The Borderlands Foundation and the Town of Sejny
By: Samantha Avalos
Our two-week intensive travelling seminar through Lithuania and the eastern Polish border was filled with eye-opening experiences, moving discussions, and heart-rending visits of sites of great tragedy. We met with numerous people, those a part of state institutions or NGO’s, and even some individuals who are exactly that, individuals, working with the history of their city or region and reconciling the past to move forward. In each city we focused on various ways that these organizations, individuals, and municipalities alike dealt with the issues of past conflicts and their methods, or lack thereof, to reconcile with their memories of conflict. The organization that had the greatest impact on me personally was the Borderlands Foundation in the town of Sejny.
The Borderlands Foundation was founded in 1990 by a group of four young artists in the small town of Sejny, located along the northeastern border between Poland, Lithuania, and Belarus. The town of Sejny was similar to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, in that both places have a multicultural history, but despite this similarity Vilnius lacked a very important factor: an organization that was attempting to provide the needed platform to share the stories and history that had nearly been erased during the two totalitarian occupations.
When we first arrived at Czeslaw Miłosz’s former manor in Krasnogruda I had no idea what was in store for me. Here, we were arriving at this remote manor in the Polish countryside from Vilnius, a rather lively capital city, I in no way anticipated that over the course of the next three days the Borderland Foundation and the members of the foundation would have such a tremendous impact on not only my worldview, but my future aspirations as well. Our stay in Krasnogruda began with a discussion with Krysztof Czyżewski, an artist, activist, and one of the founders of the Borderland Foundation. Here was this man with no connection to the eastern Polish region before the creation of his foundation, speaking with such fervor about building the bridges to understand the multicultural history of the town and move forward towards a better, more united future. He gave us the general background of why he, his wife, and a fellow couple felt the urgency to create their foundation in Sejny, and more specifically house it in the old synagogue. Czyżewski also gave us just a snippet of what laid in store the following day at the Borderlands Foundation Center.
During our day at the Borderlands Foundation Center the organization’s goal was made crystal clear, they were focused on bringing back the memories and traditions lost during the twentieth century through more organic means such as music, art, and children’s programs. It was during the first workshop when we watched the film of the visiting American musicians in Sejny that I realized that reconciliation can be in other forms besides the “cookie-cutter” discussions between diplomats, it can happen on a much more local level and in a more artist manner. The notion of using music to understand the history of a city had never occurred to me, but while watching the movie I was instantly filled with the joy that the citizens felt when hearing the traditional Jewish songs played at the concert. It was undoubtedly a beautiful movement. I began to get a better grasp on the workings of the Foundation.
The day continued with another workshop at the Center with Bozena Szroeder, the head of the children’s program and another founding memeber. Bozena’s discussion truly resonated with me for the simple fact that her program was focused on educating the younger generations as a means of reconciliation. When she discussed “The Sejny Chronicles” and its concept with such passion, that she herself was moved to near tears, I was flooded with emotion. Here were these students ranging in ages partaking in these intergenerational conversations dealing with such powerful memories of the good and bad in the town. These were conversations that no one in Sejny cared to have before, yet Bozena and the rest of the Borderlands Foundation were supporting and encouraging these students, the younger generation, to do so. The untraditional children’s program and its approach at education with its full support of children’s artistic and personal development was obvious. Rarely do you see an organization supporting such artistic means of expression as a form of reconciliation let alone inviting world-renowned animation artists to aid in their students project’s to better their understanding of their town’s multicultural history. This truly struck me, if a model such as this can garner such success over the course of twenty-four years that they have continuously built “bridges” why has it not been taken else where, into other political and cultural hot spots?
There was hardly a moment during our day spent at the Borderlands Foundation Center and the days at the International Center for Dialogue in Krasnogruda, or what we warmly referred to as “The Manor,” where I wasn’t moved by the passion of the people we met, or touched by their unyielding efforts to improve the town for future generations. These three days in Sejny and Krasnogruda had such an everlasting impact on me. They have helped me realize the importance of having a deep understanding of not only the current situation in a region, but the history as well, along with the diplomacy and empathy to improve the future. With my head full of new knowledge and ideas, I will move forward with a better grasp on methods of reconciliation, and much greater appreciation for the work of organizations such as the Borderlands Foundation.