And I Am That (Contemporary Motifs)

By Kalman Lis, translated by Charlotte Hovland

Kalman Lis (born 1903 in Kovel, Ukraine) was a teacher and poet. He served as the director of a school for children with disabilities in Otwock, near Warsaw, and many of his published poems were written for children, as in his 1936 collection Kind und rind (Child and Cattle). He also published poems and articles for adult audiences and edited poetry journals and anthologies, including the Warsaw-based Lirik, poetisher buletin. Lis was injured in an air raid in 1939 but recovered and returned to the school in Otwock, where he was killed in 1942. Several of Lis’s wartime poems were collected and preserved by the Oyneg Shabes Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto. 

Lis was active in the political left and contributed to the Bundist Yidishe folkstsaytung as a young writer. This poem, “And I Am That,” echoes the Bundist concept of doikeyt, or “hereness”—a claim to Jewish legitimacy and continuity in Eastern Europe. Like many of Lis’s poems, this piece uses natural motifs to explore themes of identity, belonging, and resistance. 

 

 

And I am that,  
which sticks, deep in the earth 
enrooted and outbranching,  
which rends itself and which ascends 
to open air—bright, wide, and free. 
Like any other tree, 
with maple, oak, all plants 
partaking in the dance, 
in forest’s rim I stand,  
grown over with my land— 
the willow with the way, 
the shore shaped by the brook,  
the hamlet by the lane,  
the child its mother tongue.  
Grass in a fruitful lawn 
and in the lake, the swan, 
the sparrow in its nest 
which doesn’t fear for frost 
and doesn’t fly away, 
from worry or dismay, 
at hunger or at cold.  

Although I know it’s wide, the world,  
and widely known that I 
within this land, where I dwell now,  
am strange, 
am nothing-like, am small; 
But so…here are my bones, 
in union with this earth, 
like those who gave me birth 
enrooted and outbranched 
grown and risen,  
ripened and bloomed,  
my root, my stem—the Jew.  

And now, when enemy forces 
wield axes in my forest 
to carve me out—so what? 
I have let my roots spread deep in the land 
and stick in the entrails  
of the earth,  
until the heart,  
until the bottom, 
and I will say—Yes! 
to spite the fiends— 
I am here, here I have been,  
and here shall always be.  

 

Charlotte Hovland began learning Yiddish at the University of Chicago. Since graduating in 2018, she has continued her studies through programs at the Workers Circle. She was an active member of the Houston Yiddish Vinkel. Charlotte lives in Washington, D.C., where she is a member of the Avodah Jewish Service Corps.