Jim at Uncle Jazzbeau’s Gallimaufrey is doing a wonderful thing: he’s transliterating and translating a famous poem by the Yiddish poet H. Leivick called Der volf (The Wolf). In his introductory post he provides this quote from Sol Liptzin’s A History of Yiddish Literature to describe it:
In another long poem, The Wolf (Der Volf, 1920), Leivick has a rabbi arise from a mound of ashes as the sole survivor of a masacred Jewish community. Looking about him the rabbi sees neither victims nor victors. The victims have perished and the victors have moved on. Only ashes, smoldering chimneys, and uncanny silence surround him. He burrows in the mound to find the limbs of the perished Jews so that he could bury them in the Jewish cemetery. In vain! Nought is left of them but coal and ashes. When night descends upon the ravished, deserted town, the Rabbi creeps away to the forest and is gradually transformed into a werewolf. Later on, when Jews expelled from other communities, find their way to this town and seek to rebuild the devastated houses and the synagogue of which only bare walls remain standing, they ask the rabbi, when he reappears, to resume religious services. But he insists that the ruins be retained as a memorial for his dead generation and that the synagogue be not rebuilt. He himself does not want to live on. He howls as a wolf through the nights and terrorizes the new inhabitants. On Yom Kippur he invades the synagogue as a werewolf and finds release from his suffering when he is beaten to death. Then the newcomers need no longer fear this last survivor whose existence was bound up with murdered generation. They can resume the reconstruction of a new communal life. This poem was regarded, after the Hitler catastrophe, not as Leivick’s reaction to Petlura’s pogroms but as a prophetic vision of the later and greater extermination of Jews by their Christian neighbors.
He has now put online Part 1 of his translation, which begins:
… and it was on the third morning,
when the sun arose in the East
there remained in the whole town not a trace.
And the sun climbed higher and higher,
until it had come to the middle of the sky,
and its rays met with the rabbi’s eyes.
And the rabbi was lying on a mountain of ash and stones
with a ravenous mouth and staring pupils,
and in his soul there was silence and darkness and nothing more.
Go read it, and roll the original around in your mouth even if you don’t know Yiddish (“… un es iz geven oyfn dritn frimorgn,/ ven di zun iz oyfgegangen in mizreykh-zayt”)—it’s amazing stuff, and I’m eagerly awaiting further installments of Jim’s excellent version.
Leivick had quite a life, according to this biography; the following bit particularly struck me:
During the years when he achieved worldwide fame as a poet and his works were translated into many languages, Leyvik worked as a wallpaper hanger in New York. As a contemporary poet observed: “Many of us saw him striding in New York’s streets with rolls of wallpaper in one hand and with a brush and a bucket of paste in the other.” In 1932 Leyvik was forced to stop work and spend four years in the Spivak sanatorium for tuberculosis in Denver, Colorado. There he created some of his best, almost untranslatable poems, achieving a certain lucid serenity and writing, among other things, a beautiful sequel of “Songs of Abelard to Heloise” and a cycle of poems on Spinoza (the idol of Yiddish intellectuals).
Makes me wish I could read Yiddish. (Technically, I can, with a great deal of effort, but in practice I’m not going to without the kind of crutches Jim is so generously providing.)