« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »

[Col. 181]

The Ezras and Nekhemias of the Jerusalem of Lithuania

by Shmuel Kagan (Argentina)

Translated by Daniel Wolfe

Donated by Simon Kreindler

        In the middle of the summer of 1944, the linen and flaxen Lithuania opened its Jewish eyes and saw that it was day. From the depths of the black-green Partisan woods, the great day, the great slaughtering-knife day of severity, dawned and immediately glittered over “The Jerusalem of Lithuania”.
        On that hot day in July, the gutters of Vilna were filled with Nazi blood. On a sweaty, dusty evening, the Red Army plastered the Jewish area of Vilna with Nazi skulls and cooled off the hot pavement with a stream of bestial Germanic blood. This time kosher Vilna happily bent under the non-kosher mass of eight thousand slaughtered swine and by the shine of the smoky sunset watched the supermen die unnatural deaths at the hands of the Soviets.
        And that's how it happened everywhere. The flocks of frightened Jewish villagers observed this same picture with the last glimmer of their exhausted eyes. The Nuremberg wolves remained rotting in the Jewish sheep villages and the Red Army flesh machine turned and continued to cut Nazi flesh into small pieces.
        In this way, our second Jerusalem earned back its Jewish honor, its old and its new Judaism. Of all those who were transported in cattle cars only a few returned on the liberating tanks and, with Nazi blood, wrote the great fiery-history, the simple and gruesome words, of how they cut us, autopsied us and murdered us.
        It wasn't, however, meant to be that the holiday of revenge should shine for us as an eternal light. In liberated Lithuania only the ash of our burnt homes was freed, only the hollowed out bones of our mutilated mothers and infants, only the slaughtered remnant of our thousand year old rootedness in the Lithuanian sand and forests.
        There remained of Vilna--the destruction of Vilna. But there is a power that will not let it be destroyed. Just as there was pre-Holocaust [Vilna], there will be a post-holocaust Vilna. Therefore there is no despair in our pain [for there will come a time when our liberated capitol suddenly emerges in our hearts, the “city full of G-d,” the “city and mother of Israel,” the capitol city home of our spirit, the metropolis of our Judaism, the center of our national individuality, the capitol of our culture, the spiritual city of the Jewish people, our “Jerusalem of Lithuania”.

II

        In Jewish life, Vilna represented not only a geographic reality, but also more importantly a cultural-historical one. Vilna had its own individual Jewish nationalistic style. In all areas of Jewish cultural expansion and artistic expression, there existed a special “Vilna style”. This particular “Vilna quality” was characterized by intellectual profundity, unswerving principles, sharp emotions, light ironic skepticism, cold sharp mental acuity and synthesized conception. [1]
        The Lithuanian coldness and dryness was only an external garment, under which a deeply Jewish fire and gentle sensitivity was humbly hidden. The Nazi beasts knew it and sensed it. In a secret book of S.S. laws there was a point, which Sutskaver [2] cited and which is the nicest testimonial for Vilna. It states: “The Vilna Jew is the most terrible in the world. If even ten Vilna Jews survive, it means that we have not accomplished our goal.”

        From the time that Jewish life in Eastern Europe took on an organized form, Vilna was always its neurological center, its cohesive center, and its authoritative guide. Starting with the medieval rabbis and heads of yeshivas, continuing with the Vilna Gaon, [3] [then] with the Renaissance Movement in Jewish areas in the second half of the 19th century; the rise of the “Bund” [4] ; the appearance of secular Jewish culture; the founding of modern, integrated Jewish school system; the consolidation and codification of Jewish science (not only philological-historical in “YIVO,” but also precise nature science), and ending with the art group “Young Vilna,” with the Vilna troupe and with the Jewish chair in the Soviet Vilna University...through all of these stages, like the biblical red thread, winds the vibrant spirit of our people, its implacableness, the Bergsonian “elan vital “(life force) in a rational-clear form.
        From the time of the deep Middle Ages on, Vilna was crowned by the Jewish world with the honorable title of “Jerusalem of Lithuania”. In our two-thousand year old history, no other city or spiritual center outside of the land of Israel has been worthy of carrying the name of our erstwhile capitol, including the time of the so-called Spanish Golden Era. Vilna represented the newly found, wholly alive Jerusalem, not as much in contradiction to, as in compensation for, the lost one.
        To the degree that Jewish life has become modernized and become crystallized socio-economically, the friendly quarrel between both Jerusalems has become more acute. In the wisest, old-tradition, Vilna began to lean more and more toward the most youthful and actually deeply Jewish world-view, which seeks our national rehabilitation in the space of a socially-redeemed world This is the only view that can give us a whole-hearted, territorial, inter-territorial or autonomous state title.

III

        The importance and excellence of Vilna's prominence in the Jewish world is not a matter of chance, not just “selection by fate” and certainly not a consequence of the special “racial superiority ” of its Jews.
        The Jews of Vilna do not hold themselves up as being the nobility of the Jewish people. They are not the elite, but neither are they lower class. Biologically and anthro-pomorphically they are the same Jews that are in Poland, Galicia, Bessarabia and the Ukraine. Their greater spirituality and cultural prominence is not a mysterious puzzle but has, like every earthly phenomenon, certain reasons which are, in this case, geographic and economic, that is, very prosaic.
        Because of its geographic situation and democratic composition, Vilna was the point of intersection for many cultures. The Polish, Lithuanian and Russian cultures met there and clashed. Mixed in were also White Russian, Tatar, Baltic-German and Kurland-Latvian cultural elements. The first three cultures, although Slavic and Christian, were, due to political motives, always at odds with one another, accusing each other of disloyal infiltration and confiscation. The Tsarist-Russian culture could be characterized as imperialistic, the Polish as nationalistic- chauvinist and the Lithuanian as nationalistic-liberationist.
        When it came to Jewish culture, these three rival cultures were neutralized. They couldn't conquer the Jewish culture or influence it as they could other areas. Of the three non-Jewish cultures, two of them were always doing battle with the one that was the most politically dominant. The political ruling culture, temporarily dominant, while attempting to achieve complete dominance, was mostly interested in vanquishing the two non-Jewish cultures, due to the political peril which threatened, and paid little attention to the safe, peaceful Jewish culture. In the struggle against the dominant, forceful culture, the two non-Jewish cultures searched for allies and accepted even the Jewish culture, recognizing it's national worth and the Jewish culture complete rights. The Jewish culture, not being under the influence of one large, dominant and sovereign culture could easily protect itself from outside influence and fungal growths. It emancipated itself, as it were, and transformed itself into a fourth cultural element of equal value, which was, of course, the weakest due to its lack of territoriality and political perspectives.
        Because of the external cultural struggle, Jewish culture, instead of being an object of influence became an entity unto itself and cultivated its individuality preserving it's own identity and its sharp Jewish profile. In the combination of cultures, the Jewish culture of Vilna, whose traditional-historical baggage was at least as substantial as the existing cultures, had the possibility of remaining truly Jewish, of preserving its originality, and of demarcating its national contours and strengthening its resistance.
        After the year 1914, the position of Jewish culture was even more strengthened, due to the continual changing of the sovereignty of the Vilna region. From 1914 to 1944 the state government changed twelve times, and with each new regime, the state language and the political cultural institutions would also change according to the new leader. The Jewish reaction elicited by these new developments was to remain even more devoted to one's own language and not to ride along on the carousel of language and cultural change. During the time that the area of Vilna was frequently changing its political feathers and its national affiliation, the “Jerusalem of Lithuania” ironically smiled with its thousand-year-old skepticism, and placed its own worth ever higher and higher.
        The character of Vilna's Judaism was also affected by the economic conditions. Vilna is the Capitol City of an impoverished northern area, of the sandy, stony, buckwheat and rye Lithuania, which knows nothing of wheat or fat cattle. No broad, influential bourgeois class developed, only a middle-class folk-strata of small shopkeepers and artisans and, later, a conscious proletariat.
        The Vilna village never knew princely rule: the land was apportioned into small pieces among the impoverished peasants, who represented the economic basis of Vilna's Jewry. These conditions precluded the symptoms of subjugation or of frightened submission to the princely Polish whip being exhibited in the Jewish character of Vilna. On the contrary, there always existed a proud self-assurance and a brotherly feeling of solidarity with the distant Lithuanian-White Russian hinterlands, which existed in economic and cultural deprivation, on “herring and potatoes” and gave spiritual life a special sobriety, sensitivity and pervasiveness, which characterized the “dry Lithuanian”. Abraham Rayzen's poetic subject matter is a true reflection of the physically impoverished but spiritually refined life of Vilna, Lithuania.

IV

        The Jewish life of Vilna was Jewish through and through, in all of its dimensions and spiritual planes. It was thoroughly Jewish, not only in its cultural manifestations but also in its daily economic, social and family lives. Because the Polish government tried with all its might to destroy anything truly Jewish in Vilna, the cult of unceasing Judaism governed the ideas, mood and strivings of the youth.
        This Judaism was authentic and integral, not the kind of “integral Judaism”, which is constantly being touted and which is no more than stylized Judaism, external shell Judaism, so to speak. That which could be seen on the surface of Vilna's Judaism was the result of that which took place in the depths, the oceanic depths, of its hundred percent Judaism, which mirrored its own completeness and whose exterior forms were an external manifestation of content ten times as rich.
        No form in Vilna was penetrated by the despised assimilation, which left its rust stains throughout all of Poland. On the contrary, in Vilna one noticed an interesting opposition, which could be called “topsy-turvy assimilation” and which consisted of this: the former Russian assimilated Jewish intellectuals went back to Yiddish! It could be said that they “over assimilated”.
        Starting with the errand boys, all the way up to the doctors and engineers, practically all of them lived their everyday lives and observed holidays in Yiddish. Vilna worked, lived, celebrated, studied, joked, suffered, philosophized, cursed and sinned in Yiddish.
        In Vilna no one could imagine how there could exist such Jewish creatures as Polaks of Mosaic faith and how certain young doctors of Galicia on the road to their careers, could make so many artificial feints in order to hide their Jewish origins. It was unimaginable how the Polish Chassidim, who visited the Rebbe of Ger, raised their daughters exclusively in Polish, while the most prominent Vilna ladies talked privately among themselves in a juicy Yiddish. Everything in the world, in all of Vilna Jewry, without any distinction between social roots and education, lived naturally in Yiddish. This Jewish consciousness, this necessity for an integral everyday Judaism, this first point of Jewish national hygiene, had a clean, individual face, without Polish, Lithuanian or Russian freckles.
        This self-devotion was not a language question but an expression of deep organic consciousness. However, there did exist an exalted group which created a militant Judaism, an ideological background of social character, whose goal was to beautify our folk language on a world scale and achieve the unification of our people in all corners of the world. This movement was created by ordinary citizens, who didn't understand that Yiddishism by itself is a fragmented thing, that a Yiddishist culture alone must, after all its idealism, remain abstract and fruitless in the national and social sense.

V

        Vilna's Jewish life also brought its individual personality to big-city and small-town Jewish communities, not with exaggerated pride, not with abnormal exhibitionism, but as a natural consequence.
        When one walked down Vilna streets, one would continually see Yiddish letters, which looked happily down, from every edifice. To a Jewish shopkeeper, it was only natural that the sign, which hung over his small shop or large wholesale business, should also be painted or written in Yiddish. The apple sellers and market women would hawk their wares with great folkloristic charm. The fish sellers would sprinkle the Vilna fish market with rare fish-folklore which had the scent of aquatic plants, of sun and Vilna's beautiful lakes, starting with the wealthier ones, who dealt in pike, carp, tench [5] and perch, and ending with the poorer ones, who sold smelts (small fish), sardines [6] and flat fish [7] . Even the thieves and pickpockets of Vilna had their own clever professional jargon in Yiddish. For example, in a Vilna bar I once heard a pickpocket say to his friend: “If you don't stop pouring into the lamp, I'll wrinkle your dial”, which meant: “If you don't stop drinking so much, I'll slap your face”.
        On the streets of Vilna and especially the small towns around Vilna the Yiddish language resounded with all of its freedom and fervor and out-shouted all of the Slavic dialects, without the slightest trace of inferiority and with all of the comfort of one's own home.

VI

        It is understood that Jewish life, which was genuinely Jewish and worldly in the home and in the street, had its own language. Therefore, it had to create its own educational system at the first signs of viability.
        Ignoring the persecution of the Jewish school and the removal of every public illegal power of the Jewish diploma, a kind of “sanctification of G-d's name” mood governed the educational system, whose existence was as essential [now] as in the past or as it had been for past generations. Outside of the dense web of Jewish primary schools, there also arose, with the help of popular enthusiasm. a middle school educational system--the only one in Poland and in the whole world.
        In these institutions, Jewish literature, language and history, which were the basic courses, were analyzed and studied with modern methods and the students benefited from the result and received a deeply Jewish foundation. Those who graduated from these schools felt like knights, Cohains [8] of worldly Judaism, whose conscience, the Jewish and the human, was fused into a perfectly synthesized whole, without dubious omissions and fluctuations.
        In the realm of theater, there arose the world-renown “Vilna Troupe”, which gave world citizenry Jewish dramaturgy and stagecraft and became a school and a slogan in the Jewish theater world.

The leadership of the student club of the
Svintsyan Jewish Gymnazium and Elementary School

Seated: Leyb Tayts, Berl Feyglman, Hirsh Eyskunsky, Sore Mofshovitsh, Leyb Kovarsky.
Seated in the second row: Eliahu Taraseysky, Shimon Bushkanyets, Berik Brumberg,
Shmuel Kagan, Monis Sirotkin.
Standing: Kreyne Ginzburg, Yehudit Kuritsky, Malka Abramovitsh, Sheyna Volyak,
Gershon Kuritsky, Aharon Margalit

        In Vilna, the foremost contributor, , in the beginning. to young modern literature was, Moyshe Kulbak. His lyrical landscapes and broad epic descriptions of young village fishermen by the blue lakes and rivers of the picturesque Vilna neighborhood (especially in the poem “Rending”), filled Yiddish literature with the scent of pines, raw earth and black bread. During later times, the group “Young Vilna” arose (with A. Vogler and Chone Grade at its head) which actually dominated Yiddish poetry in Poland. Voglar shook up the literary world with his anthropomorphism (humanizing nature) and with the subtle mining of the pain of his orphan's fate. Grade surprised the literary world with his weighted social themes and with his acute virtuosity.
        Regarding the Yiddish of Vilna--it is phonetically, lexicologically, and idiomatically the most guarded from external influences, the most classical of all other Yiddish dialects, although perhaps not possessing the most sound coloration. With the obviousness that ends differences of opinion, the Yiddish dialect of Vilna was the official literary Yiddish of the whole world.
        And since Yiddish literature was categorically the only unifying aspect which was not limited territorially, it was accepted as an separate and equal classification in the international society of PEN [9] -clubs It was noted thus in the London World registry:

Territory:Yiddish-----Capitol:Vilna

VII

        To the degree that Polish Fascism became, in its last deceiving years, more bloodthirsty and encroaching, it generally assaulted the Jewish culture of Vilna, which was, according to it, the carrier of Red goals.
        The police destroyed libraries, looted synagogues, deported people to a concentration camp in Kartuz-Bereze, even murdered a young Yiddish literary
critic but Vilna only bent and did not break.
        When Polish Fascism died in the fall of 1939 under the chain wheels of Soviet tanks, Jewish joy flowed like streams throughout Vilna. The narrow, Oriental-like, winding streets, with their remnants of ghetto-buildings of the Middle Ages, with its famous Strashun Library, danced happily and stretched their old bones.
        A few days after Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union, the last greeting that we had from the Soviet “Jerusalem of Lithuania,” was the characteristic, genuine Vilna call of the local rabbis there: stand behind the leaders of the conquering country in their struggle against the Nazi infiltration, against the Hitler reptiles.

XI

        Vilna is not only precious to the Jews of the whole world, it is also the sacred place of the Polish and Lithuanian people. In Vilna, there crossed, both during times of peace and times of war, the historical fates of these two peoples. And in Vilna their spirits shone, but more than anything, Vilna, our Vilna, the “Jerusalem of Lithuania”, which had suffered so much, distilled our purest spiritual values, starting with the several hundred years old yeshiva “Romeyles Synagogue” and ending with the Real Gymnasia and its Jewish faculty. Between one World War and the other, there grew there, tall and courageous, our secular Judaism, whose rays reached every spiritual corner where we had wandered or been tossed.
        For three years the Nurenburg ax and the Munich four-footed violence drew the Jewish blood of our capitol city, until there emerged from the green depths of the Lithuanian forests, the Red tanks, and on these tanks rode the bronze youths and oaken partisans, the Ezras and Nekhemias of the Jerusalem of Lithuania; the knife carriers of our peoples' revenge; the demanders of blood, dispensers of death.
----------------------------------------------

1. Although the word in the text is syntetisher, which means “synthetic,” I think “synthesized” is what is meant. Trans. Back
2. Abraham Sutzkever (born 1913) is the greatest living Yiddish poet. He belonged to the “Young Vilna” literary group, fought as a partisan in the Vilna Area, and (from 1947) lives in Tel-Aviv. Back
3. This is what he was called. The word gaon means “great Torah scholar” in Hebrew. Trans. Back
4. The Bund was a Socialist organization. Trans. Back
5. A kind of fresh water fish. Trans. Back
6. The Yiddish word is selevkes. Trans. Back
7. The Yiddish word is flots or flatkes. Trans. Back
8. The Jewish priestly class; those who served as priests in the Holy temple. Trans. Back
9. This is a prestigious literary society, PEN standing for Poets, Essayist and Novelists. Trans. Back

« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »


This material is made available by JewishGen, Inc. and the Yizkor Book Project for the purpose of
fulfilling our mission of disseminating information about the Holocaust and destroyed Jewish communities.
This material may not be copied, sold or bartered without JewishGen, Inc.'s permission. Rights may be reserved by the copyright holder.


JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material for verification.
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.

  Svencionys, Lithuania     Yizkor Book Project     JewishGen Home Page


Yizkor Book Project Manager, Lance Ackerfeld
This web page created by Max Heffler

Copyright ©1999-2014 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 14 Feb 2008 by LA