasn’t the Chelsea Hotel, we were staking out our claim to dreamy anguish in our doubles or singles where you could find beaded curtains and yards of Indian paisley draped over unmade beds. Incense mingled with the fetid, musty smells of the dorm rooms. With the hall doors open, we could hear one another’s stereos playing all hours of night or day. Interludes of Cohen’s tinny, slightly strained, and magnetically sensual voice seemed to run in a spool as “Suzanne,” “The Stranger Song,” “Sisters of Mercy,” and “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” were markers of the narrative we were constructing for ourselves. This was the era of Vietnam and the Age of Aquarius and we thought we were unique, though we weren’t, in our difference. When Cohen sang, “For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind,” he was describing a kind of love we didn’t think our parents, who had married in the late 1940s, after the Depression and the war, could have imagined. This was the essential enterprise of our education and, four years later, an enigmatic and elegiac excerpt from Cohen’s Spice Box of Earth, served as the epigraph for our yearbook. As Cohen aged, it took time to adjust to changes in his music. He acquired a style that was neither folk rock nor Velvet Underground but more like an acid-laced Jacques Brel or Serge Gainsbourg. His voice became darker and lower and, to my mind, reminiscent of the Jewish Tin Pan Alley performers from my grandparents’ generation. I loved how he sang “Famous Blue Raincoat” where you could hear the hesitation as he reached for the higher notes and when he made a rumbling sound in the lowest register of “Bird on a Wire.” From internet images, I could see it was this later version of Cohen that the sculptor Romualdas Kvintas chose to honor, the old soul or aging troubadour in his low-brimmed fedora, wearing a slightly too-large jacket with stylish wide lapels. I was determined that we would find it, though none of the articles provided a precise address.

Much to my disappointment, when we got to Vilnius, I discovered that not even the concierge of our hotel knew the whereabouts of the statue of Leonard Cohen. He’d heard about it, he loved the music, of course, but had no idea how to find the restaurant with the garden. Nonetheless, Vilnius is a small city and I reassured myself that as we had plenty of appointments scheduled during the next few days, someone would be able to show us the way. As a matter of fact, after our first meeting on Basanavičiaus Street, we stopped to see the lovely little sculpture Kvintas made of the Jewish writer Romain Gary, who was born in Vilnius in 1914 and lived on Basanavičiaus for most of his childhood. The sculpture is a poetic homage to the lovesick little boy described in Promise at Dawn who boasted that he had eaten his rain-shoe to prove his devotion to a girl named Valentine. On the day we were there, someone had slipped a small bouquet of roses into an opening between the boy’s bronze tunic and the torn shoe he held at his heart, turning the sculpture into a shrine, honoring the equilibrium between tender vulnerability and swagger.

A pattern had developed as we visited several government ministries, libraries, as well as the University of Vilnius. I’d cautiously ask friends: Did anyone know about the statue of Leonard Cohen? Yes, they’d happily nod and, yes, they’d read about the unveiling. They loved Leonard Cohen’s music. They intended to see the statue themselves. No one knew how to find the restaurant with the courtyard though some of them added more information to the story: While the mayor of Vilnius was supportive of the project, he hadn’t secured a permanent spot for the statue at the time of the unveiling; that was why it was currently in the courtyard of a restaurant. Apparently, John Afseth had great plans for public monuments in Vilnius. When he commissioned the work, he was interested in adding Cohen to the city’s statues of rock stars Frank Zappa and John Lennon. Ultimately, he hoped to commission “up to 10 sculptures in different formats and art styles by different artists” with another prominent and easy-to-guess Litvak—Bob Dylan—on the list. That’s one of his “crazy ideas,” to make Vilnius the rock ’n’ roll capital of Europe.

At the Wroblewskis Library of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences there was a small exhibition of the YIVO documents that have only recently been discovered after 70 years in hiding. The vitrines contained a variety of papers including a handwritten letter about the charity and kindness of Dr. Tsemakh Shabad from one of his patients in 1915, and the ledger book from the Pediatric Department of the Vilnius Jewish Children’s and Women’s hospital which Shabad had helped to establish. Shabad, who was born in Vilnius in 1864, was one of the founders of YIVO and Korney Chukovsky used him as a model for Doctor Aibolit (Ouch!), who compassionately treats animals in his children’s stories. Kvintas designed a famous monument to the doctor not far from the library. Almost at ground level—down to earth—he has the doctor standing with a cane while he gently reaches to touch the shoulder of a little girl who’s brought him a cat to cure. It was Kvintas’ artistry to measure details of the mundane—the large circular buttons on Dr. Shabad’s double-breasted overcoat, the puckers of his trousers, and the crisscrossing of shoelaces—against an abstracted roundedness, softening the nature of his material, so the bronze is breathing.

One afternoon, with a little time on our hands, we meandered without a plan. Even though it was September and overcast, some of the city squares had been newly planted with garden pansies and colors popped against the pale coated plaster and brick of the exterior walls. When we got to the Old Town area and the winding streets narrowed, I couldn’t help thinking about the jagged cobblestones Chaim Grade describes in My Mother’s Sabbath Days or the wagonloads of apples and frozen geese that were carted past similar craggy rowhouses. Suddenly the spell broke and we saw, in large uppercase letters, the following words from Book of Longing: “You go your way, I’ll go your way, too—Leonard Cohen.” Karma or coincidence, we were staring at a chalkboard to the side of the wide-open doors of an English language bookstore and “So Long, Marianne” was playing on a soundtrack inside. Of course, we went in and asked our usual questions. Two women working the bookshop, Sisters of Mercy, as I think of them, directed us in inflected English toward St. Anne’s Church and then 6 Šv. Mykolo, the restaurant where the statue was being given sanctuary.

Underneath overhanging vines in the courtyard garden, the figure of Leonard Cohen stands a little more than life-size, 183 centimeters tall. Upright, reed-thin, eyes squinting, hands clenched, feet toed-in, the metalwork shows imperfections of skin surface, the rumples in the sleeve of his coat jacket, a man who knows everything and nothing, who struggled in the beginning with his “stone ear,” with breath, with carrying a tune, with intimacy, depression and madness and continued struggling to the end with detachment, pain, and emptiness. Book of Longing is a beautiful title. It seems that longing and mourning were continuously rearranging in Cohen’s mind and the unstable valence corresponds to the delicate and changeable nature of the city where his monument will reside, a place that was once home to so many Jews and now houses so few. I’ve been told there will be a second unveiling sometime during the next year, when it will find its place “more or less across the street from the synagogue.” Perhaps Cohen’s presence also mitigates against some of the sadness that permeates the place. We decided to think about it over a glass of wine, and that’s when we ordered the gypsy pancake.

Frances Brent’s most recent book is The Lost Cellos of Lev Aronson.

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