Learning Yiddish and Searching for Jewish Lithuania: Laura Esther Wolfson

“Everything began in Lithuania, of course. But where to begin in Lithuania?”

For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors (2018)


Laura Esther Wolfson’s book, For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors, excerpted in Longreads, covers the author’s life and travels in the United States, France and the former Soviet Union and won the 2017 Iowa Prize for Nonfiction. In the book, Wolfson travels to Vilnius in 2007 and meets a woman she calls Faina; Faina’s drive to have her story told dovetails with Wolfson’s exploration of her Jewish identity.

Following the war years of the 1940s, Faina and her mother left Birobidjan, the Jewish Autonomous Republic, stopping first in Yalta, where the two of them were sheltered by a Ukrainian family, then ending in Vilnius, where Faina’s mother eventually revealed the truth of her father’s death: he was executed as an enemy of the state.

Wolfson’s narrative weaves Faina’s story with her own exploration of the Yiddish language and her connection to a Russian writer, who draws her in to what becomes a near obsession with the Jewish archive in New York and an ultimately fruitless effort to tell the tale of Kazimeras, who calls himself “the last living Lithuanian Yiddish poet.”

The interview with the author below has been edited for clarity.


Laura Esther Wolfson [Image: Florence Montmare]

Thank you so much for agreeing to talk to me. This is an amazing collection of stories. I was hoping that you could start by telling me specifically about your experiences in Lithuania with the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, and with YIVO in New York.

I first went to Lithuania in 1988 for just a few days, when it was still the Soviet Union. I was working on a cultural exchange program elsewhere in the Soviet Union, and went to Lithuania while on a break from work. My parents came over from the US for a short visit and joined me there. We went to Lithuania because that’s where my maternal grandparents came from. We hoped to visit my grandfather’s village. At that time there were no Jewish institutions in Lithuania, of course, and we could find nobody to answer our questions. We ended up going to the wrong village. There were three villages with very similar names. We were just guessing; we knew it might be the wrong one, but, again, there was nobody to ask in those days. I didn’t find out for sure that we’d gone to the wrong village until I went back in 2007.

I took intensive Yiddish courses at YIVO in New York in 2000 and again in 2005, six weeks each time, for six or seven hours a day. At the time, I was a freelance translator, so I could take the time to do that. That was my introduction to the language, in 2000. I have tremendous respect for YIVO as an organization and many fond memories attached to it.

YIVO was founded in Lithuania in the early 20th century to collect and preserve Yiddish literary culture and language, as well as other aspects of Yiddish-speaking culture. It was a sort of National Academy of language, but for a language that has no country. It was and remains a place for scholarly research. When it was based in Lithuania, local people, amateurs, were trained to collect field material, proverbs, folklore and materials written in Yiddish: papers, documents, children’s school compositions. There were professional linguists overseeing that work, of course. [YIVO] had branches in New York and in Buenos Aires. At some point, I don’t know whether in anticipation of the German occupation or for some other reason, YIVO’s headquarters was shifted to the New York branch.  

During World War II, the Germans made enslaved Jews pack up some of YIVO’s holdings and other treasured Jewish books and papers for transfer to Germany. The plan was to open a museum there to display cultural vestiges of the Jews, who would soon be extinct, according to plan. The Jews who were doing forced labor smuggled out materials under their clothes… at risk of torture and death, and hid them—buried them in the ground. After the war, materials that had been sneaked out by those heroes, a group of poets and intellectuals known as the Paper Brigade, were found, some of them fairly recently, I believe, in the Lithuanian earth. Among the members of the Paper Brigade were people who would later join the partisans and fight the Germans, including the great Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever.  

My second visit was in 2007, when I went back to Lithuania for an intensive Yiddish course. I learned about the Yiddish Institute in Lithuania from a documentary called Nemt [Yiddish for ‘take’] by French filmmakers Isabelle Rozenbaumas and Michel Grossman. I took intensive language classes for a month, many hours a day. These programs, YIVO and the one at Yiddish Institute of the University of Vilnius, are extremely rigorous; anyone who still thinks that Yiddish is of interest only as a butt of jokes on the Borscht Belt comedy circuit needs to look at the syllabi for these courses. They transmit a year’s worth of college Yiddish in four to six weeks: grammar, vocabulary, conversation, literature, and also the culture and history of the Yiddish-speaking Jews. The programs include Yiddish films, Yiddish-language theater workshops for those enrolled, lectures in Yiddish by native speakers, and concerts of Yiddish music. In Lithuania, the study program also included travel outside of Vilnius, to a village where we met the lone surviving Jew, to the killing fields at Ponar [Paneriai in Lithuanian], the Ninth Fort at Kovno [Kaunas], and historic sites embodying the day-to-day, centuries-old, pre-war Jewish culture of the region.

This time, I did find my grandfather’s hometown. We knew the Yiddish name of the village (Podprezhe, which means “under the birches”), because my grandfather had spoken of it to my mother when she was growing up. By the time of my 1988 and 2007 visits, it was no longer known by the old Yiddish name, of course, but by its Lithuanian name (which was close to the Yiddish name, but not identical). And there was still the problem of the three nearby villages with very similar names. In 2007, Dovid Katz, a leading scholar and expert in all things Yiddish who was then the head of the Yiddish Institute in Vilnius, was able to tell me, based on the Yiddish name, which of those three villages it was.

The Jewish cemetery in Podprezhe. The sign says, in Yiddish, “holy is the memory of the dead” [Image: Dominique Lavoie]

Were you able to find people in the village who had known about your family?

No, my grandfather left around 1906, part of the big waves of departure after the pogroms in Chișinău (in Moldova) in 1903 and 1905, and the failed Russian Revolution of 1905. There were certainly no Jews left in Podprezhe after the slaughter of World War II. I did have an illuminating encounter there, though. The Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum of Lithuania has contact people all over the country, Jews and also Gentiles with a connection to the Jewish history of the towns where they live. The Museum employee who appears in For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors under the name Faina [not her real name] gave me the name and address of the Museum’s Jewish cultural contact in my grandfather’s village. In Vilnius I hired a guide/driver for the day (also a referral from Faina), and we set out, taking about an hour to reach the village. In the parking lot of the village store, we asked a man in a pickup truck for directions to the address Faina had provided. He glanced at the scrap of paper I held and said, “That’s my brother! Why are you looking for him?”

We spoke Russian. (Later that day, he told me offhandedly that like most of his fellow-villagers, he was trilingual in Russian, Polish and Lithuanian.) I explained that my grandfather, who was Jewish, came from that village, and that he’d left for the United States around 1906. “Let me show you around,” said the man. He hopped back in his truck and, with us following close behind, drove to sites outside of the village, memorial sites and killing fields. “You wouldn’t find any of these places unless you’re from here,” he told me.

We penetrated deep into the forest, on bumpy, unpaved roads. He had to get out of his truck to undo chains blocking off private roads, drive through, wait as we drove through, and then get out again to put the chains back in place. He gave us an astounding tour. The back of his truck was filled with construction materials for renovating his house, yet he took hours away from his work that day to show us around.

I particularly remember a small clearing that was being reclaimed by the forest, where memorial stones had been placed. Some dozens of Jews had been shot there, he said. There were wilted flowers on the stones, and candle stubs, left by others who had come to pay their respects. The place was very remote. Mosquitoes swarmed us and the only sound was their insistent buzzing. They were fierce; welts quickly rose on our skin as we stood there. We had to rush away unceremoniously.

When he ran out of Jewish sites to show us, the village man wondered aloud, “What else can I show you?” then led us to a spot near a river bank where a dilapidated mansion stood, strips of orange paint peeling from its walls. It had been the home of a local count, he said, and now housed a school. As we stood looking out at the water, he said, “Maybe your granddad went skinnydipping here when he was a boy.”

In parting, I thanked him profusely.

“I’m used to showing people around,” he said. “We have friends who sometimes visit us from abroad.” “From Israel,” he added. I wasn’t sure I’d heard correctly. “From Israel?”

“Yes, they’re in their eighties now, a brother and sister, but when they were children,”—he held out his hand at waist level to indicate how little they were way back when—“my grandparents sheltered them. The Germans killed their parents.”

He added with modest pride that his grandparents’ names were on the wall at Yad Vashem; they were righteous gentiles. I understood then why Faina had given me his brother’s name; they were the gentile keepers of Jewish memory in that village.


A building in Vilnius which once housed a Jewish shop, with a sign in Yiddish [Image: Dominique Lavoie]

Tell me more about your contacts in Vilnius and searching for your grandfather.

My local contacts in Vilnius in 2007 were nearly all involved with the Yiddish Institute and other Jewish institutions there. I can see how the Jewish history of the place would be cloaked in silence for most people living in Vilnius, yet there are multiple Jewish institutions there, not only the Yiddish Institute at the University. There is the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum of Lithuania, which I referred to earlier, and the Museum’s Holocaust exhibit, known colloquially as the “Green House” because of the building that is its home. The Green House is staffed by local people, mainly Jews. Its holdings focus on the German genocide of the Lithuanian Jews.

They couldn’t call it the “Genocide Museum,” because that name was already taken by a museum housed in an old KGB prison and torture house elsewhere in town whose subject is the oppression of the Lithuanians during the Soviet era. There was also a large building in the middle of town that housed a number of pre-war Jewish institutions. The building belonged to the Jewish community before Lithuania was annexed to the Soviet Union, and was restored to it in the early 90s after Lithuania regained its independence. In 2007, there was one synagogue operating in Vilnius—I don’t know if that has changed in the nearly 12 years since I was there—and a profusion of memorial plaques and monuments to the city’s Jewish past.

I did find one trace of my grandfather in Vilnius. A few years before he came to America, when he was a teenager, he left his village of Podprezhe and went to Vilna—he always called the city by its Yiddish name—to work in a large, prestigious department store [Zalman’s], probably to send money home. A guidebook to the Jewish sites of Vilnius put out by the Museum in the aughts mentions that store, whose owner was an important member of the [Jewish] community in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I found the store; the address is given in the guidebook. In 2007, the bottom floor was occupied by an Italian luxury boutique—I’m blanking on the name—that also has a branch on 5th Avenue in New York, and next door to it was the Vilnius Astorija hotel. Some space on the second floor of the former department store had been annexed by the hotel and made over into hotel rooms. A walkway bridging the two buildings connected the main hotel building to the rooms above the boutique.

The building in Vilnius that housed Zalman’s department store [Image: Dominique Lavoie]

When I went to the Lithuanian National Archives, I found a birth record for a brother of my grandfather, which I was able to identify because it bore my great-grandparents’ names. My mother had never heard of this uncle of hers [the birth certificate said that his name was Girzh], but she recalled that my grandfather had said he had two brothers and a sister who died in infancy. The archivist told me that sometimes parents would belatedly register a birth, as a way of remembering a baby who died. If they couldn’t afford to register the births of all of their children, they would register only the boys. (This archivist, who was an ethnic Russian, was accustomed to receiving Jews from the U.S., Canada and other Western countries who were seeking information about their forbears, and she had much useful information to impart.)

That day at the Archives it emerged somehow from the records she found for me that in my grandfather’s village there were people with the same last name as the proprietor of the department store, so there must have been a family connection; otherwise I don’t know how a village boy could come to the big city and find a job in such a prestigious establishment. My mother told me that my grandfather boarded with the owner, as was the custom with new young employees from the provinces.

As I said, there was only one working synagogue in Vilnius when I was there. Before the war, there had been over a hundred synagogues operating in the city, but in 2007 there were only two functioning synagogues in all of Lithuania, the other one in Kaunas. The synagogue in Vilnius was around the corner from where I lived. I often saw tour buses of ultra-orthodox Jews from the US and other Western countries stopping there.

Because I am a translator of Russian, Faina and some of the other women who worked at the Jewish Museum asked me as a favor to translate into English a few paragraphs of the guidebook I referred to earlier, which they were then updating for reissue by the Museum. The book was in Russian, but a few paragraphs of English were needed for the front matter, a description of the contents, so that someone who couldn’t read Russian would know what they were holding in their hands.

On my route to the university, there was a construction site where a wall had been taken down, revealing a small, previously hidden Star of David on the side of the adjoining building. On that same street, there were empty storefronts with faded Yiddish shop signs advertising oranges, tea and coffee for sale (“colonial goods”). I don’t know how the signs had survived for so long; I’m sure that those shops were not functioning during all those decades after the war. Fascinated, I gazed at them every day on my walk to and from my classes at the university. They were clearly going to be claimed by the wrecking ball very soon.

A building in Vilnius which once housed a Jewish shop, with a sign in Yiddish [Image: Dominique Lavoie]

Seems like many things were so fortuitous for you, in pulling together your Jewish identity.

The 2007 trip was very important to putting together my Jewish identity, but the study of Yiddish overall was almost more important. In my Yiddish classes I learned that customs and sayings that I previously thought were unique to my quirky family were in fact typically Jewish—both cultural behaviors and turns of phrase that had been handed down, some translated into English, some still in Yiddish.

As a child, I did not feel isolated in general; my family had a rich network of friends and acquaintances. But as a Jew I felt isolated. There were many Jews in my parents’ community, but as far as I could tell, all of them had distanced themselves from Judaism. As I wrote in For Single Mothers, we were not only not religious, but anti-religious. There were no Jewish customs, no Jewish holidays. So it was extremely illuminating and moving to discover that certain ways of being and of speaking were the surviving shards of a larger culture that had been lost to me. It was like fitting together the jagged pieces of a broken glass to restore some sort of wholeness, albeit with cracks visible.

I had known that the Nazis occupied the Baltics and parts further east, of course; when you spend time in the former Soviet Union it is impossible to remain ignorant of that. I was taken to see a concentration camp in Riga in 1986, when I was studying Russian at Leningrad State University. But my awareness was for a long time somewhat abstract; it was not until that second stay in Lithuania, when I was 42 years old, that I fully grasped that if my grandparents and their families hadn’t left in the early twentieth century, they would all have been murdered. I had never before made that obvious connection. If my grandparents hadn’t left, my mother and her sisters would not have been born, with all that implies for the subsequent generations.

Elderly Jews in Vilnius were brought in to speak and lecture to us in Yiddish. These were people who hadn’t spoken Yiddish much during the Soviet occupation, but had spoken it as children. During all those years after the war they’d spoken Russian or Lithuanian. When Lithuania became a Jewish destination in the 1990s, they were recruited in various capacities by the Yiddish Institute, and they resurrected their rusty native-speaker skills.

When I wanted a deeper conversation, I would sometimes speak with them in Russian. My Yiddish is rudimentary, but I speak Russian fluently. During those conversations in Russian, I realized that these people were in fact familiar to me; for years, I’d been speaking Russian to elderly Jews in the Soviet Union, in the post-Soviet lands and in émigré circles. These speakers of Yiddish were like the elderly Russian-speaking Jews I’d always known, from the same stock, of the same culture, but when they spoke Yiddish, their outlines shifted and they were transformed for me into vestiges of a lost world.

I remember vividly one woman who gave a lecture at the Yiddish Institute, a senior archivist at the Lithuanian National Archives. (Note: She was not the archivist who found my great-uncle’s birth certificate.) Because she lectured in Yiddish, I understood about half of what she said.

When she finished, we had the opportunity to ask questions in Yiddish. A young woman student asked innocently, “Do you speak Yiddish with your family?” The archivist snapped back, “Ikh hob nit kayn mishpokhe.” [I have no family.]  Full stop. The audience gasped. Did she mean that her family had been killed by the Germans, or was there was something more personal there, smaller-scale and less historical? She didn’t explain, but her response was very striking; the young woman had clearly hit some nerve with her cheery, naive question.

Thank you so much for speaking with me.

Vilnius at night [Image: Dominique Lavoie]

For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors ends on a very Baltic note, asking the question, “Of all the mutually incompatible, contradictory things I had done at various times, which ones should I continue doing and from which of them should I desist?” Wolfson, like all of us, has to answer the question alone.


Header image – Vilnius at night [Image: Dominique Lavoie]

Interview conducted by Erin Crouch. You can find out more about Laura Esther Wolfson’s work on her website.

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