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POEM: Vilna Fairytale

Over rooftops and forests, rivers, domes
and the belfries of Vilna, the magic carpet
in my mind flies to a small maze
of buildings where the ghettos used to be.
Near the river flats, and that green bridge
Milosz writes about in a poem — the bridge
where my mother was almost arrested
for being Jewish. Near those cobblestones
where she stepped from street to sidewalk,
carefully slipping off her star jacket
to walk free into the forests of her girlhood
filled with mushrooms and blueberries,
and the magic of hiding to emerge transformed:
peasant princess with a golden cross at her throat,
an amulet of Catholic prayers, a spell and curse:
first to live, then live on with memories
of black forests and the frozen Neris River that runs
in incomplete silence through our Vilna. Every time
someone asks if I’m a Jew, I hold my breath.

Helen Mitsios is a Professor of Languages and Literature at Touro College in New York City.

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