Two Poems from Blossom in Ashes
By Rivka Basman Ben-Haim, translated by Zelda Kahan Newman
Until recently, Basman Ben-Haim spoke sparingly of the horror-filled years called the khurbn in Yiddish. But then, in 2020, she published Bliung in Ash (Blossom in Ashes), which addresses her experiences in those years.
Rivka has told me much about her life, but she never discussed how she sees her role as a poet. In the first poem below we find her discussing her mission.
One of the challenges translators face is what to do when the literal meaning of the original does not work in the language of translation. In the second poem I wondered how to translate the Yiddish words hayntike (“today-like” or “today’s”) and nekhtike (“yesterday-like” or “yesterday’s”). Does it make sense to say “We are more yesterday’s / than today’s”? I think not. Precisely because “yesterday” and “today” have dimensions in both time and place, I decided to translate the former as “then-and-there” and the latter as “here-and-now.”
—Zelda Kahan Newman
Choose for those who were not chosen,
Sing out for those who have not sung.
Respond to those who have remained
and speak for those who do not speak,
Plead for those who were ignored
Demand for those who did not live to see
and those who guard along the paths
the steps of those who sank down.
With them sing out what’s left of horror—
That’s not been sung.
דערקלײַב דאָס ניט־דערקליבענע,
דערזינג דאָס ניט־דערזונגענע,
נעם אױף פֿאַר די געבליבענע
און רײד פֿאַר זײ דאָס ניט־דעררעדטע,
בעט פֿאַר זײ דאָס ניט־געבעטענע,
מאָן פֿאַר זײ דאָס ניט־דערלעבטע
און די װאָס היטן פּאַזע װעגן
טריט פֿון די פֿאַרזונקענע,
מיט זײ דערזינג די רעשט פֿון גרױל,—
* * *
More than once it’s seemed to me
that more than the here-and-now
we are the there-and-then.
Today races past us
in a blink—
Yesterday remains loyal
and accompanies us
with every step.
It no longer hurries,
it has its own time, an eternity.
As for us—until time
Puts out our sun,
let them believe us,
with sanity, not suspicion,
we breathe our today.
It’s true that more than the here-and-now
we are the there-and-then.
ניט אײן מאָל קלערט זיך מיר
אַז מער װי הײַנטיקע
מיר זײַנען נעכטיקע—
דער הײַנט אַנטלױפֿט פֿון אונדז
דער נעכטן בלײַבט אונדז טרײַ
און גײט מיט אונדז
ער אײַלט ניט מער,
ער האָט זײַן צײַט, אַן אײביקײט
און מיר—ביז צײַט
פֿאַרלעשט ניט אונדזער זון,
טאָ זאָל מען גלײבן אונדז,
אין לײַכטזין ניט פֿאַרדעכטיקן,
מיר אָטעמען דעם הײַנט
אַן אמתן—אַז מער װי הײַנטיקע
מיר זײַנען נעכטיקע.
Born in 1925, Rivka Basman Ben-Haim is an Israeli poet who was in the Vilna ghetto and a forced labor camp for women. She prefers not to use the term Holocaust “survivor” to describe herself. The teenager who was herded into those places, she says, did not survive; she died. The woman who emerged met and married the artist Mula Ben-Haim in a displaced-persons camp. The couple helped smuggle refugees illegally into what became the state of Israel and were among the founders of kibbutz Ha-Ma’apil. Rivka got a degree in education and taught children on the kibbutz. She spent time in the Soviet Union when her husband was a cultural attache there and ultimately settled with him in Herzylia Pituach. As long as Mula was alive he illustrated every one of her books. After he died there were no new illustrations, but Rivka included his illustrations in every book she has published since.
Zelda Kahan Newman is a linguist specializing in Yiddish language and culture. She has written a paper entitled “The Jewish Sound of Speech: Talmudic Chant, Yiddish Intonation and the Origins of Early Ashkenaz.” Academica Press published her English biography of Kadya Molodowsky; its Hebrew translation was published by Carmel Publishing. She has written the entry on Rivka Basman Ben-Haim in the Jewish Women’s Encyclopedia and has kept a blog on the author here. In 2016 MayApple Press put out The Thirteenth Hour, a book of her translations of Rivka Basman Ben-Haim’s poems.