My Hate Song

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Poem by Itzik Manger, 1961

Itzik Manger's writing occupies a central place in Jewish literary identity, spanning poetry, essays, cultural history, rabbinic writings, politics, and fiction. Characteristic of his work are a cosmopolitan sophistication combined with an equally strong sense of folk identity. Traditional stories, including biblical stories were material that could be revitalized and used in ways that brought them new life. Manger's career was profoundly shaped by the Holocaust. He chose to write in the ballad form in his aim to encourage a sense of the Yiddish folk epic.

In "My Hate Song" Manger's use of irony in the title characterizes his intensely emotional and bold sense of lyrical expression. His song of hatred is his attempt to break hatred of its constraints, those constraints that have defined it in the Nazi consciousness. The first stanza of the poem situates a lone remaining singer before his ultimate host. This direct confrontation is the only way for him to define his own vengeance. Manger's heightened rage, urgency, and sense of imminent peril are the driving emotions in the poem. His fate, which he both fears and desires, is to sing a song to a "massacred host," the destroyed lodging of Israel. In the early stanzas of the poem, Manger emphasizes the ironies inherent to his song. What its rhythms have rendered before, the "Spring blossoming," has come to pass over the Kaddish, the Jewish song of the dead, which he has ultimately come to sing. The "shadow of gloom," evocative of the archetypal despair of children's stories, especially as he suggests it will be sung to children, becomes the sole remaining agency of his song.

In stanzas four and five the poet sings a hate song itself. The ultimate embodiment of hate will be the extermination of children; once he expresses this, it seems like a horror too emphatic to take. The poem turns to the abstract, to the realm of dreams and the subconscious: "Divide me, God, a thousandwise,/Into evil dreams where I man devour/The flesh of the blond Cains." The violent, vaguely metaphysical initial image renders the speaker irrevocably ruptured before the poem evokes the son of Adam and Eve and murderer of his brother Abel: Cain. Yet this is an Aryan Cain, in multitude. In moving and dramatic images the final stanza of the poem sings in direct address to God: "Send over that bloody land all your carrion crows" is an image that rings with a dark beauty. As the rhythms and language proceed, the density of hatred gathers momentum and creates out of itself something vital and perseverant. Hate, Manger's hate, has been the thing that has ultimately divided and fallen into step with itself. The ending image, of dogs licking blood from German knives, depicts not only the violence of a gory predation but it also powerfully draws an illustration of a survivalist will, a will to take life from the instrument of one's demise. "My Hate Song" ultimately describes two impulses. It sings a song, and it does so in a traditional form that links it to life-sustaining, culture-sustaining utterances throughout history. Within that form it sets down an undeniable motivation for retribution for wrongs inflicted. This is a motivation so intense that it stems from and, to some extent, operates within the very vehicle of the Holocaust's tragedy—hate.

—Martha Sutro