Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Elegy For the Shtetlen

Writing the Holocaust has primarily focused on scholarly work on the literature of the Holocaust, but occasionally we find a creative work that we like to share with others.

"Elegy for the Shtetlen" is such a poem. It is a lament for the predominantly Jewish small towns of Poland that were lost because of the Holocaust. Originally written in Polish (Elegia miasteczek żydowskich) by Antoni Slonimski (1895 – 1976), the translation here is by Scottish writer Jennifer Robertson and her husband Stuart.

Elegy For the Shtetlen

No more, no more shtetlen in Poland,
whether in Hrubieszów, Karczew, Brody or Falenica
ou’d be hard put to find lit candles in their windows,
or catch the strains of song in wooden synagogues.

The last vestiges of Jewish life have gone;
blood covered over with sand, all traces swept away,
walls whitened with fresh coats of lime
as if some plague has passed, or a feast is welcomed in.

Here the moon shines solitary, alien, chill, and pale.
Out of town, on the highway, where night is ablaze,
my Jewish kinsfolk, makars a, will not find
Chagall’s two golden moons.

Those moons illumine another planet now.
They fled, frightened by the sombre silence.
The shtetlen are no more where the cobbler was a poet,
the watchmaker a philosopher, barber a troubadour.

The shtetlen are no more where Bible chants
swirled on the wind with Polish song and Slav lament,
where Jewish grandfathers, secluded in shady cherry orchards,
mourned the holy walls of Jerusalem.

Those shtetlen are no more, vanished with a shadow,
and this shadow will intrude between our words
until the advent of brotherhood, unity renewed:
two nations nourished by centuries of suffering.


We were curious about the words "makars a" in the third line in the third stanza, and Ms. Robertson said, "The line you are asking about is my rendering of krewni moi zydowscy, poetyczni chłopscy, which literally means my Jewish relatives, poetic lads (or boys). My husband Stuart suggested putting the slightly pawkish humour of the phrase into the Scots makars a - makar is the Scots for poet (maker) and a, all is sometimes written with an apostrophe, a', though purists of the Scots tongue prefer to omit these apostrophes as they suggest something is missing ie the English form and thus dilutes the Scots!"


Ms. Robertson is the author of a number of works on the Holocaust, including a collection of poems about the Warsaw Ghetto entitled Ghetto (Lion Publishing, 1989)and Don’t go to Uncle’s Wedding: Voices from the Warsaw Ghetto (Azure /SPCK).

She feels that it's important to continue to write about the Holocaust despite the pressure sometimes not to.

You can read more about her writing at her website.

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