The Last Night
By Rikle Glezer, translated by Corbin Allardice and Jay Saper
Born in Vilna in 1924, Rikle Glezer was raised in the secular Yiddish schools of the interwar period; she began her poetic career as a student. When the Nazis created the ghetto, Glezer decided initially not to join the partisans, instead staying behind to help care for her mother and younger sister.
“The Last Night” recounts Glezer’s deportation from the ghetto to Ponar. Blending personal and collective speech into a folk ballad, “The Last Night” shows Glezer’s strength as a popular poet. Glezer leaped from the death train and eventually fled to the forest to join the partisans. Her poetry ranges from loud calls for vengeance to quiet scenes of intimacy. In “The Last Night,” we find Glezer moving between these moods, carving out space for the personal and the private within the beating rhythm of the train and its demand for action. To better capture this movement, we have preserved Glezer’s strong rhyme and iambic meter while disrupting it with insertions of white space in certain verses, graphically emphasizing the textual disjunctures.
Glezer’s words are a candle of remembrance, and it is our greatest hope that through our translation we can help keep that flame lit.
A gloomy night of terror,
rain cutting through the sky,
a grim procession marches;
women and elders passing by.
They’re packed into the train cars
packed tight as tinned sardines.
And no one needs a compass
to know just where this leads.
The train keeps moving faster
wheels clatter, spin, and click
the music of a steady beat,
quick, quick, quick, quick.
Within the train it’s darker
than the darkest nighttime street,
while distant dogs are barking,
a demon crackles in the heat.
Their hearts are stages now
for sea-deep tragedies
and every soul begs:
please poison me!
And mothers hold to their hearts
dear children one last time.
They kiss and they caress them
no stop, no end in mind.
I ride in that same death train
and my momma’s in there too.
I cling to her so tightly.
Our final hour’s almost through.
The train will soon be stopping,
the last star will grace the sky.
I haven’t had a moment yet
to think how soon I’ll die.
A thought strikes like a hammer:
I will not die this way.
Before our enemy’s hands
this weak woman will not lay.
I feel Momma’s racing tears,
I feel my young blood cry:
I will not die this way.
that death I shall deny.
I leap, I reach the window,
I muster might anew,
and putting fists to iron,
open that window flew.
I leave you Momma
my heart is torn and wrung.
In rhythm with the spinning wheels
off that train, I jump.
I fall upon the dewy ground,
the train chugs on afar.
Through all the sounds of anguish,
Momma’s screams still reach my heart.
Surrounded by night’s solitude,
I ponder what to do.
I wipe away two wounds:
my momma’s tears,
my mix of blood and dew.
~Liquidation of Vilna ghetto, 1943
Rikle Glezer (1924–2006) leaped off the train from the Vilna ghetto bound for death at Ponar to take up pen and pistol against the fascists, chronicling her life as a partisan through poetry. Against tropes of passivity and silence, Glezer’s poetry captures the vibrant complexity of Jewish antifascist resistance, nimbly moving between lamentation and protest, grief and rage. Glezer’s spellbinding words, sung by Jews throughout the ghettos, camps, and forests, earned her a Grammy Award Nomination in 1989 for Best Traditional Folk Recording.
Jay Saper and Corbin Allardice are recipients of a Yiddish Book Center translation fellowship and a Lithuanian Culture Institute translation grant to translate Rikle Glezer’s 1991 book Poems of Life, which will be the first collection of poetry by a Jewish woman partisan to appear in English.