"The Destiny of a Poem"

A personal-historical essay

Itzik Manger (1900–68) was born in Romania and died in Israel. He was and remains one of the best-known twentieth-century Yiddish poets. His most productive years, as a poet and man of letters, were in Warsaw in the 1930s. He moved to Paris in 1938 and left in 1940, one step ahead of the Germans. He made his way to Marseilles, to North Africa, and then to England, where he spent the war years. In 1948 he traveled to Poland to represent PEN International at the unveiling in Warsaw of a ghetto memorial for writers. He moved to New York in 1950. This article was published in a Yiddish journal in New York, Der veker (The Awakener), in February 1960, a few months before the Eichmann trial. It reflects what Manger saw as the world’s (and the Jews’) postwar neglect of the issues of the Holocaust.


In April 1948 I flew to Warsaw. The PEN International club in London had appointed me its delegate to the unveiling of the ghetto memorial, to speak in the name of all PEN clubs about the destruction of Jewish life and of Yiddish literature.

The flight was full of bad dreams. How does Warsaw look, the city that I left so unwillingly in 1938? Whom will I meet there now? And where will I find the words to express such sorrow and rage? For the strongest word must be dumb in the face of such a catastrophe. Perhaps say nothing. Perhaps just stand with head bowed a moment or two and let the tears speak. Just let . . .

At the Warsaw airport, a few people awaited me. Froyim Kaganovski handed me a little bouquet of flowers, and we rode through devastated streets to the one remaining hotel in Warsaw, Hotel Bristol.

When I speak of “devastated streets,” I speak of that part of the city that was outside the ghetto, for of the ghetto no streets remained—only stones and rubble, stones and rubble.

One day when Kaganovski sat with me in the hotel room he related to me the following episode:

“Once, I and a group of other Jewish writers were traveling from Warsaw to Łódź. In normal times the trip is not long. But this was not normal times. It was right after the war. Polish pogromists were still rampant. The few Jews that yet remained were too much for their eyes. Here and there, as the opportunity arose, Jews were murdered—the last Jews in Poland. It was a fearful thing to travel by train. At smaller stations, armed bands would break in, drag out every Jew on the train, and shoot each one on the spot.

“The railcar in which we were riding was full of Poles. From time to time we heard a pleasantry in Polish: a ‘proszę pani’ or a ‘przepraszam.’

“But every time that the train got near a small station the danger grew great. Naturally we got nervous. Even pale. It could happen at that moment.

“An older Polish woman who was seated in the train car noticed how the few Jews kept going white with nerves, and she spoke up in a raised voice: ‘Why are you afraid? You are among decent people. Polish mothers are also mothers.’ And she told us that she had not long ago read Antoni Słonimski’s Polish translation of a Yiddish poem, “Afn veg shteyt a boym” (“By the Road There Is a Tree”) (1), and because of this she had emphasized that Polish mothers are also mothers.

“Hearing a friendly Polish voice in the unfamiliar Polish train, we became more comfortable. We told her that we were also Jewish writers and we knew the poet who wrote the poem. We felt that we had someone on our side on this hostile train and, chatting like this, came without any unpleasantness to Łódź.”

The whole episode moved me greatly. I said to Kaganovski that they had much reason to be thankful to Antoni Słonimski’s beautiful Polish translation of my poem, which moved one Polish heart in that unfriendly, or at least indifferent, Polish train.

“I have not yet finished,” Kaganovski interrupted me. “There is more to this story.

“Sitting right beside the older Polish lady who spoke with such feeling about your poem was a typical young Polish woman, of the sort that the Germans called ‘Aryan.’ She listened to the conversation, her face completely immobile, her eyes blue and cold. For sure not a friend to Jews—so thought the few Jewish writers in the railcar. But who cares? Is there a shortage of enemies of Jews in this car, on this train, and in Poland itself? The warmth with which the older Polish woman spoke about a Yiddish poem, about a Jewish poet, was enough for these writers.

“So, as I have told you, we came in peace to Łódź. We had a friendly parting with the older Polish lady. We didn’t even notice again the young Polish shiksa with the unfriendly face. We were just glad we had arrived.

“We exited the terminal in Łódź and breathed with relief. Then we heard someone calling: ‘Sirs! Sirs!’

“Calling us was the young blond Polish shiksa whom we had encountered on the train, the one with the stern, unfriendly face. She waved to us, walked over quickly. ‘Wait, wait.’ She was standing in front of us, out of breath. Her blue eyes were no longer cold—now, tears were shining in them. She was speaking. She spoke in a delightful Polish Yiddish.

The Germans discovered that their true genius was not Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Goethe, Hölderlin, but a nothing from a little town in Austria.

“Just your average, ordinary story—for the twentieth century, that is. The Germans discovered that their true genius was not Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Goethe, Hölderlin, but a nothing from a little town in Austria. Ghettos, gas chambers. A handful of Jews remained under the ruins of Poland. Among the handful—she. Thanks to a good Aryan appearance, good Aryan papers, and good Jewish money, where needed, so that Poles would keep quiet, not inform, not betray.

“After the war she decided to remain what she had pretended to be all that time: a Polish woman, an Aryan. A dead Jewish god; a murdered people. Where should she go? And now she sits on a train, hears people talk about a Jewish poet, a Yiddish poem. There are still Jewish writers in the world. Everything she had kept behind the stern Polish mask in the railcar was a pretense, an act. She wanted to tell us. Had to tell us. It was the first time in years that she had taken off the Polish mask. ‘You are seeing a Jewish face and Jewish tears.’

“She left us. A Yiddish poem had unveiled a Jewish face. ‘By the Road There Is a Tree.’”

It grew dark in the hotel room. There was a glass on the table. In the glass stood withering the flowers that Kaganovski had brought to me at the Warsaw airport.

***

A second episode was told to me by Marek Edelman, the commander of the Warsaw ghetto uprising front based near the ghetto’s broom factory.

How many commanders were there in the Warsaw ghetto uprising? A person who is not knowledgeable about the Germans’ strategy has the right to ask and even be confused about the matter.

The Germans so cut up the ghetto, and isolated one group of Jews from the other, that the scatterings of Jews left alive, roughly 50,000, could have no contact with each other. That way it would be easier for them to destroy one group after another when the time came for the final liquidation.

Contact was established, however, through couriers.

The commander in chief of the entire heroic uprising was Mordechai Anielewicz.

Since the broom factory district was cut off and isolated from other operations points in the ghetto, Marek Edelman became the commander there.

There is a whole literature about the Warsaw ghetto uprising. There are books written not by professional writers but by such as took part in the uprising, books “written with blood and not with ink.”

It is sad that Jews do not want to read these books. Why remind themselves of the nightmares? Germans don’t want to hear about such books—why remind themselves of their own infamies?

An odd paradox results. Neither the murderer nor the victim wants to be reminded.

Both want to forget. It’s easier so—but dare one forget? Will history forget? Not just Jewish history, but human history?

There is today a kind of historian who is not ashamed to compare the flight of a few hundred thousand Arabs with the German mass murder of more than six million Jews—men, women, old people, babies in swaddling clothes. One fault, one scale. The same historical injustice.

Such “historians,” with their twisted accounting, convict only themselves. The accounting is false and, inevitably, obscene. It shows only that even after the six million Jewish deaths, the “historian” has a personal animus against the Jewish people.

The ash-Jew, the compelling symbol of our century, who was born in the German crematoria, comprised of billions of dust particles, wanders unseen over the world. He smiles into his long, gray ash-beard and asks: “How distant from the ash-Jew is the ash-human who will disintegrate in an ash-world?”

But let us return to Łódź, 1948.

The Germans considered Łódź a German city. As in the Sholem Aleichem story “The German,” they put up a bell at the train station, nailed up a board that said “Litzmannstadt,” and would not hear anything different.

So they treated the city with care even when fleeing it—only they murdered the Jews and burned the Jewish ghetto in the Balut district. Another “Judenrein” city in Europe.

So my heart was even more sorrowful in Łódź than in Warsaw. I wandered through the familiar streets. All the streets were here, but where were the Jews? I stopped myself at familiar houses. All the houses were here. But where were my friends? Where were they who so warmly welcomed every Jewish writer? Where were the Tsimermans, the Boymatses, the Feders, the Soloveytshes, the Loyfers?

Where was Kalmen Kabaker? He who read only German, kissed every attractive woman’s hand, and loved Yiddish theater and Jewish writers as he did life itself. Just now the old bachelor brought me to his place after a night of carousing and sharply told his huge wolfhound, “Don’t you touch him—he is a great Yiddish poet.”

As soon as I got up, the huge wolfhound forgot what he had been told. He would not let me out of the room until his master came home and freed me.

Where were they all, the admirers of Itshe Meyer Vaysenberg? They hung on to his every word, partied with him till the break of dawn. If he said “holiday,” there would be a holiday in the middle of the week, for him, for me, and for every Jewish writer, who even without an invitation was his distinguished and welcome guest.

I wandered around the streets. Everything was real and not real. In all of that familiar and alien Łódź I was the ghost, looking for “yesterday’s day,” for “yesterday’s reality,” which will never be surpassed in beauty on God’s base world.

One day on this visit, Marek Edelman approached me on a Łódź street. It was the first time in my life that I saw him. He stopped me and told me a thing that shook and bewildered me, and that had a connection to that poem of mine, but this time not in a Polish translation but rather in Yiddish, the language in which it was written.

He told me quietly, without emotion, the most emotional story I have heard in my life in connection with a poem:

“The Warsaw ghetto was fighting and bleeding. The Germans, in order to overcome the ghetto fighters, began throwing incendiary bombs on the houses. The heat was unbearable. Thousands of Jews were burned in their houses. Our arms and ammunition were running out. Many of my group in the broom factory district had already fallen in the struggle. For the last ones there was only one way out: to escape the bunkers and make their way to the sewers, and through the sewers to the Polish side.

“For a few moments after they left the bunkers, they were confused. Houses were blazing on all sides; the whole ghetto was one conflagration. So Jerusalem must have looked when the Romans set fire to it. So Rome must have looked when Nero set fire to it.

“And just then a girl who was in our group recited your poem:

By the road there is a tree,
Stooping and alone.
All the birds that kept the tree,
All those birds have flown . . .

“Recited? No, not recited, barely whispered, but everyone heard. Everyone in the group felt that the birds of the tree that had flown were not just birds but rather fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, comrades, and friends. The most beautiful birds of Polish Jewry.

“They made for the sewers. Not all the group arrived. Many were lost on the way.

“Nu, and she, the girl? She was among the first to fall. She did not arrive. It seems she had said good-bye to us with the poem, and said good-bye to the world.

All the birds that kept the tree,
All those birds have flown
.”

Marek Edelman left. For a long time I stood in the same place. In my mind I saw the last fighters of the Warsaw ghetto with pistols in their hands. I heard the unknown girl whispering the poem in the brutal light of the ghetto fires. And so she stands for me until this day: a symbol of our glorious Jewish youth in Poland.

Did she belong to a party? To which? Marek Edelman, who was a Bundist, didn’t tell me. He only told about a girl with a poem. A ghetto fighter and a poem.

I thought then and I still think today about the remarkable destiny of a poem. I wrote that poem in the thirties, in memory of my mother—a plain Jewish mother, who could not read nor write but who had an ocean of love, which could become too heavy for the strongest of wings.

Now I know that the sacrifice to my mother’s love was not the “dear Itzik” of the poem but rather my brother Note, who fled east during the war and perished in Uzbekistan. The lonely mound of earth in the Bukharan Jewish cemetery in Samarkand is witness.

But the poem itself belongs now to that unknown Jewish girl in the Warsaw ghetto. She sanctified it in the last minutes of her life in the blaze of the ghetto fires.

The Jewish girl and the Yiddish poem.

How is it that no German remembered Goethe’s lines:

Man should be noble,
Generous and good,
For that alone makes him different
From all the creatures we know.

. . . Maybe here lies also the difference between German and Jew?


Murray Citron is a grandfather and lives in Ottawa. His verse translations of Yiddish poetry have appeared in periodicals in England, Canada, and the United States. His bilingual chapbook of Itzik Manger poems was published in Ottawa.


1 A famous poem by Manger in which a boy, Itzik, is prevented from flying by the ardent ministrations of his mother, who has made his wings heavy with clothing for the winter.