The Mendele Review: Yiddish Literature and Language
(A Companion to MENDELE)

[Shoa Remembrance and Heroes Day 2007]

Contents of Vol. 11.005 [Sequential No. 182]
16 April 2007

1) This issue of TMR (ed).
"Kh'hob nisht gehat di skhie" (Arn Tseytlin)
3) "I Didnt Have the Privilege" by Arn Tseytlin, English translation by Morris Faierstein
4) Introduction to Poems of the Holocaust and Poems of Faith by Arn Tseytlin [Aaron Zeitlin] (Morris Faierstein)
5) Astrid Starck's last interview with Dovid A. Volpe (ed.)
6) Opening of Bookseller's Site (Chananya L. Goldman)

Click here to enter:

Date: 16 April 2007
From: ed.
Subject: This issue of TMR.

This Yom HaZikaron LaShoa veLaGvura [Shoa Remembrance and Heroes Day] issue of TMR is devoted to the distinguished Yiddish poet, Arn Tseytlin [Aaron Zeitlin] whom fate brought to the United States shortly before escape from Poland was impossible. Morris Feierstein introduces his recent book of English translation of Tseytlin's poems and gives a paradigmatic Tseytlin poem, "Kh'hob nisht gehat di skhie" ["I Didnt Have the Privilege"] in Yiddish and in his translation.

16 April 2007
Morris Faierstein
"Kh'hob nisht gehat di skhie" fun Arn Tseytlin


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Date: 16 April 2007
Morris Faierstein
"I Didnt Have the Privilege", translation of "Kh'hob nish gehat di skhie"

I Didnt Have the Privilege

I got away in time and God concealed
The terrors from me -
Why, why did I leave

I did not have the privilege together with my nation
to go the way of flames,
and like an unforgivable sin, torments,
the guilt of remaining alive,
of remaining alive and composing rhymes.
The guilt will poison me,
unless I follow one of three figures,
who stand ready to hide me from guilt,
who wait and who heatedly call me:
One figure is holiness the second is insanity,
Suicide is the third.

But suicide is too strong for me, the weakling,
My smallness cannot allow itself holiness,
And I cant even go out of my mind.


Date: 16 April 2007
From: Morris Faierstein
Subject: Poems of the Holocaust and Poems of Faith by Arn Tseytlin

Poems of the Holocaust and Poems of Faith
by Aaron Zeitlin

Edited and Translated by Morris M. Faierstein
New York: iUniverse, 2007


In the summer of 1939, Maurice Schwartz, director of the Yiddish Art Theater, invited Aaron Zeitlin [Yiddish: Arn Tseytlin] to come to New York to oversee the staging of one of his plays. The outbreak of World War II left Zeitlin stranded in New York, separated from his family, a helpless bystander to the destruction of Polish Jewry including his whole family. This trauma became the central event that he wrestled with for the rest of his life.

Aaron Zeitlin, born in 1898, was the elder son of Hillel Zeitlin, one of the intellectual and spiritual giants of Polish Jewry in the first half of the twentieth century. Hillel Zeitlin was in many respects the East European counterpart to Martin Buber.[1] Like Buber, he was a guide for a generation of young people who sought a spiritual path between the aridity of the modern world and the uncompromising demands of the tradition that they could no longer accept unquestioningly. Unlike Buber, Hillel Zeitlins spiritual quest was grounded in the Jewish mystical and Hasidic traditions. Aaron Zeitlin, like his father, was also grounded in these traditions, though he was less conventionally observant than his father. Growing up in a literary household, writing came naturally to Aaron Zeitlin and he published his first poems while still a teenager.

Aaron Zeitlins literary career in Poland was multifaceted and multilingual. He was equally at home writing in Hebrew and Yiddish. He was unusual for someone of his generation in that he continued to write in both languages throughout his life. He did not partake in the ideological battles over language in interwar Poland.[2] The first half of the twentieth century was a period of great struggle between the adherents of Yiddish and Hebrew. Zeitlin stood in the middle between the socialists who championed Yiddish as the national language of the Jewish people and the Zionists who advocated the exclusive use of Hebrew and denigrated Yiddish as the language of exile. Zeitlin had spent a year in Israel as a young man (1920-1921), but he failed to find a niche and returned to Poland. He refused to take sides in this linguistic and political debate. He saw both Hebrew and Yiddish as the two parts of the holy tongue of the Jewish people. This was a factor that would have consequences for his career and his literary reception. He was ultimately never at the center of either literary movement.

Zeitlin was a major presence in the literary and cultural life of Warsaw in the 1920s and 1930s. He was a prolific journalist, critic, playwright, editor, novelist and poet. In addition to his writings, he was also active in editing a journal devoted to the theater[3] and a literary journal, Globus[4], which tried to fight for literary standards against the tendency of many Yiddish writers to put literature at the service of the proletarian struggle. I.B. Singer was a close collaborator in this journal. Underlying all of his literary endeavors was Zeitlins strong sense of spiritual quest. He spoke of writing as a religious act. In a letter written in 1934 to the literary critic Samuel Niger, Zeitlin observed that the heavenly world was the only reality and was found not only in heaven but also in the mundane world. He observed that we are surrounded by divinity as by the oceans.[5] Yet, he was not particularly religious in the conventional sense. Literary art was a form of religious practice for him, rather than the traditional fulfillment of the religious commandments.

Zeitlin was also active in the creation of the Yiddish section of PEN[6] and served as president of the Yiddish PEN club in Warsaw between 1930-1934 and again in 1938. As president he was instrumental in maintaining the literary standards for membership. He was involved in a number of acrimonious polemics over denying membership to a number of writers who he saw as literary hacks churning out socialist realist propaganda for socialist and communist publications. From the late 1920s to the mid-1930s Zeitlin was very productive as a playwright, producing nine plays.[7] He also wrote two novels, but only one was published. His novel, Burning Earth, published in 1937, dealt with the Jewish community in Israel during the First World War. His second novel, co-written with Isaac Bashevis Singer, was about the Jewish anti-Semite Otto Weininger. Unfortunately, it was never published and was lost along with Zeitlins other unpublished writings in the Holocaust. Singer left Warsaw for the United States in 1935, shortly after the demise of their journal, Globus. Zeitlin also spoke often in his letters of this period about leaving Poland and the looming threat of the rise of Nazism in Germany and growing anti-Semitism in Poland.[8] In the end he did not emigrate and it was only because of the accident of being in New York in the summer of 1939 that he survived the Holocaust. However, a part of his soul died along with his family, his people and his civilization.

Zeitlin was in New York on a temporary visa and when it expired he had to leave the country. Like many others in his situation, he went to Cuba where he spent almost a year waiting for an immigrant visa to reenter the US. One of the poems in this collection reflects his experience in Havana.[9] He was able to return to New York in 1940 and lived there for the rest of his life. Zeitlin continued writing in both Hebrew and Yiddish, though his more important non-poetic writings were in Hebrew. A growing interest, which is reflected tangentially in a number of poems, was parapsychology. He published two volumes in this field and is considered one of the pioneers of this field in Israel.[10] He also taught Hebrew literature at the Teachers Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Aaron Zeitlin died in 1973 and found his eternal rest in Jerusalem.

The Yiddish poetry of Aaron Zeitlin is very different from that of his contemporaries. His is a unique voice in the Yiddish poetry written in the wake of the Holocaust. His unusual situation as a Polish Jew who escaped the Holocaust through a quirk of fate also affected his perspective. He was not, like his fellow poets in America, someone who had left the old world voluntarily and had made his peace with the loss of that part of his life. On the other hand, he did not live through the Holocaust and did not share the experience of his nation. The result was a tremendous sense of guilt, an unusual form of survivor guilt. He asks himself why he did not share the fate of his people. How was it possible to go on living when everything that gave meaning to his life was gone? Indeed, he speaks of himself as a specter, a walking ghost, for whom life is only an illusion. He was amazed that others could see him and relate to him as a living person since he was certain that he was only a spectral presence. He was pursued by nightmares that he could not kill. He dealt with this issue in his poem, I Didnt Have the Privilege. He expressed his guilt at having left Poland and not having shared the fate of his people. He was tormented by guilt that he has remained alive. He sought sanctuary in holiness, insanity or suicide, but even these avenues were closed to him. He writes in this poem, But suicide is too strong for me, the weakling,/ My smallness cannot allow itself holiness,/ And I cant even go out of my mind.

Zeitlins response to the catastrophe that had befallen him and his nation was to turn to poetry as outlet for guilt, rage and despair. At the same time mixed with these negative emotions, his ultimate faith did not leave him. Even his most despairing thoughts were still expressed in the language and forms of Judaism. The major themes of his poetry, even in the face of the Holocaust and his struggle for faith and spiritual meaning, were his messianic hopes and belief in God despite the enormity of the catastrophe that had befallen European Jewry.

Faith, particularly in the messianic promise, had been the primary driving force of Zeitlins spirituality before the war. He was fascinated by messianic figures, even false messiahs.[11] However, even the hope of messianic redemption could not justify the Holocaust. There is a rabbinic tradition about the period preceding the coming of the Messiah. The rabbis taught that the period immediately preceding the advent of the Messiah would be one of great suffering and catastrophe, the period of the travails of the Messiah [hevley mashiach].[12] Zeitlin was aware of this tradition but found no consolation in it. Even if the Messiah were to come, he did not think that the price paid would have been worth it. Zeitlins sense of despair was strongest during the 1940s. In his later years his despair softened somewhat, as we see in his two poems, We Jews are not from this World, written in 1944, and the postscript to this poem, There are No Last Jews and No Last Prayers.[13] Nonetheless, his faith remained and he still awaited the coming of the Messiah. In contrast, his secular colleagues who did not have his faith to fall back on could not find any redeeming aspect of the Holocaust. Emblematic of this approach was Jacob Glatstein, one of the major Yiddish poets in America who saw in the Holocaust the final sundering of the Covenant between God and the Jewish people that had been made at Sinai.[14]

What Zeitlin did lose was his faith in the importance of literature. Before the war he saw himself as a devotee and acolyte of literature. In one poem he says about himself, I, on the other hand, a man of letters in Warsaw,/ Believed like everyone else/ In Goethe and in other such brilliant/egoists.[15] Now, he questioned his enterprise. Why did he write, what purpose did it serve? His world and his audience were gone. He continued to write because that is what he had always done, but it no longer had transcendent meaning for him. He questioned his purpose in being a Yiddish poet. His poem, Nothing But Words reflects his helplessness as a writer in the face of the enormity of the Holocaust. He asked, who wanted him and who needed him? In his brief poem, Elegy for a Yiddish Poet, he sees himself as a slave of art that nobody wants to buy. In the end he could only say that he wrote because he had always written. That was his identity, the core of his being.

The world that he knew and lived in was gone. He was under no illusion that it could somehow be resurrected, either physically or spiritually. Jewish Warsaw will not be rebuilt nor will Polish Jewry ever exist again in the form that Zeitlin knew. Yet, he remained hopeful about the existence of the Jewish people and spoke about a New Israel, a new stage in the history of the Jewish people that will arise in the land of Israel. The continued existence of Polish Jewry was only on some transcendental plane, which for Zeitlin was very real. He was a strong believer in worlds and planes of reality beyond our physical plane and it is there that he hoped for reunion with his family and nation.

Zeitlin wrote about the Holocaust in both Hebrew and Yiddish. The present collection draws only on his Yiddish poetry in its final form. Zeitlin published his Collected Poems twice. The first collection was published in 1947.[16] He published a revised and expanded edition incorporating new poems and revisions of older ones in 1965-1970.[17] Zeitlin makes it clear in his preface to this edition that he considered the latter collection to be the final definitive version of his work superseding any earlier versions. I have followed Zeitlins wishes and all poems in this collection are from the 1965-1970 edition. These two volumes together comprise almost a thousand pages. The majority of the poems I have selected relate to Zeitlins response to the Holocaust. I have included a few poems that do not directly relate to the primary theme, because they illumine Zeitlins feelings and attitudes. Accessibility was another factor in the selection process. With a few exceptions, I did not include poems that rely on a sophisticated knowledge of Jewish mysticism or rabbinic thought. Perhaps the most significant poem that was not included is Zeitlins prose poem about Janusz Korczak, the famous director of the Jewish orphanage in Warsaw who perished in the Holocaust. Its length, more than 45 pages, precluded its inclusion in this collection.

There are two basic approaches to the translation of poetry. One method is to emphasize rhyme and meter, translating freely in order to maintain them. The second approach is to concentrate on meaning and sacrifice rhyme, meter, and other specific language features of the original.[18] I have chosen the second method in translating Aaron Zeitlins poems. Yiddish syntax and meter differ from those of English and attempting to replicate them in translation would inevitably have diluted meaning, which is where the strength of the poems lies. Zeitlins poems are a theological cri de coeur in poetic form.

[1] Hillel Zeitlins works, unlike Buber's, have not been translated into English and Zeitlin has not been the subject of much scholarly study. See, S. Bar Sella, Between the Storm and the Quiet - The Life and Work of Hillel Zeitlin [Hebrew], (Tel Aviv, 1999).

[2] On the conflict between exponents of Yiddish and Hebrew in the interwar period see, H. Halkin, The Great Language War Commentary December, 2002, pp. 48-56.

[3] Teater Zeitung, which appeared from 1928-1929.

[4] It appeared from 1932-1934.

[5] Y. Szeintuch, Be-Reshut ha-Rabim ube-Reshut ha-Yahid - Aharon Tseytlin ve-Sifrut Yidish (Jerusalem, 2000), p. 131.

[6] The international association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists and Novelists.

[7] Three of his plays were recently reissued in a scholarly edition by Yechiel Szeintuch, Aaron Zeitlin, Brener, Esterka, and Veytsman haSheyni [Weitzman the Second] - Three Plays [Hebrew] (Jerusalem, 1993).

[8] His letters of the interwar period which that are collected in Szeintuch, note 4.

[9] Visa to the Abyss: A Refugee Poem from the Island of Cuba (p. 95 in ms.).

[10] Ha-Metsiut ha-Aheret (Tel Aviv, 1973) and Parapsichologia Murhevet (Tel Aviv, 1973).

[11] Zeitlin wrote a long poem about Joseph Della Reina, a fifteenth century kabbalist who tried to bring the Messiah and became the subject of later legends, a play about Jacob Frank, a false messiah in eighteenth century Poland and several poems about Sabbatai Sevi [Yiddish: Shaptse Tsvi], the famous false Messiah of the seventeenth century.

[12] M. Sotah 9.15.

[13] pp. 17-18 in ms.

[14] On Glatsteins approach see, E. Alexander, Patterns of Holocaust Poetry: Repesentative Voices in Yiddish and Hebrew in A.D. Colin ed. Argumentum e Silentio - International Paul Celan Symposium (Berlin/ New York, 1987), pp. 299-304.

[15] Another Small poem, Written in 1946, About Frau Hilda and Privy Councilor von Goethe. (p. 44 of ms.)

[16] Gezamlte Lider (New York, 1947), 2 vols.

[17] Lider fun Hurbm un Lider fun Gloybn, vol. 1 (New York, 1965), vol. 2 (New York, 1970)

[18] For discussions of these two approaches see, I. Howe and E. Greenberg, A Treasury of Yiddish Poetry (New York, 1969), pp. 61-66; B. and B. Harshav ed., American Yiddish Poetry A Bilingual Anthology (Berkeley, 1986), pp. 64f.

16 April 2007
From: ed.
Subject: Astrid Starck's last interview with Dovid A. Volpe

Astrid Starck's last interview with Dovid A. Volpe has been published in a new book devoted to South African writers. Her interview focuses on Volpe's two-volume biography Ikh un mayn velt (I and My World) published in Israel in 1997, 1999. Her interview covers his life before and during World War Two and after emmigrating to South Africa, the problems encountered there, his involvement in the new society and his unique place as a Yiddish writer in that land. See Selves in Question; Interviews on Southern African Auto/biography, edited by Judith Luetge Coullie, Stephan Meyer, Thengani H. Ngwenya, and Thomas Olver, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2006, pp. 357-365.

16 April 2007
From: Chananya L. Goldman
Subject: Opening of Bookseller's Site

Dear Sirs & Madams,
I am happy to announce the Grand Opening of the very first rare-bookseller's website devoted solely to antiquarian Judaica & Hebraica:

Best Regards,
Chananya L. Goldman

Goldman Books, Rare Judaica & Hebraica Books & Manuscripts
750 east 18th street, Brooklyn, NY 11230, tel: 718-408-4050,


End of The Mendele Review Vol. 11.005

Editor, Leonard Prager

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