Theme 4: Death, Anger, Mourning

The poetry in this section deals with the realization that death must be faced, that chances to survive are diminishing. For some, like Ber Horvitz, in his poem “My Lament”, there is the creative visualization of a sense of relief in the simile that “space enveloped me like young, green toadstools by snow with its thick heavy prayer shawl… After that, nothing hurt.”

Yitzkhok Katsenelson, writing under the pseudonym of H. Goldberg describes “The Chronicle of Hershele’s Death.” How doctors told Hershele Danielovitch that he must eat and how he died of having no food and no strength to deal with the ghetto people who could have sent him food. Katsenelson – Goldberg describes his funeral, how Hershele’s little boy said the Kaddish prayer for the dead, while the little sister stood forlorn nearby, and how Hershele left one thousand poems behind in addition to his wife and the two young children. One wonders if Katsenelson used the Goldberg pseudonym because he too, in these terrible times was dependent on the committee’s good will for his own sustenance and could not jeopardize that.

The next poem by Katsenelson is about a true hero of a small poor town, Shlomo Jelikhovsky, who is about to be hanged by the Germans with nine other Jews in a market place. And as he stands at the gallows he begins to sing a psalm about Jerusalem and asks everyone to sing with him. And all the people of Israel join in everywhere in the world. God Tells Shlomo that when He created man, it was Shlomo Jhelikhovsky that He had in mind; Jhelikhovsky never destroyed a town or bombed defenseless folk…

Rabon’s poem “A Funeral” describes the funeral o f a wealthy man before the German invasion and in another poem published 1937 he challenges us all with an important question: do we have the ability to identify with the pain of another?

One of the greatest poets of the Lodz Ghetto was Simcha Shayevitch. A number of his poems found their way into the Warsaw Ghetto. One of his longer poems in the Ringelblum Archives is “Song of a Mother Who Lost Her Child in War”. It is a three part poem starting with a mother’s journey to find her only child, a son, killed in war. “She walks and walks and the wind wails on the strings of her heart -and in her flesh – the dog howls”.

One of Shayevitch’s shortest poems of six lines, consists of five lines of only two words and one line of four words. That poem is “October”. It is as spare as Haiku and conveys dread with crystal clarity through a single image. His struggle to deal with death is expressed in another short poem untitled. The first line is “The night has rocked me to sleep in her lap.”

The last four poems in this group, written in days of ghetto extermination are among the most powerful eye-witness accounts in poetry we have. The first by Yosef Kirman, “After the Blockade” describes the Warsaw Ghetto after it was blockaded and its people attacked and driven from their wrecked housing and taken to the Umshlag Platz. “Who is the hidden one? The last one here?” Kirman asks. We hear his cries of pain and disgust as he accuses those ready to sacrifice others and as he mourns the four hundred thousand people taken away to be killed from Warsaw in 1942.

Shmuel Marvil left us two poems about the liquidation of the Ghetto in Warsaw. In the first Marvil poem, “The Eyes Stay Open” he writes the first verse from a place where he views the Ghetto being smashed, people killed and houses ransacked. In the second verse he writes from the experience of the Umshlag Platz where people are being loaded onto trains. In his second poem, “The Street”, he writes about how hard it is to create and craft a poem about what is happening around him. “Once my song, you were my singer. Today you are a stranger who carries the suffering of thousands of lives.” This poem “The Street” has thirty seven verses. But from the last line on of verse 34, which is missing, and appears to have been torn away, more parts of lines disappear until by the very last verse, so little remains that the poem is gradually destroyed and made to disappear as was its author Shmuel Marvil.

The last poem of this group is by the great Avrom Sutskever, who was fortunate to survive as a Vilna partisan, was able not only to defend himself with a gun but also able to write and as part of the Paper Brigade rescue Yiddish books that the Nazis were going to ship to Berlin.

The only poem of Sutskever’s we have here is from his partisan days. “Oh My Brother” appears to be unfinished and raises the question whether he did that intentionally to symbolize the unfinished lives of those who are separated by barbed wire and must be ready to “cough deadly shots” at each other. In a covert way, he seems to have written an anti-war poem while being of necessity a committed partisan hero.
The last tattered four line shred of poetry that ends this section is written by an unknown author. The title is only partly readable. It carries the weight of both lament and comfort.

Poems in this section include: