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how do you return to a town which does not exist

Poems of pain by a Ukrainian Jewish writer

Alex Averbuch
November 10, 2023
Children at an orphanage in Kyiv, Ukraine, many of whom had survived the pogroms of May 1920

Library of Congress

Children at an orphanage in Kyiv, Ukraine, many of whom had survived the pogroms of May 1920

Library of Congress

I forgave myself for

my Ukrainian great-grandfather who joined a pogrom

against my Jewish great-grandfather

I forgave my Polish great-grandmother

who tore at the braids of my Jewish great-grandmother

I forgave myself for my moskal great-grandfather

who took the last bit of food from my Ukrainian great-grandmother

I forgave my Jewish great-grandmother

who informed on my Ukrainian great-grandfather

they are all here now

at the last supper

of my body

leaning on the table

each of them pulls

at my heart

rises up

carves out a slice

trots it out look

this is ours

and I have no time to ask with my every torn piece

why am I on the line?

eat my flesh

in memory of yourselves

drink of me, dearly beloved



in the year nineteen twenty-two

my seven-year-old great-grandmother Rakhilia would run to the attic

to watch March reaching out for the village of Dashiv

what she saw was a boundless dumb famine

sucking warmth with its aged blue lips

out of her silent sisters

my great-grandma Rakhilia remembered

how in the year of nineteen twenty-two

their neighbor Bondarenko

brought a handful of cattle feed

said to her mother

wrap it up in a rag

and give it to the little ones, Sheina and Zyslia

something to suckle on

to make it through the winter

two tiny bags of bones

Sheina and Zyslia

father Hertz buried in the garden

and great-grandmother Rakhilia still remembered

the taste of mushy cattle feed

two last salivous lumps

out of which mother Syma made soup

in the famished February of the year nineteen twenty-two

why spurn victory, God?

we are the end of your proper name

here – fire and firewood

bind your tribe

an infant raised up on pitchforks time and again

virgins with severed breasts

an old woman raped by the side of her grandchildren

hear us singing your body

when you summon us

with the victors’ bullet

sh’ma Israel

adonai eloheinu

adonai ehad

every heart you drive, Tate

into your pocket

clench it like a stone

in the black-soil quivering

at the ready

to throw at your own self

how to survive what has already happened

and at every moment

pulls irresistibly towards itself

come closer


yet you evade it

hide your hands behind your back

turning away your face

as if not recognizing

but as soon as it looms in the distance

something pulls on

the umbilical cord

dragging you into this tinted yellow flow

which remembers with its every bubble

the calm and colorless waters

deprived of the strength to flounder

you grow faint from pain

because now again you’re well

able to see them all so clearly

that only a muted line

separates the two pleas

yours – of not-being-born

theirs – of not-dying

how do you return to a town which does not exist

to a home – how to return when

it no longer exists like a heavy sorrow

streets with changed names –

swollen vessels that can’t find

an estuary

and you stand in this flood up to your throat

getting mixed up how to open the door for it

with a key on a string that you’d lost

sleepily fumbling

under your shirt – you can’t find it now in this whirl

in the ribbons of damp fabric or paper

layered tightly as rock strata

where even a landslide would not expose

the interior of a mountain

finally to go in

turn on the light and still not see

the fogged-up faces

turn it off – without noticing how you’d aged

daring to ask at last: how did I die?

thick fragrant smoke

encircles pampered memory

and you lie down in bed

to wake up as a thirty-five-year-old

in that house

feeling around the bed you get lost

looking for space

amidst the sullen ancestors

until you’re told

with the sudden falling of soil

onto a wrinkled contorted face

get ready, get ready

and not yet realizing

that it isn’t addressed to you

you ask: my beloveds, and where am I to go now?

where does one say goodbye to oneself these days?

trees are budding with war

salty like an explosion – war

fear of famished deserts begotten in us – by war

a jug filled with burning lead

it offers to us like a sacrament – war

with its faded eye glares

into faces

gathered into knots of war

feels the stumps of dwellings

with its greasy tentacles – war

out of unbroken mirrors

squeezes flowers of war

prettying up

she weaves into a wreath

of shame

the innards of homes

names and toponyms unknown to her

bedecked in blossoms of death

on its tremulous head, it trudges on

an ancient herbarium – war

a worn-out expired rattle – war

a creeping bag lady – war

gray and grim

its chin tied to its head

laid out on the table, unwashed and dumb – war

and nobody dares bury it

Translated from the Ukrainian by Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky.


“I forgave myself for,” “in the year nineteen twenty-two,” “why spurn victory, God?” first published in Copper Nickel. “how to survive what has already happened” first published in M-Dash. “how do you return to a town which does not exist,” “trees are budding with war,” first published in The Manhattan Review.

Alex Averbuch is a Ukrainian Jewish poet. His latest book is Zhydivsky Korol (The Jewish King), a 2023 finalist for the Shevchenko National Prize.