Monday, June 30, 2014

Coda II

II.        Boris Kahanowitz slept for only an hour and then awoke, fuming.  He had made that idiotic, drunken oath in front of that pack of poltroons, those Yiddish and Hebrew poets who unlike Boris Kahanowitz had never fired a shot either in anger or otherwise, and certainly never dug a ditch, worked on a assembly line, or plowed a field despite their high flown rhetoric about the Working Class.  
            He knew what would greet him out in the streets, the cafes and taverns: “Hey Boris, have you found your man yet?”  “Boris, have you brought back Reb Schulevitz by his ear locks?  Plucked him wet and steaming from the mikveh?”  Boris had made himself a laughing stock just because one poet asked if a line of his verse was inspired by Schulevitz.   And how could it not be, when Boris Kahanowitz had spent some seven years under the great poet’s tutelage?
            For the past ten years, the Hebrew poet and Yiddish journalist and essayist Yasha Schulevitz had become the material of abiding legend.  He had been a success in the modest circles of Hebrew poetry, and a rage in the wider arch of Yiddish letters, and then one day he disappeared.  The act of non-being had done more for his writing career than the state of being, which was ironic to the hilt since Yasha no longer wrote so much as a yud. 
            Versions of his life’s tale circulated in variants.  They had paths of divergence, but they all involved great travail, privation, love gained and then lost, fortunes won and later squandered.  Jewish Warsaw was a large but concentrated village.  Yiddish newspapers were read while still wet from the press, and contained all manner of salacious material.  A current of gossip like a live wire snaked through the ranks of Jews in this city, and that energy fed all manner of legends and tall tales with rich fodder.  With a little luck, either good or bad, a man or woman could become a myth.  And Yasha’s biography was primed for such deification.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Coda: a story

… thief … flowing … longer… and the wealth… (of) mortals… (nor?)… --- Oxyrhynchus papyrus (c. 150 AD)

I.          “Who does he think he is?” Boris Kahnonwitz spat, raged, railed, swaying on the lectern, his massive body, a body always as tense as his language, as taut as a cord about to be snapped.  He teetered on the edge of some unprecedented violence.    
              Everyone in the room feared him, as much as they loved his poetry.  For a man of such deadly living passions, as lethal as nightshade, on the page he could express the subtlest of emotion as if he was holding up a small, delicate flower for the edification of mankind. 

            “Who?” he asked again.  He had been reading a poem, and had then taken some questions.  Someone asked about the relationship between a particular line and his old mentor, Yasha Schuelvitz.  Boris Kahnonwitz, who was drunk as a Cossack, began to pound his fist on the lectern like a mighty gavel.   
             The blows were not hard, but they appeared to knock Boris Kahnonwitz from his perch, and he began to slip to the floor.  He continued to hold onto the lectern, either from the stubborn supposition that if he just held on he would not fall, or simply from blind habit.  But fall he did; and then followed his stack of poems, partially covering him like leaves from the first gales of autumn.  His associates came to his aid, but not too quickly.  This was not an uncommon event.

            “Get your paws off me,” he hissed from the floor.  It was covered in sawdust, like a butcher’s shop.  Boris Kahnonwitz, moist as he was from the dew of his own perspiration, looked like a fritter that had been dipped in corn meal.   
            “I’ll pull the arms from the sockets if you so much as touch my tunic!”  So no one laid a hand on Boris Kahnonwitz, the famous poet.  They let him rage on the floor.  The vodka had set his blood to boil and the tumbled over, scorching the floor.

            “You compare my line to Yasha Schulevitz’s!”  he spat at no one in particular.  “I’ll find that little mamzer and drag him back here by his side locks.  “Reb Marx said,” Boris Kahnonwitz  chanted, as if reading from the Mishna, “No man can escape history.  Even the sainted Reb Yasha Schulevitz.  I’ll pull him back and deposit him right here on this floor, among the sawdust and the scraps of treyf and your stinking, stammering poems!  I’ll thrust a pen into his hand and make him write verse if I have to hold a revolver to his temple and dip his pen into the ink myself!”

            “Don’t talk like an ass, Boris,” someone as the back of the room jeered on his way out the door.  This caused Boris to sit up.  He had lost his hat, and his great bald head shone like a beacon.

            “Who is the ass.  Who?”  Boris Kahnonwitz taunted no one in particular.  “When Yasha left Warsaw to become a ba’al tesuvah, to return to the Torah, I fought him tooth and nail.  But you let him slip through your fingers!  You let your mentor fall back into superstition and wizardly.  You did nothing about it, but I held him by his zizitot

            “It’s a free country,” someone yelled, “a man can leave for the provinces if he wants to…”

            “It’s only half-free,” someone else jeered, “free if you deny Christ but have a foreskin, and a house of bondage if you deny the Torah but are without…” and the men laughed.  Boris formed his hands into two meaty fists, and swung forward.  No one was in striking distance, yet everyone took a step back nonetheless.  No one wanted to be hit by the Samson of Warsaw. 

             Boris Kahnonwitz wanted to swear to God that he would find Yasha Schulvitz and bring him back to Warsaw, but he did not believe in God, so who to swear to?  History?  He would sound like a buffoon.  His mind, addled with drink, took up and dropped substitutes at a rapid clip.  Finally, his mouth was moving.

            “I vow to bring Yasha Schulevitz to this very room!” Boris intoned, thrusting his arms out, as if to encompass the entire space of the reading room of the Yiddish Writers Union, a former butcher’s shop cellar.  He stood up, and leaned toward the door.  A hole opened around him, and he was out in the street.

             The next morning he woke up in an ally.  There was the smell of urine and trash.  Looking up, he noticed that a gentile boy and girl in filthy attire were poking him with a metal pole.  He waved at them, “Fuck off, Philistines,” in Polish and tried to stand.  A shiver ran down his spine.  His head reeled.   He had fallen asleep in a divot of slush and was wet from his shoulders to his calves.  He pushed his way back on home.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Hitler's Furies

In Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields tells the story of German woman who settled in the “East” during World War II, both to help Germainze areas of Poland and the Ukraine with pioneers, wives, secretaries, office workers, and female concentration camp guards.

I’m not sure why Lower’s book has received such attention, even being a contender for the National Book Award.  It really offers no new information or bombshells about Nazi atrocities during the war.  Nor does it shed damning light on the role of women in the war.  It has been long known to scholars that virtually all sections of German society participated in the destruction of Europe’s Jews. Lower’s thesis, that woman can participate in genocide both overtly and by proxy, is hardly shocking.

It is also a shame that a book that is relatively sober and denounces the shock value of femininity, sexuality, and murder, would have such a salacious title.  Hitler’s Furies conjures up images of indoctrinated amazons, going out to kill under the firm sway of the Fuhrer’s magnetic cult of personality.

The book shows the opposite.  Most of the women where quite ordinary in every sense; they were not furies, simply women who bought into an ideology that so denigrated Jews as subhuman that they could, in such a culture, kill them without feeling as if they were killing real  human beings.

That is the chilling element of genocide.  Furies, monsters or beasts do not commit genocide.  Regular people, like you and me, are capable of such terrible acts.

Friday, June 20, 2014

In the Sanatorium & Facing the Sea, David Vogel

Two Novellas, by David Vogel, a Hebrew writer who was murdered during the Holocaust, has the benefit of having for the first time in English translation his first published work, In the Sanatorium.  The other novella, Facing the Sea, has been published previously in English, both in Vogel’s collected work, and in collections of Hebrew writing.

David Vogel was a pivotal figure in Hebrew modernism.  These two prose works feature some of the preoccupations of modernist works.  In the Sanitarium, in the vein of The Magic Mountain, questions the assumption of health and illness, and the manner in which they are treated.  These themes, in turn, reflect upon the health, or lack of health, of European Society at large.

Facing the Sea confronts atavistic sexuality in a way similar, but not identical, the D.H. Lawrence.  Both Lawrence and Vogel viewed sex as the major imperative of people’s motivations, but for Lawrence, the redemptive force of eroticism far outweighed its conflicts.  For Vogel, sex has a largely degenerative effect on people, despite its great draw.

These translations give English readers the opportunity to see how an early Hebrew writer tackled very current issues in an ancient language speedily moving toward modernity.