by Ephraim Auerbach, translated by Ollie Elkus
The following poems were translated from original works published in Ephraim Auerbach's Loyter is der alter kval (Pure Is The Old Spring), published in New York in 1940, a book for which he was awarded the Louis Lamed prize a year later in 1941. Ephraim Auerbach first began to publish stories in the Russian daily press in 1908, later he published Hebrew works in Warsaw, and published his first Yiddish poems in 1909 in Vilna. In 1912 Auerbach moved to Palestine, but was evacuated to Alexandria, Egypt following the outbreak of WW1 where he joined Joseph Trumpeldor's famed “Zion Mule Corps,” a group tasked with the job of supplying water to British troops stationed on the Gallipoli peninsula. Within a year he was sent back to Alexandria due to illness and subsequently immigrated to the United States where he went on to live and publish for decades before his return to Israel near the end of his life.
In the poems "Shtreke tsayt" (A Stretch of Time) and "Nayes" (News), Auerbach captures a little slice of Yiddishland, or at least many of the integral components of what that intangible place has come to mean in the imagination of those who concern themselves with it. These two poems in tandem present the movement of Yiddish beginning in the rural, more religious setting portrayed in “A Stretch of Time” with its old shul, sloping hill, and its pious pages, to the more industrial setting of “News,” with its typesetters, smoke-covered faces, and urban streets. Two other striking features of “News” are its mention of a transition between Occident and Orient, a sort of cultural crossroads very relevant to the Jewish people, and its mention of the Moloch, an example of a biblical reference common throughout Yiddish literature. These last two features in particular are the sorts of idiosyncrasies that bind a poem to its original language, in this case, the poem's original Yiddish.
You can find the original Yiddish poems in the Yiddish Book Center's Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library, here.
A Stretch of Time
The light of day eked its way through the window panes,
Like fine rain through a storm cloud,
I closed the door shut with a creak
And with the house, silently bid farewell.
The door, small as it was, woke the great night from slumber
If only for a moment,
Thereafter someone anxiously surveilled,
Anxious—from all the coming and going.
A look back, the sunlight—a gulp,
A thought—how poor my home really is.
A word escaped my lips:
A house buried in pious pages.
I returned to the old shul,
That stands on a sloping hill,
The empty courtyard fills with clamor
Behind me, the sound of a step.
And before I could but sense the fear,
A hand drew out in stillness,
A familiar hand from my childhood,
With the warmth of a loving gaze.
I didn’t see this figure that night,
But its light pervaded me,
As sometimes happens in the dark forest
You sense: somewhere outside, there’s sunlight.
A breeze wafted from over the mountain,
Kissed the windows of the shul,
The figure behind me silently, speechlessly,
Raised the tattered pages.
And as the shul kissed the wind,
So did it kiss the pages,
And both—the figure and the pages—
Became familiar to me.
Since that night,
A stretch of time burgeoned with scores and cuts,
Though I hear now, she walks behind me
The kiss, wrapped in a kitl.
I should only be worthy enough to kiss the pages myself
The lonely pages,
That affix their light and lament
To Jewish doorposts where they belong.
In my feverish finger the world trembles,
I am barbed wire
One pulse among a thousand pulses,
A seismograph of the worlds running.
In the Orient the sun dawns in me,
In the Occident the sun sets in me,
Morrocco storms my fortresses,
A hurricane lays my grain fields to ruin,
On Broom Street I fall in flames,
The black Hudson heaves me to its bed,
I ignite the world in the fire of rebellion,
With breast naked, wounded,
With hungry eyes and flaming fists
I walk on worlds fulfilled—
In my feverish finger the world trembles
And I in it—a dark madness.
Dusty papers and smoke-covered faces,
Choking thoughts weigh on questioning backs,
Little devils in tired eyes
And fingers jump as if on cables.
The blind destroyer lurks over
Swallows the letters in burning belly
And spits them out into verse, into verse.
The Moloch of emotion becomes unsatisfied;
He will swallow me too
And spit me out in lead verse.
The world in my finger
And I in the vast stomach of the typesetter.
Suddenly put the world to a halt
And my fingers remain at rest
On the keys of a typewriter,
My head drops like lead to the desk,
The barbed wire becomes prickly wings,
That spread themselves around me with blind composure,
With piddling, cold little toys—
And the ethereal Moloch tears his stomach open,
His fury displays with gray smoke,
The hunger cramps his bowels,
From his eyes creep red worms—
And my fingers
On the keys of a typewriter,
Strewed and stiffened.
Ollie Elkus is a Yiddish translator from Cincinnati, who is currently living in Detroit. His family was Litvak and Volynian, arriving in the United States at the turn of the century from Vilna and Vlodymyr-Volinski.