It happened yesterday:
I set out from my apartment off the main street in the Old Town of Vilnius for the Choral Synagogue. It is the one synagogue that survives and is still in use in a city that once supported over two hundred houses of prayer. During the war the Nazi’s used this synagogue as an ammunition storehouse. Today, it is a beautifully restored building in the ubiquitous Moorish style. It’s beige exterior glows at sunset. People wait for the bus on its corner. A man shlings some Brandy down his throat across the street. Passersby stare bamboozled at the small group of rugged men hobbling on canes towards the Synagogue’s rusted gates.
Inside, my friend Dovid is talking Yiddish to a very elderly man in the row across from me. Then Dovid gets up and says “Eli, would you mind accompanying this man home with me? He says his heart hurts.” Davening Mincha has not begun. I hop out of my seat and the old man wraps his left arm around mine. His other hand hold Dovid’s wrist. Dovid and I look at each other. Is this man going to die holding onto our arms? We will take him home, as he wishes.
We begin walking. He stops intermittently to rest. We ask him repeatedly in Yiddish if we should get him a doctor. We pass a cab. “Do you want a cab?” “Tonight is Shabbos!” he says, staring at Dovid. Then I remember my days learning in Jerusalem. “But sir, this is Pikuach Nefesh!,” I say. The Rabbis and the Rambam argued that it is permissible to break Shabbos if and when it becomes an obligation to save a life in jeopardy.
Then the old man leaned on Dovid and lifted his wrist, raised his thumb and said “Dos iz richtik!”. This is correct! A smile bore a gleaming graveyard of four teeth. A Jewish concept in a formerly Jewish world! He talked to the cab driver watching three generations of Jews in front of a Vilna hotel. The driver explained he couldn’t take the man three blocks up the hill. He was waiting for a customer to leave the strip club across the street. The old man grit his teeth. Dovid and I were angry. The old man decides to go by foot.
So we walked up his hill. We learned on our frequent rest stops that he was nineteen years old in 1941. He was born in a shtetl two hundred kilometers from Vilna, close to what is today Belarus. He has the keys to the Vilna Gaon’s tomb in his apartment. He is the indigenous, Yiddish survivor who represents the world that much of world Jewry simply ignores. He stayed here. We arrive in a small building in a sprawling Soviet-era apartment block near the Vilnius train station. Blonde toddlers crawl in the dirt. He used to live with his son, but his son now works in Kaunas, formerly Kovno, over an hour away. He lives off a small pension and one check a month from a lady in America. A few people check up on him a couple times a week. He was born into the world of Lithuanian Jewry. In that world his heart, soul and feet have remained.
We ask him if we can get him some water, or if he needs help taking off his shoes. “What do you need?” He says “Tell that lady to write me a letter with her checks. A guten Shabbos. A Dank.” He shuts the door.
Dovid and I walk back to the Synagogue. We arrive. I’m sweating bullets. In a viscous Russian lilt, the minyan sings Lecha Dodi!