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[Pages 1071-1098]

A Year in the Lithuanian State
(Reminiscences of a Wayfarer)

by Dr. A. Mukdoni

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

In 1920, a considerable number of non-communist Jewish writers who were in Moscow began to look for a means to leave the Soviet Union.

There were enough reasons. First–hunger in the Soviet Union, literary unemployment. But the main reason was that the Russian intelligentsia in general, and the Jewish intelligentsia in particular, which dreamed of a road to revolution in Russia, were scared to death of it when it arrived. We all imagined the revolution as something different; we imagined something like a miracle that comes down to the earth from heaven and brings good fortune and an eternal holiday.

In reality, the revolution of which we had dreamed was demonstrated to be entirely hostile, wrathful. It was merciless. It related to everyone with suspicion and constantly held a revolver in its hand and shot everyone who openly showed dissatisfaction with it. And it brought hunger, contagious illnesses and other afflictions.

It should be understood that we all knew what had happened in the great revolution in France, but for years all Russian revolutionaries had warned that the errors of the French revolution must not be repeated and considered the terror among the errors of the French revolution.

And the Red terror actually ran rings around the earlier terror of the French revolution. The terror of the French revolution was child's play in comparison to the Red terror because the French revolution was child's play in comparison to the great Bolshevik revolution. In short–we were too soft and too sentimental and the Bolshevik revolution with its hardness and determination cast a terror upon us.

As soon as a crack opened, understand, all of the writers excluding the communist writers left for the opening through which one could make his way abroad. The opening was the brand new, small state of Lithuania.

When Russia was weakened by the war, by the revolution and by the civil war, all of the Baltic areas-Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland-broke away from Russia. The Soviet regime had no other choice than to recognize the four new states. Lithuania was the first of these four Lilliputian states that entered a pact with the Soviet regime.

Understand that there was a point in the pact about repatriation for the Lithuanian citizen who found himself in Russia and for the Russian citizen who found himself in Lithuania. And so a number of Jewish writers, including my humble self, made our way to the only crack in the hermetically sealed Soviet state.

I personally just did not see any future for me as a writer in Soviet Russia. All of my attempts to work with the Jewish communists did not turn out well. Moshe Litvakov once met me and was delighted with me: “Here, this is the man I am looking for; we need you. We are building a Yiddish theater and we have a dozen various kinds of work for you. You can pick out what you want.” [Moshe Litvakov was the editor of the Yiddish communist newspaper, the Moscow emes (Truth).]

We decided on one choice of work, namely, that I would be the person responsible for the repertory. I should seek a play from Yiddish literature, read new ones and so on However, at the first meeting with Moshe Litvakov and A. Granovsky, we realized that we could not work together. [Alexander Granovsky was the director of the Jewish Theater Workshop, later the Moscow State Jewish Theater.] Such a sharp difference of opinion immediately developed between the two representatives of the future theater and me that we separated forever without speaking.

The diverse opinions consisted of this:

I proposed plays in which positive Jewish characters also appeared. True, this was the greatest absurdity on my part because the Russian theater had the task of discrediting, laughing at and shaming the past Russian world and its people and the Russian theater carried this out–with ardor. This was its contribution to the revolution.
Understand, the Jewish theater had the same task and Moshe Litvakov and A. Granovsky essentially were correct from a political and practical standpoint and I was correct from a pure Jewish standpoint. However, the complete unanimity between the communist Litvakov and the assimilated A. Gradovsky was curious to me. Here they shook hands …

I just could not imagine the possibility of working under Moshe Litvakov's supervision for another reason. Litvakov was a very talented man, but he was malicious by nature and an embittered man. And this, that he stood a thousand heads higher than the Jewish communist writers around him, only vindicated his maliciousness. It was vindicated a considerable amount more.

Short, remarkably thin, a pile of bones really, with the face of Mephisto and with a rabbinical forehead, he actually yielded to A. Gradovsky, to the tall, strong bourgeois young man who spoke with authority, dressed with taste and screamed against bourgeois money acquisitions with great revolutionary fervor. The budget for the Jewish Chamber Theater was so large that it brought reverence from all of the communists who had been poor immigrants abroad and principally from Moshe Litvakov who came from a very poor family.

In short, I also decided to make use of the only crack that had opened. I decided to leave for abroad by way of this crack and from there to America. However, first of all, we had to get to Lithuania from Soviet Russia.

And here came Bentzion Katz as an angel of redemption: Bentzion Katz, the frightened, shortsighted and absentminded man was a literary diplomatic courier who constantly would travel from Lithuania to Moscow and from Moscow to Lithuania. How did Bentzion come to be a diplomatic courier? This story is thus:

The Lithuanian government chose the very talented Russian poet, [Jurgis] Baltrusaitis, as its ambassador to Moscow. This was the only Lithuanian who was suitable for the first office of ambassador. He was educated; he knew Russian and was beloved in Russian circles. But this Baltrusaitis was a strong lover of alcohol and this made him an undistinguished man and a weak diplomat.

Bentzion Katz, who came from Lithuania, went to Baltrusaitis to ask for a visa to travel to his fatherland. In the short conversation that both Litvaks had, the Jewish one and the Russified one, Baltrusaitis saw before him in the person of Bentzion Katz an actual treasure. Bentzion Katz was a walking newspaper. He carried in his head a treasury of information of which Baltrusaitis had great need. And thus a friendship began between the first ambassador from Lithuania in Soviet Russia and Bentzion Katz, the Hebrew journalist and historian.

They joked in Lithuanian circles that Bentzion Katz had convinced Baltrusaitis that he [Katz] actually was the ambassador. However, the truth was that Bentzion Katz became a very frequent visitor at the Lithuanian embassy. And once I encountered Bentzion Katz and he said, without a preamble, as was his manner: I will bring you travel documents from Lithuania. And so it was—a short time later, Bentzion Katz came to me with a pound of sugar and with travel documents.

He brought travel documents for a dozen Jewish writers, but he distributed them at the Kovno train station. Police had gathered and the diplomatic courier, Bentzion Katz, was almost in “trouble,” but it then was still idyllic in Lithuania. The state was so young and naïve—but Bentzion Katz ended his role as] the diplomatic courier. By a miracle, my travel documents remained in one of his many pockets.

* * *

I traveled to Lithuania.

No one disturbed me; the Jewish communists knew of my trip; they tried to dissuade me, but no one disturbed me; no one did me any harm. I do not know, perhaps I had special luck; I had no difficulties from the Jewish communists.

And here was the new Lithuanian border. It looked unpleasant. I was just in Russia and suddenly a border appeared with the young and naïve state guards at the border who looked at each new immigrant with suspicion and with open hatred.

The Lithuanian government placed a villain at the very entrance, a Cerberus [multi-headed dog that guards the entrance to the underworld] and, understand, this Polish villain did his work heartily, with sadistic enjoyment, not out of love for the new, young Lithuanian state but out of hatred for Jews. The deadly poisonous, little Polish nobleman approached me—what do you need in Lithuania? I was a communist and should remain in the Soviet Union and so on.

At the same time, his face showed formidable intelligence–he would not be fooled. He knew everything. He was smart and clever. He began sarcastically, but he immediately became angry, but when it had no effect on me, he became even angrier. And as everything was in the “best” order with me, the Polish villain could do nothing. He only could be a little cruel to me and that's what he did—he would not let me travel; he would see in the morning.

However, when I left him, a young Jewish man offered me an unreserved hello. He was the representative of the Jewish National Council. I would not have to face any frustrations. I would yet travel to Kovno today. He already had informed Kovno that everything was in order. It is superfluous to say that all of this was new and surprising to me. A representative of the Jewish National Council in Lithuania was here at the border and a Jewish writer was receiving special attention.

I spoke to the young man and learned many details about the Jewish National Council. This was a kind of Jewish parliament; the chairman was Sh. Rosenbaum, the well-known Zionist in the former Russia. Lithuania had a Jewish Minister—M. Soloveitchik. In short, I almost had traveled to a Jewish state.

I received a second unreserved hello from another representative of the Jewish National Council at the train station in Kovno. He took my papers; he would take care of everything. Tz. Hirshkan, who had left six years earlier than I, also was waiting for me at the train station. He had prepared a room for me, one of the great rarities in the new capital in which there were truly thousands [in need of one]. He was going to Berlin and he kept his room for me. He waited until I arrived. This was a favor for a favor because Hirshkan was with me in Moscow for a few months. And he left from my lodgings.

In the city, I. L. [Izidor Lazar] Leizerovitz, the writer, came to me breathlessly and told me the news that a ship ticket, an affidavit and dollars from my brother in America were waiting for me. I. L. Leizerovitz, who left earlier than I, wrote for an American Yiddish newspaper, I think for the forverts [Forward], about the writers who were ready to leave Soviet Russia. My name was among them. Leizerovitz gave his address so that the relatives of the writers could learn more details from him, and the affidavit, the ship ticket and, most important in post-war ruined Europe, the dollars arrived at his address.

I. L. Leizerovitz was a very capable Hebrew and Yiddish writer. He also possessed considerable Jewish knowledge, but he started on the slippery road of light journalism. [Shmuel Yankev] Yatskan [Yiddish publisher and editor] snatched him up like a jewel. Later, he wrote for the New York forverts [Forward]. He died prematurely in the very fervor of his journalistic activity.

Short, with large, lively eyes, always excited, always smiling and always fast, he was a good colleague and really was always ready to go through fire and water for a colleague. I went out to the street in the morning to look over the new capital. Kovno was a Jewish city from ancient times and now, a few years after the First World War and after the expulsion of the Czar, it again was a Jewish city. One rarely saw a Lithuanian and this new Lithuanian state had made this Jewish city its official capital.

Kovno remained provincial, as I had known it from years before. The new state still had not even built the necessary buildings for itself. The parliament moved into a former women's gymnazie [secondary school] and the ministries were in private residences and the Jewish ministry as well had moved into a private residence on a side street.

Yes, the provincial city, one of the most provincial cities in the former Czarist Russian land. However, there were all kinds of good things here in this city: white bread, cigarettes, wurst, cheese, butter, sugar and restaurants were here with sizable lunches – a Garden of Eden. I remember that the first things I bought were mushrooms. I bought perhaps a dozen packages…

Walking in the street and admiring the abundance of foods, I was stopped by a policeman who apparently immediately recognized that I was not from there and demanded my papers. I went to my pocket, but I then remembered that the representative from the National Council had taken them from me. I told this to the policeman in Russian. He told me to go with him to the police station.

I was not at the police station for long. This happened on a Tuesday. That is, I was held at the police station on Tuesday for a few hours and I was the guest of the Jewish minister, M. Soloveitchik, who was a member of the Lithuanian ministers' cabinet, on Friday night. I saw a Minister for Jewish Affairs for the first time in my life and the minister looked ministerial and Jewish. I entered a rich Jewish home. This was Minister Soloveitchik's parents–rich, deeply rooted business owners in Kovno.

The mistress of the house, the minister's mother, appeared as a Jewish woman of means, a Jewish lady with good Jewish and worldly manners, hospitality and prominence. The minister, himself, a fine, tall Jewish man, black hair and well-turned out in a rich house, a man with a good Jewish and worldly education, a half Jewish education and a half worldly man. He did not have the appearance of a politician; this was fatal for his ministry. He was too good a Zionist and this was perhaps fatal for Jewish autonomy, which he personified. He was the aristocrat, the man of the world, among the Lithuanian ministers, mainly former teachers and just partly men of the world and this was a disadvantage.

The Friday night was half Yiddish, that is, half in the spirit of Shabbos [Sabbath] and half worldly. There was no feeling of intimacy or warmth in the house. The minister carried his ministerial office with pride, even at home, and his rich mother carried herself with an air of wealth.

In short–it lacked the open, warm yiddishkeit [Jewishness]. There was a feeling of coldness and of withdrawal in the house. Apparently, the right tone was not yet found in the Jewish minister's house. And it is understandable–this was a new phenomenon in the Jewish affluent life and they had not yet gotten accustomed to living with it so that it would be completely natural.

I had the opportunity to meet with Sh. Rosenbaum, the president of the Jewish National Council, a few days later. Sh. Rosenbaum was not fully a Lithuanian Jew. He was a Minsk lawyer and a well-known Zionist worker in Czarist Russia. During the time of the Bolshevik revolution, he was brought secretly to Vilna and from Vilna to Kovno.

Short, a little bent, with a pair of intelligent, penetrating eyes and with an ironic smile that never left his lips, he gave the impression of a revl [literally a small rabbi, but used as an affectionate diminutive] who cut or shaved off his beard. His short jacket was somewhat alien on his shoulders.

He was a man with a sharp mind and he greatly helped the Lithuanians, the dejected village people who did not know much about what to do with their independence and with their government. Sh. Rosenbaum traveled with the Lithuanian delegation to the peace conference in Versailles and there met the necessary politicians and led them by the hand like schoolboys. He was in the delegation that led the negotiations with the Soviet regime in the name of the Lithuanian state.

He took the office of Minister for Jewish Affairs for himself from the beginning, but this office immediately was given to M. Soloveitchik and he became the president of the Jewish National Council. I spent considerable time with him in an intimate conversation about the situation in Lithuania, about the National Council and the Jewish Ministry.

He was skeptical both in regard to Lithuania and in regard to Jewish autonomy in Lithuania. The skepticism was based on wonderful far-sightedness, but also on his Zionist world-view. He simply did not believe in the certainty of the small, peasant Lithuanian state and he believed even less in the longevity of Jewish autonomy.

Incidentally, Jewish autonomy was not visible in Jewish life. Jews felt free and safe in Lithuania. However, not because of autonomy, but because Lithuanian Jews were secure in Lithuania from ancient times. They got accustomed to the quiet, peasant population in Lithuania. The Lithuanian needed to have the Jews and the Jews needed to have the Lithuanian in their daily lives. The Jew was a middleman between the Lithuanian and the world.

The activity of the National Council and the Jewish Ministry was half communal and half philanthropic. It was partly HIAS [Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society], partly an aid organization, but mainly, however, Zionist.

The autonomy that the Jews received was not completely made use of; it remained on paper and the Lithuanian government had a very easy task of eliminating it when it began to carry out strong Lithuanian policies. The autonomy had not planted any roots and they did not have to wield power in order to uproot it.

* * *

We had an entire colony of Jewish writers in Kovno a short time later. Ben-Adir [pen-name of Avrom Rozin/Abraham Reisen; Dovid Bergelson; Der nister [“The Hidden One”—pen-name of Pinchus Kahanovich]; Yissachar Rybak, the painter; Bal-dimyen [“Master of Imagination”—pen-name of Nochum Shtif], Z. [Zelig] Kalmanovich; L. [Leib] Kvitko; and others came.

Among those who left Soviet Russia as individuals, that is, with pomp and with good papers, were Dovid Bergelson and Yakov Leschinsky. Most were unsuccessful in immediately leaving Kovno because the socialist government in Germany did not hurry to give us visas. Apparently we were not preferred guests for them.

We went through the streets of Kovno and satisfied our eyes with the abundance of food and clothing, mainly the clothing. Incidentally, I was the only one who came with several suits. This turned out to be a novelty and I stood out and a few days after my arrival they were stolen from me. Emaciated, with a worn out jackets and shoes, we all dressed ourselves and got new shoes and the good food immediately put us back on our feet. A few weeks later we all really looked newly born.

Bal-machshoves [“Master of Thoughts,” or “The Thinker”—pen-name of Dr. Israel Isidore Eliashev, received a considerable sum of money for the writers from the New York Peretz Writers Union. There was enough money in the pockets of the new suit to feel carefree for a short time and not endure any heartache, both personally and communally.

The writers colony was partly pro-Soviet despite their having left Soviet Russia. After the writers arrived, each train would bring other Jewish people, mainly communal workers, professionals and other people close to the writers from Soviet Russia. We constantly had celebrations. We would sit in restaurants for a long time; we would eat for a long time and drink a lot. The best drinkers were the serious people: Nochum Shtif, for example, would be able to drink and drink and never get drunk.

Z. Kalmanovich stayed on the side of the writers colony; he then experienced one of his melancholy periods or, correctly, his periodic despair or disappointment. He would walk around quietly; he would not hear what one said to him. Often he suddenly would interrupt the talk with a sigh—“It is not good, what is the talk”…

Y. Rybak, the young painter, was melancholy in another way. He survived the Petliura pogroms in Ukraine. His father was murdered in a terrible way. The pogrom was still fresh in his mind. Incidentally, he kept and elevated his father in his memory when he painted a series of naturalistic pictures of the pogroms—cruel, realistic pictures. Here he took his revenge against the pogromists. Der nister would squint his large and dark eyes, his cabalist straight nose would become still paler, and he would say furtively: “He will take revenge on them.” Y. Rybak was the young one in the colony; he was the youngest, the quietest and the saddest. Dovid Bergelson and der nister would not take their eyes off him – he was their pride and their great worry.

Ben-Adir was also a homebody; he would sit and write, sit and study.

Nochum Shtif was religious then. He would pray, ardently observed Shabbos [Sabbath] and in general led a religious way of life. However, this did not prevent him from taking part in all of our leisurely soirées with the frequent guests who would come from Soviet Russia.

We had almost no contact with the city, that is, the Kovno Jews, nor did we make an attempt to meet with them and they did not show any particular interest in us. The Zionists provided the communal tone and, as we were not all Zionists, they left us alone. Understand that in the only Jewish newspaper, which was the Zionist organ, there was no news about our arrival and our departure.

There was no communal life in Kovno that would interest us. The entire Kovno population was almost a new one; it had not long ago returned from the great expulsion. [See Lita (Lithuania), Shtein. L., “The Expulsion of the Lithuanian Jews in the Ardor of the Fire of the First World War.”]

A short time later Kovno again became an effervescent and a lively Jewish city, full of shops, with misnagidish [opponents of Hasidism] activity, with hustle and bustle. As if there had not been an expulsion. Externally, however, the Kovno Jews had changed greatly. I remembered Kovno as a city of beards; beards, beards and beards somehow remained in my memory of the Kovno of the past.

Jews without beards returned to Kovno, but not only Jews without beards. They had lost much more in their wandering of the old, solid and rocky yidishkeit. We wanted to become acquainted with the Lithuanians, with their culture and with their literature and simply their cultural aspirations. A considerable number of Lithuanians understood Russian and we could speak with them. However, by nature, the Lithuanian was not a very talkative person.

We could not approach their culture. It was barred by the old Lithuanian language, a kind of Sanskrit that none of us knew. We were a group of our own and we had to follow our writing interests, which were only theoretical in Kovno.

* * *

I often would meet with Bal-makhshoves. We were friends from Warsaw. We both had worked at fraynd [Friend – first Yiddish newspaper published in the Russian Empire].

I found Bal-makhshoves in the large house of his mother, a little old woman. All of the rooms were large, mainly the dining room. A large table stood in the middle of the dining room. The illustrious family was once large; relatives would come from all corners of Russia as guests. The immediate family also, keyn eyn-hore [no evil eye], was a large one. Twenty-five or 30 people would sit around the large table in the dining room. Now it was quiet in the house, disturbingly quiet; the large dining room, with its great emptiness, was particularly disturbing.

Bal-makhshoves, melancholy, would sit in his room. He had not yet recovered from the great and difficult family drama that he had lived through at the beginning of the war. His beautiful wife who he loved very much had left him and taken their only child with her. Bal-makhshoves was fearfully in love with his beautiful, cold and distant wife. However, his wife, the cold beauty, apparently was not in love with Bal-makhshoves. They were different people, as happens in 50 percent of the marriages–a wall gets matched with a wall.

Passing by, Bal-makhshoves once told me that what he earned as a writer was not enough to pay for things for his wife. Apparently, he would receive money from his mother. He began to practice medicine, but this all was too little for the cold, distant beauty. The son of rich parents constantly would seek secondary literary work to be able to fulfill the great demands of money from his wife.

He had really chivalrously loved his beautiful wife. He once told me that he constantly had the feeling that he had been entrusted with a wonderfully beautiful old Grecian vase and he had to protect it so that, God forbid, nothing would happen to it.

At the beginning of the First World War, he confided to me that he and his wife were parting for a time. He said, “My wife wants to try to live apart for a bit. I listened and said nothing, but he asked that I tell him what I thought of this. I openly told him: “When a man leaves a woman, it can be that he is not ready for others, but when a woman who, in addition, is beautiful, leaves a man, she has already prepared another one–a woman always protects herself.”

Bal-makhshoves' close friends knew for a long time that she had left him. It was not a secret to anyone. Yes, it apparently was true that the last one who learns something about his wife is the husband. She was too beautiful, too egotistical, like every beautiful woman. Incidentally, she did not even know what he wrote. Perhaps this was simply not her concern.

She came from this kind of house: it was a house with four beautiful daughters and a mother, also once beautiful, who lived in high style. The balls that the family would give in Grodno were known for their wastefulness, with their provincial elegance and with four beauties. Russian officers would especially come to the balls and once even the governor himself. Two daughters married Russian officers.

Bal-makhshoves himself once told me such a piquant story: he came to see his bride and he found all four sisters lying in bed, four beauties in four beds. And it was a strike. The four beauties would not leave their beds because their father, a lumber merchant, had categorically refused to give the daughters a certain sum of money that they wanted for a ball at the home of a general.

And they did not leave their beds for three days.

Until their father reached a decision and produced the demanded sum of money.

Bal-makhshoves had a considerable number of bitter experiences with one of these four sisters, his wife, but his love did not cool one bit.

The last conversation that I had with Bal-makhshoves in Warsaw was several days before I left the city over which the German dirigibles floated with sinister grace. Bal-makhshoves also was getting ready to leave Warsaw. We agreed that he would let me know when he arrived in Bialystok, where I had traveled to my wife's family and I would wait for him and would see him at the train station at the time his train stopped there. I received a telegram from him in about eight or ten days. I met him at the train station and he was very frightened—he looked really broken.

He said to me curtly: “You were correct.” And he did not say more.

Now, after four years, I met him, a dejected one. A man of great pride and tact, he did not show it among people, but in his home he would throw off the mask and you truly saw a broken man. His smart, old mother interrogated me once when I came to bal-makhshoves and he was not home: “What is with my Isidor? Has something happened? What is with his wife, with his child? You are his friend; you probably know everything. He does not want to tell me anything.”

Understand that I also said nothing and the old woman quietly wiped a tear. It was quiet, eerily quiet in the large dining room. An old mother wanted to understand the sorrow of her dear and successful son and could not…

Bal-makhshoves would shut himself in his room. He read a great deal; he then received a package of Yiddish literature from America and he hurled himself into it like a starving person. I used the opportunity and borrowed several Yiddish books from America from him. We had not seen a Yiddish book in four years. Yiddish was then as good as banned in Czarist Russia at the time of the First World War.

Bal-makhshoves was a co-worker at the only Yiddish newspaper in Kovno, di yidishe shtime [The Yiddish Voice]. He took to writing eagerly. He had not written a Yiddish word in four years. He wrote beautiful essays, literary and commentary, but a quiet melancholy mixed with resignation was felt in his writing.

I saw how the only esthete in Yiddish literature was being extinguished; he provided a flame here and there like a light that was being put out and it would soon be dark… His partial paralysis was apparent here in Kovno and the feeling was even more gloomy.

We took many walks; we swam often and I was surprised to see that the man who looked paralyzed in clothing looked healthy and fresh when naked. His slender body was truly like marble; nothing was visible on his naked body. Only one foot lagged behind the other a little when he walked…

I saw him later in Berlin. He had come to see his child. His beautiful wife lived in Berlin with a Russian-Jewish engineer. Her husband was an older man. In any case, older than Bal-makhshoves. But he was rich, very rich…

Photo, caption: Bal-makhshoves and his son, Shlomo [Alik], in Brunshaupten, July 1922. (From the collection of Yitzhak Ribkind)

His son grew up to be a director and when Hitler arose and created a ghetto with a cultural ghetto for the German Jews, Bal-makhshoves' son produced Yiddish dramas and adapted Yiddish folksongs for the stage and the response was very good.

Where is his son; is he alive?

This I do not know.

* * *

Little by little, we writers began to be bored with such a vegetative life. We began to storm the German consulate, but without success.

Once, Yasha Rosenbaum, a young man from Vilna, half a poet and a complete cultural worker, stopped me in the street and said to me with great simplicity: “Why do we want to hang around here superfluously; let us publish a newspaper.” I wondered–what does it mean to publish a newspaper, with what, with whom and how? He interrupted me and said, “Leave it to me; tomorrow I will come to you with a more concrete proposal.”

Yasha Rosenbaum was an energetic, ardent worker. He was a dear person and he already was on du with half the Jewish residents [familiar form of formal “you” indicating a close relationship]. All of Kovno knew him and he was a welcome guest everywhere.

He was among the beloved, dear, earlier Jewish intellectuals who live in God's care. When you need them they are ready to do everything for you. They always had a great deal of free time and it really was their pleasure to do something, to cause a stir–then they really felt like fish in water. He had another clear physical virtue–he could stride. He possessed very long legs and he could stride through Kovno in the shortest time.

Yasha Rosenbaum was here in the morning with a concrete plan and with a half realization of the plan–he had a printer who would become an equal partner. He also had several Jews who would invest a little money. We needed to start the work.

Yasha Rosenbaum infected me with his enthusiasm and we threw ourselves into the work. The work actually blazed under our hands. We were very starved for literary and journalistic work.

Our partner's printing shop was a poor and provincial printing shop. It did not have a linotype. Everything had to be set by hand. The typesetters were not very capable; they were not special Yiddish typesetters. The typesetter (the compositor) was a dark, angry young man, a hypochondriac. I could not make him smile and, when I once did succeed, it was even worse. His smile looked like some crying grimace.

There also were difficulties with the editing. We had a great many “stars.” However, very few regular newspaper workers.

The editor was Ben-Adir [Avrom Rozin/Abraham Reisen], a deep, earnest man, an educated and strongly principled man, but writing an article took him a full eight days. Thus, the newspaper had one article a week from him.

Nochum Shtif (bal-dimyen) already was a very successful journalist, but several articles were the equivalent of ultimatums about the character that the newspaper must take on. As long as Nochum Shtif (bal-dimyen) was then piously religious, the newspaper then had to be religious. Nochum Shtif was pro- Soviet. Understand that therefore the newspaper had to be thoroughly pro-Soviet and so on.

Z. Kalmanovich, or “Kalmanke” as we all called him, was the most diligent and the quietest co-worker. He did his work with the greatest perfection, but from time to time he would fall into melancholy, into a mood of despair and he would rebel and refuse the responsibility of work.

Der nister was not a co-worker. He was not a journalist and he was then a mystical writer of belle-lettres with a cabalistic, complicated style. But he himself took the role of supervisor of the purity of the newspaper and he was a strict supervisor. One could not just smile with no intention; one could not tell a joke without a moral.

I only had three co-workers for news, stories and odds and ends in addition to these co-workers. The most difficult and the most responsible work fell on my shoulders, but I did it with fervor and with joy. Hungry for journalistic work, I wrote two articles a day, stood for hours in the typesetting shop with an angry, melancholy typesetter and with the compositor.

The newspaper had a short name. It was called nayes [News]. Its direction – Jewish populist. My heart became light when I lived to see the first edition of our newspaper at three in the morning. It was a beautiful, light, earnest and piquant little newspaper. It looked smiling and playfully at me.

I had been separated from journalistic work for an entire five years. I had thrown myself into aid work with fervor. Jewish need was great. Expulsions of Jews took place one after the other; cities and shtetlekh [towns] had to pack in horse-drawn wagons within 24 hours and go somewhere deep into Russia, to strange cities, among strange Russian people.

Yes, I did the work with great fervor, but finally, it was not my work. The little newspaper in Kovno also was not my ideal. It was ultimately a small provincial newspaper with a metropolitan pretense; the several urbane co-workers gave the newspaper urbanity, but it still was a provincial newspaper.

Photograph, caption: The nayes editoral staff.
Sitting, from right to left: Z. Kalmanovich, N. Shtif (bal-dimyen), Dr. A. Mukdoni (editor), Avrom Rozin/Abraham Reisen (Ben-Adir), Y. Rosenbaum.
Standing, from right to left: first one–unknown, Dr. R. Valsanak, L. Slonim (nodl—needle), Trumpiansky.

However, the newspaper was a kind of professional resurrection from the dead for me. A hidden communal and political life in Lithuania was opened for me as an editor of a newspaper. To begin with, I saw the actual face of the Lithuanian government. Externally it was a democracy, but its fascist nails already were entirely visible.

Kovno was guarded by the police and the military. Kovno was in a mild form of a state of war. At night we were not supposed to show our face in the street. Police and the military arrested one without words.

A deadly fear of communism grabbed the new government and did not release it. The small but energetic communist movement was an underground movement. There also were socialists, but they also were under suspicion and their activity also was half underground, but disguised as cultural work.

Only the Zionist movement was open and strong. It was recognized by the Lithuanian state; the Jewish minister, Sh. Rosenbaum, one the fathers of the Lithuanian state, was also officially a Zionist.

The radical and half radical Jews and the just progressive Jews concentrated themselves around nayes, our newspaper.

The cluster of communists was always ready to be arrested; the Jewish population was afraid to be under the same roof with a communist.

I remember one such case:

Late, I went home after work at the newspaper; I went confidently because I had permission from the military regime for this. I walked confidently and noticed a woman leaving with hurried steps from a side alley. I went further. First the woman again left the alley. I looked around and she immediately disappeared and thus several times until I recognized her. That is, I had seen her often in the alley where the editorial staff was located. Finally she also recognized me and we spoke to each other.

The story was that she was the daughter-in-law of middle class people. Her husband was still somewhere in the army; she was with her husband's parents. The parents learned that she was a communist and told her that she could not live with them–they were afraid and did not want to have a communist with them.

In the evening she had to leave the house after a fight with her father-in-law and mother-in-law. She had to meet one of her comrades here who needed to provide her with an apartment for a few days. They were supposed to meet right here where we were standing. However, he apparently had been arrested. She did not know what to do.

She was one of the skillful and fearless party wives, but I sensed tears in her voice–she was in such despair. After long deliberation it remained that I would take her into the house where I lived and present her as one of my relatives and ask for hospitality for her for one night. In the morning she would see what to do.

* * *

Jewish communal life was not yet established. All of the Jews had not long ago just returned from the expulsion. The Jewish population was still very busy building its disrupted or ruined economic life.

And there was, thank God, enough income here. It was after the terrible war. They needed everything and they bought everything, so they were so overworked and bustling that there was no thought of any social order or politics. However, Yiddish and Hebrew folkshuln [public schools] arose and even a gymnazie [secondary school]. Lithuanian Jews must have schools.

Only the Zionists were active; they had a newspaper, they had an organization, they had a Jewish National Council and even a Jewish ministry, because the Jewish ministry was a Zionist office. Cultural Jewish autonomy, which the Lithuanian government provided during the honeymoon of Lithuanian national independence, was openly ignored both by the giver of autonomy and by the taker and was quietly, jointly suffocated. The Zionists immediately felt the strong contradiction between Zionism and autonomy. Zionism precluded the autonomy in exile and autonomy in exile precluded Zionism.

And there was one recourse, to dull the sharpness of the contradiction–weaken one of the contradictions and the contradiction would necessarily not be as sharp. Understand that they did not want to weaken Zionism, so they weakened autonomy. The contradiction did become weaker and weaker every day and autonomy began to die. It died without a kaddish [prayer for the dead]; it died quietly. This was apparently demanded by political and communal logic, which was stronger than sentiments.

I truly saw with my own eyes how a full Jewish cultural autonomy quietly disappeared from the world; no one shed a tear, no one said kaddish. The Jewish minister strongly disliked talking about autonomy, which had been entrusted to him.

I remember such a case:

A Jewish troupe of actors had been launched in Kovno and began to present the most terrible work of inferior quality. A wild and empty rampage truly appeared on the scene; one does not see something like this except with the very wild tribes in Africa.

I sent a letter to the Jewish minister, M. Soloveitchik, the minister of Jewish cultural autonomy and I informed him of the bit of inferior culture that was being practiced under his nose. The Jewish minister was very angry with me and our not overly friendly relationship became openly hateful.

Constantly looking for co-workers and sympathizers who could support our newspaper with money, I became acquainted with a type of the early provincial Jewish assimilated. I became acquainted with E. Finkelstein, a lawyer and member of the Lithuanian parliament. This capable legal scholar and sharp, logical head, was a Russian, a Russian through and through during the czarist times. Thus was the entire Russian professional intelligentsia.

When Lithuania became a separate Lithuanian state, Finkelstein and other assimilated members of the intelligentsia faced a dilemma–what do they do now? Their Russian was now an absolutely wasted effort; it had no foothold in daily life and no support in spiritual life.

As a capable person, he quickly learned Lithuanian, was elected to the Lithuanian parliament and he again took a prominent place in Kovno that he occupied for years and years. However, assimilating with the Lithuanians came out comically for him. Incidentally, there was no one and nothing with which to assimilate. Lithuanian culture had only first begun to develop. So there being no choice, he became a Jew.

Understand, in the house they spoke Russian, but the orientation was Jewish. When we were frequent visitors at E. Finkelstein's home and we constantly spoke Yiddish, it became less awkward and he began to speak Yiddish.

Once late at night a servant let us out of the house and with a smile on her face said to us in good Yiddish: “They have begun to speak Yiddish, the gentiles…”

I looked at the servant and saw a Lithuanian gentile woman in front of me. I asked her: “And you are Jewish?”

“No,” she answered. “I am a Lithuanian. But I have toiled among Jews and I speak Yiddish.”

This E. Finkelstein quickly became a co-worker at our newspaper. In the beginning he wrote in Russian and we translated, but he quickly began to write in Yiddish. His articles were the most desirable; he wrote on Lithuanian political themes and none of us could write such articles.

There was not a good relationship between the Zionist newspaper and our newspaper and that was understandable. But we had friends on the hostile editorial staff, such as Pesakh Markus. He had been a co-worker at the shtime [Voice], but he was a friend of Bal-makshoves and had a friendly relationship with us.

The guests who traveled through Kovno from Russia and the guests who just came to see Kovno were our co-workers for a short time. They brought innovation, constant freshness to the newspaper. B. C. Goldberg, then still a very young journalist, visiting Kovno, gave us a series of juicy articles about American Jews. For the first time, we received a full picture of the American Jew, who was given a name that was curious to us, alreytnik [alrightnik]. The articles were written freshly, were light, lively and very informative.

A very agile and a very skillful co-worker named Dr. Valsanak fell upon us as if truly from heaven. He could write about everything devilishly fast; he had a good education. However, the main thing was that like every German academic, he could search for information about whatever question we needed. He knew very little Yiddish, but he actually wrote like a demon. Before you could turn around he had an article about an earnest economic question, about a serious political problem in Germany, in France, America and everywhere.

He was a Polish Jew. He was extremely healthy, even mockingly healthy. He had a wild appetite for life. Principles did not stand in his way and moral and ethical problems also did not disturb his sleep. In general, he was a typical child of the war, quick, skillful and without scruples. He quickly became acquainted with the people in the Lithuanian government and they, the Lithuanian peasants found a real treasure in him–imagine, a man who knows everything and is ready to do everything… Yudl Mark, R[euven] Tsarfat, Uriah Katzenellenbogen, Chaim Rafalovich and others often took part in nayes.

And we received another unexpected co-worker, namely–the former assistant police chief in Vilna. This first assistant police chief was a handsome, tall, young Jewish man from Vilna named Y. Rozovsky. When I came to Kovno, he no longer was the assistant police chief–a Lithuanian occupied his place, but he was still an esteemed official with the police.

It was both curious and pleasant to hear how he spoke tastily in the Lithuanian police Yiddish as at home. Y. Rozovsky learned Lithuanian, but Yiddish was his language as it was the language of all Lithuanian Jews. Understand, Y. Rozovsky was not a constant co-worker. He was never a professional writer, but from time to time, the former assistant police chief and the present official in the Lithuanian police would send us an article on Jewish themes.

* * *

The newspaper ceased. There already was less work. The German consul still did not want to issue any visas and the American consul maintained that I had time. I could wait a little. It again became boring in the provincial city Kovno.

Guests from Soviet Russia became rarer and came less often; no one from other countries was eager to look at the new state. The evenings became a problem. I became interested in a theatrical group of young people who dabbled, that is, they were preparing to appear in a presentation as they did in all provincial cities.

When I saw what the young people were doing and what they were going to show before an audience, it became both comical and painful for me. The unlimited naivety of the young people was comical and their complete ignorance of the art of theater was painful. In short, I succeeded in persuading the young people that they needed to begin from the very beginning.

There is an old axiom in the theater world that actors must walk rhythmically and gracefully on the stage. The Jewish actor must not be an exception. He must speak clearly, rhythmically and melodically. He must feel his body in his speech. As a result of realistically playing old men, old women, provincial shlimazls [unlucky people], it seems that Jewish actors forget to walk on the stage like people.

The person is a beautiful creature; his body is beautiful and elegant. The human body possesses a wonderful rhythm, wonderful elasticity. The Jewish actor must know all of this. He constantly plays old Jewish people, but they need not drag their feet like rags across the ground.

And it is clearly an error to think that old people must drag their feet, must walk bent. Old people also can walk rhythmically, gracefully and prominently. Age also has its wonderful rhythm and a rabbi is not obliged to drag his feet, to go bent and to hold his hands in his sleeves. The character actors should not think that it is one of their main tasks to distort the words, mutilate the sentences, to make their voices hoarse.

First of all, I told the young people that they must learn to walk, walk so that the entire beauty and the entire elasticity of the human body does not get lost.

They needed to learn to speak, speak clearly, the voice must be clear, ringing and musical. Speaking and walking are the ABCs of acting. The person, who cannot walk rhythmically and gracefully cannot be an actor.

Then came the difficult task, namely–harmonizing the speech with the movement. They need to complement each other; there must be the fullest harmony between them.

The young people apparently agreed with my premises and they relied on me completely. I invited a female dancer from the Russian refugees with which Europe was then full and the dancer began to teach them how to walk, how to make their bodies speak; the body could speak strongly and clearly through movement. For a time, I had them act without words, only with movements as in a pantomime (a silent drama).

Photograph, caption: Yiddish Theater Studio, Kovno, 1924.
Standing from right to left: Yisroel Kremer, unknown, L. Germanoszcky.
Sitting from right to left: Timofey Bramson, Dr. Mendl Sudarsky, Shimec, Leib Mirsky, Mikhal Levinson, Kalman Kaplan.
Front row: unknown, Goldele Shapiro.

And when their bodies began to move rhythmically, I turned to speech. It was a difficult task, but I insisted on it. After several months the young people were truly unrecognizable.

Understand that there were those among them who were capable and those less capable and their success was in proportion to their capabilities. Among the young people were two or three women with good theatrical capabilities. They immediately sensed what was wanted from them and they worked with diligence and the results were very good.

It was a little more difficult with the men. The young Jewish man in the provinces was a toiler, busy, like his father and like his uncles. Their movements were broken, nervous and somewhat distorted. And if one wanted to be elegant, he became pretentious, which was even worse than hustling and bustling.

We had a great evening at which the students showed only movements because it was a little more difficult with the speaking. However, the patience of the students exploded in the very middle. They were truly eager to appear. Incidentally, this was the misfortune of all Jewish studios. The students did not have any patience, they rushed to appear before the public–this was the purpose and they must reach it more quickly… I was categorically against the appearance.

I left. By chance, my visa came at this time. I prepared for my trip. I quickly left Kovno and left my newspaper and my studio to God's care. I heard from afar that the studio was a theater and my name was connected with this theater. I did not want to protest and I permitted it until this small theater failed just as many good and sincere attempts by us fail.

The end of my newspaper was better. True, it was closed for a short time, but it began to publish later under the editorship of Josef Czernichov in the course of a year.

In 1930 it again was revived under the name folksblat [Peoples Newspaper] with the same direction as the newspaper nayes and it existed until Soviet Russia took over the regime in Lithuania.

* * *

It fell upon me as an editor of a newspaper to enter into contact with the members of the Lithuanian government. I met with [Juozas] Purickis, the Foreign Minister, many times and with other high level members of the Lithuanian government.

It was a tragicomedy to see how these peasant half-members of the intelligentsia came to love the regime, truly pathologically. They were enamored, jealous of everyone–this one was coming to bury their regime, that one simply wanted to take over the regime from them and there was only one recommendation, namely–to hold more firmly, more firmly in their hands. And they evolved to a mild fascism.

But Jews had lived well in Lithuania. Jews and Lithuanians were too close to commit cruelty on each other; so it seemed.

Here I saw the dark fate of a small state. The Lithuanians lived with one fear–someone would come and take their regime from them. They were constantly insecure about their lives; dangers constantly lurked for the small, weak state, real and imaginary.

The fear of communism was the greatest and most distressing. A Lithuanian government man argued with me that communism was a contagious spiritual illness and for Lithuania, which was the closest neighbor of the communist nest, it was 10 times more dangerous.

Germany was no danger to us. Germany was weak and poor. We were not rich, but we had enough food and our small industry was developing normally. It did not try any dangerous undertaking.

It turned out that both Soviet Russia and Germany were dangerous for the small state.

I was in Lithuania for barely a year and I think I was not there unprofitably. The scant year proved, so to say, hospitable both on the part of the Jews and on the part of the Lithuanian state.

I cannot say that I left with sorrow or pain. No, I was in Lithuania as one passing through. Thus I thought. and those passing through do not plant roots, do not want to plant roots. However, a package of memories remained for me and I have presented them here.

New York, October 10, 1945

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