Vilnius, the “sad old woman”

Benzion Benshalom wrote in the winter of 1939/40 about the desperate atmosphere and the sad cityscape in Vilnius.

I stayed in Vilnius for three months. This time was enough to bring me to the conclusion that the Jerusalem of Lithuania 11Name of Vilnius is one of the saddest cities. My friends from Vilnius told me that it had always been sad, but since the day the war broke out it had become even more desolate. Clouds of darkness and desolation covered its sky and its mood was full of melancholy and sadness. This lostness wandered from hand to hand – from the Poles it passed over to the Russians and from the Russians to the Lithuanians – and all its life, which had never been particularly stable, it had been weak. When you wandered through the labyrinth of its narrow, dark, tangled streets, a strange sadness tugged at your heart and smothered every glimmer of joy.

The strange, rotting houses were so very bleak and the faces of the by passers expressed sadness, a terrible sorrow was inherent in everything. The language of the shop signs was Lithuanian; the buyers and sellers – Jews and Poles; the song that sounded to your ears – the song of a Russian regiment passing by on the street together. The Poles were roaming around in low spirits and despair was burning in their eyes. Overnight they had lost their possessions and all their splendor had flown away. Their newspapers, which appeared in Vilnius, told them that they had to be content and that their fate was better than that of their brothers in the territories occupied by the Germans and Russians, but these condolences in no way diminished the grief and remorse that gnawed at their hearts. They walked around in sorrow and their grief ate them up. Many times I saw them kneeling and praying in front of the holy gate in Ostrobramska Street 22The Gate of Dawn. The terrible cold scorched their faces and they prayed and prayed. They forgot everything and sank completely into the depths of prayer. Men and women, old and young. People whose leg or arm in a bandage showed that they had returned from the battlefield some time ago and whose wounds were already crusted, women dressed in black, mourning for their husbands and sons who were killed in battle. I also saw children kneeling and praying. Once I passed the gate at dusk. It was very quiet. The blood of the sunset colored roofs and streets red. It was very cold and the whole city looked frozen. They bowed and prayed without a voice, without a whisper. Only their lips moved.Everything was frozen and they too looked frozen. Frozen monuments. Touched, I looked at them. The first verses of “Pan Tadeusz” 33Polish verse epic by Adam Mickiewicz, 1798-1855 came to my lips, those wonderfully painful verses in which the great Polish poet expressed his longing for his homeland Lithuania and his reverence for this sacred corner. All around was holy, absolute silence. The clouds of the sunset burned in the firmament and the evening slipped away quietly, quietly. My heart sighed: Like a living memorial they seemed to me in this twilight hour, like a living memorial for the dissected Poland.

Also in the accommodations of the Jews no joy could be found. They learned Lithuanian, but no longer believed in the stability of the new circumstances. Various rumors were passed from mouth to ear. Every day and its rumor. Every day and its fear. One day they began to whisper that in just a few days Lithuania would be divided between Germany and Russia. The Nemunas 44Lithuanian name of the Neman was to serve as a border. The Jews of Kaunas had already begun moving to the area beyond the Nemunas. Every day the coming of the disaster 55Shoah was expected. Only after two weeks did they calm down a bit and come to the conclusion that the matter was postponed for the time being. But the fear did not subside and the suffering continued to grow. The Jews of Vilnius knew that they were the only ones left of the entire Polish Jewry and that a miracle had saved them, but they did not know what tomorrow would bring and they did not believe that they could stay in peace. Worried and frightened, they roamed about.

And the Lithuanians? The Lithuanians couldn’t be found in Vilnius, except for the policemen, soldiers and officers. The Lithuanians tried to change the face of the city, to refresh it, to make it more beautiful, to renew its youth. Lithuanian names were given to the streets, new buses were brought from Kaunas. The authorities demanded that the population speak Lithuanian. And all the signs were in Lithuanian. And the people? They were quick to pick up a few Lithuanian words – ‘labas‘ (good morning) or ‘prasau‘ (please) you heard many say. But not more than that. The face of the city did not change. It did not bloom and they did not renew its youth. The dark clouds that covered it and wrapped it in mourning did not open. Their grief was neither diminished nor sweetened. She was a yellow-faced old woman despite the efforts of the Lithuanians, a sad old woman.

    Footnotes

  • 1Name of Vilnius
  • 2The Gate of Dawn
  • 3Polish verse epic by Adam Mickiewicz, 1798-1855
  • 4Lithuanian name of the Neman
  • 5Shoah

Benzion Benshalom (Katz) was born in Galicia in 1907 and studied, obtained his doctorate and taught Hebrew at the University of Krakow until 1939. Like many other Polish Jews, he fled with his family from the invading Wehrmacht in 1939 to Vilnius, which was still neutral and unoccupied until 1941. The city, which had just come under Lithuanian control in October 1939, became a refuge for thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish refugees from occupied Poland at the beginning of the war. In the spring of 1940, he managed to emigrate from there to Mandatory Palestine. Until his death in 1968, he worked at Tel Aviv University as a Hebrew literary scholar, translator and author. Before and after his immigration, Benzion Benshalom (Katz) was active in Zionist organizations. Between 1941 and 1963 he headed the Youth and HeChaluz Department of the Jewish Agency. 111. Jewish Virtual Library: KATZ (Benshalom), BENZION, in: Jewish Virtual Library, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/katz-benshalom-benzion (13.03.2020).

He recorded his memories of his time in Vilnius in the book “In the tempest of a stormy day” (בסער ביום סופה), published as early as the beginning of the 1940s, in the chapter “Days and Nights in Vilnius” (ימים ולילות בוילנה). Benzion Benshalom looks back on the city from a Zionist perspective. From the very beginning, he regarded it as a stopover on the way to then British Mandatory Palestine. While he initially reports enthusiastically on the Jewish support structures in the city and especially on Zionist activities there, over time, under the influence of the harsh winter, the problems with the Lithuanian authorities, and the uncertainty and fear, the sad picture of the city that he paints here takes on an overwhelming intensity.

The fear of the refugees described by him that Lithuania and Vilnius, which were still independent, would also lose their independence and would no longer be a safe place for them, came true in June 1941. When the Wehrmacht took the city, Benzion Benshalom had already managed to flee to the then British Mandate of Palestine. Many other Jewish refugees who remained in the city were murdered in the Shoah.

    Footnotes

  • 11. Jewish Virtual Library: KATZ (Benshalom), BENZION, in: Jewish Virtual Library, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/katz-benshalom-benzion (13.03.2020).

Excerpt from:

Benshalom, Benzion, 1943/44: BeSa’ar beYom Sufa, Polin (בסער ביום סופה. פרקי פולין) [In the tempest of a stormy day. Parts about Poland]. Tel Aviv: Mosad Bialik. Part 6/Vav, p. 160-162.

Translation from Hebrew to English © Minor Kontor.

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