Heshel's Kingdom: a family, a people, a divided fate

  • 2000-05-18
  • By Darius James Ross
A single photo. A worn prayer book. A pair of spectacles. A coffee-stained address book. These and the recollections of his elderly relatives are all that Dan Jacobson has to go on as he sets out to trace the life of his enigmatic grandfather, Heshel Melamed, rabbi of the small shtetl (or town) of Varniai in northwest Lithuania until his death in 1919. Not an easy task, given the thorough liquidation of the area's Jews by the Nazis in the early 1940s. This is compounded by the fact that Heshel settled in the town only after abandoning his first wife and changing his name from Segal.

Heshel was a deeply conservative orthodox rabbi in the Lithuanian misnagdic tradition, i.e. a strong believer in Talmudic book learning as opposed to the more mystical Hassidic revival that was gaining ground among east European Jews, mainly in Poland and the Ukraine. Family life for his wife and nine children revolved around the synagogue and was dictated by the cycle of the Jewish calendar.

He tinkered with the idea of moving them to the United States, owing to the poverty in Varniai, and even traveled there in order to scout out the possibility of setting up as a rabbi in an emigre community. But he was aghast at the rapidity with which Jews there assimilated and adopted the American lifestyle and thus shelved the idea. Had it not been for his premature death from heart disease, he would have certainly resigned his wife and nine children to the same fate as Varniai's 700 other Jews. His death, Jacobson notes, was the best possible gift he could have given his family.

Heshel's wife had long chafed under the strictures of the orthodox community's social code and was relieved to be free of her duties as a rabbi's wife. The two eldest sons had no interest in rabbinical studies - a family tradition that had been unbroken for several generations and included several gaons (or great rabbis). Menuchah Melamed quickly organized her family's emigration to colonial South Africa where many Lithuanian Jews were prospering in diamond mining and industry.

The Melameds were happy to put Lithuania behind them and readily became secularized: dietary restrictions were no longer observed, the children intermarried and Yiddish was spoken only with elder relatives. Only Jacobson remained fascinated by the family's east European past and the one surviving photo of Heshel, though he never dreamed he would have a chance to visit Lithuania. This, of course, changed with the collapse of the former Soviet Union.

Jacobson traveled to Lithuania with his son in 1995; the second half of the book is devoted to his account of the trip. His succinct and artful sketches of the local people and landscape are as entertaining as they are accurate. His driver Albertas is described as "softly spoken and self-effacing, he was tall and handsome in what I know thought of as a typically Lithuanian fashion: neat, light brown hair; slender hands and cheekbones, pale, oblique eyes; a long nose; a clear, non-commital brow."

Curiously, his portrayal of Vilnius as a sleepy, crumbling provincial town is already dated and bears little resemblance to the bustling cosmopolitan city that it is today. Likewise his descriptions of poorly run, decrepit Soviet-era hotels that have almost all made way for modern well-run establishments. Although he is not uncritical of the role played by a segment of the local population in exterminating the Jews during the war, he is surprised to find that Holocaust monuments and the remaining synagogues in today's Lithuania are devoid of security measures and yet bear no signs of vandalism. This is in stark contrast with those in London where he now lives.

It is difficult to wedge this book into a particular literary genre. It is equally a family history, travel account, philosophical musing on the nature of time and memory as well as a short history of the Holocaust in Lithuania. Jacobson is a professor of English at University College, London and the author of eighteen books of fiction, travel writing and criticism. One recent Lithuanian reader commented: "Even if I had no personal connection to Lithuania, I would still have loved Heshel's Kingdom. It's a fascinating story and is also beautifully written."

Hamish Hamilton Publishers, 1999

www.amazon.com price: $17.47

www.amazon.co.uk price: £6.39