Holocaust Poetry, Saved Again
New translations of three astonishing poems, which evoke the horror of the Lodz ghetto and its aftermath
As I was standing, all set for my exile,
Doom staring at me from the road’s blinding end,
The door, like a book’s heavy cover, opened,
To bring forth a guest from the biblical land.
His body, half naked, a knife in his loincloth,
In sheep-leather sandals his tanned, bronze-like feet,
A bundle of firewood upon his shoulder—
He said, with a smile very boyish and sweet:
“Good morning, my girl; remember me, dearest?
You’ve waited for me so long—not in vain.
I’m Isaac, your bridegroom, ordained by the Heavens …
Through ages I’ve wandered to you, till I came.
Take off your dress. A sheet of plain linen
Is sufficient to drape round your navel and hips.
Undo your braids and let’s hurry, my sweetheart,
Your hand clasped in mine and a chant on our lips.
Thus will l lead you beyond the horizon,
Between north and south, through the west—to the east,
Until we will reach Mount Moriah, my dearest,
There to be married, to rejoice and to feast.
So come, let us hurry, the distance is calling.
Pray, why do you shiver with anguish and cry?
You’re asking why all that wood on my shoulder,
The glittering knife on my hip—you ask why.
Then turn your soul to my soul, my beloved.
Read your fate in my fate, while I explain:
Out of the wood I will construct an altar
And with love all redeeming set it aflame.
And the knife, my bride, I will file to its sharpest point
Up there, at the peak, on a rough mountain stone.
And who will be offered, you ask me?—then listen:
The offering, my dearest, shall be you, you alone.
A gift of life to the God of All Being,
As Abraham told me, his late-born son:
If you trust in love and love wholly trusting,
Then fear not, nor waver, dear girl, but come.
Though fire will blaze through the wood of the altar,
Flames licking your body, yet you shall see:
The knife will fall from my hand, and a miracle
Will happen to you, as it happened to me.
The rivers and seas shall sing Hallelujah!
The mountain pines, moved, will give praise to all life,
While the Voice Divine will, with thunder and lightning,
Proclaim me your husband, pronounce you my wife.
So hurry, my girl, the sky is already
Spreading its canopy, preparing the rite.
Come to the blue sacrificial fire—
Your last maiden stroll—to the altar, my bride.”
Thus he spoke. I smiled, then said in a whisper,
My eyes not on him, but fixed on the dark night,
Where another road was tracing its outlines
With the red of my blood, with signals of fright:
“Oh leave me, Isaac, you bronzed, sunny man.
This road is not yours, not mine is your day.
I head for those places you never have dreamed of,
Where altars do smolder with their unwilling prey.”
As I spoke a gale swept towards my threshold.
The tempest took hold of my hearth and my house,
Whistling through streets, through the yards of the ghetto,
Hissing with rage: “Juden raus! Juden raus!”
Thus I stepped forward with Abraham, my father,
Who wrapped his arm round me as if with a shawl,
While delicate Isaac, all tremble and flutter,
Pressed his tanned sun-kissed frame to the wall.
“You’re frightened, Isaac?” said I. “I’m your nightmare.
Awake and you’re back in your undying scroll,
Where Rebecca, your true betrothed awaits you,
To be taken with joy on her last maiden stroll.
Make haste, return to the Book that shall save thee.
Hide yourself in the Bible’s fairytale land.
For your God Himself walks with me and my father,
Right now, to the altar; with us—to His end.”
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