Poetry

Poems by Rajzel Żychlińsky 

 

On the Subway

Waiting in the dark tunnel
for a train
meanwhile I multiply blackness by blackness—
and it becomes a trembling sunspot.
Shadow by shadow—
and it becomes a passenger.

The train arrives with yellow eyes
the passengers board the cars,
the door claps shut
the subway moves.

And again I multiply—
faces by faces
and shoulders by shoulders.
Feet by hands—
and they become bones,
eyes by eyes—
and they become holes.

 

 

It Could Be

It could be
today I saw Doctor Mengele
drinking a glass of beer
in Tel-Aviv
at the sea—
a pair of sharp blue eyes
suddenly blazed at me
with the cold steely gleam of knives.
An artificial and false little laughter from his mouth
suddenly woke up the terror—
left, right, left, right,
left!———
to the gas!———
Politely he presented himself
to the neighboring table—
his people come from England, Scots,
and on his mother’s side
he is German.
I left the cool terrace
and long afterwards, turned around in the heat
by the sea—
heard the waves imitate—
German, German, German———

 

 

The Silent Partner

Three meters wide
six meters deep
and fifteen meters long—
those are the measurements from one of the pits
in Poland,
to which the Germans herded the Jews,
shot
and buried them there.
Three meters wide
six meters deep
and fifteen meters long—
the three dimensions.
And the fourth dimension,
that in which all the butchered Jews
cannot die
and cannot live—
is the silent partner
to all the days of my life.

 

These poems are translated by Susan Cohen and appear here with the permission of Dr. Marek Kanter.

 

Rajzel Żychlińsky was born in Poland in 1910 and fled on the eve of World War II to the Soviet Union, where she and her husband had a son. After the war, in which her mother, sister, brother, and their children were murdered in concentration camps, she ultimately settled in New York. She died in California at the age of ninety. Although she spoke five languages, Żychlińsky chose to continue writing only in Yiddish, publishing seven books and winning Israel’s Itzik Manger Prize. These poems are from The November Sun, published in 1977 and available online in the Yiddish Book Center digital library here. I would like to thank teacher and translator Noah Barrera for his knowledge of the Yiddish language and devotion to literature.

 

Commentary by Contributing Editor Susan Cohen

I came to translation only recently, just as I came to Yiddish, the language of European Jews that my family once spoke but that was not passed down by my grandparents. After I began to learn Yiddish for fun, I discovered its literature, and belatedly realized that the effort to exterminate the Jews had been also about extinguishing a whole culture.

So I approach translating as an act of preservation, just as Rajzel Żychlińsky’s writing was an act of continuation and commemoration. The three poems here all express how the Holocaust shadowed her life, forming for her what she describes as a “fourth dimension,” as if it invented its own physics and warped reality itself. And in many ways, the Holocaust continues to haunt the language—even though Yiddish dates back to the 9th century when it branched off from High German.

The good news is that Yiddish lives on, and not only in Hassidic communities or academia. This pandemic, horrific as it has been, spurred classes, conversation groups, reading circles, and performances online where thousands of lovers of the mame-loshen (the mother tongue, to distinguish it from Hebrew or the holy tongue) have suddenly discovered each other in all corners of the world. Knowing that, my work here feels like a bit of chutzpah—let’s say “nervy.” There are many native speakers, true scholars, and wonderful translators of Yiddish.

But only a few of them are poets, and I believe it is important for poets to translate other poets.

Poets make decisions in ways other writers do not. Sometimes, the poetry lies in the ambiguity, multiple meanings or nuances of a word that should be preserved when possible instead of clarified. Sometimes it lies in the music, the rhythms or rhymes, as much or more than in the meaning. Sometimes it lies in the silences. A voice is always individual, but I’d argue that the best person to attempt to enter the mind and analyze the voice of a poet is another poet.

That said, just as a poet makes decisions word-by-word and comma-by-comma, a translator of poetry must make a separate set of choices.

Let’s consider just one of these poems, “It Could Be.” I tried to capture some of the flavor from the Yiddish. When Żychlińsky describes the man who resembles infamous Nazi doctor Mengele talking, she writes: “my family stems…” But I wanted to reflect his stiltedness and his pride with “My people come from.” I’ve also favored English words that echo sounds as well as meaning, taking advantage of the fact that both languages are Germanic. So I chose “blaze” for blitswhich means “flash” and is associated with lightning. On the other hand, glants is not a quick look, but something shining, a “gleam”—a meaning glance once held in archaic English but now is lost.

I spent a long time with the line where the speaker stands by the sea “turned around in the heat.” I wanted a verb that contained the physicality of the Yiddish, with its connotation of spinning and confusion. But while it is easy to believe she is dizzy, “turned around” opens broader possibilities. If you are spun around, you end up facing in any direction, while being turned around suggests that you inadvertently retrace your steps in confusion and end up back where you began. The encounter with Mengele’s doppelganger drives the speaker away from the safety of the café terrace and distorts her sense of direction and time so that she winds up in the past. Still, I recognize I’ve sacrificed something. Someone else might come up with a different solution, which is why I applaud as many versions of a poem in translation as possible.

“It Could Be” ends with waves repeating: daytsh, daytsh, daytsh, the Yiddish equivalent for the German deutsch but one that can also carry some negative charge. I considered “Hun” for its brevity and harshness, but the slang doesn’t accurately reflect the man’s overheard declaration of heritage. Although the sound of the original hits the ear more powerfully than the two-syllable “German, German, German,” with its unstressed ending, I selected faithfulness to what I perceive as the author’s intentions. To me, Zychlinksy means the waves not merely to echo but to “imitate” him and mock her. The title “It Could Be” reflects the reality that Mengele escaped justice and was alive somewhere. His continuing existence represented a mockery for those who had survived and lost loved ones in the concentration camps where he conducted his unspeakable experiments.

Finally, Żychlińsky invokes silence, as she often does, giving three long dashes the last “word” in the poem. Those dashes speak to a continuing, unending horror. I’ve sought to preserve her essential compactness, emotional power, and complexity disguised as simplicity, as well as most of the idiosyncratic punctuation and line breaks that combine to shape her rhythms and voice.

If I had to state my foremost belief about translation, it would be this: a good poem in another language deserves to be a good poem in English. That involves interpretations, additions and subtractions in order to be faithful to the original. Ultimately, something will be lost. But something will be gained as well. An audience, a readership, a new life for poetry that deserves to be read.

 

 

Contributing Editor Susan Cohen’s second full-length book of poems, A Different Wakeful Animal, won the David Martinson–Meadowhawk Prize from Red Dragonfly Press and can be ordered here at Small Press Distribution. She was a newspaper reporter, contributing writer to the Washington Post Magazine, and professor at the University of California Graduate School of Journalism before earning an MFA from Pacific University. Her poems appear widely in journals and anthologies (Atlanta Review 25th Anniversary Anthology, PANK, Prairie Schooner, Southern Humanities Review, and the Southern Review, among others) and have received numerous honors, including: the Rita Dove Poetry Award, the Milton Kessler Poetry Prize, and the 2020 Terrain.org prize for poetry. www.susancohen-writer.com

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