Once Upon a Time, Vilna – Pakn Treger

An Excerpt from “Once Upon a Time, Vilna”

A rhapsody on the city and its characters

Abraham Karpinowitz (1913–2004) was born in Vilna, Poland (present-day Vilnius, Lithuania). After surviving the Holocaust in the Soviet Union, he moved to Israel, where he wrote seven collections of short stories (five of them about Jewish life in Vilna), two biographies, and a play. Karpinowitz was awarded numerous prizes, including the prestigious Manger Prize (1981).

This is an excerpt from the story “Geven, geven amol Vilne,” which originally appeared in the book of the same name, published in 1997 by the I. L. Peretz Publishing House. This is its first English translation.

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In Vilna I fell in love with a girl named Lyuba, another student at the Re’al Gymnasium. She was no great beauty, but very accomplished—well read and one of the best students in the class. Our love was like the raindrops that fall on a simple daisy with the same intensity as on a cultivated rose.

Ours was a true Vilna romance, with all the charm that only that city and its surroundings could offer. We took advantage of every possible spot to kiss, embrace, and declare our passion. The well-trodden path to romance led to Trakai, where we rented a little boat, rowed to the island in the middle of the lake, and walked arm-in-arm in search of the old castle. We turned back late in the evening and ate the boiled potatoes and buttermilk we bought from the peasant who rented the boats.

The heart-throbbing moment to consummate true love arrived. We lay together on the fresh hay in a barn beside the lake. With excited fingers we searched each other’s bodies for the spots to place our sweetest caresses, our spines shuddering. We were young. I drew my experience from a book called Eighteen Karats of Virginity, written by someone named Pitigrilli. Our generation read the book in Polish translation, gleaning bits of information about how to be men.

How to love with our hearts rather than our hands—that we didn’t need to be taught. I was sure Lyuba would be my wife. We were about to finish gymnasium and made endless plans for when we completed our studies.

But my father’s theater got in the way. Lyuba’s parents thought the world of the theater was beneath them. To them, it was tied up with Gypsy encampments, while they had a solid income with a shop on Yatkever Street where they sold butter, cheese, and milk. Kheyfetz’s Butter was an important Vilna business. All the prominent Vilna ladies shopped there because the merchandise was so clean and fresh.

Children from theater families weren’t generally accepted in Vilna, especially by the upper crust. That is, except for the actor Bombe, who thumbed his nose at everyone. His son became a doctor and got the best marriage proposals.

Lyuba’s father was very unhappy when he realized we had serious plans, and he decided to get his daughter out of Vilna. Her parents had enough money to get her a foreign passport with a visa for Lebanon. From there, she’d have to be smuggled into Palestine, where she had an aunt, one of her mother’s sisters. Her father tried to buy a certificate from the British for her to enter Palestine, but it was impossible at that time, and he was in a great hurry to save his daughter from the theater world. If my father had had as much money as Lyuba’s, I would have followed her, but the theater always produced more plans and talk than money.

I took the separation very hard. My world was shattered. Anyone who has ever been truly in love will understand. I was very distressed when Lyuba’s mother told her customers that her daughter had married an important police officer in Palestine and was living in Haifa like a countess, with two maids. My mother also took this news very hard. She really cared about Lyuba.

We couldn’t say good-bye. Lyuba’s entire family, including all her aunts and uncles, watched her every move.

My Vilna romance came to an end. Lyuba didn’t send a single letter.

***

Years passed. I witnessed the entire Jewish tragedy of war, camps, and murder. The last barbed wire to curb my movement was around Internment Camp Number 68, on the island of Cypress, for illegal immigrants to Palestine. In 1949, we were released by the British and emigrated to the State of Israel.

I never let go of the dream of seeing Lyuba again. I had carried that dream through blood and fire. Upon arriving on the shores of Israel, I immediately settled in Tel Aviv, where I met other people from Vilna. People from our city always keep track of each other’s comings and goings. They told me about Lyuba’s journey to Palestine and her subsequent fate.

Her aunt in Haifa had barely been able to support herself. At that time, life in Israel was very difficult. For every person with money, hundreds of young men and women arrived without a groschen. The kibbutz wasn’t right for everyone. It wasn’t for Lyuba. She went to work as a waitress in a soup kitchen where you could get a chunk of bread and a bowl of corn soup for a groschen. She met a young man from Salonika there. He asked her to go with him to Safed, where he’d been offered a job as a deputy policeman. She’d have her own little place. She went, got married, and had two children, a son and a daughter. I was told that Lyuba was waiting tables in a coffee shop on the main street of Safed.

I went to Safed and looked through the windows and sometimes the doors of the few coffee shops on that street. I caught sight of Lyuba through a window loaded with different kinds of pastry. Thirteen years had passed since I’d last seen her.

I went into the coffee shop. Lyuba recognized me immediately. We stood opposite each other without saying a word. A theater director would have created a touching scene for that moment—we would have embraced passionately. But life is not theater.

It took me only a moment to be cured of the dream of seeing Lyuba, that with her, I would be able to return to the Vilna of my youth. As for Lyuba, she was very excited about seeing me. She took a deep breath and threw herself at me with passionate kisses and bitter tears.

I looked at my lost love, whose kisses had so burned my lips on winter evenings between the closed butcher shops on Shavalske Street. Our kisses weren’t the same in Safed, under the blazing sun, which had so mercilessly wrinkled Lyuba’s neck and chin.

Lyuba told me her father had been afraid to send her anything, even after she wrote that she needed money to eat. He was sure she’d send me the money to cover my expenses to get to Palestine. She didn’t write to me because she didn’t have the courage to tell me she’d gotten married.

I barely heard her. I got up, preparing to return to Tel Aviv. Lyuba understood. She didn’t ask when we’d see each other again.

And so my last youthful memory from Vilna, my native city, was ripped away from me.

What did they sing in my father’s theater? “What has been, has been, and doesn’t last. / Those times, those moments have long passed.”

Once upon a time, Vilna.


Vilna My Vilna: Stories by Abraham Karpinowitz (translated by Helen Mintz) was published by Syracuse University Press in 2015. Mintz was a 2014 translation fellow at the Yiddish Book Center and has performed her one-woman shows of Jewish women’s experience in Canada, the United States, Germany, and Lithuania. She would like to thank Barbara Harshav for her translation suggestions for this story.