A Poet’s Lament for Poland’s Lost Shtetls

March 28 2019

One of the foremost figures in post-World War II Yiddish literature, Chaim Grade is best known for his works of fiction. But in the 1930s he began his literary career—in the then-Polish city of Vilna—as a poet. He wrote the poem “Jewish Towns of Poland” in Paris in 1947; in it, the evidently Jewish speaker travels through what had by now become a judenrein country. To great effect, Grade populates the shtetls with biblical figures, as in the following excerpt, from a new translation by Julian Levinson:

Jewish towns of Poland, you blazed in my heart and my memory,
Like the places in the Holy Land that lit up the pages of Torah.
My childhood years were barefoot steps over a river that passed my home, which became my Jordan.
And now every wall I see is a ruin of the Western Wall,
And as once in Bethlehem, a lament rises from the streets of Krakow. . . .

Dear [Matriarchs] from the Yiddish Bibles, Rachel and Leah of the women’s prayers,
You sat on the porches with all the women of the town.
Angels who accompanied Jacob, where will you find peace?
You have become orphaned guests, condemned to wander and beg.
And you, Patriarchs from Canaan, once at home in this land of the Poles,
You who stood like a divide between barman and drunken peasants,
The way back to heaven has been closed off to you
Because you walked along our streets, wearing our clothes.

The heavens no longer recognize you, and you gaze out, terrified, from
A trampled hedge, from a ruined gate,
Like a pious old Jew from a tiny village,
Who wakes from his Sabbath nap to find the world has turned upside-down.
The boys no longer stroll with girls on the riverbank,
And no longer do buses avoid the town on Sabbath,
The uncircumcised sit like honored men at the doors of Jews,
They have torn the siding from the stores,
The holy books thrown away, the wooden synagogue destroyed.

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More about: Arts & Culture, Chaim Grade, Holocaust, Poetry, Poland, Polish Jewry, Yiddish literature

 

Who Changed the Term “Nakba” into a Symbol of Arab Victimization?

April 19 2019

In contemporary Palestinian discourse, not to mention that of the Palestinians’ Western supporters, the creation of the state of Israel is known as the Nakba, or catastrophe—sometimes explicitly compared with the Holocaust. The very term has come to form a central element in a narrative of passive Palestinian suffering at Jewish hands. But when the Syrian historian Constantin Zureiq first used the term with regard to the events of 1948, he meant something quite different, and those responsible for changing its meaning were none other than Israelis. Raphael Bouchnik-Chen explains:

In his 1948 pamphlet The Meaning of the Disaster (Ma’na al-Nakba), Zureiq attributed the Palestinian/Arab flight to the stillborn pan-Arab assault on the nascent Jewish state rather than to a premeditated Zionist design to disinherit the Palestinian Arabs. “We [Arabs] must admit our mistakes,” [he wrote], “and recognize the extent of our responsibility for the disaster that is our lot.” . . . In a later book, The Meaning of the Catastrophe Anew, published after the June 1967 war, he defined that latest defeat as a “Nakba,” . . . since—just as in 1948—it was a self-inflicted disaster emanating from the Arab world’s failure to confront Zionism. . . .

It was only in the late 1980s that it began to be widely perceived as an Israeli-inflicted injustice. Ironically, it was a group of politically engaged, self-styled Israeli “new historians” who provided the Palestinian national movement with perhaps its best propaganda tool by turning the saga of Israel’s birth upside down, with aggressors turned into hapless victims, and vice-versa, on the basis of massive misrepresentation of archival evidence.

While earlier generations of Palestinian academics and intellectuals had refrained from exploring the origins of the 1948 defeat, the PLO chairman Yasir Arafat, who was brought to Gaza and the West Bank as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords and was allowed to establish his Palestinian Authority (PA) in parts of those territories, grasped the immense potential of reincarnating the Nakba as a symbol of Palestinian victimhood rather than a self-inflicted disaster. In 1998, he proclaimed May 15 a national day of remembrance of the Nakba. In subsequent years, “Nakba Day” has become an integral component of the Palestinian national narrative and the foremost event commemorating their 1948 “catastrophe.”

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More about: Arab World, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, New historians, Yasir Arafat