Marija Gimbutas: Some Observations about Her Early Years, 1921-1944

By Milisauskas, Sarunas | Antiquity, December 2000 | Go to article overview

Marija Gimbutas: Some Observations about Her Early Years, 1921-1944


Milisauskas, Sarunas, Antiquity


Marija Gimbutas (1921-1994) even after her death towers as a mythic figure in European archaeology; seminars at universities, such as Umea University in Sweden, are being held on her archaeological work (Hjorungdal 1999:77) and her interpretations of prehistoric data are continuously evaluated by scholars (Tringham & Conkey 1998). To feminists and Lithuanians Gimbutas became a folk hero. Scholars speculate about her life in Lithuania and its influence on her archaeological explanations and interpretations of European prehistory (Chapman 1998; Meskell 1995). She was born Marija Birute Alseikaite to physician parents in Vilnius, `at that time the capital of an independent Lithuania', in 1921 (Chapman 1998: 298). According to Chapman, she had an `idyllic childhood'. Gimbutas talked about her childhood in positive terms and Lithuanians always considered Vilnius as their capital. The only problem is that Lithuanian Vilnius (Polish Wilno and Russian and Yiddish Vilna) was under Polish control in 1921. We need to look at Gimbutas' early years in Lithuania in terms of the ethnic conflicts common during the 1920s and 1930s in Europe.

This is not a re-examination of a long and complicated Lithuanian and Polish relationship in the twentieth century. For many years Lithuanian and Polish scholars have argued and debated about the `Vilnius problem', frequently arriving at opposite and contradictory interpretations. It is difficult to reconcile these different interpretations of events. Here I present Gimbutas' perspective, which to some scholars will represent a Lithuanian point of view. Many of my observations about these events come from conversations with Gimbutas in 1976 and 1991 and discussions and correspondence with her high school and university classmate, Rimute Rimantiene. Vytautas Alseika, Gimbutas' brother, and Jurgis Gimbutas provided valuable information about her life in Vilnius and Kaunas.

On 16 February 1918, the Council of Lithuania proclaimed the restoration of Lithuania's independence with its historic capital at Vilnius (Gerutis 1969a). Conflict soon arose with Poland about boundaries between the two newly independent states; Lithuanians, except for most noble families, had no interest in the restoration of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, 1569-1795 (Eidintas 1998). The Vilnius countryside was inhabited by Lithuanian-, Polish- and Byelorussian-speaking populations. In towns there was a sizeable Jewish population. The city of Vilnius, as the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, has been multi-ethnic for several centuries, but by the 20th century the majority of the population spoke Polish or Yiddish; the Lithuanian-speaking population was a small minority. It was even referred to as the Jerusalem of Lithuania (Atamukas 1990). Lithuanians based their claims to Vilnius on historical grounds, since it was the capital of Lithuania from the time of the Grand Duke Gediminas (1316-1341) until Tsarist Russia's annexation in 1795. Poles claimed that it should be part of Poland, since a Polish-speaking population predominated in Vilnius and it was a centre of Polish culture (Lossowski 1966; Zalys 1998). On 9 October 1920, Polish forces under General Zeligowski occupied the region, breaking the Armistice Treaty of Suwalki (7 October 1920), which had designated the Vilnius region as part of Lithuania (Ochmanski 1967: 256). Lithuanians considered Zeligowski's actions as unprovoked aggression, while most Poles looked at his military campaign in positive terms. Zeligowski created a pseudo state of `Central Lithuania' (Litwa Srodkowa), but de facto Poles treated Vilnius as a part of Poland. Vilnius and parts of eastern Lithuania were formally incorporated into Poland in 1922. Zeligowski's military campaign supposedly was unauthorized by the Polish Government, but in reality it was approved by Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, the Head of the Polish State and the Commander of the Polish armed forces. Pilsudski was born in eastern Lithuania and spent his youth in Vilnius; he was not going to give up this region and city to Lithuanians (Bardach 1988: 276). …

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