The Ezras and Nekhemias of the Jerusalem of Lithuania
by Shmuel Kagan (Argentina)
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.
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.
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
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,
[then] with the Renaissance Movement in Jewish areas in the second half of the
19th century; the rise of the Bund
; 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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
and perch, and ending with the poorer ones,
who sold smelts (small fish), sardines
and flat fish
. 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
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
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
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
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
-clubs It was noted thus in the London World registry:
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.
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.
2. Abraham Sutzkever (born 1913) is the greatest living Yiddish poet. He
to the Young Vilna literary group, fought as a partisan in the
Vilna Area, and (from 1947) lives in Tel-Aviv.
3. This is what he was called. The word gaon means great Torah
scholar in Hebrew. Trans.
4. The Bund was a Socialist organization. Trans.
5. A kind of fresh water fish. Trans.
6. The Yiddish word is selevkes. Trans.
7. The Yiddish word is flots or flatkes. Trans.
8. The Jewish priestly class; those who served as priests in the Holy temple. Trans.
9. This is a prestigious literary society, PEN standing for Poets, Essayist and
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