Parting From a Lover of Vilna

On the death of Prof. Shmuel Werses (1915-2010 ), the senior scholar of Haskalah literature and an Israel Prize laureate.

One evening a few months ago, the phone rang. It was impossible not to recognize the voice at the other end of the line, Prof. Shmuel Werses. He asked me to drop by; he had two things he wanted to discuss. We made an appointment for the following morning. When I knocked on his door, he invited me in and sat me down in the guest armchair; he himself sat on the sofa in his usual corner. Time had taken its toll. He was bent over, he sighed often, his leg caused him great pain and even his memory betrayed him on occasion.

As usual we traveled, in our conversation and our imaginations, to his hometown and my beloved city, Vilna, once called the "Jerusalem of Lithuania." Werses began to speak about his own works of research, which were at various stages in the publication process. These included a book about the educator of the Jewish Enlightenment Joseph Perl, as well as studies that he said he would not get to publish, such as about the motif of death and the cemetery in the works of S.Y. Agnon. Most of all, he regretted that his eyes were failing and that he wouldn't be able to review every detail in the manuscripts of his future books, as he had in the past. I offered to help him.

Already years ago when we would speak, Werses often mentioned his own master's thesis, written under the guidance of Joseph Klausner, about the world of the Vilna maskilim (Haskalah or Enlightenment scholars ). He had never allowed me to read it, beyond a quick glance. Klausner's comment that "the work is worthy of publication" came up in our conversations from time to time, but something seemed to stop Werses from adapting it into a book. I didn't know what it was. Now he told me he had decided that when the time came, he wanted the thesis to be given to the manuscript department of the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem, and asked me to do what I could to ensure that anyone who used it would cite the name of its author.

We spoke a little about his large and rich library. He sighed and said that the fate of such libraries is that nobody wants them; that they make their way into the public domain, end up in places where nobody appreciates them. We returned to Vilna. I felt that he was talking at greater length than usual. Was it possible he was trying to postpone the moment of our parting? We discussed the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu Ben Shlomo Zalman ) and the "righteous convert," the Polish nobleman Count Valentine Potocki, Napoleon in Vilna and the old cemetery, Zelig Kalmanovich and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, and the writer A. Vayter (a pseudonym for Ayzik Meyer Devenishski ). In our minds, we roamed through Vilna from street to street and alley to alley, from the Vilna University library to "Mount Lebanon" - as the Levonishok suburb was called - and so on and so forth.

He said he had wanted to visit his hometown once again, but had not made the trip. And as he spoke about the city, his eyes were dreamy and sad.

Werses fell silent. I felt he had something to say. He asked me to take from the bookshelf "Jerusalem of Lithuania" - the three monumental, red volumes edited by Vilna native Leyzer Ran. I felt as if he were leading me by the hand to the city of his birth, to his childhood home, "8 Shavelska St.," as he would say with longing. He asked me whether I owned Ran's work. When I replied in the negative, he offered to give his copy to me.

The offer and parting from his books was difficult for him, and it was difficult for me to accept his offer. He once again gave a detailed description of the volumes' content and of how they would be useful to a researcher. A researcher of Vilna. And only a book lover and a Vilna lover would appreciate that.

I helped him get up from the sofa and we went over to the desk. He took the first volume, caressed it carefully again and again, and opened it with a big sigh. He asked for my pen, wrote what he wrote in his rounded, old-fashioned handwriting, which is so familiar to his friends and students, and signed "Shmuel Werses." When he finished he put the books into my hands, averting his eyes. I took them; they were a heavy burden.

The time had come to leave. We rose together from the desk, and his voice became hoarse. There were tears in the eyes of this restrained man, who was strong as an oak. A Litvak through and through. It's hard for me to think, he said, that we won't meet again. He burst into tears, gave me a long embrace, and ordered me: Don't give up! Continue with your research! The memory of Jewish Vilna is on your shoulders. I promised.

He held my hand and accompanied me to the door. I looked back and saw him receding into the distance, his bent back trembling slightly. A generation passes. I left, with the burden of Vilna on my shoulders.

Prof. Motti Zalkin is the head of the Jewish history department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.