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Cities and Towns
– Reminiscences – Descriptions


Vilna and Lithuania

54°41' / 25°19'

by Baal Dimion[1] (Nokhem Shtif)

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

I went around through Vilna [Vilnius], through the wonderful Ghetto Museum and dreamed of the truth. Feet here stride over history, where stones also serve as history and they push away from them the shadows and figures woven with legends and ideals. Here lived generations, one following another and knotted together like the four seasons of the years. And every generation left its legacy; their shadows still float around. The long, small, disappearing alleys, like paths in a deep, stone well where the where the sun never shines and the air is cool and faces are pale – with the fantastic buildings, roof after roof with verandas with hanging steps, with the upper stories of the Middle Ages – who will describe your appeal?

Here is Glezer [glazier] Street with the stone arch, a survivor from the time when this was the ghetto and a Jew with a bundle of rags was permitted to appear on Deutscher Street during the light of day. A gate here had to be an old creaking gate with iron bolts that barred the Jewish community at night and an angry guard with an outmoded halberd [a spear with a battle-ax] protected the forbidden threshold. Here within

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the stone wells, odious and imprisoned by a world, a Jewish community created its own world, with a radiant heart and a piercingly sharp mind. It forged a doctrine of life from Talmudic archaeology, a doctrine of ethics and broad purposes and ideals that enveloped the Jews like a home and lulled them to sleep from negl-opgisn until reading the Krias Shema.[2]

The synagogue courtyard was a fortress here. Somewhere here a spirit from another world ruled. The great ascetic, the Vilna Gaon [leader of non-Hasidic Jewry in the 18th century], whose picture in talis and tefilin [prayer shawl and phylacteries], and [Moses] Montefiore's [noted financier and philanthropist] picture decorate the walls in those dark houses to this day, to whom the frightened mothers brought their children to be blessed. Here somewhere

Caption: A tower of the former ghetto in Vilna

on the stone stoves the Alter Rebbe (Shneur Zalman [Schneersohn – the founder of Lubavitcher rabbinical dynasty and its first rebbe – rabbi, the leader of a Hasidic sect]) must have stood, asking for understanding and a heart for the new path in Torah and in worship and with a broken spirit must have left, unlistened to, and seen, in the courtyard how they were burning [the works of the] Shivhei ha Besht [collections of legends about the Besht – the Baal Shem Tov – the founder of Hasidus.]. A noble son, a twig of the Polish Magnatess, wrapped in a wide coat with a proud head and humble disposition, sneaked here in the late, dark nights

Caption: Courtyard of the Jewish Synagogue on the eve of the First World War (According to the drawing of Dovid Magid from the Yevreyskaya Entsiklopedia [Encyclopaedia Judaica], volume V)

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yearning to learn the way to eternal life. Perhaps nearby the heart of a Jewish girl beat stronger than usual. The people of the Torah kept silent about this in the pious legends that were woven around his life and death. However, the many-branched tree on his grave, the oyhel of a tzadek [monument over the grave of a righteous man], became the last consolation for a fallen heart.

The old rusted tower must remember when a “stampede of students” made up of “pious” young people from Jesuit committees and churches [who were] no better than the hajdamakes [groups of bandits, often recruited from the Cossacks] in a Ukrainian shtetl [town] descended upon the frightened congregation. The pious Catholic churches themselves seemed to become somewhat like ours, a part of the Jewish landscape. Without them, “Gutka-Toyba's Zawulik [alley],” where two wagons could not avoid each other, would have lost a bit of Jewish charm. Here, outside the quiet walls on a quiet night a Jew, a mediator, playing chess with a bishop, affably joked about

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matters of faith, or a desperate rabbi entreatingly asked: “Return the abducted Jewish daughter!”

Times changed; Jews appeared freely on Deutscher Street and the Rabbinical School moved into the old Jesuit academy. People walked around who were once naïve but who had their eyes opened by Mendelssohn's Biur [Moses Mendelssohn's commentary on the Jewish Bible] and [Gotthold Ephraim] Lessing's Nathan der Weise [Nathan the Wise]. They still attended Minkhah [daily afternoon prayers], but already had traded Isaiah the prophet for Goethe and knew how to recite Schiller's Glocke [Song of the Bell] by heart. A spark in them can still be seen on the main Shabbosim [Sabbaths] and holidays with their top hats on their middle class heads with white beards, with embroidered velvet talis [prayer shawl] bags in their hand. With the Rabbinical School there came a fortress of the Enlightenment and humanity for them. None less than [L.] Lavende, A. Y, Paperno and our Y. L. Kantor

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enjoyed their first fruit of knowledge in the Rabbinical Schools. Others here had the beginning of their literary careers in the naïve HaKarmel [Hebrew periodical published in Vilna].

Ahron [Isaakovich] Zundelevich, a narodovoliec [member of the narodniks or “populists,” a politically conscious Russian middle class movement during tsarist times], sowed the first kernels of revolution and socialism here. His comrade, Ahron Lieberman, later the well-known Artur Freeman of Ha-Emet [The Truth], had in the elevated prophetic language of socialist propaganda directed Jews, not just any revolutionaries. They did their work perfectly and the young Jewish workers community formed in America by the students Abe Cahan, L. Miler, Kaspe and others, was and still is the best evidence.

There was a murmur in the garret in a secluded alley as in a beehive. Enthusiastic, idealistic young people with faces weakened by hunger here dreamed of a newer, brighter world and the crumbling of the old, rotten buildings. Frightened Vilna streets saw this later in noisy demonstrations; suddenly it was as if they had become brighter and more beautiful. The blow by a quiet, pensive shoemaker, Hirsh Lekert, who stood up for the honor of labor and humanity, woke the sleepiest and the most secluded corners. A new world! A new world!

Here in the attics they prepared explosive mines under the synagogue courtyard and yeshivus [religious secondary schools]; teachers and dilettantes here in secret like criminals laid the first stones for the modern Jewish school and “caught” in the middle of passionate debates, they carried on their conference in the jails.

Doctor Eynhorn, the follower of the Enlightenment who in his old age became a baal teshuva [returned to a religious way of life] and who soaked himself in the mikvah [ritual bath], and his young son, our poet, Eynhorn, who dreamed of the new literature for a new generation, saw the walls of the new wing of the old synagogue courtyard, Strashin's Library with the naïve pictures of the faces, Katzenelenbogen's, Lebenzon's and other knights of the first generation of the Enlightenment. And in the respected pious printing press of the Widow and Brothers Romm that provided [books in] all fields of Yidishkeit [Jewish way of life], Talmuds and treatises where our [Ayzik] Meir Dik [writer known by the pseudonym Amad] was known as a proof reader, a provocative, cheerful voice intruded and awoke all corners in which they sang of “work and need.”

Something more happened in Vilna: We saw Lithuania! Dovid Eynhorn showed us an enchanting light:

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“…the sadness floats up on the dark fields,
The blue sky saddened by white, silky fog.
“the rosy and silent nights that die like lonely children,
“The mornings which fade away like a smile on dying lips…”
With Dovid Eynhorn we saw and felt:
“This land, which longs in sadness and hope –
in its constant doubt.”
The literature was here, as always, preceded – showed the way. As if a cover had come away from the eyes. Enchanted by the sickly charm, we sensed the beauty of this country. Like a charming bride, an orphan who looks pensively through her veil into the far distance.

Political understanding came later: here was a home for peoples – Lithuanian Jews, White Russians, Poles that history had placed as neighbors. They would live together and unite to beautify their shared home.

We watched the bitter fight against the Polish priests for the Lithuanian language in the Catholic Church here in Vilna and we, who had suffered so much and yearned for our language, viewed the Lithuanians here as companions in misfortune.

Political work was done in Kovno: village peasants and city Jews united against the Polish landowners and Provoslavna [Russian Orthodox] priests for the elections to the Duma, for democracy and the rights of the people and, here in Vilna, Jewish members of the intelligentsia absorbed dreams of culture and the people, approached their Lithuanian neighbors: we need and can come to an understanding. On the eve of the First World War they extended their hand to their neighbors, released the first dove of friendship – Lithuania.[3]

But is Vilna Lithuania? I ask what eyes would have been torn out at that time for asking such a question, and not only because historically Vilna was the capital city of Lithuania. We had our own feelings for our country and our people; Jews always had their own geography, which strode over the treetops and border wires. Jewish merchants were drawn from Germany and Austria to Poland to fairs and back. Polish-Lithuanian mamrones (blank

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promissory notes) were based on Leipzig rules. Young men traveled all the way to the most distant yeshivus [religious secondary schools]. The Lithuanian-Jewish Vaad [council] had its own borders. It can surely be said that the idea of “Greater Lithuania,” included a large part of Reisen [Carpathia] and Zamet. The Jews were the first to have achievements in the areas of Torah and the Enlightenment, people's education, mores and folklore. For Jews, Vilna is the head of the country. From here its threads extended

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to its most distant corners. [It was known for everything] – for learning and yeshivus, as well as for socialism and people's universities, for innovations and commentaries, as well as for poetry and journalism. The stirring initiative always awoke here and awakened the most secluded corners. Not for others, but for itself, Lithuanian Jewry must have Vilna: its history, its guide.

From the collection, Vilna, Kovno, 1921.

Translator's notes:

  1. Baal Dimion – master of imagination – is the pen name of the writer Nokhem Shtif. Return
  2. negl-opgisn – pouring water over one's nails – morning ritual of washing the hands upon waking; Krias Shema – the bedtime recitation of the Shema Yisroel – Hear O Israel – the central prayer of Jewish worship Return
  3. Publication of Irya Katzenelenbogen and A. Y. Goldshmidt, Vilna, 1914 Return

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