Rokhl Korn was born in Galicia, Poland, in 1898 and began publishing poems there at the age of twenty-one. Her family fled to Vienna during World War I. When Korn returned to Poland, she became affiliated with Tsushtayer, a Yiddish literary journal. In the 1920s and 1930s she published two poetry collections and a book of short stories. In 1941, she was evacuated to Uzbekistan and later Moscow. She wrote all through the war, and the poems published here first appeared in a 1948 issue of Heym un heymlozikayt, a journal in Buenos Aires; they were all written during the war years. At the war’s end she returned briefly to Poland and then to Sweden, where she was invited to a PEN conference. She settled in Montreal in 1948, where she continued her literary activities until her death in 1982.
Springtime Back Home
The first rays of daylight slice the streets open,
still fragrant with fresh bread.
In the east, the ripe fruit of the sky splits open
parted by that glowing red seed.
The last shadows of the night
curl up behind the alleyways,
like the clothes of a wanderer, who after a long voyage
has brought his longing to harbor.
The green swords of irises
spear upward into the spring sky,
which drops down in soft, gray clouds
as if wanting to make some ancient dream come true,
an age-old dream of the earth
conquering the high heavens.
The trees are armed with the dynamite
of folded blossoms,
awaiting the first signal,
set off by sunbeams.
The early morning plays
its gentle ringing melody
on the golden violin strings
of a flying bee
seeking the heart of the tree.
The first sour-cherry blossom
like a girl’s white dress at playtime,
snagged at the seam,
a white dream.
May 1941, Przemysl
Seems It Had to Be
Seems it had to be that I should,
with a sole shirt on my body,
a last pair of torn shoes on my feet,
roam thousands of miles over a friendless wilderness.
Every doorstep and entryway greets me with suspicion,
nor will I have the familiarity of home, warm walls,
no fire in the kitchen prepared for me,
nor the smile of a mother turned toward me.
Let the bare plank, that is both bed and pillow,
be harder than a rock under my head
so that even blue dreams elude me,
reaching up, like a golden ladder, to the distant plain of the sky.
It seems it ought to have been so,
that behind me fires would burn road and bridge.
Let my glance, if it struggles to look back
turn me into a pillar of salt.
May it come to dust and may it come to ash,
All the work and toil of my years
But let me be, with every new poem,
like you, my God, with each spring, reborn.
September 1941, Ufa
MIRIAM ISAACS, a linguist with a PhD from Cornell University, specializes in Yiddish language and culture and has taught the subjects at the University of Maryland. She has written about the uses of Yiddish by Hasidim and helped develop a Holocaust song archive at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies. Isaacs has published numerous articles and taught internationally. In 2014 she received a Fulbright award in Sweden. She is currently finishing a book on Polish Jewish survivors in Central Asia and working on a literary translation of poet Rokhl Korn for the Yiddish Book Center.