Streets of the River: The Book of Dirges and Power (Rehovot Hanahar: Sefer Ha'iliyot Vehakoah)

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STREETS OF THE RIVER: THE BOOK OF DIRGES AND POWER (Rehovot hanahar: Sefer ha'iliyot vehakoah)

Poems by Uri Zvi Greenberg, 1951

Uri Zvi Greenberg's collection of poems Rehovot hanahar: Sefer ha'iliyot vehakoah (Streets of the River: The Book of Dirges and Power ), published in 1951 and awarded the Bialik prize, was the poet's anguished response to the Holocaust and is arguably the most magnificent model of lamentations in the pantheon of Holocaust poetry. Borrowed from a Sabbath prayer that rhapsodies the rivers of faith flowing with wisdom, the title represents the stream of bloodshed and tears shed by the victims as well as the constant wandering of the Jewish people that ultimately leads to the Holy Land.

The tempestuous bard's oeuvre is marked by an explosive rhetorical force, seething with exhortations and powerful declamations against the tormentors of his people. The speaker's individual persona that addresses the reader is on display, accentuating the subjective, potent voice and conflating the political with the personal. Not infrequently the "I" is employed to dramatize the horror of the European Jew and the nation, suffering destruction and clinging to their eternal longing for redemption. Skirting along the edge of egocentric obsessiveness and with an intense sense of thunderous fury, Greenberg assumes the role of a biblical prophet to bemoan the devastating terror of the Holocaust, willing to confront and denounce the God who instead of protecting his chosen people had surrendered them to the murderous gentiles. In one scathing verse he asks: "God, why hast thou made me a pillar among my people." And while the poet points an accusatory finger at the Nazis, he is intent on reminding us that the European genocide that engulfed his people is only but one link in a chain of a mythic narrative that has divided Christian from Jew. In this ahistorical version the modern catastrophe is situated within a broader story line in which the Jews, from time immemorial, have been subject to persecution by the same, archetypal enemy. On the whole the message hammered home to Israelis is that there exists a connective between those Jews who lost their lives in millennia of murderous sprees and those exterminated in the camps—both part of a holistic chain of catastrophes leading to the establishment of Israel.

At heart the poems lament both the gruesome fate that befell Greenberg's parents and sisters whom he could not save and the victims that perished in Auschwitz. In this respect, it is noteworthy that in Greenberg's literary universe there exists an acute bipolar dichotomy, an obtrusive duality that is the golden thread that runs through the 385 pages of vengeful utterances. The cycle of poems oscillates between passages, at times almost involuntary in mood, that explore the horrible calamity to imaginative modes of rebirth shot through with visions of regeneration. Indeed, Greenberg's ars poetica, while showcasing a tortured human soul that throbs beneath a cracked surface, abrim with feelings of mourning, guilt, and powerlessness, simultaneously betrays a shard of hope. As such, the poet renarrativizes the Holocaust experience, presenting it through the prism of the ancient covenant that God had made with Abraham and which encases within its midst ultimate salvation. Renewal and survival is based on the ancient doctrine that Jewish existence is immortal and cannot be brought to an end. Amid the scenes of massacres and mourning one discovers a note of faith—that out of the ruins, post Holocaust Jewry will triumphantly rise to once again establish sovereignty in the cherished homeland, restoring the Davidic destiny in fulfillment of manifest national destiny. Also looming large is the overarching topos of Greenberg's personal loss on which the poet tells a large part of his jeremiads. For the orphaned narrator the destruction of his childhood paradise extends far beyond the individual scale to include an entire people who stand at the edge of an abyss.

The theme of German barbarity looms large in "We Were Not Likened to Dogs Among the Gentiles," a disturbing poem that shines a light on the wicked and their treatment of the Jews. The artist gasps at the love and care bestowed upon the dog by his gentile owners, who grieve his passing as they would a family member, while denying the Jew any similar humane compassion afforded to the animal. According to Greenberg, the violation of the Jew is comparable to that meted out to a leprous sheep, "Before the slaughter they did not pull out the teeth of their sheep/They did not strip the wool from their bodies as they did to us/They did not push the sheep into the fire and make ash of the living." In a volcanic outburst the poem's coda contains the vehement warning that the desecration of Jewish life will forever be imbedded in the annals of western civilization, destined to become the axis of reference for all human atrocities to come: "He who compares will say: This analogy is of the Jewish kind." Elsewhere, Greenberg references the murder of his father by a Nazi soldier on a snowy hill, the invasion of the Jewish home by gentiles who engrave a cross onto the walls, and a yearning to be buried with his parents for he cannot live without them.

The intermingling of biblical motifs with the European genocide is further amplified in, "Lord! You Saved Me from Ur-Germany As I Fled." Employing the legend in which God saves Abram from the fire (Ur) after being tried and sentenced to death, the poet equates the furnaces of the ancient Chaldees with the crematoriums of Auschwitz. Further, the poet's survival (albeit with a scarred and rived psyche) and the shielding of Israel from Nazi attack is a redemptive affirmation of divine kindness and a sign that the holy covenant will be actualized with the return of the Jews to their homeland. Above all, Greenberg's central message is that the supreme form of retribution will be victory over his people's enemies and the effluence of Jewish pride in the land of their forefathers.

—Dvir Abramovich