By Rachel Korn, translated by Miriam Isaacs
Rachel Haring Korn (1898–1986) spent her first years in rural Galicia, where she developed a love for nature. She survived World War II in the Soviet Union as a respected member of the Yiddish literary scene. Even as she lived in a clay hut in the Uzbekistani desert Korn frequently invoked images of her beloved Galicia, and after the war she returned to a demolished Poland. In 1946 she was invited to the Swedish PEN International conference, and in 1948 she immigrated to Montreal, where she remained active in literary circles as a major Yiddish writer. She published eight volumes of verse and numerous short stories.
“The Owl” was written in Sweden in 1947 and published in her volume Heym un Heymlozikeit (Home and Homelessness, Buenos Aires, 1948). The poem exemplifies her passion for nature while exploring her survivor’s guilt: Could an owl’s screech have warned her people of impending destruction? Korn was haunted by her dead loved ones and reckoned with the brutal reality of post-Holocaust Europe.
The owl that used to terrify me when I was a child,
knew more than I did back then—
Why did I close the door at night,
shutting out its shrieks?
The swallow, once bearing in her beak
spring, good fortune, and dreams,
had even then betrayed the world of my youth,
my home and my cradle, to Maidanek and Belzec.
My mother could no longer go out to look for me,
near birds’ nests, near flowers in the fields,
there, where my childhood had been rooted in a native soil,
like a dream in the heart of the world.
I could have sat at the edge of the forest and listened,
where the owl’s scream exploded the night,
and seen in her huge, yellow eyes
the light of the impending conflagration.
Perhaps I could myself have become an owl
and screeched wildly through the nights,
so that the human animal could understand me,
even in the rocks and the canopy of trees.
I would have driven away the spring and summer,
robbed the autumn of its gold,
so that, perhaps, my mother, my brother, my people
would have heeded my warning.
Miriam Isaacs is a linguist, scholar, and native speaker of Yiddish. She holds a doctorate from Cornell University in linguistics, and she taught Yiddish language and culture at the University of Maryland and internationally. She is translating a memoir by comedian Simon Dzigan as a fellow at the Yiddish Book Center and has received numerous awards, including a Fulbright Award in Sweden and a Life Reborn fellowship with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to research a Yiddish song archive. She has also published articles on Yiddish in Hasidic communities.