Archive for October, 2019

Vera, Vilna, and Portals to the Pre-War Past

October 31, 2019

This past October 2nd, we lost one of the people central to my family’s life — Vera Winograd (née Silin). She was 95 and passed away in her home of 55 years in Jerusalem. l’ve actually written about her here before, in a long post devoted to That Pesky Jewish Question. I often call her my “great aunt,” but that is really just shorthand for who she was to us, especially in those family trees, like my mother’s, violently cut down and uprooted during the War. Those who remained after the war became perhaps even closer than family — they represented the human connection necessary for survival in a new shattered world, and also the only links to the whole one that was lost. And since that world was Vilna, the Jerusalem of the North of mythic proportions, Vera was one of the last living links to almost all that it represented and promised. She lived with a fierceness that only began to ebb in the last couple of years. Below is the short eulogy I wrote for her on my and my siblings’ behalf, hopefully endowing her legacy with at least some of what she brought to life.




Few people embodied the fullness of the world quite like Vera. Some harness its physical energy and move through life with the force of nature. Some are keen students of human behavior and the human spirit – often quietly observing from the side. Others are able to take in literature, languages, the events of the day, history, and absorb them in a way that enables them to become integral parts of society and the world. Vera was all of these things. It was always through her that I felt like I could physically enter the world of pre-war Vilna, and what I imagine so much Jewish intellectual life in pre-war Europe to have been – Vera was a portal to the Viennese Café, to the Warsaw and Vilna parlors, drawing rooms, concert halls, and fervent youth group debates, eagerly confronting all of the big questions of the world, including the Jewish one – knowing the answers, from the political to the creative, were essential to their survival. And while Vera was unique, that she came from a long line and community of brilliant and commanding women also places her among a particular pantheon of Jewish life. In his biography of Stalin, Simon Sebag Montefiore spends a whole chapter on “Stalin’s Jewesses” — the most vital of which were Jewish Polish and Lithuanian (Vilna, although the capital of modern-day Lithuania, took turns in many different empires, and was famously a Polish and Jewish intellectual capital).  Like many others, Stalin knew these women brooked no foolishness, either in substance or in style – they were always alert, all-seeing, curious, informed, and deeply caring. It is from this caring that their passionate countenance derived its force. While she could sometimes be challenging, mostly because she demanded you match her level of passionate engagement with each and every point (sometimes you just don’t want to argue about the pogroms or Siberia, or whether the musical Fiddler on the Roof is dreck that illustrates Jews have lost their way), she instilled in me, Michal and Jonathan the understanding that there was no choice but to engage. There was no pass to being passive as the world unfolds before you.


Because Vera never had children, and also because of the loss of her sister  — something she really never spoke about – and because my mother is who she is, and got to live with Vera as a young adult while attending Hebrew University, I feel like my mother was able to give Vera, until the very end, one of the only things Vera could not give herself. Her imprint on our lives is so firmly embedded, that like Vera, it transcends time and space and has entered the realm of the imagination, more interesting than some celestial heaven – she is eternally part of this earth, of all she cared about.