From Vilna Street, Vishneyeva, to Presidents’ Street, Jerusalem
by Yoram Dori
It was the 2nd August, 1923. A day of rejoicing in the homes of the Persky and Meltzer families in Vishneyeva. A first boy – Szymon – had been born to Getzel (Yitzhak) Persky and his wife Sarah, née Meltzer. Sarah’s father, Zvi Meltzer, a graduate of the famed Volozhin Yeshiva thanked the Lord for his grandson whom he could raise in the light of “The Torah, Wedding Canopy and Good Deeds,” according to the Talmudic precept.
Rabbi Meltzer would not have believed that 90 years later, Zvia Walden, his great-grand-daughter, named after him, would be the guest of honor at a series of events marking the birthday of her father, Shimon Peres, grandson of Zvi, and ninth president of the State of Israel.
The province of Minsk, Belarus, and the local council of the town of Vishneyeva, had accepted the initiative that I, together with Chaim Chesler, the founder of Limmud FSU (Former Soviet Union), had launched to mark the 90th birthday of President Peres in the town where he had been born.
The Peres celebrations, organized by Limmud FSU, started off in the traditional manner with the local citizens of Vishneyeva welcoming the visitors in the town’s central square with the traditional ceremony of bread and salt and songs in Belorussian. Dozens of local citizens welcomed Dr Zvia Walden, her husband, Prof. Raphael Walden, Chaim Chesler and the leaders of Limmud FSU, with other distinguished guests.
After the welcoming ceremony we moved to what was once number 69, Vilna Street. This was the Perski home, although the building no longer exists. The invading Nazis burned down the building in 1942 when they shot or burned to death, all the 2,000 Jewish inhabitants of the town, including Rabbi Zvi Meltzer and his congregation in the town’s synagogue. The current house, like all the others in the town both then and now, is made of wood and freshly painted. The building looks somewhat better than surviving pictures of the old building, but there is still an authentic feel of what once was. An emotional Zvia Walden unveils a plaque on which is written “In this place, Shimon Peres, son of Yitzhak and Sarah Perski, the Nobel Laureate and Ninth President of the State of Israel, was born on August 2, 1923.”
A few steps inside the wall of the building is a famous well which the president frequently recalls. The well has been carefully restored by the town so that it is identical to that of the turn of the century. It seems a little odd – an old edifice in new clothing. Zvia, Chesler and I approach the well. By its mouth, the residents have place a table and on it, glasses with water from the well. I decided that this was no time for half measures: I lowered the bucket on its rope into the well, and asked Zvia Walden to bring it back up. I taste the water and give some to Zvia. I think to myself, this is what Sarah must have done for her son Szymon. Zvia carries on a long conversation with local residents, while Yaakov Achimeir interviews for his weekly television program “Seeing the World,” an elderly man who says that he went to school with Szymon Perski in third grade.
From the Perski home it was only natural that our next visit was to a monument constructed to the memory of the Jews murdered in the Holocaust. The black stone monument is situated in a vacant lot, known as the “Valley of Death,” where the Jews from the local ghetto were assembled in the various round-up operations before they were killed. One side of the monument dates to the Soviet period and the inscription in Russian relates that it was here that Soviet citizens were killed by the Nazis – no mention that these citizens were in fact, Jews.
On the other side of the monument, is a Hebrew inscription added after the dissolution of the Soviet Union that emphasizes the fact that the victims were Jews. Following speeches by the deputy governor of the province, and the President of Limmud FSU, Aaron Frenkel, the rabbi of Minsk, Rabbi Schneour Deitsch recites the mourner’s kaddish and the El maaleh rahamim prayer and a local Belorussian choir sings a lament. In a departure from protocol, Zvia Walden announces that she wishes, in view of the sanctity of the place to offer the traditional prayer for peace. “He who makes peace on high will bring peace upon us” and she adds “and upon all peoples of the earth.” Following this, wreaths are laid on the monument; the governor lays his wreath on the Russian side of the monument, and I indicate that we should lay ours on the side with the Hebrew inscription. The local press evidently does not understand why we have gone to the back of the monument but they duly photograph it and it is this that is broadcast that evening on Belorussian state television.
From the scene of the slaughter, we move to the town’s Cultural Center. Here a mezuzah is installed and a ribbon cut at the entrance to a display of photographs of Peres’ life work, under the title “From Vilna Street, Vishneyeva to Presidents’ Street, Jerusalem.” I had the honor of curating this exhibition and writing the texts that accompany the display. The photographs and documents trace the different stages in the life of the president: childhood and family in Vishneyeva, murder of the Jews, Peres’ early days in Israel, his contribution to building Israel’s defense capabilities, prime minister, statesman for whom striving for peace is paramount, and of course, president. Before the ribbon is cut, I try to explain that showing all Peres’ achievements within the confines of four walls is an impossible job. “If I had wanted to show everything, I would have needed a wall of 170 kilometers from Vishneyeva to Minsk and even then I am not certain I would cover everything.” I conclude by saying that the history of Shimon Peres is that of the history of the independent State of Israel.
During the ceremony, each participant is given a copy of the catalogue with the photographs and captions in Russian and English. Following this, we enjoy a concert where Sassi Keshet, his son Ariel and daughter in law Gal de la Paz, known as Goldie, entertain us with a medley of songs, many of them in Yiddish. Actor Shmuel Atzmon, adding his own Russian translation, reads a poem composed by Peres, followed by songs performed by a local choir.
An unscheduled event lent a somber note to the proceedings. During the performance, the sound engineer had some sort of seizure, lost consciousness and began convulsing. Tvia Walden’s husband, Prof. Raphael Walden, deputy director of Tel Hashomer Hospital and personal physician to President Peres, leapt from his seat and began to treat the victim on the auditorium floor. After some tense minutes, he recovered consciousness and was taken to hospital.
After the Peres events in Vishneyeva, the whole contingent traveled to the nearby town of Volozhin, the site of the famous Volozhin Yeshiva (Talmudic college). The Yeshiva, also known as Etz Chaim, was a prestigious Lithuanian yeshiva founded by Rabbi Chaim Volozhin, a student of the famed Vilna Gaon, and trained several generations of scholars, rabbis, and leaders. Completed in 1806, it was the first modern yeshiva to be established and became known as the “mother of all yeshivas.” It was here in this yeshiva that Shimon Peres’ grandfather Rabbi Zvi Meltzer, and Rabbi Natan Milikovsky, grandfather of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the national poet Haim Nahman Bialik and many of the leading figures and rabbis of religious Zionism, studied at the turn of the 20th century. During the war, German soldiers used the building as a stable and it was subsequently converted into a canteen. The site was returned to the Jewish community of Belarus in 1989 and it is a national heritage site.
The fence posts along the road leading to the yeshiva building were newly painted in blue and white in honor of the Israeli visitors. Chaim Chesler explained to the audience that he and I had decided on a voluntary basis to attempt to restore the interior of the building as a Jewish cultural and heritage site in the name of the destroyed Jewish community
As we retraced our footsteps to Minsk after a long and emotional day, the words of Rabbi Zvi Meltzer reverberated in my ear. The words that the rabbi said to the young Shimon at the railway station before the president-to-be embarked on the long journey to Eretz Israel: “Promise me that you will always remain a Jew.”
What better manifestation of that wish than Limmud FSU?
Yoram Dori is Senior Advisor to the President of Israel, Shimon Peres.
photos courtesy Ruben Landsberger