My Little Sister (Ahoti Ketanah)

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MY LITTLE SISTER (Ahoti ketanah)

Poem by Abba Kovner, 1967

The poem My Little Sister (published as Ahoti ketanah in 1967 and appearing in English translation in My Little Sister and Selected Poems, 1965-1985 in 1986), bearing much likeness to the Song of Solomon, is constructed as part of five series of 46 shorter poems and forms a eulogy for the people of Vilna who perished in the Holocaust. It tells the story of a young Jewish girl who crawls up over the corpses buried in a mass grave near Ponar, a labor camp near the Vilna ghetto, and returns to the ghetto to report the tragic fate of the thousands of victims. The poem gradually leads toward the suffering of the narrator's mother. The poem is Abba Kovner's most focused delivery of Holocaust poetry.

The poem is narrated by one of the girl's dead brothers speaking omnisciently from his grave. He mourns the fate of his sister, who emerges as somehow deader than he. The girl, finding refuge in a convent, lives in solitude, submerged in a surreal world of deadening silence and replete with Christian allusions. Kovner voices subtle protest against Christian acquiescence to the Holocaust, drawing links between the priest and nuns of the convent and the Holy Trinity of Christianity and the Jewish victims. His protest extends to the Jewish God, who simply stares at the morbid fate of the little girl in silent disapproval.

The suffering and chasteness of the nuns are contrasted with the unwilling martyrdom of the little girl. The nuns' love for Christ takes on an erotic quality, while the love Kovner and the narrator of the poem feel for the little girl emerges purer and superior to that experienced by the nuns for their God. Love in Kovner's poem does not take on masculine or satisfaction-oriented qualities but instead connotes yearning and loss.

In My Little Sister Kovner succeeds in creating a suitable fusion of poetic expression and symbolic representation of the victims of the Holocaust. He does so by diverting from normal grammatical guidelines and discarding personal and geographical demarcations—except for the monastery and the nuns. Thus, by abstracting the main character of the poem, the fate of the entire Jewish nation converges with that of the little girl.

One of the most prominent motifs in the poem is the image of a bride and groom—the sister and her beloved brother—and the coming together in a covenant of marriage. This motif, used in the Bible to represent the Covenant between God and his people, expands the theme of the poem from the love of the individuals animated in it and the national tragedy. The wretched misery of the sister and the fate of the Jewish nation are transmitted through a network of visual and lyrical allusions that relive the memories of the dishonoring of the Covenant.

Another way in which Kovner evokes the collective fate of European Jewry is by repeatedly changing the speaking voice—it may be that of the ancient sages, the brother, or the young girl—that alternates with the voice of Jesus. The fragmentation of speech is aided by grammatical and visual lack of flow in the poem.

—Ziva Shavitsky