Lieder Fun Churban 'on Lieder Fun Gloybin

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Poems by Aaron Zeitlin, 1967

Aaron Zeitlin's standing in the field of Yiddish belles lettres is nurtured by two seemingly opposing sources—namely, postimpressionistic ideas and techniques and a strong commitment to Jewish traditional sources. These aspects are imbued in the style and content of Zeitlin's work, and they stem from his Orthodox upbringing and education and his evolvement as an independent Jewish thinker. His drama on the pseudo-Messiah Yakob Frank (1929) and his Zionist novel, Brenendike erd, portraying the heroic deeds of Nili, which is an acronym for the title Netsah Yisrael Lo' Yeshaker ("The Glory of Israel Will Not Lie" [1 Sam. 15:29]), both highlighting counter-culture traditional themes, illustrate this.

In a similar fashion, Zeitlin's muse inspires his poetry of Holocaust and faith in Lieder fun churban 'on lieder fun gloybin ("Poems of the Holocaust and Poems of Faith"). His topics include identity, faith, destruction, and remembrance and are interwoven with threads of piety, mysticism, and folklore in addition to strong pronouncements against entrapment by non-Jewish cultures. He acknowledges that he, like his enlightened Warsaw friends of letters, followed Goethe's path to the seemingly heavenly palace only to discover in Hitler's belligerent night "how short is the distance between Faust and fist, from Goethe's übermensch to the untermensch and to the Hitlerites." In the Nazi "Night and Fog" Zeitlin sees a dastardly link between Europe's wordsmiths and murderers. His faith in building bridges between the husks of the abyss (exile) to the tikkun (redemption) is shattered with "another sleepless night (of) a thousand curses." In his poem "A khalom fun noch Majdanek" (1946; "A Dream Still from Majdanek") he counts into the endless night names of Jewish children whose whereabouts is nameless: "Gone and not here anymore the Heshelekn, Heshelekn, Peshelekn, Hindelekn. Sounds, only sounds, only poetic sounds—Names of Jewish children. Where is your little foot, Zisele? Zipele, where is your little braid? You are smoke, Yentele's little hand! You are ashes, Kopele's little head!" In addition to the terrible physical loss to the Jewish people, the smoldering embers of Jewish children recall for Zeitlin the cultural and spiritual price paid for leaving the way of Yiddishkeit for European civilization. From the depths of evil amidst a vanished Jewish world, who will recall the life that was the Jewish community of Eastern Europe?

The Khurban ("catastrophic destruction," the preferred term in Yiddish for Holocaust) poetry of Zeitlin is confused, infused, and suffused with fate and faith. He wonders, "Where is God?" and wanders into Kabbalah. What is to be now that "A knife flashes through all the sefirot … Malkhut is away from Yesod and fallen before Keter." The ripping of the communion of Israel away from its foundation daringly teaches that non-sense has replaced sense and that nothingness has eclipsed Nothingness. If the 'Oybershter (the Most High) is silent then " even an outcry is now a lie, even tears are mere literature, even prayers are false." And he meditates in "'Ani ma'amin" (1948; "I Believe"): "Why so volcanic as my God? If He is Sinai to me, He is Majdanek as well." Zeitlin's conflict and struggle give way to protest, and he professes: "No matter how much I rebel, no matter how much I grow weary, I must be Jew. We cannot let go of each other, not He of me, nor I of Him. You say 'Israel,' when you say 'Elokim."' In retrospect this reflects Zeitlin's anti-secularist/modernist reminder to his generation, "Zayn a Yid" (1936; "To Be a Jew"): "Being a Jew means running forever to God even if you are His betrayer, means expecting to hear any day, even if you are a nay sayer, the blare of Messiah's horn; means, even if you wish to, you cannot escape His snares, you cannot cease to pray—even after all the prayers, even after all the 'evens."' To rid a Jewish soul of ' afilus ("evens") is to (re)discover dos pintele Yid (the essence of a Jew).

—Zev Garber