by Grigory Kanovich
translated from Russian by Yisrael Elliot Cohen
It seems that I dreamed about it when I was still in the cradle, long before I first saw it for real. Long before 1945, when it took me into its bleeding embraces that still reeked of the smoldering embers of war. Long before one could see there a burial hillock whose mud besmirched all my joys and forever stained, with a poison-yellow tint, all of my sorrows, because it was there that my mother (may her memory be blessed) found peace or perhaps did not find it.
In the course of my now already hardly short life, I have visited many cities — New York and Paris, London and Geneva, Toronto and Berlin, Turin, Prague and Warsaw. But not one of those majestic, inimitable, attractive cities ever entered my dreams.
I only dreamed about a single city in the whole world.
I dreamed about its streets and its alleys narrow like the clotheslines on which, for centuries, Jews hung out to dry their laundry that was still moist with tears that had been shed: laundry blue with the blueness of unfulfilled hopes that were daring and lofty like morning clouds, and the blueness of musings that fell like a downpour on the gentle souls of girls and boys with resounding regal names, like Judith and Ruth, Solomon and David, who played in courtyards.
I dreamed of its brick roofs along which cats scurried like angels and angels like cats.
I dreamed of its pavements where every cobblestone was like a fragment of the tablets of Moses.
I dreamed of its synagogues and its markets where the whispering of passionate, frenzied prayer alternated and combined, in my nocturnal visions, with shouts like: “Kugel! Heise beigelech! Frishe fish!”
Its merchants resembled ancient prophets whose shouts resounded threateningly and piercingly, like psalms, and whose grey locks fluttered in the wind and eyes burned with a fire not of this world. Its potato dumplings smelled not of an oven partly blackened by soot somewhere on Zavalnaya, Novogrudskaya, Myasnitskaya, or Rudnitskaya Street but like an altar on Mount Moriah in the Judean hills.
In my childhood, which itself has become a dream, dreams about that wondrous city that was unapproachable for me were evoked in the protracted, wistful tales of the members of my family (Grandma and Grandpa and my uncles and aunts who had never gone anywhere beyond the borders of our shtetl but who knew as well as God Himself about everything in the world). They were also evoked in the fabrications of our numerous neighbors who were both loquacious and full of imagination (every day my fellow shtetl dwellers adorned the grey canvas of life with their fabrications) and in the fabrications of hungry beggars who wandered into our town on the banks of the Viliya and paid generously for a night’s lodging and food with all kinds of tall tales or maiselekh, as we called them in Yiddish.
Their unhurried narratives, their long stories that went back to the dawn of history, stirred my imagination like the Passover Haggadah. O Lord, how intoxicating were those beautiful, unforgettable fabrications, those overwhelming and beneficial half-truths. They made me dizzy. They filled our house with sighs that expressed both sadness and happiness and with exclamations that combined grief and rapture, passion and wondrous intoxication.
“OY!” my aunt Hava would exclaim, while surreptitiously wiping away a tear. The city also appeared in the dreams of that old maid, perhaps even more often than in mine. It appeared to her in the form of a huge hupa, a wedding canopy, spread overhead in a broad green meadow. She stood with her beloved under the hupa, all in white and overcome with happiness. In that marvelous city even the most unattractive women found husbands. There, at every hour of every day, brides and grooms exchanged golden wedding rings.
For my Aunt Hava, Vilna was a kind of golden ring lost in the universe.
When he heard its name, my Uncle Leizer exclaimed “Ah!” in pleasure, just the way he did when he was enjoying the pleasures of the bath house.
It also appeared in his dreams. Uncle Leizer dreamed that he was chosen to be the elder of its Great Synagogue and that he had a beaded yarmulke that shone in the dark like a star in the firmament. Leizer dreamed that he was buried next to Rabbi Eliyahu, the Vilna Gaon, the most righteous and wisest of men.
“Ye-es!” was the way the baker Rachmiel, who was born in that marvelous city but had been taken away as a boy to some pagan place in Lithuania, would prolong his affirmation of the city.
He “baked” different dreams. He was not at all interested in a beaded yarmulke, and he was prepared to be buried in the cemetery next to anyone. After all, the cemetery is not a marriage bed. Whenever anyone began speaking about Vilna, he saw himself there as the owner of a pastry shop, located opposite the Great Synagogue, where from morning to night he sold rolls with raisins and cinnamon that smelled of paradise. The Lord Himself, after the morning prayers, might stop in and sample his wares.
From those tales, embellished with exaggerations, like an untilled field with wild flowers, from those stories that struck one with despair or with enthusiasm bordered on madness, from those sighs and exclamations, from those hints and half-hints there emerged what did not exist under a single one of the shtetl roofs, what one could not see through any window — even if it had a gilded frame. From them there emerged the image of the city of cities, of a Jewish island in a stormy ocean of hate and foreignness, the image of a capital of Jewish piety and wisdom. From them, like a ship shining with lights, emerged the city of our dreams.
It was a marvelous ship. It sailed on water, on dry land and in the air. It found a port in every house, in every hut. Its holds were filled with valuables, with treasures and were always open to everyone, as if to say: “Just take something, fill your pockets and your soul, rich man or poor man, clever person or fool, happy person or unhappy one.”
From dream to reality was one hundred and thirty kilometers. What would that distance mean now, in our time of supersonic planes and powerful Mitsubishis? But then! . . . Then the distance from our shtetl to Vilna seemed as far as to the Great Dipper.
The fact that it was unreachable increased our longing and our love. As my grandma, may her memory be blessed, used to say, “An imaginary cube of sugar is sweeter than a real one because in your mouth it melts, but in your imagination, it never does!”
Vilna never “melted” in the imagination of those who from distant times had been called “Litvaks.”
I remember how my uncle, the shoemaker Shimen Dudak, would roll his eyes that were small, like cracks in a barn lock, and raise his shaggy eyebrows toward his bald skull that was as smooth as a bat and exclaim: “O Lord, what shoemakers there are there! Their awls were sharpened by the Almighty Himself!”
I recall how the tailor Shimshon Bankvecher, stroking his aristocratic moustache and leaning on his shortened right leg, would praise himself without shame: “I learned to sew in Vilna. The world doesn’t have such tailors as they have there. They make a hunchback look handsome!”
I recall how our local madman Motele, who was gentle and was always dressed in white, as if he were wearing a shroud, used to say: “What a city! There everyone is mad! Everyone!” And then he clicked his tongue as a sign of agreeing with himself.
My grandmother, who due to her piety was called “God’s bride,” yearned for the city with her whole being, whispering its name the way one does that of one’s beloved, while she prepared herself, if not for a real meeting, then at least for a short encounter with it. In her imagination she would go up to the women’s section of the Great Synagogue, murmur a prayer and the Lord God would hear her, forgive all her sins and breathe gently, as if on a flickering candle, on her old age and bring back her youth. However, her dream was not to be fulfilled. Just like the dreams of her relatives and fellow shtetl dwellers, those modest and not very successful laborers, fish mongers, midwives, tailors and shoemakers, leather workers and carpenters, shop keepers and tinkers, whose earthly journeys were brought to an end by the will of the Almighty — or of the Devil.
I cannot tell Grandma, “God’s bride,” the truth about the Great Synagogue. I cannot talk about this to a single one of the more than 200,000 Jews who were killed in Lithuania during World War II — not to the child who was thrown alive into a pit nor to the old man who, when he was being burned or shot, uttered the words “Shma, Yisrael,” the prayer that Jews recite from childhood.
Like the living, the dead do not believe in a truth that leaves them no hope. How can it be that there is no Great Synagogue? Who says that not a trace of it remains? When the Messiah comes, we, the dead, will rise from our graves and be the first to rush to pray there!
Long before the unheard-of slaughter, before the terrible harvest that did not leave a single shoot, a single seedling, a single branch on the tree of Israel in the shtetls of Lithuania, my grandmother did not allow a single speck to sully her aspirations or the dream of her beloved city, which continued to shine for her in all of its splendor and beauty.
Before the war only one person from our shtetl was fortunate enough to visit it. That was the balagula, the wagon driver, Peisach-Tsimes, a distant relative of my grandfather.
When he returned from Vilna, Grandma asked him: “Well? What do you have to say?” She was expecting from him some words that she had never heard before, words that would suddenly create a rainbow for a tortured soul that had been overshadowed by impenetrable clouds. But knowing the character of the old woman, the balagula Peisach hesitated, sniffled for a long time, with his carrot-shaped nose, and shuffled from one foot to the other, as if he were standing not on a wooden floor but on a raft on stormy waters.
“It’s a city like any city. It’s crowded and dirty, and there are Jews everywhere. There are also as many balagulas as there are uncircumcised dogs.”
“That’s all you have to say?” gasped Grandma.
“That’s all,” replied Peisach sincerely.
“What about the Great Synagogue? And the grave of the Vilna Gaon? B..uut . . .” All the words inside her disintegrated, suddenly fell apart, flew away and disappeared. Grandma coughed, trying to disgorge something from her throat, perhaps surprise, perhaps scorn for Peisach.
Abashed, he squinted his eyes, which were of different sizes, like two coins of different value, and, in an effort to pacify her, said: “If you don’t believe me, go there yourself! After Yom Kippur, I can take you there with me.”
But this made Grandma furious. “No way!” she exploded.
She would go with anyone else, but not with him — either after Yom Kippur, or at Chanukah, or ever! She would rather go on foot — alone, without anyone to accompany her — than sit in his dilapidated cart that smelled of horse piss and dry leather. She would go with anyone else but Peisach, that bumpkin, glutton and drinker who sees nothing in the world except inns, horses and the dust of the road. Nothing!
Due to her anger and her feeling of being insulted, she preserved my own dream from being ruined. She did not allow the holds of that ship, with its valuables, its permanent treasures, to be closed water-tight.
Thanks to her, until the fateful 22nd of June 1941, my childhood was filled with the light that streamed from the windows of the Great Synagogue, the light of faith and holiness. Thanks to her, my childhood continued to have the odor not of a coarse wagon driver’s truth that smelled like horse piss or wet leather but the fine odor of imagination that lifted my soul and transported it to beautiful but inaccessible realms. Thanks to her, I possessed an immaterial but trusty talisman that preserved me from evil and despair.
The war did not succeed in separating me from the city of my dreams. Although it was true that I saw it much more rarely in my dreams, occasionally life brought me people from There.
“I am from Vilna, Ye-ru-sha-la-yim d’Li-ta, the Jerusalem of Lithuania,” he said.
I have forgotten the face of this neighbor of mine on the rough, splintery plank beds infested with horseflies that ravaged my emaciated body in the freight train that hurtled us toward the East. But his hoarse voice, muted with sorrow, has remained in my memory to this day.
I do not know who this traveling companion was. Perhaps he was a baker whose shop was opposite the Great Synagogue. Perhaps a tailor whose skill made hunchbacks look handsome. Perhaps a typesetter in a printing house where Yiddish grammar books were printed. Or, perhaps he was a Torah scribe who, throughout his whole life, had not made a single mistake in his work.
At a small station, not far from Sverdlovsk, he was carried out of the suffocating freight car that smelled of perspiration and grief. His body was placed on the cold foreign earth and an early Russian snowstorm covered it with large flakes, enfolding it like a shroud.
To the rhythm of the relentless train wheels that were carrying us to some unknown destination, I repeated the syllables, “Ye-ru-sha-la-yim d’Li-ta,” “Ye-ru-sha-la-yim d’Li-ta.”
What was this — raving or exorcism? Most likely it was exorcism. I was exorcising my fear, my helplessness, exorcising the Russian snowstorm, the endless Russian spaces, the Russian trains that we encountered heading in the other direction, toward the war, enveloping our train with their burning steam, loud soldier songs and frozen waves of hopelessness.
When I recall those days, I find myself thinking that the death of my traveling companion signified more than the departure from this world of one individual. Along with him, at that small station, the snowstorm buried not only the way back to the Jerusalem of Lithuania but the Jerusalem of Lithuania itself. The snowstorm enfolded, in a shroud, the city’s brick roofs along which cats scurried like angels and angels like cats, its pavements where every cobblestone was like a fragment of Moses’ tablets, its Great Synagogue with its aron koidesh, its holy ark. It buried my dreams under impassable snowdrifts.
No, no! I reassured myself. There are no snowstorms in the world that can permanently bury a city that has won the hearts of all the Jews of Lithuania. There cannot be any wind that can blow into the ocean of forgetfulness this island of Jewish wisdom and piety. This city is eternal. It will last forever! God, our merciful, our omnipotent God, will not allow such an unheard-of injustice to take place.
I am ashamed to admit it, but in my thoughts, in my dreams, I strove to be close not to my father and mother but to Him, the Almighty One. After all, what could my parents do? Although they could somewhat clothe and feed me, they couldn’t even do that sufficiently. But our Creator —He could save the city of my dreams. He had the power to pacify all snowstorms and melt all snowdrifts. “Got iz a tateh” (God is a caring father); this phrase, from somewhere or other, brought me consolation.
Who could imagine then — in the endless Kazakh steppe, in a dirty kishlak, the village in Central Asia where I lived with my mother (and what kind of life we had there: moaning with hunger every day, and where even the donkeys and sheep gazed with curiosity and undisguised superiority at the Jewish refugees as if we had come from another planet) — who could imagine that a snowstorm, whether Russian, German, or Lithuanian, would turn out to be more powerful than God?
Who could have believed this?
But even there — in the desolate steppe where greedy jackals roamed and over which circled keen-sighted golden eagles, eying their prey — even there, at the foot of the Altai Mountains, in a mazanka, a smoky wattle-and-mud hut — glimmered a small gem broken off from the crown of the Jerusalem of Lithuania.
In that mazanka lived Aron Grinblat, a graduate of the School of Higher Economics in Zurich, who worked in the kolkhoz bookkeeping department as a simple accountant. At that time accountants were as rare in the Kazakh country as star-counting astronomers. As it turned out, Grinblat was, in fact, neither an accountant nor an astronomer. Before the war the quiet, pious Aron Itzkovich had worked in a Jewish bank in Vilna. The only remaining indication of his learning and piety was the rumpled black yarmulke that he never took off, even in the most terrible heat wave, and which Nursultan, the chairman of the kolkhoz, simply took for a tubeteika, a local Oriental skullcap. On several occasions Nursultan offered the accountant a new colorful one made of excellent fabric, but Aron stubbornly rejected this gift.
The collective farm chairman also forgave another of his idiosyncrasies. In the evenings Aron Grinblat gathered together the refugee children who attended the local Kazakh school and secretly taught them Yiddish. Besides me, his pupils included two studious boys, one from Uman and one from Zhmerinka, a girl from Borisov, and one scamp, apparently from Leningrad, then suffering from the German blockade.
He taught us not only grammar but, also, to observe the holiness of the Sabbath and of all the other Jewish holidays. For the holidays, Grinblat’s wife Etel gave presents to each of us: fish cutlets and buckwheat pancakes. But it wasn’t the fish cutlets or the buckwheat pancakes that attracted us kids to them. The main attraction was the stories they told about their native city, Vilna.
Grinblat told us about the Vilna Gaon, the genius Rabbi Eliyahu, the most righteous and wise of all, about famous Jewish scholars and publishers, about poets who sang the praises of the Jerusalem of Lithuania and about the rich men who blessed the city with their philanthropy. In the crowded mazanka, their names sounded like the names of stars, everything reflected their light, and above the head of each of us there appeared an aura of this unseen light. Beyond the windows was revealed not the kishlak village, with its huts of clay, but the city where Aron was born, and where, he believed, not a single trace of Jewish thought, nor the sound of a Jewish step, a Jewish chisel or a Jewish voice would ever fade.
I won’t hide the fact that, for me, the skinny, absent-minded Grinblat, who knew five languages, was not a kolkhoz accountant — or even a person knowledgeable in Torah — but a kind of representative of God in that inhospitable Kazakh steppe. I was sure that he would return to his Yerushalayim d’Lita and that, perhaps, we would return there with him, if not in reality then at least in our dreams. After all, the way is always shorter in dreams.
But when my mother and I moved further away, to the Urals, a letter from Anna Kharina, the woman with whom we had boarded, informed us that Grinblat had died suddenly.
No one, Kharina wrote, had any idea what had caused his death. One person said that he had committed suicide. Another claimed that he had had a sudden fatal heart attack — that although his heart had been taking him homeward to Vilna, the Jerusalem of Lithuania, it had stopped beating before reaching its destination.
Kharina also wrote that his wife Etel had not lived much longer.
They were buried outside the kishlak, where kitchen gardens gave way to the steppe of the jackals.
Chairman Nursultan himself delivered the eulogy. The pious Grinblat, of course, would have wanted to have the kaddish prayer recited. But there was no one to say it because the kolkhoz did not have a single Jewish man.
I think that it was on the day in Yemanzhelinskie Kopy, a small coal-mining town, when I read the letter from Aron Grinblat’s supervisor that I became an adult.
At that time I was beset by considerable worry.
But was it only for the accountant and teacher, Aron Grinblat, that one should say the memorial prayer?
Perhaps it should also be said for my dreams?
And perhaps. . .
But, as Grandpa often said to members of our family: “Don’t dare bury what is still living.” In other words, if you say kaddish, trouble will inevitably come knocking on your door.
I arrived in Vilna (or Vilnius as the Lithuanians call it) at the beginning of 1945. February was drawing to an end. Snow was falling thickly, and the snow-covered city resembled a sick person lying in bed on high pillows filled with goose feathers. The roofs of the houses had been torn off. The streets had been ripped up by the heavy treads of tanks. There were a few pedestrians with loaves of bread under their arms. The sole cab driver at the square in front of the train station was looking for a customer while his horse was nervously pricking up its huge parchment-like ears. The spires of churches pierced a sky that was covered with leaden clouds, and there were windows, windows and more windows, with broken panes without curtains, without people and from which no voices came. There was also a rusty sign in German with barely legible letters. Everything was strange, incomprehensible and caused fear and suspicion. My eyes sought, in vain, for some familiar outlines or details. My ears tried, in vain, to catch some sound that might link this city with the one about which I had heard so much, the one that used to appear in the dreams of my childhood.
Was this really Yerushalayim d’Lita?
Would my Aunt Hava, the old maid, really find her destined husband here?
Would the baker Rachmiel really open here, opposite the Great Synagogue, a shop which would be visited in the morning by the Almighty Himself, in order to taste a pastry with poppy seeds, one that was as light as a butterfly?
Would Uncle Leizer really be buried here in a grave near that of the wisest of the wise, Rabbi Eliyahu?
And where was the Great Synagogue?
Where was the cemetery where the remains of the Gaon of Vilna lay?
Where were they: the Leizers, Havas, Rachmiels, Shimshons, Meteles; where were they — the girls and boys with the resounding royal names of Judith and Ruth, Solomon and David?
All around there was only snow, snow, snow.
Perhaps Mother had taken me somewhere else? Perhaps we had ended up in a quite different city, an ordinary, in no way special, bleak one, not Vilna, not the Jerusalem of Lithuania? Perhaps, in our haste, we had made a mistake and bought tickets for some other destination?
“No, for the right one,” Mother replied.
“Well then, where . . . where are they all?”
“Who do you mean by all?”
“The Jews, Hirshele, are there. . .” Mother sighed and pointed to the snow.
Nothing was visible beyond the shroud of snow. Nothing except for gray houses, lifeless and silent like tombstones.
In the spring, when the trees turned green, we set out for Ponary.
The air was clear and fresh. The birds sang in Ponary as they had sung a century before. They burst into song so enthusiastically that you might think that their joyous chirping could be heard by the dead, the eighty thousand dead.
Sometimes the birds abandoned the trees from which there still wafted the stench of burned bodies, or they alighted on the ground, on the autumn mud. With their beaks they plucked slow-moving worms from the mound there.
I looked at them, and my heart contracted with horror. It seemed that they were plucking up not worms, eating not some insect, but the eyeball of the rascal Chaimele or of the dark-haired tomboy Hanele.
The Ponary massacre took place in the spring, but this was preceded by the one in the Great Synagogue, the same one where the immortal spirit of Rabbi Eliyahu hovered, and opposite which the baker Rachmiel dreamed of opening a profitable shop.
Back in Vilna, I stood before the ruins of the synagogue and could not stop feeling that, very soon, within a minute or two, in the blink of an eye, from under the rubble, from that combination of eternity and mortality, from under that wreckage of ruined iron, Rabbi Eliyahu would rise and shout so loudly that the whole city, the whole country of Lithuania, the whole world, could hear him say:
“Jews! Both dead ones and those still living! Take crowbars and pickaxes, axes and chisels! Hurry from all around — from shtetls and towns, from homes and graves! The Great Synagogue should not be allowed to lie in ruins! Roofers, fix the roof! Carpenters, make new floorboards! Glaziers, put in windows! Smiths, make candlesticks! Tailors, sew prayer shawls! It will soon be the holiday of Passover. The holiday of the liberation from Egyptian bondage! Hurry, hurry since there is no worse slavery than forgetting, than amnesia!”
Unfortunately, no roofers came, no tailors came, no smiths came, no carpenters came. No one came!
The living stared at the ruins and walked past. No one picked up a handful of debris, spread it on his palm or poured it, like ashes, on his head.
But the Soviet bondage was worse than the Egyptian one.
In my student days, like many of my peers, I worked helping to rebuild the city, clear roads, lay out parks and plant trees.
The favor of the victors was extended to everything — except for things of value to Jews.
In yeshivas, where, for centuries, young Jewish minds had pondered, like young versions of Maimonides, the mysteries of the universe and the purpose of humanity, and where truth was cultivated among grapevines of payes, there were now housed institutions that were concerned with the collection — not of revelations about the ways of humanity — but of rubble.
In Jewish schools the bosses were faceless, stubborn bureaucrats who handed out passports with the hammer and sickle or signed pages for the personal files of undependable, semi-dependable and even some dependable citizens.
Printing houses that, before the war, had earned considerable fame throughout the Jewish world, had been closed by the Bolsheviks. Now they were printing pitiful imitations of Moscow’s Pravda and Kommunist, election ballots that did not allow any choice and “great” works by Joseph Stalin, “the genius of all times and peoples.”
In the gloom that enveloped this “Jerusalem of Lithuania,” there were still some warm hearths. There was a Jewish orphanage that offered shelter to children who had survived the recent massacre. There was a Jewish school where one could still hear the sounds of the age-old Jewish alphabet being repeated. In the former jail that the Germans had transformed into a ghetto, there was a soon-to-be-closed-down Jewish museum, where the exhibits consisted less of documents that had been preserved than those of its director Gudkovich and a few other staff members.
I lived in Vilnius for almost fifty years and there discovered tatters of that real Jerusalem of Lithuania that I used to dream of at night and there detected there traces of its lofty and enduring spirit.
We young and hungry striplings — partially Russified and speaking a Yiddish distorted by a foreign land, after having been scattered by the whirlwind of war into territories where the word zhid (“kike”) stigmatized our people — ran to the Jewish literary evenings that took place in post-war Vilna. We welcomed, with rapture, guests from Moscow, like Peretz Markish and Aron Kushnirov, while, at the same time, taking pride in the fact that we had, living in our own city, such wonderful poets as Abraham (Avrom) Sutzkever and Hirsh Osherovich.
I shall never forget the incomparable impression made on me by the recital of Sutzkever’s epic poem “Kol Nidrei” by my uncle, the women’s tailor Motl Kanovich. Lovers of Jewish theater and literature used to gather at his home on Stalin Prospect. The guests included the large-headed, majestic, somewhat deaf teacher Rozentalis, who looked like a Roman senator, the tailor Dogim, with a complexion so dark it looked charred and a voice that split the air like a siren, and the extremely quiet bookkeeper Upnitsky, who continued to calculate and check things everywhere. Frail Uncle Motl, who was smiling (after all, a women’s tailor is fated from birth to be a “smiler”: he has no choice but to smile), read that poem that had just appeared in the press with an expression and a passion that were quite uncharacteristic of him. Not only did the small living room, where the reading was taking place, recall the orchestra of an ancient Greek amphitheater, but the reader looked like an ancient oracle rather than a frail tailor.
His voice caused vibrations in the air, in the cherry brandy in the carafe, in the lily-shaped crystal wine glasses and in our souls.
Tears flowed down the cheeks of the silent audience.
I cried, too, even though I didn’t really understand why.
Of course, in those days, there was no shortage of tears, and they had more causes than just poems.
Each new year brought new woes.
Then the terrible year 1953 arrived, threatening to exile all of us Jews to Siberia.
For that reason, in Jewish homes, rusks, like the matzohs baked by the children of Israel before leaving Egypt, were being prepared for the way.
And Jewish books were being carried out of Jewish homes like dead bodies. In haste, at dusk, in an empty lot not far from the Lukishkskaya Prison, our frightened-to-death neighbors were burning all Jewish writings, starting with ones by the innocent, starry-eyed Mapu and ending with those by the gloomy and stern David Bergelson. Sixteen volumes of the pre-revolutionary Jewish encyclopedia were carried off into the night like sixteen coffins.
Those “voluntary” book burnings were carried out by people to save themselves from possible accusations, to get rid of material evidence against them even though their only “guilt” was belonging to the Jewish people, having been born under a Jewish roof.
The odors of these bonfires hovered over my youth, suffocating me and threatening to suffocate the future. And what could be worse than a future that was singed with fear and humiliation?
I still did not fully realize, then, that it was not paper that was burning but the city of my dreams — Yerushalayim d’Lita — and that I, myself, was no more than a smoldering coal or, at best, a dying ember.
How many of the latter there were, and how many of them were extinguished by a wind!
However, sometimes stars were lit by them, stars like the Jewish singer Nechama Lifshits. But even those stars did not remain visible for long in the firmament because they were covered over by clouds.
Emigration began. It was difficult but irreversible.
The city of my dreams, Yerushalayim d’Lita, shrank like the material in Balzac’s novel The Magic Skin.
Meanwhile, with persistence and courage worthy of the Maccabees, Jews rushed to OVIR, the department for granting visas and registrations, the way they used to rush to prayers in the Great Synagogue.
Our most desirable and, indeed, sole meeting place was the scarred-and-streaked-with-black-oil platform of the Vilna station — “the first way,” as the railway people called it, and “the most trustworthy way,” as the Jews put it — the way from the Jerusalem of Lithuania to the real Jerusalem, the eternal and irreplaceable one.
In the mid-1970s I went to the station to see off an old friend. When he was ascending the steps to the train car, I drew his attention to the car’s number, 0.
“Car number zero, does that mean a grade of zero?” I asked.
“It doesn’t matter if it says zero,” he replied calmly. “As soon as we get there, a 1 will be added before the zero.”
“Which 1?” I wondered.
“Number 1 representing our homeland,” my friend responded eloquently. “A primary value for every Jew.”
I don’t know whether the object of his love turned out to please this person, who was inclined to idealize things, or whether he later felt bitterly disillusioned, but, at that time, on the platform where some young lads were energetically dancing the hora, his reply sounded quite convincing: “You can’t live with ghosts. No matter how good dreams are, they have to end sometime.”
Why didn’t I ever think of this? Perhaps my friend was right, after all, that whoever lives with ghosts will himself become a ghost. The Great Synagogue is a ghost. The Jewish Museum, a ghost. The houses are ghosts. Ghosts in the past, in the present and, perhaps, in the future as well. Aunt Hava, the baker Rachmiel and Uncle Motl, who read the poem “Kol Nidrei” with enthusiasm and lamentation, are ghosts. And so are the wisest of the wise, the Vilna Gaon, and even the widow Romm,who managed the city’s printing house that issued his works — all are ghosts.
Even the person closest to me, my father, by the grace of God a tailor who sewed clothes for half the city, suddenly became a ghost.
Early in the morning, every day — as long as he could get around by himself, at eighty plus years old — this “unfortunate” (as he referred to himself) set out “on the chase.”
“Where are you going?” I would ask.
“I’m going to try to catch a Jew.”
He “caught” them in the Bernardinsky Garden, at the square that still, before the declaration of independence, bore the name of the immortal Lenin, on the banks of the Viliya or in the vicinity of the new central post office.
“Yesterday I caught two,” he boasted. “The goldsmith Sholem and the shoemaker . . . what’s his name? . . . Oh yes, Nison.”
“How about the day before yesterday?”
“The day before yesterday, only one — the barber Menashe. His daughter has a car, a Zhiguli. She promised to take us to the cemetery. On Sundays the cemetery is full of Jews. They wander there and look around.”
There were days when there was no “catch.” Then Father came home sad, incommunicative, angry at his old age, at his fate, at the whole world.
His “catch” diminished with each passing day. The goldsmith Sholem emigrated with his children, and the shoemaker Nison had requested an exit permit.
But Father needed at least one Jew, whether of his own age or not, it didn’t matter. The main thing was to find a free bench in the Bernardinsky Garden, to sit down and plunge, dip, or dive into the warm streams of memory. To remember, remember, remember: a bar mitzvah, a wedding, serving in the army (the Lithuanian, the Polish, the Russian ones), or the Day of Victory at Tilsit or Lublin.
And today, in squares and parks, on the quays and in the woods on the edge of town, there undoubtedly still wander old men like my father Solomon.
They wander without finding what existed or what never existed. Exhausted, forgotten by God, they involuntarily fall asleep under the lindens and the oak trees.
And, like me, they have dreams about the Jerusalem of Lithuania, about the city where they were born, or about which they had heard from someone long ago in childhood.
They should not be forgotten. They no longer have the strength to live while awake and no longer the strength to live in a dream.
It is not right to recite the memorial prayer, the kaddish, for a city, especially if one can find there at least one Jew, young or old, awake or asleep.
I do not want to bury its streets and alleys, narrow like the clotheslines on which, for centuries, Jews hung out their laundry. I hang out there my grief and sorrow. I do not want to bury its brick roofs along which cats scurry like angels and angels like cats. I climb to the attics and purr about my love to the sky and to the moon that shone for many generations on my brothers and sisters. I do not want to bury its pavements where each cobblestone is like a fragment of Moses’ tablets. I place a memorial stone on those pavements that will scorch with fire every step that people take and remind them of the massacre, the killing of thousands and thousands of totally innocent people.
I do not want to bury the Great Synagogue. I will always pray there and, as long as I pray, no one will wipe it off the face of the earth because the face of the earth is my face and your face.
I do not want to bury my dreams.
Who says that they scatter with the first rays of the sun?
For those who have lost what they loved, they are the only sun.
Copyright © Grigory Kanovich 2015. Translation copyright © Yisrael Elliot Cohen 2015.
Grigory Kanovich was born in Kaunas (Kovno) Lithuania in 1929. He grew up with a command of Yiddish and a deep familiarity with traditional Jewish culture in Eastern Europe. In the postwar period he wrote mainly in Lithuanian and Russian, often dramatizing the Lithuanian Jewish experience in the 19th and 20th centuries. He was a leading Jewish activist in Lithuania. He made aliya in 1993 and has continued his creative career in Israel. Kanovich has written in a number of genres, achieving international fame, marked popularly by huge print runs of up to one million copies, and critically by scholarly recognition of his impressive talent.
Mr. Kanovich has won numerous awards. He was shortlisted three times for the Russian Booker Prize, including for his Holocaust novel, Charmed by the Devil, and has received prestigious prizes in Russia, Lithuania, and Israel: National Prize of Literature of Lithuania (1989) for his trilogy,Candles in the Wind, Prize of the Lithuanian Government for Literary and Cultural Achievements (2010), and the Israeli prize in the name of Yuri Shtern for a lifetime of literary achievement. Kanovich’s The Park of the Jews was voted best Russian-language Israeli novel in 2007. His works combine the ethnic with the ethical. More information about the author at www.gkanovich.com.
Yisrael Elliot Cohen (the translator) was born in Boston. He received as B.A. from Harvard and a Ph.D. from Yale, both in Slavic Languages and Literatures. In the USA and Canada he taught humanities courses, including on Russian literature. He made aliya in 1979. In Israel he has worked as a translator from Russian into English, specializing in topics relating to Soviet Jewry, and as an editor. For 18 years he was co-editor of “Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe.” At present he edits Yad Vashem’s online site, “The Untold Stories,” about Nazi killing sites of Jews in the Soviet Union. Dr. Cohen can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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