Peggy Walt

Once more, with feeling

It’s the Tuesday before our Monday departure on the “trip of a lifetime.” I am madly juggling work, pre-packing, cleaning and five thousand last minute things, waking each morning after exactly 5.2 hours of sleep, according to my CPAP machine. Eyes flick open, heart pounding, a new mental “to do” list unfurling in my brain’s messy closet.

The priority today is three grant applications with deadlines coming faster than a speeding train. But it’s good to plow through them as I hear Shimon downstairs tuning his cello. I take a sip of coffee, do a final spell check. With G-d’s help, someone who deserves it will once again receive funding for her incredibly expensive professional piano studies. One down, two to go. Breathe. We are finally going to Vilna.

Vilna, Vilna, Vilna.

I say it to soothe myself after the morning Shema. I say it when I fall into bed, always later than I mean for it to be. I say it as I put a bag of apples in the grocery cart, and when I watch the blue jays passing twigs to each other in their efficient beaks in the tall tree outside my office window.

The pandemic raised its fists, blocking us from walking those cobblestones when we’d planned to. But really, I should have gone years ago, so obsessed am I, imagining those streets in my daydreams with their Polish and Yiddish names I can’t pronounce. To prepare, I’ve begun re-acquainting myself with Hermann Kruk’s giant ghetto diary, placing it gently each night with two hands on top of the other books beside my bed, so it won’t tumble over.

According to the tourism ads, modern-day Vilnius will be nothing like what I see in my mind’s eye, basically a sepia postcard with Jewish shops in Jewish neighbourhoods frequented by real Jews, all the signs in Yiddish. I picture little Jewish kids still playing in the park, artsies hanging out at Velvel’s for a post-theatre nosh, not a donair shop and a Cello Clinic for those seeking relief from cellulite.

Is real Vilna going to feel like history “lite,” like the faux facades left standing by developers claiming they’re protecting built heritage which “accidently” falls down where they want to build large glass and concrete towers that are really bad for the environment? Will I gasp when I see the husk of the Great Synagogue, partly levelled during the war, then finished off by the Soviets, because, who needs a synagogue now the Jews are gone? Or will we just be thankful to sit outside in the sunshine somewhere that isn’t home after three hard years, wishing all that history had been left in the broken and buried rubble? I don’t know. I’m trying not to pre-judge.

My husband’s fluent in Russian, but given recent events, should he hide that fact? Everyone opposes Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine, where the Holocaust survivors are being bombed, hiding in cellars again. Like Shimon’s 94-year-old mother Bela, a “girl from war” in Rishon, shuffling for shelter in the hallway as sirens wake her and others who are faster and can still rush to the safe room.

We’ll go to the symphony. Bela says Shimon was born next door to a concert hall; he hasn’t wanted to go back in 66 years to see it. Vilna isn’t his idea of a holiday destination, and why would it be? His grandmother said (and so does he), “I didn’t lose anything there,” meaning, an excuse to not go on a return journey to someplace. But didn’t they lose plenty?  I sigh, balancing yet another spreadsheet and looking at the columns that still need filling in. Parents, grandparents, cousins, siblings? Teachers, rabbis, neighbours? Professors, poets and partisans?

Anyway, we’re going to Vilna, even though I don’t feel ready to have my questions answered, and am even unsure what questions to ask.

Shimon’s playing a Bach suite, a warm up to practicing for real. He’s up to his eyeballs in music, on the way to a Mozart opera rehearsal. He switches gears as I turn the sound down on my computer. A plaintive melody, familiar but I can’t name it; he morphs into Oifn Pripitchick, then more plaintive Jewish melodies. He stops playing.

“Drive me to work?” he calls up the stairs, and I tear my eyes away from the screen, searching for shoes. Ten minutes to downbeat, the tyranny of the downbeat.

“Wouldn’t that be something, if I had a cello in all the places we’re visiting?”He grins, but I can see he means it.

“I mean, if I could play for my family, at Ponar,” he says, explaining the Jewish tunes. “Bloch’s The Prayer, I’d love to play it there, in the woods, it would mean so much.”

Even as the words leave his mouth, I know I’ll abandon my work for a bit after driving him to his, and start looking for an instrument, because of course, this is his way to express everything and why didn’t I think of it.

Later I procrastinate and open Internal Passport documents I ordered from the Lithuanian State Archives. Here’s a defiant looking “Uncle” Shmuel, squinting at the camera. Safta Ida, a shy young girl of sixteen, face framed by thick black braids, no hint of the snowy white hair that will hit her years later when she’s deported to Siberia with Bela.

And then there’s Itzik’s sister, Vitke, sitting demurely, one hand holding (hiding?) the other, a look that says ‘I must be here, but I don’t take up much space.’ Smiling, but just. Or is she embarrassed by the ink on her usually clean finger?

Was she mousy? Just quiet? Or intimidated by the official setting she’s subjected to in order to obtain whatever kind of document she needs (her fingerprint on the bottom of it), allowing her free movement. She’s applying, the translation from Polish on another form says, asking for consideration; the power is not with her. She had a German passport when Germany controlled her life, then a Polish one. Documents must be renewed, become official, be stamped in all the right places, even when later the same state will murder you in a forest, just another Jewish housewife from Kalvereskaya Street.

Her pleated blouse is neat and modest. What’s that white square in the middle of it, some kind of identification?  I don’t think she was ever in a camp, but it makes her look like a pre-prisoner. Is her grandly flourished occupation (Beruf) actually “housewife”? They measured her: “1 meter, 45”. Just under five feet. No-one remembered her because no-one knew her name. There has been no-one to say the Kaddish for her, the Jewish prayer for the dead, all these years. Vitke, may she rest in peace, has herself turned to dust some eighty years previous, but these documents remain: safe, cradled in a file in the Archives, waiting for people like me to send Euros over the internet to someone in some office so her face can be seen again.

Will I walk by your house, Vitke? Will I hold your photo and weep the Kaddish as your grand-nephew rocks back and forth, his cello singing midst the green grass that grows so well over you, and all of you, and all of them, and everyone, thousands and thousands and thousands, forever murdered in a country we’ll land in soon?

We’ll get on that plane, look at each other over our masks and hold hands. For three weeks we’ll try to remember you, and forget that the symphony my husband has loved like a second family for 47 years has fired him. Because we’ll be in Vilna, meeting the cousins from Sweden I found, leaning towards an orchestra from the front row of the balcony, and looking for dead Jews, when we’re not sipping lattes and imagining what happened behind those café walls. Drinking a l’chaim with new friends and colleagues. Crying. Laughing. Singing.

My husband complains that his hands are too small for the cello. How he envies colleagues with long fingers. But his hands resemble Vitke’s, and hers look just like big brother (Rabbi) Itzik’s.

Kaddish. The fingers play on.

My husband’s great aunt Vitke (Rutel) Szhlapok, in her Internal Passport application, Vilnius, Lithuania,

About the Author
Peggy Walt has worked for 40 years in the arts and culture sector in Nova Scotia, Canada. She's writing a book on the search for what happened to her husband's family during the Holocaust and her conversion to Judaism in the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Nonfiction at King's University in Halifax.