Footloose in Vilna, 1939


Footloose in Vilna, 1939

By David G. Roskies


The first thing I remember is hearing Nadianka sing out my name. “Dó-vee-dl R-r-ross-kess,” a rolling Russian r and coloratura soprano rising above the crowd. I barely recognize her in her pageboy cut and lavender short-sleeved summer dress. “Do bin ikh!” I respond, “I’m right here.” There’s a moment’s hesitation. Do I embrace my aunt, whom I’ve never seen before? I kiss her gloved hand and she laughs appreciatively.
“Such a cavalier! Masha’s trained you well.”
“Grisha was detained at the TOZ Colony until tonight,” Nadianka apologizes, and because he also took the car to work we need a porter to shlep my huge valise to the first available droshky. I’ve packed all the wrong clothes, never expecting that this summer would be the hottest on record. In Mother’s photo album, everyone is in wool.
I want to linger awhile in the massive tsarist-era train station, trying to imagine my parents’ leavetaking on their wedding day, when the whole gang sang them Broderzon’s stirring hymn. But already we’re surrounded by a group of predatory drivers, the famous izvoshtshikes, one of whom grabs my valise, and provoked by its foreign make, starts to inveigh against the latest news even as he leads us out into the blazing sun.
“Have you heard? Damn their souls to hell! The Russkies have jumped into bed with the Germans! A fine pair of lovers! Two syphilitics with moustaches. What are the Jews in America saying about it? Is it true that Roosevelt is a Jew?”
Nadianka and I exchange smiles. In my knapsack I am carrying yesterday’s editions of the Warsaw dailies Moment and Haynt, which are filled with the pact between Molotov and Ribbentrop. The Yiddish press agrees with our cabby that it’s bad for the Jews.
By now he’s swearing under his breath, whether from the heat or the weight of my luggage I cannot tell. Parshi’veh remi’zeh is all I make out, which sound like obscenities to me, but when I return home Felix Dawang will laugh and tell me that it’s Vilna slang for a coach-house, a corruption of the French remise pour cheveaux, dating back to Napoleon’s legendary conquest of Vilna. With a flourish of his whip, our driver pulls out of the station, veering so sharply to the right that he cuts off an oncoming droshky whose driver yells “Zol men mit dayne kishkes oysmestn di Zavalne-gas!” to which our driver replies, “Me zol dikh firn af Zaretshe!” We happen, in fact, to have just entered Zavalna, the very street our interlocutor offered to measure with our driver’s guts.
“Nadianka,” I whisper. “‘They should take you to Zaretshe?’ What does he mean?”
“Zarzecze is the new Jewish cemetery. Your grandmother’s buried there.”
“‘Drop dead!’ in other words.”
“They’re very colorful, our Vilna cabbies. Grisha tells me that a team of folklorists from YIVO is studying their speech.”
We have just passed a huge outdoor market. “Look at them, those greedy bastards,” exclaims our driver. “Fun a shteyn di veykhe, they’ll squeeze a stone to get its sap!” He is just warming up, our driver, for there are peasant wagons blocking the traffic.
”But look,” says Nadianka, “there’s the Jewish hospital to our right. Its major renovation, financed by the municipality, will be completed by December, and there to our left is the Choir Synagogue, where tickets for the High Holidays are already sold out, and quickly-quickly, see there, on the corner, is Tyszkiewicz’s Palace, with the two bulvanes.”
I nod excitedly. There, Mother was born and raised.
Before I know it, we are turning left off Zavalna and heading up a hill, tree-lined and elegant.  “Not to worry,” our driver calls out to the horse, “the Madame will make it worth our while.” Which apparently she does, for we will see a grateful smile on his tanned and stubbled face as he offers to carry my valise to the door of No. 11, a former mansion which Mr. Vinitsky, founder of Vinitsky’s Bank, presented to Nadianka as her dowry when she married Grisha. This is  the same bank where Mother’s 3,000 ruble dowry was deposited for safekeeping, and the whole ground floor is where Grisha and Nadianka live. It is mercifully cool inside, the ceilings are high, and the acoustics are excellent for Nadianka to practice and perform on her concert grand, but the moment Grisha comes home he will monopolize the conversation, not interested in me at all. Nervous, perhaps, that I may have been sent to reclaim the dowry, and he refuses to be drawn out about his last encounter with Father at the Paris World’s Fair. He prefers instead to detail the activities and accomplishments of TOZ, the Society for the Protection of Health, and especially of its summer colony where a thousand children are about to complete their rehabilitation. He wants me to see it so I can report back to Masha. Always impeccably dressed, he changes his shirt, vest, and tie several times a day, his hair is greased down, and his nose (a family trait) is fleshier than in the portrait that stands on Mother’s dresser, taken when he was sixteen years old, on the eve of his evacuation to Yekaterinoslav, where he became Mrs. Kagan’s paramour. Oh God, it’s all coming back to me now. But Grisha is so self-absorbed that there’s obviously no point trying to fill in the gaps of Mother’s narrative, and though I’ve brought it along, I decide not to read them my first Yiddish story, “The International,” which I’ve adapted to the 1930s by changing the U.N. to the League of Nations. I’m tired of singing for my supper.
Grisha sends Nadianka out to buy ham. I am about to suggest that we go to Levanda’s Vegetarian Restaurant instead, but since I won’t be keeping kosher for another seven years, and I dare not hurt her feelings, I say to myself in English: Let me break bread even if it means breaking the faith. Misreading my look, Grisha assures me that this is top-quality ham, bought from the delicatessen on Great Pogulanka where Regina Weinreich buys hers.
After dinner, I am presented with a copy of Zalman Szyk’s 1000 Years of Vilna, hot off the press, and Grisha urges me to cover the three-day itinerary, start to finish But why bother, I think, if the churches and civic monuments will survive the coming war and Soviet rule, to be lovingly rebuilt under an independent Lithuania, while Jewish Vilna – the so-called Ghetto: the Great Synagogue and study houses, the Strashun Library, the YIVO, The Ansky Museum, the Real Gymnasium, the Old Cemetery, the densely populated Jewish streets – will be utterly destroyed?
“The first thing I want to see is Rudnitsky’s Café. Not the fancier one on Mickiewicz, but the one on Trokke corner German Street.”
Grisha and Nadianka exchange glances.
“All right,” he says. “Let’s walk over there now. It’s still open.”
I am amazed. Flabbergasted. Incredulous. The walk from Grisha’s house to Rudnitsky’s Café, which mark the two poles of Mother’s existence, takes under ten minutes. This world of Mother’s, which loomed so large that it eclipsed all other worlds, is tiny. On the way there, I have barely enough time to come up with an alibi. Even if they know about Mother and her unrequited love for Seidman, I mustn’t let on that I do.
“My brother swears by their chocolates. He says they’re the best in Poland. Mother’s favorites are the Provençalkes. This may also be where the Russian matinée idol Aleksandr Vertinsky bought a cake to replace my grandmother’s babka.”
“I think you’ve got it wrong,” says Nadianka. “The Provençalkes were Leybl’s favorite, not Masha’s.”
“How do you know?”
“Because after each of his final exams they went to Rudnitsky’s to celebrate and that would be his treat.”
“My father had a sweet tooth? My ascetic father, who won’t buy himself a new car until the old one dies, and won’t order a new suit unless Mother pays off the tailor to trick Father into believing that he’s getting a wild bargain?”
Not only that. Provençalkes are costly and rich: encased in dark chocolate is a luscious cherry swimming in thick almond liqueur. Its black orb stands atop a pedestal made of white chocolate.
“Maybe it appealed to Father because it looks like an observatory.”
“Wrong again,” says Nadianka. “Have you never heard Leybl lament that medical science robbed the poets of their favorite image? The heart as the seat of human emotion, he often lamented, has been rendered obsolete. Imagine rhapsodizing about the brain! Your father is a dreamer, a pragmatic dreamer, I would call him. That’s why he married Masha.”
“To make sure that the dream is never realized.”
“Oy Dodke, Dodke,” says Grisha, “you have your mother’s wit.”
“And your father’s quiet charm,” says Nadianka.
“Listen,” says Grisha, “you have only three days to spend in the Jerusalem of Lithuania. If visiting Rudnitsky’s is your idea of sight-seeing, you’ll waste them all.”
We agree that tomorrow Nadianka will show me around on foot, and that I will provide them with a list of people I wish to see. As for taking in a play, I’ve come between seasons, though should I care to meet some of the theater activists, the Yiddish Theater Society is meeting at Grisha’s on Friday night.
I sleep in, and we don’t get started until well after nine o’clock. Nadianka, wearing a two-piece pale yellow outfit and carrying a blue parasol, seems strangely out of place in the noisy Jewish quarter, which is one big Oriental bazaar, the shutters opening out onto street level and Jews doing business straight from the inside of their homes. From one of the windows we hear a gramophone playing a Vaudeville tune, “Hot a yid a vaybele....” Nadianka prefers to window shop on German Street, where there’s ample room to walk arm-and-arm with me, her cavalier. I notice men in uniforms parading in front of a fancy clothing store.
“What are they advertising?” I ask Nadianka, pointing to their placards. She doesn’t answer. “Nadianka, what are they advertising?”
“They aren’t advertising anything, Dodele,” she answers quietly. “They’re picketing the store. Urging Polish citizens not to buy from Jews.”
“Why doesn’t anyone call the police?”
“Dodele, it’s perfectly legal. Here in Poland they’re considered patriots.”
I’m making other mental notes as we walk: of where Seidman & Freidberg is located, of how to access the Synagogue Courtyard from Yidishe Gas. Soon we leave the Jewish Quarter to begin our leisurely promenade along the Vileyka River, past the Maccabi Rowing Club, then across to Mickiewicz Boulevard, where she tells me not to talk so loudly. A few chosen stores are being picketed here, too, by Polish patriots, and I begin to understand how bold it was of Father and his buddies to be speaking Yiddish so demonstratively. The men doff their hats to her. Women cast an envious look. 
Waiting for Grisha to come home in the late afternoon, we sit in the garden sipping lemonade, surely the garden where Mother posed for that engagement photo of herself, looking so slim, brooding, and elegant in her long autumn coat and matching beret. I would be happy not to talk at all, just to drink in the smell of Nadianka’s cologne, the melody of her voice, her rolling r’s. 
All day I’ve been wondering whether she’s had the abortion yet. I remember Mother telling me that Mrs. Vinitsky made her do it, but when exactly she never said. I learn the answer indirectly.
“Dodele,” says Nadianka, using the name that only Mother calls me by, and only on the rarest occasions. “I’m surprised that Masha let you come here all by yourself, especially with the political situation being what it is. How old are you?”
“Really? You seem much older. Still, I admire Masha’s confidence.”
“Uncle Grisha was only sixteen when Fradl let him go off with Sophia Kagan. He helped Mrs. Kagan evacuate the school.”
“Masha told you that? Why does she fill your head with such nonsense? Those were other times.”
“For my mother, the only time is other times.”
“She’s a lucky woman, your mother, to have a son like you.”
I know what she wants and I want it, too. She wants to cradle me in her arms, hold me ever so tight against her breasts, run her delicate long fingers through my hair, weep over me, her phantom son. Were I even to touch her at this moment, I would succumb to her love. Instead I say, “Nadianka, shpil mir epes uf.”
“What should I play for you?” she asks.
“‘Starlet, Starlet, Little Blue Messenger,’” I reply, and she shoots me a penetrating look, as if to say: That mamzer knows much more about me than he lets on.
We go inside and she sings Kulbak’s song to an elaborate piano accompaniment. Perched on the piano is Pierrot the Clown, a forced smile painted on his porcelain face. He is the prince of Nadianka’s famous doll collection.
“I’m going out for an hour before dinner,” I tell Nadianka, and rush down the hill toward the Jewish Quarter. Before turning in to Yidishe Gas, I put on the black velvet yarmulke I’ve brought from home, the most old-fashioned one I could find. Thanks to Szyk’s guidebook, I know my way around the shulhoyf, so amazingly compact. I know my mission is impossible, because I cannot be both tourist and pilgrim, and even as a pilgrim I must choose among a dozen different shrines. Shall I daven right next door to the Great Synagogue in the Kloyz Yoshon, the oldest study house in Vilna, which will celebrate its five hundredth anniversary next year, in 1940? Or shall I reconnect with my Litvak heritage and locate the Gaon’s Kloyz? The prayer clock outside the Great Synagogue tells me it’s time for Minhah, so I hurry to the Gaon’s Kloyz. There I am met by a tiny emaciated Jew, almost a midget, who asks me, “ir zogt kadish?” Yes, I want to say, I’m reciting Kaddish. For you, for what is to become of this sacred place, and for this city of Jews. But I shake my head and take a seat at the back. The stench is horrible. A mixture of snuff and sweat. These backbenchers must bathe only on Fridays, and here it’s late Thursday afternoon. I look around in the semi-darkness. I’m the only young person here, and the only one not wearing a filthy cap. At least no one has his peyes showing, so I’m not a complete anomaly. Could this be the kloyz where Yehudah-Leib Matz did not come to pray, preferring to have a minyan in his own home? After the Kaddish, I stuff an American ten-dollar bill in the charity box and make a run for it before the beggars can grab me.
Grisha is aghast to learn where I’ve been. Masha’s youngest son has gone to shul? Just like that, in mid-week! “Nadianka,” he calls out to the kitchen, “you’ll have to get Dodke checked for lice!”
During my absence, Nadianka has made some phone calls. Most of the people on my list are away for the summer. Sutzkever is staying at the Czerniakow’s dacha in Wolokumpie. Kalmanovitsh may or may not be able to meet me tomorrow at the YIVO building because he’s busy with Liba Schildkraut, a graduate student from New York. Do I know her?
No one has heard of Yitskhok Rudashevsky. There are no Rudashevskys in the phone book. When I explain to Grisha that he’s a Young Pioneer, about my age, Grisha blows up at me. Don’t I know that the Communist Party is illegal in Poland, that all their activities are carefully monitored? I must have nothing to do with them, and that’s that!
My aunt Annushka cannot come down from Kovno to meet me, for two reasons. Although it’s a hop, skip, and a jump to Kovno, Kovno is in Lithuania, and not even Lyova Warshawski can secure a visa at such short notice. Secondly, my uncle Nosn has taken a turn for the worse.
My uncle Nosn? What uncle Nosn?
Did Masha never tell me? Fradl had ten children with Yehudah-Leyb Matz, six daughters and four sons. Nosn, the youngest, is manic-depressive and ever since Fradl died he’s been kept in a Jewish asylum in Kaidonov, now a part of Lithuania, where Annushka takes care of him.
There is also good news. Rivtshe Dreyer will be attending the meeting of the Yiddish Theater Society tomorrow night, and Grisha has invited her to come for supper beforehand. Leyzer Volf will be doing a reading on Saturday night together with the members of Yungvald. And there’s a phone line reserved for tomorrow so that I can call my grandfather in Bialystok and wish him a good Shabbes. Because he’s completely blind, says Grisha, Dovid loves talking on the phone. It puts him on equal footing.
Day Number Two I’m on my own, and I make a mess of it. I find Seidman & Freidberg’s dry goods store in no time, and stand near the door, pretending to look around. The man at the counter in shirtsleeves must be him. He’s a head taller than Father all right, and broad-shouldered. His receding hairline looks like an Apache haircut. An aristocratic nose. Then what’s he doing here, answering in Polish to a customer who is haggling with him in Yiddish?  I can’t understand what he’s saying, but I recognize the Jewish inflection. Why won’t he speak to her in Yiddish? He looks up for a moment and spies me at the entrance. “Slucham Pana?” he asks. I shake my head and rush out.
From there I head to the Strashun Library, where I immediately recognize the aged librarian, Khaykl Lunsky. He wears his hat indoors! I take in the famous reading room, which, despite the stuffiness and heat, is already almost filled, mostly with middle-aged and elderly men. I make a show of admiring the rare book exhibit. Then I ask to inscribe something in the Golden Book, where, under the signatures of I. J. Trunk and Joseph Roth, I write “a grus fun der tsukunft, regards from the future,” and sign my Yiddish initials. This day I shall dedicate to Yiddish culture and books, even if I do end up getting lost and never find the YIVO building either because I can’t pronounce the name of the street or because passersby pretend not to understand me – and what I’m looking for in the bookstores I cannot find and what I find is not what I’m looking for. Forgetting that at Velfke’s Restaurant they offer you Yiddish newspapers on reading sticks, I walk in carrying the latest issues of the children’s magazine Grininke beymelekh and the highbrow Literarishe bleter. This turns out to be a big mistake, for not only is the coffee undrinkable, but a man at the next table calls out to me, “Yunger man, vos zayt ir epes, a yenuke” (young man, what are you anyway, some kind of child prodigy?), a clever dig at my eclectic reading material, which makes everyone turn around and laugh at me, this freak of nature.
By the time I get back to Grisha’s, I badly need to regain by bearings. The long distance call to Bialystok is scheduled for five-twenty, and I suddenly realize that, should Grandfather ask me my name, I will blow my cover. Ashkenazi Jews are forbidden to name their children after the living, and here I am carrying his name! I needn’t have worried. The high-pitched crackly voice on the other end is interested in knowing only one thing:
Eynikl mayner, du leygst tfiln?” (Tell me, grandson of mine, do you put on tfillin every morning?)
I come clean, brace myself for a biting remark at Father’s expense, and am surprised when the voice responds with a conciliatory rhyme: “Nit gedavnt, / nit gelernt, / abi nit got dertsernt.” (You haven’t prayed, you haven’t studied [Torah], but at least you haven’t provoked the anger of the Lord.”) I end by wishing him a good Shabbes and sending my warmest regards to Aunt Perele and the children.
Maybe Rivtshe will talk to me, give me some sign that I’m not dreaming.
“Seen any movies lately?” she asks, dispensing with formalities.
If her hair weren’t cut so short, she could pass for Simone Signoret. To complete the effect, Rivtshe lights up a cigarette.
Waiting until I have everyone’s ear, I launch into a detailed description of Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, which does for sound, I claim, what his Potemkin did for the silent screen. So eager am I to impress the grownups – barred from seeing Soviet films until next summer, when the Russians will annex Vilna – and knowing, as I do, that Rivtshe alone will survive the war and will go off to study cinematography in Moscow with the great master himself.
Rivtshe, will you remember that you first learned about this classic from me?
At the meeting of the Yiddish Theater Society, chaired by Uncle Grisha, where I recognize a very young Dovid Rogoff, I can take in stride what I hear: that Rivtshe’s pet project, the Maydim Marionette Theater, is dedicated to revolutionary politics, that Jewish Vilna has no professional theater company of its own, that there is a ban on performing Yiddish in Vilna’s major theaters. When, at Grisha’s bidding, I report to the assembled that in Montreal, Dora Wasserman’s Yiddish theater has the backing of Gratien Gélinas and of the French-Canadian elite, it is they who look at me in disbelief. All except for Rivtshe, who brushes this revelation aside, because the French, she argues, are also being colonized by the English, just like the Jews, and one nationalist movement should naturally support the other. But Grisha says no, the difference is that in Montreal the nationalities can work together because Montreal is ruled from London, while in our Vilna, it is Warsaw that pulls the strings.
With one day left, Nadianka agrees that I should seek out youthful companionship and forgo a trip to the TOZ Colony. Grisha, however, is hurt that I refuse to visit Fradl’s grave in the Zarzecz Cemetery, and this, in the penitential month of Elul, from a nephew who professes to be so frum.
Vilna may not have a permanent Yiddish theater, but it has every stripe of Jewish youth movement, and I am forced to choose sides. Heeding Grisha’s stern warning and in deference to my friend, Chana Fuerstenberg, I choose Hashomer Hatzair. Their headquarters is within walking distance of Grisha’s and, to compensate for my bourgeois class origins, I try to impress the collective with my knowledge of modern Hebrew. Only I make the mistake of using expressions like ma pitom and lo-ikhpatiyut that have not yet been coined, and Reyzl, the girl of my dreams, whose sumptuous braid would seem to belie her Party discipline, insists on being called Shoshana, and will not break ranks to go roller skating with me. At best, she will meet me tonight at the Yungvald Evening where Hirshke Glik, one of their comrades, will be participating. I am fifteen years old and have not yet known a woman. If she would only let me, I would rescue her from this place, on the strength of my Canadian passport. Seeing my disappointment, Reyzl-Shoshana invites me along to their outing later today. They’re going to Ponar.
Geyt nit ahin!” I blurt out, then in Hebrew, “Al tilchu l’sham!” How can they picnic in Ponar, the future killing field of Vilna Jewry?
As they look at me with pity and derision, I understand what a mistake it was to travel back in time to here, as if communing with their living presences could alter the course of time. And although it is worth the whole trip to hear Leyzer Volf declaim his poetry, a cross between Dada and doggerel, and I marvel at the love that the young aspiring poets of Yungvald evince toward Leyzer (the ugliest man I have ever seen, with the short-cropped hair of a convict) – despite this last exalted evening, I am eager, no, desperate, to get out of here. Of back then.
Nadianka accompanies me to the train station. With so little traffic on Sunday morning, we take the scenic route, along the Zakret Forest.
“Let me see your hands,” she says as she takes off her gloves. And I measure my hand against hers. Remarkably, her fingers are as long as mine, thinner, of course, translucent and perfectly manicured. As we touch hands, I stop my mind from racing ahead, to her struggle to survive in the ghetto by giving pedicures. Because Grisha will already be dead, some say shot on a train by an agent provocateur, others say executed without trial by a firing squad, in the first week of the German occupation. And I refuse to either know or to ask how and where she perished, because Nadianka must be as real to me as the gentle touch and fragrance of her fingers that I will feel all the way to Warsaw.


Copyright © David G. Roskies 2018

David G. Roskies, a native of Montreal, Canada, is a cultural historian who has published extensively on modern Yiddish storytelling, Jewish responses to catastrophe, Holocaust literature, and memory. His Yiddishlands: A Memoir (2008) was translated into Hebrew and Russian. Roskies teaches Yiddish and modern Jewish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 1981 (with the late Alan Mintz), he cofounded Prooftexts: A Journal of Jewish Literary History, and served for eighteen years as editor in chief of the New Yiddish Library. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2012.

Please click here to donate to  
Tax receipts will be provided for both American and Canadian donations.

Please click here if you would like to join our mailing list.