On the Oldest Jew in the World
In a letter from May 1945, from liberated Poland, my grandfather (then a young captain in the Red Army) wrote to my grandmother (then his fiancée) that he had seen an old man who was said to be the oldest Jew in the world—115 years old, maybe more. This was in the partisan camp on the banks of the Bystrica: the old man wore tattered boots that had been pulled off a German body. When my grandfather spoke to him in Yiddish the ripple of a smile appeared between his wrinkles—but he didn’t answer.
Of course, he didn’t have documents verifying his age. The Polish partisans said that thanks to the aura that radiated from this old gentleman, not a single one of them had fallen in battle for two years since he had emerged from the snowy forests and joined them. (The partisans also said that in their opinion the vow of silence he had taken when his wife died ages ago—when she was only twenty-nine—was the very same trait that kept the old man alive for so long. As is known, every man is limited to a certain number of words in his lifetime, and it’s not like this number is such a big prize, some of these words might also be words that you whisper in a foreign language that you don’t even know, in a dream, for example, and who knows where you heard them the first time, and why is it that you repeat them night after night)
This is what my grandfather wrote in his letter, and my future grandmother, who at that time had yet to make peace with all the quirks of her beloved, and above all with his attraction to the esoteric teachings of the East, stopped reading and put the letter in one of the crates with the books that they’d just packed in preparation for the return from the Ural Mountains to Leningrad—according to her claim, when my grandfather returned from the front she even forced him, for two months, to write her real love letters, instead of all these strange stories that he sent her from ’42 onward, when he jumped onto one of the army trucks that was faltering toward Stalingrad. (“It was one of those mornings when the rain poured so hard, some said that on a day like this even angels are drowning in the sky,” but this is already an entirely different story)
By the way, despite my grandfather’s intense desire to believe what the Poles claimed about him, the old man actually didn’t seem that old—no more than eighty or eighty-five; his eyes were a clear and gentle shade of green. It could be that in those days, even older Jews were wandering in the forests of Europe.