SEPTEMBER 7, 2019
IN THE CENTER of old Vilnius, on the corner of Gaon Street, an old Jewish gentleman stands inquisitively, suspiciously beholding passersby. His hands are folded into his coat sleeves, his long beard crests above his fur collar. His eyebrows, bushy and raised, arch toward the tip of his hat. He is known only as “The Wise Man,” for nothing, really, is known about him, except this: a century ago, he stood near this corner in the old Jewish quarter and let someone take his photograph. Today, his likeness is spray-painted onto the wall and a QR code is pasted next to his waist. Scanning the code with a smartphone brings you to a Facebook page explaining his presence. The Wise Man is part of an urban memory project called “Walls That Remember,” by the Lithuanian artist Lina Šlipavičiūtė-Černiauskienė. “Like a time machine that connects two worlds” that shared the same city streets, the project aims to revive the “bright memories” of the vanished Jews of Vilne, to make them live again.
Walking around the contemporary Lithuanian capital, one trips across all kinds of reminders of its Jewish past. At the site of the ruined Great Synagogue, excavators are hard at work. They chip away at its submerged stones until treasures emerge: an inscribed Torah-reading table and remnants of its famous baroque bimah, a prayer book, coins, and the buttons of Napoleon’s army. I linger in front of the gates, watching them with their picks and brushes. One excavator looks up and smiles.
They are doing a great service, unearthing this demolished sacred space. But every strike at the crumbling stones is bittersweet; to excavate the past is also to mark it as past, to turn it into a sequence of artifacts that will be cataloged, archived, exhibited. Jewish Lithuania spent a long time dying, and now it is dead. Tourists from richer countries come only to see the remains, to trace their distant, dried-up roots.
All this the great Litvak writer Jokubas Josade foretold. As he prepared for death, he knew his world would depart with him. “That’s how it should be,” he tells the Russian-Jewish writer Yevsey Tseytlin, with whom he conversed over the course of his final years on earth, from 1990 to 1995. Josade sees that in the only remaining synagogue, it is hard to form a minyan; that a Jewish restaurant in the center of Vilnius has had to “let go” of its “kosher aspect”; that the newspaper Lithuanian Jerusalem will cease publication, and its editor will move to Israel. All this, he says over and over again, is “how it should be.” “You cannot reanimate the past,” he claims. “What should you do? Say farewell! You have to know when to say goodbye.”
Josade knew when to say goodbye, and how to say it. Five years before his death, he told Tseytlin that he was already hard at work, preparing for the inevitable. The two men began to meet regularly, and Tseytlin, who moved from Russia to Vilnius to “record the tales of Lithuania’s last Jews,” documented their conversations, prodding and praising his subject along the way. (Josade made only one demand of his chronicler: “No eulogizing!”)
The result of their collaboration is Tseytlin’s Long Conversations in Anticipation of a Joyous Death, newly translated into English by Alexander Rojavin. This curious and often crushing volume is Josade’s long goodbye, his “swansong to life,” his “narratives of farewell,” his dispatch from “the loge of the theater of life.” It covers the whole arc of his story, from his birth in 1911 in the shtetl of Kalvarija (“the heart of Jewish Lithuania!”), to his emergence as a Jewish writer in the 1930s, to his service in the Lithuanian 16th Division of the Red Army (“We often whispered to each other at night, opened our souls to one another: I often heard: ‘I don’t want to give my life away’”). He speaks of his attempts to evade Soviet censors, of his struggles to reconcile his Jewishness with the new Lithuania: “A Jew and a Lithuanian. Simultaneously. Truly, are they reconcilable? Is it possible?” His narrative wanders across time, weaving back and forth between one decade and the next. In old age, he no longer thinks of life as a linear journey, for there is nowhere else for him to go. “Despite j’s formidable self-discipline,” Tseytlin observes, “his consciousness — like that of the majority of people — is unstable. Fluid. No center axis. In the course of a few minutes, it leaps from one subject to the next. From Nietzsche to […] buckwheat.” The same is true of the book, which peripatetically traverses the aging writer’s “labyrinths” of memory.
What does it mean to prepare oneself for a joyous death? Tseytlin’s original Russian title, Dolgie besedy v ozhidanii schastlivoy smerti, suggests not only a joyous death but also a lucky one, as the word “schast’e” can mean both “luck” and “happiness” or “joy.” And Josade has been a lucky man, for he has nearly outlived his entire world. His preparations for departure sometimes resemble an exercise in “self-hypnosis,” Tseytlin observes. He repeats himself, he returns over and over again to the same themes: fear, guilt, and loss — but fear above all. “Why did you survive?” Tseytlin asks. It is a question he poses to all Jews, he says, “who survived those horrible years: the ghetto, the concentration camps, the front, havens in Christian houses, the Doctor’s Plot, being persecuted after expressing a desire to go to Israel.” Josade’s life provided so many opportunities for death, and yet he still lives. So Tseytlin asks again, in capital letters, demanding, screaming for an answer, a formula, a “simple rule,” that will explain it all: “WHY DID YOU SURVIVE?”
Josade made choices. When the Soviets begin deporting Lithuanian families, he goes to his district Party committee secretary and demands that his family is taken off the list. “Take the pencil and cross them out yourself,” the secretary tells him. They are spared — for now. Soon Josade joins the army, and at the front bullets veer away from his body. After the war, he returns to Kalvarija and finds that his family is dead and that his neighbors had, somehow, missed the scene of their murder. “I was leaving,” “I was ill,” “I was very busy exactly at that time,” they tell him. There are so many ways to avert one’s eyes. Josade copes with this new world by making himself more Lithuanian. He slowly stops writing in Yiddish and changes his name from Yankev to Jokubas. He fills himself with a kind of fear that follows him to the grave.
In one of his plays, he offers up two strategies for conquering this disfiguring fear — either stop thinking, or marshal your thoughts toward the vanished, joyous past: “You have to reconstruct the boat which you sailed in your youth with your beloved, and forget everything else.” He does not try too hard to investigate old injustices. When the Soviet Union collapses, inaugurating a promised era of openness and transparency, he does not look for his father’s killer. Some “mystical force,” he says, prevents him from doing so.
Even in newly independent Lithuania, Josade still fears the secret police and pauses every time he passes by the old KGB building in Vilnius, as if he is still waiting for his arrest. “Why? Because I am guilty. I still think differently from how they want me to. I’m still scared of them,” he tells Tseytlin. He has watched fear deform the bodies of those around him. “People have shrunk, holding themselves lower, hiding their heads in their necks and casting their eyes down,” he observes. It deforms him, too. He recalls how he burnt his Jewish writings, how he sent the maid out and disposed of the ash himself. He told himself his writings were strengthening the communist cause. He once wrote a novel just for the secret police to find, so that when they came to arrest him, they could find it and say, “He’s one of ours.” When he dies, the manuscript is found among his papers.
He writes in Lithuanian even to his children, “to protect them from many disasters.” For this, he knows he will not be forgiven. The switch from Yiddish is a “tragic break,” an unfathomable loss. “Sometimes, language, like humans, does not forgive apostasy,” Tseytlin writes. Josade tries to justify this betrayal by taking refuge in Jewish history: “For a few thousand years, we’ve been changing our language,” he says. “And it turned out that it is not what is most important for us. The thing that is encoded in a Jewish writer is not the language, but our history.” He makes the protagonist of one of his plays the last Jew. Tseytlin points out that this protagonist has much in common with his author. “You both lost part of yourselves,” he says.
Loss anchors their conversation, accumulating across the pages. Reading Rojavin’s admirable English translation, this loss feels especially acute. Unlike the Russian original, the translation ends with a notes section full of brief definitions of vanishing proper nouns, like “Litvaks,” “Eliezer ‘Elie’ Wiesel,” “Minsk,” “The Torah,” and “Shtetl.” This section alone is enough to break your heart.
There is so much that is irrecoverable. Only by “cognizing these losses,” Tseytlin suggests, is Josade able to prepare himself for death, to indulge in imagining that his departure will be a joyous one. But Josade is not quite sure that is the best way to put it: “Is that so? I don’t know. This is where your work begins. I know something else: Everybody laughs at justice, but humanity will not survive without it.” He considers how this justice might be achieved. One night, a solution comes to him in a dream: “You have to put the killer and the victim next to each other. Let them look one another in the eyes. Let them both say their own truth.” He attempts to dramatize this reckoning in the form of a play. And then he realizes he will not have time to finish the manuscript.
In the end, Josade does not so much take stock of all his losses as drift in them. In his final conversation with Tseytlin, he tells him, “My dear man, I don’t need anything. Nothing […] you know, the lack of pain — that’s what happiness [the titular “schast’e”] really is. Just so: the lack of pain.” Except “lack” is not quite what he seems to mean. It is too harsh of a word, too American. Josade, in his last breaths, gestures toward something deeper and sadder. In Russian, he tells Tseytlin, “eto otsutstvie op’ianiaet tebia” — “this absence intoxicates you.” It is an absence of pain, yes, but also of language and memory and company. The absence is his. He envisions his departure as a long journey at sea, and sees himself drifting further and further away. Perhaps he even remembers his own advice — perhaps he reconstructs the boat in which he sailed with his first beloved, and sets out to sea.