Hold It All

Philosophy/Poetics/Politics

Category: Jewish Tradition

A Feat of Reading and Writing

1.

[T]he sheer enormity of what took place between 1933 and 1945 beggars our powers of description and understanding. The more one studies this period and its excesses, the more one must conclude that for any decent human being the slaughter of so many millions of innocents must, and indeed should, weigh heavily on subsequent generations, Jewish and non-Jewish…. there is no reason at all, in my opinion, not to submit oneself in horror and awe to the special tragedy besetting the Jewish people. As an Arab in particular I find it important to comprehend this collective experience in as much of its terrible concrete detail as one is capable: this act of comprehension guarantees one’s humanity and resolve that such a catastrophe should never be forgotten and never recur.
—Edward W. Said, Al-Ahram Weekly, 1997

2.

Charles Reznikoff immersed himself in more than 20 volumes of transcripts from World War II war crimes trials and the Eichmann trial. Out of that intense reading of thousands of pages came Holocaust, a book of poetry in 12 sections comprising 88 pages published in 1975. Read the rest of this entry »

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A Poem, a History, a Novel

This fall Dianne, Lynette and I are reading the following books:


Read the rest of this entry »

“Everything Must Be Told and Written Down”

Laura Jockusch,  Collect and Record: Jewish Holocaust Documentation in Early Postwar Europe  (Oxford University Press, 2012).

Laura Rockusch has performed a inspiring service in producing her book, Collect and Record. Contrary to many people’s assumptions that Holocaust survivors were quiet, traumatized, passive  from the war’s end to the Eichmann trial in 1961, she examines how Jews in Poland, France, and in Displaced Person Camps in Germany and Austria  immediately set work to gather anything they could on what he  just happened to their people during the 12 years of the Third Reich.

There were precursors for this kind of work; for example, at the end of World War I, the number of Jews killed in Ukraine in pogroms numbered between 50,000 and 100,00.   Researchers then sought to gather accounts from witnesses and survivors.  Here’s one message:  “Brothers! A curse of terrible pogroms is befalling Jewish villages and towns, and the world does not know, we ourselves do not know or know only very little about it. This must not be concealed! Everything must be told and written down. It is a duty for every Jew who has come or comes from the devastated Jewish towns to report everything that he has seen, for the news must not be lost.”   Khurbn-Forshung  was the name given to this activity—Yiddish for “Destruction Research.” Read the rest of this entry »

“I’ll Never Know, in the Silence You Don’t Know, You Must Go On, I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On”

Working on a kind of sequel to Dear Layla Welcome to Palestine, I am imagining a character named Bella Levenshteyn, who in her twenties devotes herself to learning Yiddish, the language of her ancestors.  At one point, she confides to Perry that she once went on a  five-week reading binge of the essays, poems, articles, and reviews by  Yankev Glatshteyn, the foremost U.S.Yiddish writer in the middle of the 20th century.

I’ve been reading several recent works of scholarship on that period, and found some stimulating provocations in Anita Norich’s work, Discovering Exile:  Yiddish and Jewish American Culture during the Holocaust.

The following  passages may inform, or work themselves—somehow— into my story.

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People are quite familiar with the conventional label for the Nazi genocide of the Jews, “the Holocaust.”  Norich considers the period well before that word assumed its ascendancy: “Under increasing pressure of news from the war front and silence from home, Yiddish writers re-imagined modernism, the Enlightenment, political engagement, literary conventions, and symbolic language.  The destruction of European Jewry was called by its Yiddish name, khurbn, before it was known as the Holocaust, before the numbers of dead were revealed, even before the concentration camps were built. What Yiddish-speaking Jews meant by khurbn … was a long history of disasters into which the rise of Hitler, the Nuremberg Laws, Kristallnacht, and a host of other disastrous events could fit.  The particularities of Nazism’s rise were not, at the time, perceived as unique, unparalleled, or apocalyptic by the people against whom they were directed.” Read the rest of this entry »

Yiddish Writers/5

I have often felt the instead of writing my autobiography I would like to write the biography of my poems. I mean, tell the life story of some of my poems…

–H. Leivick

Yiddish Writers/3

Isaac Bashevis Singer was the only Yiddish writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (Elie Wiesel, whose first book, And the World Remained Silent, was in Yiddish, was awarded the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize.) Admitting his penchant for reading masters like Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, Singer didn’t particularly identify with the Yiddish literary tradition: “I consider myself a writer in the Jewish tradition but not exactly the Yiddish tradition…. The Yiddish tradition, in my mind, is a tradition of sentimentality and social justice.” Swearing off any such social ideology, Singer believed that “the basic function of literature, as far as I can say, is to entertain the spirit in a very big way. I mean small literature entertains small spirits and great literature entertains greater spirits.”

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If we reach the time when Yiddish and Yiddish customs and folklore are forgotten, Hitler will have succeeded not only physically but also spiritually.

I’m sure that millions of Yiddish-speaking ghosts will rise from their graves one day and their first question will be, “Is there any new book in Yiddish to read?” Read the rest of this entry »

Yiddish Writers/2

I tried in my book Kiddush Hashem to picture Auschwitz in seventy pages. But I wrote the book over a period of six years, in pain and agony. And writing it I became a changed man. I didn’t sleep night after night.  I lived through everyone’s separate torment. I experienced  over again every happening I described. I was back in Auschwitz.  When I did fall asleep I woke, screaming. I had dreamed I was in the ghetto or in Auschwitz. —Rachmil Bryks

Yiddish Writers/1

If you’re looking to buy something, I’m afraid I’m all out of stock, unless I can interest you in some fine hunger pains, a week’s supply of heartache, or a head full of scrambled brains.

Oh, my dear Lord, I thought: they say you’re a long-suffering God, a good God, a great God; they say You’re merciful and fair; perhaps you can explain to me, then, why is it that some folk have everything and others have nothing twice over? Why does one Jew get to eat butter rolls while another gets to eat dirt?

… unless, that is, the Almighty looks down on us and says, “Guess what, children! I’ve decided to send you my Messiah!” I don’t even care if he does it just to spite us, as long as He’s quick about it, that old God of ours!

–Sholem Aleichem, Tevye the Dairyman
Translated by Hillel Halkin

Learning by Heart, the Joy of Music, and the Power of the Prophetic

Dear Lauren,

I received your letter today about the online Good News class and your hand-written adaptation of Kipling’s famous poem. The fact that you have had “If” as a companion in your work and life at Casa Maria Catholic Worker reminds me of a short book I recently read. It’s titled, A Long Saturday, and it’s a translation of a series of interviews from French between  journalist Laure Adler and literary critic George Steiner.

Steiner was born in 1929. His father had the prescience to move his family out of Europe by 1940, thus escaping the Nazi juggernaut. He went to New York where his teachers included the noted Thomist philosopher Etienne Gilson (whom Dorothy Day probably read at some point!). He later studied at the University of Chicago, was a Rhodes Scholar, worked for The Economist awhile, then joined Princeton’s Center for Advanced Studies. He’s been at various elite universities for decades and published many books (on topics like Antigone, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, translation, Homer). His contemporaries include Elie Wiesel and Noam Chomsky, and I’ve learned a lot from all three. Read the rest of this entry »

The Way It Looked In 1968

Within a short period of time there will be no Jewish workers in Israel. The Arabs shall be the workers; the Jews shall be the managers, inspectors, officials, and policemen and mainly secret service men. A state governing a hostile population of 1.5 to 2 million foreigners is bound to become a Shin Bet state, with all that this would imply to the spirit of education, freedom of speech and thought and democracy. This corruption, characteristic of any colonial regime, would be true for Israel. The administration will be forced to deal with the suppression of an Arab protest movement and the acquisition of Arab quislings. We must fear that even the army and its officers, a people’s army, will deteriorate by becoming an occupation army, and its officers, turned into military governors, will not differ from military governors elsewhere in the world.

Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Israeli philosopher and scholar
Yediot Ahronot
March 1968
Quoted in George Baramki Azar, Palestine: A Photographic Journey

Yesh Leibowitz