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[Page 429]

Yisroel Shtern

Menachem Flakser, New York

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Yisroel Shtern

Ostrolenka – Warsaw – Treblinka

 

Yisroel Shtern was born in the town of Ostrolenka, Lomza district, which is on the border of Congressional Poland and Lithuania. The wide River Narew surrounds the town. Monuments to wars of bygone days stood in the fields near it. The town's workmen toiled all week, making clothes, shoes and hats for the farmers of the area, who came to town for the Tuesday and Friday market days. The storekeepers also expected good business on those days.

As Yisroel Shtern himself replied in Zalman Reizen's questionnaire for the Lexicon of Yiddish Literature and Journalism, he was born during the Shavuot period in 1894. This meant that he himself did not know the exact date of his birth. The home he was born into was a very poor one. His father, the melamed [teacher], passed away at an early age, leaving a widow who had to support and educate three small children. In addition, the mother's father lived in the house. He was an elderly man with a long white beard, a scribe by profession. He checked the kashrut [fitness in accordance with Jewish law] of phylacteries and mezuzot [parchments inscribed with verses, affixed to doorposts in Jewish homes] and, once in a great while, he wrote a Torah scroll for a Mishna study group, or for the butchers' prayer house. He did not make a good living from this, and his widowed daughter had to take care of her elderly father as well.

She was young and blooming and did not lose her head. She began to bake sweet baked goods and every day, toward evening, she sold them at the homes of the city's well-to-do Jews. The children studied in a heder and, later on, she even sent them to learn in yeshivas. Yisroel, the eldest and most accomplished of the children, studied in yeshivas in Lomza and Slobodka. When he came home for the holidays, he prayed in the shtebl of the Gur Chassidim. During prayers, he always stood in front of the bookcase, his face stuck between the long binding pages of Yoreh De'ah. Only very infrequently did I see him pray together with the congregation.

For a certain period, as a yeshiva graduate, Yisroel studied in a class of other young men, “accomplished heads”, with my father, Chanoch Flakser. My father had rabbinic ordination. For many years, he was supported by his father-in-law, Reb Efraim Goldbruch, that wonderful Jew, to whom, in due course, Shtern dedicated one of his few poems.

More than once, as a small boy, I woke before morning on a winter day, when the bright lamps were suddenly lit, and the entire house was filled with the singsong voices of those studying Torah in a group.

When World War I broke out, Shtern was in Vilna, the capital of Austria-Hungary, imprisoned there as a Russian citizen. During the war years, he absorbed the philosophical-literary currents prevailing in Austria then.

Shtern came to Warsaw, but he was not seen in literary circles. He was connected to some kibbutz of students of the musar [ethics] school. At that time, his poems began to appear in various journals, such as Ringen and Kaliastra, but without any special impact. When a poem of his appeared in the Sabbath Eve Moment newspaper – only then did the writer Hersz Dawid Nomberg come running to the Writers Union at 13 Tlomacka Street, calling out, “Who is this Shtern? Where is he?”

But Shtern did not get involved in literary circles. This was a period of increasing unrest in literary Warsaw. Markisz came from Russia with his poem Zylinder oif de Fees un de Shtivel oifn Kup (Top Hat on the Feet and Boots on the Head); Uri Zvi Greenberg came from his father's [Jewish] law court in Lemberg and Mejlech Rawicz from Vienna, with the cold shadow of Spinoza in his poems. The journal Literarischer Bletter and many books appeared. Youths from Chassidic homes filled the house at 13 Tlomacka Street; stormy literary evenings and enthusiastic discussions

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were held there. Although Shtern did not get involved in all this, he stood on the side. He could be seen at the “Lithuanian Shas Society” at 39 Nalewki Street, or at the prayer house of the “Dead Chassidim” (Breslover) on Dzielna Street.

Shtern became more and more withdrawn, as if in his own separate world, even when he began to appear among his writer colleagues. No one knew what Shtern was doing, and how he supported himself. I will never forget how, one winter evening, I finally reached the room or, more correctly, the hovel where Shtern lived. Shtern lay on a rickety iron bed, in a pile of rags, sunk in a deep sleep. He would distance himself from the world for many weeks and then, suddenly, a brilliant essay of his, and sometimes a poem as well, appeared in the newspaper.

He expressed a protest against everything around him, and was not ready to compromise with life. I remember just one incident. The Writers Union succeeded in getting Shtern to join its editorial staff for the summer months, to proofread and thereby earn enough to cover his sustenance. He rebelled against all the limitations life imposes on us.

With special delight, he wandered around the streets of the city. He liked to look at the faces of troubled and depressed people, to stop near a beggar on the street corner, and to finish by sitting with a holy book at the “Lithuanian Shas Society”.

Because of the shameful conditions of his life, Shtern became ill with a grave disease and spent months in the hospital. His beautiful Hospital Poems were born there, among the most important of his works.

Shtern did not consider his writing an actual profession. This is attested to by the fact that, for the ten years he lived in Warsaw, amid lively literary activity, it did not occur to him to collect his works in one book. Among the writers, he especially liked Hillel Zeitlin, and was among those who came to the latter's house on Szliska Street, a place where perturbed souls sought to correct the problems of the Jewish people. Among the writers in Warsaw, it was said that something had happened in Yisroel's private life, some tragic event that affected the development of his life. The event remained embedded deep in his soul; its influence was felt in that he always sought a place among people of the ethics school of thought.

World War II brought Shtern, together with millions of Poland's Jews, under the brutal regime of the Nazis. He suffered from want and from hunger, and was often bloated, according to the testimony of Emanuel Ringelblum. Work was arranged for Shtern in the ghetto workshop. He felt good there and succeeded in doing all the hard work. One day, they assembled all the workshop workers and brought them all to the Umschlagplatz [the collection point], and from there – to the gas chambers at Treblinka.

According to Ringelblum's testimony and that of other eyewitnesses, although Shtern wrote a great deal in the ghetto, the works of this unique person and talented poet were lost together with him.

 

H. Leyvik, New York

I do not intend to write an evaluation or professional critique, but rather things of a personal nature. They are influenced by the fate of the poet I met during visits to Warsaw in 1925 and especially when news reached us of his tragic death in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Yes, Yisroel Shtern apparently felt the infernal fire approaching, even before it ignited in all its cruelty. Loneliness, bitterness and poverty were his lot. Here he lies in the hospital, broken, depressed. Only here, however, in the hospital, he peels off fettering chains of despair. Here, spring blooms for him: he looks into the patients' faces, sees the smile of God in them, and writes the poem Springtime in the Hospital (the poem was printed in the Warszawa Almanach, 1924).

Was he religious in the Jewish-Traditionalist sense? I doubt it, but I think that he was certainly a believer. His way of life was mystic, but God's smile did not always shine on him.

He published his poems in the Literarischer Bletter newspaper, in the Folkszeitung Bund newspaper and others. Was he a Bundist? No. But he always had a weakness for poor and suffering people, the simple folk, laborers, the wonderful unseen ones.

He himself dressed in pauper's clothing; he was neglected. His pockets, however, were always full of literary works – his own and those of other writers, Jewish and non-Jewish.

At the Writers Union in Warsaw, they liked him, felt his unique power. I myself was a witness to this, when I visited Warsaw in 1924. When he came to the Writers Union, he would sit alone, preoccupied. Suddenly, he would get up and leave. Where did he go?

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He did not have a family. He used to wander the streets of Warsaw. He loved the streets and was capable of walking around for an entire day. What did he seek there? Only he himself knew.

Yisroel Shtern was broad-shouldered and sturdy, his steps heavy and strong, even though he had not eaten his fill.

He would enter the house of prayer of the Breslover Chassidim, called the “Dead Chassidim”. The atmosphere there was to his liking. He stayed there entire days, as if he were one of them. He sat there and learned. Why did he do this? Was it because he wanted to distance himself from people, or because he found his God there? Sometimes for both reasons – because he ran away and because he found God – and sometimes for neither reason.

Here he is, wandering the streets again, under the skies of Warsaw, with the fears, with the loneliness, with the shout: God, be with me! And during all this, he thought of Y. L. Peretz …

For him, Peretz was the epitome of a Jewish poet and artist. He was happy, knowing that he lived in Peretz's city and was his contemporary, but wretched, because Peretz no longer lived. We sense this in his excellent essay, Kroinen tzu der Yiddisher Kritik (Crowns for Criticism).

* * *

Mejlech Rawicz, in his book Mein Lexicon (published in Montreal, 1945) recounts, among other things, that “Yisroel Shtern – so they said – went through an especially personal, intimate experience, which left a wound in his soul that did not form a scar, and thus – his strange way of life”.

Are we to accept that this one-time experience of Shtern's, the secret of which the poet never revealed, was the main reason for the catastrophic nature of his poetry? – I believe that this is mistaken. The roots of his poems are hidden in his personality, formed during the years of his childhood and youth, when he absorbed things of great sadness, national and religious as one.

According to Zalman Reizen's Lexicon, Yisroel Shtern published his poems in the weekly, Das Folk, in 1919. Later, he published a series of poems in Hillel Zeitlin's newspaper, Der Sne. Still later came his longer poems, Springtime in the Hospital and Ostrolenka (Literarisze Bletter, 1927).

In his first poems, his characteristic lines are already prominent, his way of identifying with the inanimate, with mute things in nature and the city, in a street and a house, such as a sidewalk, a post, a tree, stones, a wall, clouds, a dog. He saw his lot as inferior to the lot of them all, and it was as if he envied them. He said in his poems:

I do not envy anyone,
Except for the song of a scythe,
In a village towards evening.

Or:

My sadness
Hangs on all the trees
And does not fall to the ground …

In one of his earliest poems, Besha'asan Schwartzen Reigen (At the Time of the Black Rain), his sadness is especially obvious, when he describes “his dead brothers coming to him and pulling him towards them by his toes …” and he asserts:

– You knew our places –
The wild paths in the wild forest,
And You swore
With all Your holy compassion
That You would not let our little world
Sink;
See, the storm felled the ancient trees,
We, the young
Fell asleep, desperate, like grass without earth.

This was about two decades before Majdanek and before the Warsaw Ghetto.

He walked the streets of Warsaw, which were still free, and asked questions that were characteristic of him:

Why is every post and every roof
The master of itself and its image,
And why do I lower my eyes? –
Am I inferior to all the stones of the sidewalks,
Lying on the street, and they are not ashamed
To look heaven in the eye?

(Prayer of a Man in the Middle of the Day)

Could someone have told him then, that there might

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come a day when all the Jews would feel inferior to the stones of the sidewalk? This did indeed happen, twenty years later. The sidewalk was happier. And he, Shtern, looked for a way to fall and stay close to it …

* * *

Moshe Grossman, in his book, Heimishe Geshtalten (Homey Images) (Tel Aviv, 1953), describes the enthusiasm with which Numberg received Yisroel Shtern's Hospital Poems, that strange, weird man, and how he, Grossman himself, followed him once in amazement, as he walked the streets of the city:

– “I followed him,” wrote Grossman, “and observed him. He wore old, worn, faded clothes and so, too, were his shoes and his face: tired, wrinkled, dusty. Only the eyes – clear, bright eyes, the eyes of a child, and a spark of light and faith in them. He walked with an uncertain gait, like a messenger, a strange guest, unfamiliar …”

Grossman's description exactly matches the impression Shtern made on me when I met him. I say “met”, but it was not that easy to get to know him. At the Writers Union at 13 Tlomacka Street, he was a rare guest. His colleagues in Warsaw spoke of him with a smile on their lips, but not without respect. I met him once at the Writers Union, and his appearance matched Grossman's description. He sat on the side, alone, withdraw; he sat and was silent. I went over to him and introduced myself, “I would like to know you, Colleague Shtern.” He stood up and the soft look of his gentle eyes penetrated me. “So would I, with pleasure,” he replied. He took my hand in his broad, solid and heavy hand. To this day, I remember that handshake. “I recently read,” he said in his soft voice, “your poem, The Wolf, and was very impressed by it.” “Why particularly The Wolf?,” I asked him. He mumbled something and then said, “Because that's the way it is.”

I told him about the deep impression his poems made on me when I read them. He thanked me politely, and remained sitting in his place. Finally, I asked him if he would like to travel to America. He replied heavily, “What would I do there?”

In the Hitler years, when news reached us of the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto, we also heard how Hillel Zeitlin, of blessed memory, went on his final way, and how Yisroel Shtern, of blessed memory, was killed. It was painfully clear to me why Shtern was influenced by my poem, The Wolf, twenty years earlier. He, indeed, fulfilled everything in the poem about the rabbi at the time of destruction – and I only told about it …

What is a legend? Clear and refined reality, containing figures who were dreams, and became real in the light of reality. The style of legend suits the way of life of Hillel Zeitlin, who went to his death wrapped in a prayer shawl, as well as the figure of Yisroel Shtern, who lived and died as part of legend.

M. Waldman (Paris) in an article titled, The Legend – Yisroel Shtern, recounts: “In the first days of the war, he disappeared. For a long time, he was not seen; only when the thunder of the bombing abated, he appeared. He met friends with a soft whisper, as if he was blessing each of them. The last time I saw him was on 15 October 1939. I looked for him, to say goodbye to him, the revered poet, and to hear what he intended to do. Warsaw trod on ruins then. The streets became cemeteries, where stunned people wandered around. Suddenly, Yisroel Shtern appeared before me – like a miracle. He walked, his glance directed forward, sad, unshaven. The pockets of his tattered coat, which had become yellowed and grayed, swayed like sacks in the air.

He had filled his pockets with his sole possession – the writings of poets and philosophers he admired. He did not want to leave Warsaw. “Where would I go?,” he asked, “I cannot reach the place that I want to go to. So many Jews have remained here – and this is my fate, too.”

The same thing about Yisroel Shtern is recounted by the poet Avraham Zak, in his book, In Umru fun Yuren (Unrest of Years) (Argentina, 1954, Jidbuch). “Yisroel Shtern,” tells Zak, “did not sit in the kitchen (the kitchen of the writers in Warsaw, on Karmelicka Street, at the beginning of the war) a long time. It was as if something pursued him, distanced him from people. Where he was, and how he lived – no one knew, nor did he tell anyone. “What do you think, Colleague Shtern,” I asked him, “Are you staying here or leaving?” “Is it impossible to run from fate,” was his brief reply.

That same answer: fate – as Waldman related. And Waldman finishes his story with these words:

“They say, perhaps this is a legend? If it is, more can be told of Yisroel Shtern. He laid on scorched earth, his eyes turned toward Heaven, and softly prayed for the redemption. He did not speak to people and returned his soul to his Creator like a saint, protesting against the world and its God.”

What Shtern felt, lying on the burning ground, we

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can only imagine, each in his own way. In 1943, I wrote a poem in memory of Yisroel Shtern, called My Brother, Yisroel Shtern, which was included in my book, I Wasn't in Treblinka. The poem was written under the influence of the legend of his death in the Warsaw Ghetto.


My Brother, Yisroel Shtern

My brother, Yisroel Shtern,
my brother of abundant poems,
we belong to one father,
one father – the eternal Jew.

My brother, Yisroel Shtern,
our father went to the slaughter,
to hear the ram's horn of the Messiah.
It happened yesterday, yesterday,

And you did the same thing,
but in a slightly different way.
You lie amid ruins,
in the middle of a Warsaw courtyard.

You lie on stones of the sacrifice
as Isaac lay –
in you, all your bones yearn
to sing without asking.

You do not ask: like the ram.
And who will sharpen the knife?
And who will blow on the fire,
to throw the sacrifice into the flames?

You do not ask – you begin to sing.
Completely free of yourself,
The wonder of your voice begins to ring
higher, higher and with vigor.

I lie – as usual – covered in dust,
no limb moves.
How wonderful it is for me, wonderful to be eternal,
how wonderful it is for me without a cradle, without a grave.

I will hear your voice from afar,
my brother, Yisroel Shtern!
It has been given to me to make heard
words of ancient strains.

And suddenly your voice becomes silent,
and from your silence come out with a new melody,
with a new melody
tones under your palate.

The gates of Heaven opened,
and remain so, eternally open.
The blood that should demand and shout,
wants to sleep, wants to sleep, wants to sleep.

Someone, Heaven, will tear at you,
and I will restore it to completion again,
and give you redress
with my bullet-ridden limbs.

Here is my prayer of a midnight company,
accompanying the sound of my father's ram's horn –
my limbs rise in stoning,
in murder, in strangulation, in burning.

How good and how pleasant,
sweeter than the delight of a holiday,
to fulfill four deaths –
one martyrdom is not enough for me –

I will hear your voice from afar,
what will happen – remains secret.
A wonder of our times
which cannot be told.

H. Leyvik


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A Tree in the Ghetto (Yisroel Shtern)

Rachel Auerbach, Tel Aviv

It may have been in the spring or the beginning of the summer of 1941, at the height of the season of hunger and typhus among the many beggars, peddlers and street musicians. It was after Herszele's death. I could not forgive myself for not trying to feed him an extra portion from my kitchen. When I met Yisroel Shtern by chance, at one of our institutions, I took him aside and invited him to come to 40 Leszno Street every day to have a bowl of soup. His first question was, “Is the kitchen kosher?”

“What could be unkosher here?” I replied. “There is no milk or meat here. We add a little oil, which is parve [not dairy, not meat].

Shtern did not respond with even a hit of a smile to my witticism, and also did not say whether or not he would come. Nevertheless, after a few days, he appeared, and from then on, came regularly. As soon as our cook saw him, she immediately served him a bowl of soup, according to my instructions, without a chit. Both she and the “patron” of our kitchen, the former owner of an estate in the area of Ripin, were used to such “violations”. They included this customer among my “free types”. To one thing only they did not become reconciled: why did I not let him take the portion home, and specifically invited him to sit at the table in the big hall?

And really, what is there to deny? Even among the wretched refugees from provincial towns who comprised most of the kitchen's customers, Shtern was conspicuous because of his terrible slovenliness.

The edges of his coat were tattered all around, and the sleeves and the elbows were ragged. He did not remove his greasy hat, black from great use, from his head. He shaved infrequently, and the stubble on his cheeks stuck out wildly, like porcupine quills. While it seemed as if there was no longer a jacket under his coat, nevertheless, his belly was unusually bloated. I asked Kirman about this, and he explained that because the pockets of his coat and its hems were torn, Shtern folded his important belongings inside, under the edges of his coat: a book to read – the poems of Rilke, Kasprowicz and some of his own, and a cup for ritual hand-washing, which he kept intact, according to the precepts of the Shulchan Aruch

As the old saying goes about the wise man, who carries everything he needs on him.

Even before the war, we knew that Shtern was one of the “dead Chassidim” – the Chassidim of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov – nevertheless, we did not imagine how far his piety would go …

*

Toward the end of December 1941, the kitchen – to offer assistance in the winter – was turned into a kitchen for convalescents. We began to cook nourishing, rich soups especially for those recuperating from typhus. From now on, only those who received special permission could enjoy the services of the kitchen, and only for one month. Although the kitchen was subject to continuous supervision, even in this situation, I could still “smuggle in an exception”. Many writers, artists and musicians took a great interest in our kitchen and its calories. For Shtern, the important thing was kashrut [fitness in accordance with Jewish law]. I was obliged to let him know that the food would be cooked with pork fat and horse bones. From that day, Shtern disappeared from the kitchen.

I did not see him for a few months, until Passover Eve 1942, when Kirman came to 40 Leszno Street, and told me that Shtern had declined terribly, actually to the point of death, and that he must be saved.

I dropped everything and we went to see him. In a cellar apartment on the corner of Pawia and Smocza Streets, lived a respectable Chassidic family. They had allocated a corner to Shtern to sleep in. Thin sunbeams shone through windows under the ceiling, which were closed with iron wires. Two beds stood along the walls, laden with pillows and covered with red velvet coverlets. An old book cabinet stood opposite the door.

At the table in the center of the room sat Yisroel Shtern, who was hard to recognize. His body was bloated; the edema on his face was covered by a very thick beard. The family tried to justify the fact that they

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had not made up Shtern's bed. “He refused to lie down,” they said. “What could we do?”

Shtern listened to the conversation. It seemed that he himself was irritated by his condition. He allowed us to decide what to do as we saw fit. He took exception to only one thing: he would not ride in a rickshaw to which a man was harnessed.

I cannot remember where we found a wagon and a horse. There were almost no carriages in the ghetto then. We took Shtern to the TOZ (the Jewish health organization) on Gesia Street, where we had a “strong advocate in the family” – the writer, Jehuda Feld, who was headed the administration.

They gave Shtern a haircut, shaved his beard, washed him and dressed him in new clothes from the TOZ storeroom. Only then was he checked by an internist, who did not wait for the results of the tests, and injected him with a good-sized dose of glucose. Then, Shtern was taken to the refugee center at 14 Leszno Street.

We quickly called the Jewish self-help administration, where “our” people sat – Icchak Giterman and Emanuel Ringelblum. According to a recommendation “from on high”, the manager of the place put a bed into his office, so that Shtern would have a room of his own. Shtern was given dry goods from the YISA storeroom, and a woman was hired to cook and serve him meals. They also gave us medications and the money necessary for additional foods rich in vitamins. The money was placed in the hands of Josef Kirman, as Shtern was known for his parsimony and his refusal to “waste” a penny.

Kirman knew Shtern inside-out, and was as devoted to him as a brother. He pampered him lovingly and fulfilled all his whims. From time to time, Kirman gave me a little money, and I would run to the market at 42 Leszno Street, near our kitchen, and buy for Shtern a piece of cheese, a bit of butter, vegetables and fruits smuggled from the Aryan side. Our care of Shtern bore fruit. The swelling slowly receded. He got up and at the end of June began to go out.

Keeping the bloating of hunger at a distance cost a few thousand zlotys. I remember this because there were tens of thousands of swollen victims of hunger in the ghetto then. The fate of those thus stricken was sealed. The soups of the people's kitchen could not help them by then; they could only harm them. Treatment costing thousands of zlotys was far beyond the ability of the Jewish self-help [organization].

*

This was at the beginning of the summer of 1942, during the time of the Gestapo's nightly murders, of the night of terror that preceded the first expulsion aktzia. Signs of what was to come came faster and worsened; the atmosphere became more and more tense.

Shtern lay alone in his room; he read poetry and was sunk in thought. We refrained from telling him about the horrors of the street. We also did not supply him with newspapers, with their news of German victories. In those days, I think Shtern lived a quiet idyllic life on the brink of destruction.

I remember one of my visits to him, when he was at the refugee center. I brought him a bag of strawberries and a jar of blueberry compote. The center's office was on the second floor of the building's left wing, near the Evangelical church, which was closed up. Through the open window, it was possible to discern a network of towers and turrets, stone facades, a sector of Christian architecture. Closer – a tall, broadly branching tree. This chestnut tree was completely covered with white flowers, like a Christian fir tree adorned with white candles and fluttering flames. Among the cornices of the church birds nested, and in their nests – chicks that had hatched out of their eggs. The birds flew back and forth with crumbs of food in their beaks. They chirped and fluttered around the nests, as if they did not know that this was the ghetto, in which Jews were doomed to extermination.

Silence and solitude, as if two steps from here, the street did not rage in the throes of being at death's door, as if those of us inside did not know anything.

…“In the Shadow of the Old Cathedral”… we talked about Emile Zola the romanticist, who was somewhat well-known, as he was revealed in his novel, The Dream, in which he describes young love between the illegitimate son of a bishop and the daughter of an organist …

– “There is no great writer who is not a lyricist, at least for a short period of his creativity” – remarked Yisroel Shtern. He asked me to read a poem of Stephan George to him, because it was hard for him to read in the dusky light.

– “It would be better if you read one of your poems to me,” I requested. “Write a poem about the tree that blooms in the very heart of the ghetto …”

Before I left, Shtern asked about the news. I tried to avoid telling him about the terrible events that were

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happening in the city and about the even worse things everyone spoke of, but I came to understand that it was impossible to fool him.

– “The German is strong, the German is strong” – he mumbled when we talked about the situation on the fronts. In the ghetto, there was no lack of optimists, for whom every bit of news from the east or from the west was for them a sign of the downfall of the Germans. Yisroel Shtern was not among the optimists. He also did not delude himself about the future of the ghetto and Warsaw.

He did not want to pleasure himself with books of short stories. He did not believe in them.

But did he perhaps believe just a bit?

*

I had not seen Shtern since the expulsion began. They told me that in the satanic whirlwind, in the futile struggle with annihilation, Shtern maintained a certain measure of a sense of survival. Someone from the ghetto's employment agency (the journalist Ptakowski, I believe) sent Shtern to a German place of work on the Aryan side. For some time, he was seen every morning, marching in the work lines that went out of the ghetto. Shtern had already passed the age of fifty, but he tried to look healthy and invigorated. They told me that he got a blue work smock from somewhere. He put on a checked cap, hung a cloth bread satchel on his shoulder and marched with a group of others.

However, “the masked ball” did not last long. Shtern was caught in one of the “wild” blockades during the second half of August. These took place on any day when a few hundred “heads” to complete the transport were lacking at the Umschlagplatz (the place where those who were expelled were assembled, before sending them to the concentration camps).

The S.S. men were tired of shouting and shooting, and wanted to finish their “work” day quickly. They sent a few Ukrainians to one of the ghetto's gates at five o'clock, when the groups began coming back to the ghetto from work, and directed some of them straight to the Umschlagplatz. Sometimes, they held a selection there, but most of the time, they sent everyone straight to the railroad cars, with the bundles of onions and carrots they intended to bring home. Among the “heads”, the invisibly laurel-wreathed head of Yisroel Shtern fell into their hands …

*

Yisroel Shtern was one of the most important poets who grew out of our literature after World War I. As early as the 20s, his Hospital Poems series placed him in the first rank of Jewish poetic art in the entire world.

A deep religious flame lit his perception of the world. A seething inner climate breathed from his every line – an original mixture of Jewish scholarship and modern thought, of the small town and the big world.

The origin and abnormal conditions of development of the poet among the Jews, and the usual anomalies of every poet struggling with his milieu and himself made Shtern what he was: a combination of spiritual greatness and, in daily life, genuine idleness. His idleness went so far, that pleas to collect and publish at least one volume of his poetry came to nothing.

Thus was Yisroel Shtern until World War II broke out. What happened to him during the days of destruction? To everything I have recounted about his fate, I must add something about his spiritual metamorphosis in the ghetto. Whoever observed his behavior in those days said that the recluse, after years of seclusion, reached a degree of revelation. He became more humane and socially active. In the smothering atmosphere of the fate of the Jews and human suffering, it was as if Shtern felt at home – where he had drawn extraordinary inspiration.

*

Piles of the dead covered the roads taken by the deported, from one end of Occupied Poland to the other. In a green uniform and the helmet of a German gendarme, Death walked about in broad daylight, in streets crowded with the hunger-stricken and noisy with the cries of beggars and the shouts of peddlers. It hovered around the walls, stood on guard at the gates of houses and fired a rifle at little children.

The dead wallowed at the sides of the pavements, covered with sheets of paper; the epidemic ran wild. The gravedigger and city madman did their job. Was it possible for a poet to be absent here?

Peretz Markisz's “Days of Blood and Honey” were stricken with darkness – the Jewish days that tugged at the heart and gave voice to the Jewish poet.

And so, in his last days, Yisroel Shtern became one of the anonymous comforters seen in the courtyards and at street corners after the nights of killing – standing and

[Page 437]

preaching a sermon of encouragement, or singing a song of solace.

The tragic and the grotesque, the fantastic and the exceptional, shocked and demanded, burrowed into the soul to its utmost depths.

All activity in the ghetto wore a veil of philanthropy. Under the mask of social assistance, literature also flowered. To our great surprise, there had never been such a demand for poetry from our public, as in the ghetto years.

At 14 Leszno Street, in the same building where Shtern lay in the refugee center, the intelligentsia's public kitchen – formerly, the journalists' kitchen – was opened after the ghetto was established. It was organized by A.M. Apfelbaum, formerly a member of the Moment's editorial staff. About two months after the ghetto closed, Apfelbaum organized Motzei Shabbat [Saturday night] parties here, called “Literary Seudah Shlishit [third Sabbath meal]”. For a small payment, one could get a cup of ersatz coffee with real sugar and a slice of cake baked with wheat flour mixed with potatoes. Writers and artists received these refreshments free of charge. The main attraction was the literary program. A table, covered with a white tablecloth, was placed on a platform. A pair of brass candlesticks was put on it. The walls were decorated with stylized Chassidic images, cut from colored paper. This was a sort of nod at or hint of the accepted tradition of Peretz. Yisroel Shtern sat at the table, quiet, somewhat pensive, silent before beginning to speak. It was as if letters of fire darted in the hall. Everything he said awoke intense attention. His theory of poetry, the philosophical idea taking wing – were ignited by one flame.

Yisroel Shtern's front teeth had fallen out, and his speech was hard to follow. His words carried in the hall like a faint growl, yet despite this, their content reached his audience. The number of his followers at the Saturday night meetings grew.

Sometimes he read one of his new poems to the audience, a poem about what was taking place around us. I remember a hint and fragment of such a poem. He read the poem at one of the Mendele Mocher Seforim [Mendele the Bookseller] evenings observed in the ghetto days. It was called A Letter to America, a paraphrase of a well-known folksong. It was a lament, sending greetings from those doomed to death to those far-off Jews, who, in due course, would weep for our destruction.

It may be that we did not appreciate, that even Shtern did not understand, that the poet had a sense of the future, a revelation of lyrical prophesy. Even today, the heart aches for the loss, for the voice that growled poetry, silenced before its time.

Shtern was killed in August 1942. With him were lost forever all the poems he wrote in those years, deeper and more mature than the earlier ones. How lovely is the light of sunset.

If, someday, they dig under the ghetto's ruins and the third part of the Ringelblum archive is found, my papers will be discovered there. I turned them over for safekeeping right after the aktzia broke out. Among them, on the back of an advertisement for the ghetto laundry, is Shtern's poem about the tree in the ghetto, the poem I “ordered” from him. He gave it to me to read and I never got to return it.

[Page 438]

ost438.jpg
Poems and essays in Yiddish by Yisroel Shtern
– collected by H. Leyvik – published by CKA, New York, U.S.A.

 


[Page 439]

My Book “Ostrolenka”
Efraim Goldbruch

Yisroel Shtern

I

Exactly like one who lies at the feet
Of the night and ties darkness around
His head, like bandages
Because severe pain cuts inside
With long knives, like a long year,
Because dozens of lanterns spit
With light on the sidewalk,
And every stain of light is a year,
All his years lie,
Spit into the streets,
And he flees (like heaven
Flees at dusk when it sees
That all its property has been burned,
And its last gold coin
Is also false and worn-out …),
And he flees, like a mother
At the funeral of her child,
When her vision and hearing sink,
And at every step the wind whispers
In her ear: Go back!

If you see your light buried,
You will go mad,
And your remaining children
Still need a mother … !
And he flees and plunges himself into
The darkness as in a river: -
Perhaps he has grave sins
Perhaps he should come out rich,
Immersed and purified,

[Page 440]

So long as the wool is not shorn
One cannot begin to spin,
And if he has lost everything,
Perhaps he will find God.

Who knows then, the meaning of his mourning?
He lies somewhere near a fence,
An abandoned, strange fence,
And as if in a wide robe
He holds, folded in the dark
All the parts into which the world
Has crumbled, and he cries.
Someone is approaching from afar
With a lantern in his hand.
The shadows begin to tremble
And flee to the sides,
Begin to plod along near the wall,
To find a savior here
And they come across him, lying down,
The lonely one, lying down,
And they ask him for pleas.

Exactly like one who lies at the feet
Of the night and ties darkness around
His head, like bandages
Only shadows, that fear,
Know not of it and expect
Help from the strong man, –
So you come to me, images
From Ostrolenka, hugging yourselves
With bent heads,
But all of you have become
One who comes near me: Efraim Goldbruch.

II

A beautiful Jewish soul – everyone said,
As they say in mid-month: What a beautiful night!
You were like the moon
And you did not have a home.

Roofs kiss gently, barely touching.
The sky flutters like a blue fowl.
Windows flee the street, searching for a sweet dream …
The city has already sunken into slumber up to its neck.

The night washes your flesh with wind
And sees itself reflected in the quiet streets.

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Only two open shutters still sway,
Like children who refuse to bathe,
Although they stand in the water.

“There's a women, a bed and a wealthy home,
A handsome landlord who creeps like a mouse” –
Zaborowski the Policeman and the dogcatcher chatted:
“It is still open, Sir, look, the rod has not yet been placed on the shutter!”
But you do not hear, and the stars followed you
And helped find a bed.

III

You sleep somewhere like a beggar and lie – you yourself are a sack – on a sack,
Your old age is broken to rise with the rooster's first call,
And your house is perfumed: on the carpets
Are live flowers … and a bed of fine mahogany.

Standing tall-full-clean-single, he does not wait for the landlord
And dozes off in the cold bed cover, as in a fresh deep snow,
Do not forgive, Efraim Goldbruch, that they threw you out
Of your wealthy home,
Like a fly from a sparkling glass of tea.

It is a danger to he who knows not, that only the wealthy must eat
Challah [Sabbath and festival bread] made with oil, and he runs around and shouts:
How is it that children in the sands chew pieces of glass out of hunger,
With all the plenty and the good and God alone belongs to the poor …

As your kapote [frock coat], Mr. Goldbruch, is it not a river,
Then how suddenly does it become wet under the lining?
Then how is it that from under its lap, a live fish
Comes into being? You dragged this
From your Frejda and you bring it to a weak woman in confinement.

Is this a humane act? If you let such a one near the drawer
Where the store's income burns, he will bury everything!
Then do not thunder, Efraim, that you were thrown out.
You were in a wealthy house: a terrible letter in an envelope …

IV

Oh, well, on Friday, they know:
At the end of the road, they are lighting the horizon;
Look Efraim: in Heaven they are baking challot [bread loaves]
For the Sabbath.
At Josel the Patcher's they are dying for a bite,

[Page 442]

So you must begin to collect: Jews, braid
A kopeck into the challah!

And when the evening places
Red tongues in white clouds,
It is understood that there, above,
Candles are lit in silver candlesticks.

Will the widow Lejke sit in the darkness?

Oh, well, on Friday we see
A man does everything he can.
But a whole week? Heaven help us:
From the first spots of day
Until the beginning of night – he only says,
The prayer shawl on his head, and he says …

V

The clouds mix and leaf themselves soundlessly.
In silence and holiness the day opens,
As an old book opens, pleasantly and carefully,
The sun comes out like a wonderful idea.

The streets listen and become clean …

The town shakes sleep from its eyes
As dust is wiped from things before Passover.
Even Horki the Tailor, already bent over the sewing machine
Will sew more chapters of Psalms than hunched backs.

And what does Efraim Goldbruch do?
He prays.

He lies for half a day in the world and burns with anger and shame
They pour, they throw kerosene, salt, soap and flour on his flesh,
He loves people and beams with love, but they are strangers to him,
He lies for half a day, they strip his skin and sell his flesh …

Trade goes on in the market – and in the heavens, the sun goes and pours on its way
Mountains of gold barley and wheat;
Clouds catch rays in their mouths like yeshiva students
Looking for acquisitions of grain, with straws between their teeth.

And what does Efraim Goldbruch do?
He prays.

Only the day will end more beautifully than it began.

[Page 443]

The streets lie quietly and blue like a river
And the gentle moments of dusk fly over them like doves,
And to a heavy golden door, closed on a kingdom,
The sun matches a key of blood … and contemplates, bowed in piety
Now stand the white houses, which were so proud
An hour ago, like wise men, who saw much
And finally saw only one thing: that they must believe …

And Chackel Kupferminc does not grasp what has suddenly happened to him, –
Under a heart burning so strongly, and like a child, leans his head on the windowpane
And looks at the market: shadows fall to the ground and hug the stones:
He stands in the store – and forgets – and remembers –
And he feels like crying.

And what does Efraim Goldbruch do?
He prays.

VI

Reb Efraim, Reb Efraim!
How can a man all day
Do nothing but pray?
On a fine front tooth
The world holds a great weight.

People look into the mouth of the world,
They toss bits of stars and a little earth,
Immediately there must be the earthen bowl:
There would be disgust – a horror.

And if the tooth on the other side
Begins to fall, to bend (like a bad conscience),
Then the front tooth would be torn out
And a black hole made eternity.

They slowly throw a heart, like tongues of honey,
And pieces of earth, like sponge cake, on the scale, –
So how can a man all day
Do nothing, except pray?

VII

And Efraim Goldbruch answers:)[1]
………………………………………………………
………………………………………………………

 


[Page 444]

From the Poems and Writings of Yisroel Shtern

Collected by Yitzhak Ivri

Everyone goes to God alone.

*

(In the hospital) sleep; forbidden to walk, one strolls – inside oneself.

*

“39… 40… 41 degrees, another degree closer to you, God!”

*

Evil is a hero who slays himself.

*

Lumps of earth like cake.

*

The child is less a child when its mother is a poor laundress.

*

He who believes himself wise, thinks only of his wisdom. He who is wise, knows that there is no end to wisdom.

*

There is an intelligence that sees only what is caught at first glance, and hears only what is immediately heard. It may be energetic and innovative, but its energy is, to a great measure, like an animal's, and in its war there is a sort of passion of inflamed bulls. Those having this understanding see themselves as very wise. When they achieve something, they succeed in organizing their world with ease and satisfaction. They enjoy their lives. They grasp everything that comes to hand, not considering where and why. Everything becomes a goal in and of itself. Therefore, for example, money has a double value for them. First, because it is money and, second, because the money is “theirs”. And so it is with everything.

*

When everything will be purified, improved and refined – until every person will be a High Priest, every day Yom Kippur and every lump of earth – the holy of holies.

*

The evil in the world has short intelligence and long arms.

*

He who does not believe is afraid he will not lose. He who gambles already wins: a moment of belief that he will win.

*

Everyone is an artist in his own home.

*

Minor writers always pray in a quorum.

Original poets pray alone.

A classicist whispers a prayer that no one before him has ever said.

*

People, even the noisiest ones, do not like noise. They prefer serenity, quiet. To be silent as trees and to grow like trees. But what can they do – winds pass over them

[Page 445]

and they must be noisy. Sometimes people curse because unrest hovers over them, because they hide their curse.

*

It is said that “a man is the tree in the field”. It may be that in a field, a man is a tree, but in the city, he is less than a man. The smells we smell and breathe into ourselves – they are the smells of cement, the smells of lime, the taste of burning tar.

*

Real humor does not laugh gratuitously.

*

Theater is an escape from threat to danger, in order to get free of the threat.

*

The daybreak and daytime: Daybreak has its accessories, which make its dress special, interwoven with red, green and gold cloth. Daybreak has its followers that imitate it and are exactly like it – warmhearted, with a refreshing cleanliness. They are like it – better than holy and holier than good.

Daybreak has its early risers. They are veteran prayers, who think so gently, before the world begins to think coarsely. They bless and praise the Creator, His world, before one among them enters the market and sins, cheats, sighs falsely, laughs falsely, lives pettily and dies pettily. Daybreak has its stories.

Daytime does not acknowledge distinguished lineages or chosen ones. The streets are full. Everyone is outside and everyone lives according to an ordained measure, as if they take care, Heaven forbid, not to be greater than the other. Everyone tries not to be perceived as reckless, and speaks so that everyone will understand him. And he seeks out jokes, so that even the most foolish will “get the joke”.

*

I have nothing against genuine cynics. They are not cynical. They are unaware of it, they do not celebrate it, they live it. It is not a special sort of conduct; it is part of hundreds of their daily actions. But I cannot tolerate those young people who keep cynicism in a glass cabinet, so that if they have guests, they will have something to serve them… It is hard to tolerate those who, when they spend time with good friends, arrange cynicism, like a pure Jew, lehavdil [but different!], arranges tikun chatzot [midnight prayers of mourning]. Afterwards, they return home to their wives and children and hang curtains so that no one will peek in, and withdraw into themselves. They purr quietly like a cat, respectable balabatim [heads of households]. When they die, God willing, and become young girls in their next incarnation – then they will sit late into the night among a company of young people, smoking cigarettes, displaying silk stockings above the knee, using profanities and speaking coarsely. Later, on the way home, they will agree to be escorted only to the door. No further.

*

Every beautiful thing awaits those who are amazed by it.

*

If sleep is a sixtieth part of death, then dreams are a sixtieth of life.

*

When a mother teaches a baby to walk, she uses only a small part of the area of the floor. It would be very sad if the baby continues walking only in the small area in that room. A mother must remember that the baby's feet will take him to endless spaces.

*

Do not turn your glance to the heavens, and do not count the stars, for everything happens before your eyes – in courtyards and in the streets, because our planet itself is a star.

*

Trees are ancient and have already seen a great deal.

They know enough to pity victors.

[Page 446]

*

Disillusionment is wisdom of a breast pocket on a man. Poetry is man's wisdom. Wealth is external splendor. Poverty is inner splendor.

*

There is nothing more unaesthetic than skepticism, because beauty is in surprise. Sanity, clarity… knows a great deal, knows everything, does not stop knowing. It does not countenance being trapped, controlled by anyone. It has many means of watchfulness. Its imagination is wrapped in a frock coat and, over it, another frock coat and, over it – fur. Over the fur is just a fox skin, and on the skin is armor. It becomes stronger, richer, protects itself, and in the end, it starves to death in its citadel, like Rothschild in the iron chest…

*

Great writers, remembering that they are normal, settled artists, drag their model over the sand in the house and the mud. Only after a long time and great effort, do they get fresh air, ripeness of the fruit and fragrance.

*

The reader, even the best one, should not delve deeply in order to find psychic explanations for a work's literary value. What is written is enough for him. Inquiry is not within the purview of the reader.

*

I believe that love is a natural thing. It does not give an opinion about what is an existential war. If it is not a war, we should allow ourselves to be embraced and touched. Our eyes are drawn to, and kiss every picture of the world. Our ears become intimately familiar with every half-sound, sound and complex sound combination. There is no fortune of which we should deem ourselves unworthy. And there is no space that we would not dare to tolerate in our personal space…

*

Only the poor comprehend the depths of poetry.

Our time is wise and serious testimony of the weak man.

Wisdom of life is not yet high intelligence, which tries to plumb the depths, but it is a step.

There are words that do not ease, and one remains as wise as he was before.

The good in us is like a telescope that shortens the distance between us and the other.

When we are hungry, we only want to eat.

Silence is eternal. It outlives noise.

We always feel dangers in life. We are wrapped in insecurity. Millions of minutes look at us like millions of eyes of the Angel of Death.

The soul is not always in the body. Sometimes the situation is the opposite. It happens that the body knows itself; its spirit greatly falls, hunches over and, from its inferiority, stretches out its hands. It wraps it, as, with durable parchment, a Torah scroll wraps the Chosen People, Israel.

When the body crumbles, expires and disappears, the sadness is not so very great. The greatest pain is when the soul must be exposed.

Before man sinned, the snake walked on four legs and did not cause ill to anyone.

There is no opposition that can deter us. However, we, too, cannot escape from anything, no matter how much we enclose ourselves.

Why should we reveal ourselves? Why should we open up? Are we other than the night, which is closed with locks? Have you ever opened a door of a person's tears? Have you ever cut a smile in two and seen how it looks inside? And the clock, standing near us on the table and showing the hours – is it more alive or dead than our hours? It strikes and strikes noisily – is it more foolish or smarter than our blood? We want to be quite wretched, in order to stroll about in the world happily, like a secret among secrets.

[Page 447]

The butt of a smoked cigarette is no bigger than we are, and the sunset is no smaller than we are.

Nature, in and of itself, is beautiful. It waits for the beautiful person. From all its cells, every day the voice goes out: Woe onto human beings, who rot in their ugliness, do not want to enjoy my glory, are unable to rise up and must fall. Together with them, I fall, too, because they do not sustain me. My sustenance is the glance of their eyes.

Our sin is a millstone, which does not stand idle, but grinds much flour and feeds our punishments.

Every event depends on the other, like the lock of a door. But the key is in our hearts.

A poet, be he ever so great, is not weak, but also not stronger than a poet. He sees, but not more than a detail, something torn from the whole of nature.

When we love everyone, we do not hate ourselves. We light up and come closer to the holy spirit in our bodies. We pity those who think that they can hate us.

In a moment of surprise, we are never angry, never poisonous. We find ourselves surrounded with suddenness. And all suddenness is a wonder. And every wonder elevates, refines humanity and is more secret. We are a link among all the links of fate. Who should we envy? Who should we blame? If we are everyone, if everyone bows before us, and asks mercy of us, no less than we ask of them? We are not angry and no longer alone. On our way, we hear footsteps. Where everyone is, we are there, too. We are thankful, because we are the measure of everything.

From the book in Yiddish, Songs and Essays, Yisroel Shtern

Collected: H. Leyvik
Published by CKA National Library by the World Jewish Cultural Congress
A. Stein, New York

 

Writers: On Yisroel Shtern

Itzik Manger
(From a letter to Yitzhak Ivri)

I was very close to him – that is, I spoke and he growled. Only once did I hear him get angry. One day, he came to the Writers' Union. I was very happy and asked him why we had not seen him for a few days. He answered angrily, “Are you too sick to wish me a Good Sabbath?!” I had completely forgotten that it was the Sabbath. I was not insulted. On the contrary, I was sorry. I knew that because of him, I remembered that it was the Sabbath; he was genuinely religious, one of “God's fools” – the foolish and the sympathetic, in comparison to “God's devious ones”. I tried to convince him to publish a volume of his poetry. He would not hear of it. “To write poems,” he said, “is a personal achievement. To print poems, is business. So the publisher, the businessman, should pay me well.”

The heart shrinks from so much pain. The clouds go their way and the days pass. What is poetry? The chirping of a bird, the buzzing of a bee, a gust of wind. But what is shadow? Something mute, without content, and yet painful to the point of madness.

Yisroel Shtern was my shadow, and very painful …

 

Yechiel Hofer

The saying “Poverty suits the Jews”, can be said of Yisroel Shtern. He, in his poverty, felt freer, better and elevated. He did not wish this, however, for others. He saw his poetry as “hungry people”…

[Page 448]

Shtern's poems are like pessimistic prophesy. I would say that his senses were pessimistic, but his soul was optimistic. He was entirely night, but his prayer was “the prayer of a man in the light of day” (this is the title of one of his poems).

*

The poet, Yisroel Shtern, who wrote so little, had the reputation as a fine and great poet for good reason. Nor did his death as a martyr create a legend about him. He was a legend in his lifetime.

*

Just as Shtern was never embittered, so he was never bad (in times of trouble, Chassidim always said “It is bitter for us”, and were careful not to say the word “bad”). Bitterness can be sweetened, but bad can only be eradicated. In eradication lies great danger, both for bad and for good.

He was full of contradictions, as a pomegranate is full of seeds. But his contradictions were complete.

*

Yisroel Shtern belonged to the high category of poets of the generation that ripened between the two world wars.

(Excerpt from his essay, Stela Poetica, Yisroel Shtern and His Works, Di Goldene Keyt, No. 26, 1956)

ost448.gif


[Page 449]

When Yisroel Shtern Expired…[2]

Binem Heller

When Yisroel Shtern expired
The spring of tears was closed.
With the last convulsion of his body –
The earth had again earned a flood.

Only in the blood flowing in every vein –
Is he endlessly demanded by the world!

His body on the altar of hunger –
Will curse he who once sang!

The language, once suited to rhymes –
Sunken in its own pain, as in flames.

And in my dream, I see someone:
The poet Shtern in a sack of bones.

He still lies in the ghetto, weakened,
And of God – to anger, he thinks at the last,

If this is true, because without law and without a judge,
Each must fight with his weapons.

And he has only his heavy flatfoot,
Like the bundle of writings of the poet Shtern.

His final poem should be written in blood,
And if it is not – then he will remain here.

And lets abandoned winds take him
And with him – all the earth will disappear.

Oh – look! He departs with the last convulsion
The earth deserves now, the flood again.

 

[Page 450]

A Reading by Yisroel Shtern in Ostrolenka

Yitzhak Kachan, Melbourne

It was on the morning of a Jewish holiday. I went to Reb Jakow Bajuk's to meet Yisroel Shtern, who had been invited by the Peretz Library to give a reading here. Knowing that Yisroel Shtern had become deeply religious, I was not surprised when I saw him praying with devotion and intensity. With a gesture of his hand, he bade me to sit down. While doing so, I observed his broad face and sad eyes.

It was a sunny summer morning. As I looked at his face, it seemed to express a twilight longing, a kind of mystic shadow, which accompanies the secret of death. I was reminded of his poem, Toward Evening:

Toward evening, old people tend not to die,
Toward evening, children are found by fences,
Toward evening, lamp wicks are lit…

I tried to remember the rest of the lines of the poem. Shtern, noticing my lips move, asked, “Do you want to tell me something?” “No,” I replied, “I am only trying to remember your poem, Toward Evening.”

“You've read my poem?” he asked in surprise.

“Yes, several times. I even knew it by heart.” To show him that I meant that literally, I began to recite:

Toward evening, quiet madmen send letters,
Toward evening, letters are written and torn up:
Something is made easier and something is lost…
Toward evening – rings on severed fingers,
Blood on gold – gold on blood.

When I finished, the expression in Shtern's eyes changed from sadness to a smile.

“It is good that I came to visit Ostrolenka,” he said quietly, “It is a pleasant surprise to me, that people in my hometown read my work, and that youths learn my poems by heart… I thought that nothing had changed here since I left…

“ He became quiet and fixed his stare on the distance. I felt that he did not see me, that he had forgotten that I was sitting there. After a minute, he said, “Will you come to me after dinner? We can talk a bit before the reading.”

* * *

“Have you read my Hospital Poems? What did you think of them? And, in general, what do you feel when you read my poems?

” I began, “You combine man and nature wonderfully. Your relationship with nature is mystical…”

I stopped, and searched for words to express my feelings. I did not have the courage to express my opinion to a great poet, whom I so admired, but Shtern encouraged me and I continued: “Your poems are masterpieces, but somehow, they are sad, they breathe disquiet, they are full of longing, the shadows of death, they breathe artistic candor and tragic truth. One becomes sad of heart:

Towards evening, they fiddle,
While devils snatch the bride from the house,

or Towards evening, there are flags of lost wars.

This is a strong picture, but it casts fear on our beautiful dreams on summer evenings.”

“Why do you think my poems are so tragic?”…

Shtern looked at me with a somewhat embarrassed smile, said something about the yichus [distinguished lineage] of our ancestors, and then his expression became deeply serious again.

”Listen, my young fellow townsman. Do you know what poetry means in its deepest sense? Poetry is meant to bear the heavy burden of humanity, with all its misfortunes, with all its tears.” He quickly rose from his chair, walked the length of the room, stopped before me and continued. “You read and I want you to chew on it well. Every poet aspires to reach the depths of a person's soul. While they rest, with their eyes closed, the poet is awake and intent on catching the faintest noises coming from somewhere in the night.”

[Page 451]

He became quiet again, and asked pensively: “Do you know what Peter Altenberg said about poetry? 'From our tears, poems are born.'

You asked me before about my poem, Toward Evening. I feel the dusk differently. The daytime affects me differently than the evening and the nighttime, than it affects you.

During the daytime, words spill like sand, spill and disappear. But in the black nights, when the world is immersed in gloom and does not move, like a black slate, every word is engraved with a knife on the slate, and remains before the eyes for a long time. In fact, I will speak about it during my lecture.”

We went to the Peretz Library.

* * *

The hall was packed. The audience had arrived early and waited for the lecturer, who was received with applause when he entered. He was a bit embarrassed, as he had not expected to be thus received.

Near the head table, he whispered to me:

“You know what they say – It's hard to be a prophet in your own city. I did not expect such a big crowd and such warmth.” (This had a double meaning, because the hall was also very warm…)

As Chairman of the meeting, I greeted our esteemed guest cordially and emphasized his place in Yiddish literature. I presented him to those assembled. Among them were many readers who were proud of their highly talented townsman. I expressed joy, too, on this occasion.

The hall fell silent. Shtern began his lecture about art and poetry.

“Every great artist creates a new world, an imaginary world, alongside the real one. The essence is not life, but what is around, above and after it…

In Peretz's At Night in the Old Market, the dead walk and look at everything happening around them. They absorb the beauty and the ugliness of life. In the tumult of daily life, people do not see everything that is real. At night, the same people lie, tired and depressed. Only in their dreams do they see sublime things, which they did not perceive during the day. The artist, while he is also far from noise and tumult during the day – it is only at night that he hears the divine voice: Woe to my children who have been exiled and sent away from me – and there is no comfort. How long, how much longer?”

We took a short intermission, and Shtern quietly asked me whether the audience had understood him. I explained that his appearance had given us great pleasure, and that even those who had not understood everything had enjoyed a great experience. After the intermission, Shtern spoke about Y. L. Peretz, one of those poets who always long for God… He sought the way to God, wanted to be closer to Him and, thus, closer to people. “Poetry is the bridge between one person and another. Its final goal is holiness and spirituality. It aspires to penetrate the human 'I', in which the struggles waged bring relief and serenity. Genuine poetic works are also unfeigned and imbued with inner religiosity; their purpose is to enquire, and not necessarily to reveal… Every artist erects for himself his own building in the space of the world, and everything happening there is colored with his blood. How difficult are the creator's labor pains! Even an artist like Heinrich Heine devoted his strength to reworking and rewriting many times his short poem, In the Wonderful Month of May, until he achieved the desired style, color and sound.”

Although the lecturer had spoken for a long time, and it was very hot in the hall, the audience was fascinated; those assembled did not remove their gaze from the podium. Not even a whisper was heard. Everyone instinctively felt that this was not just an ordinary lecture, but an artistic-lyric improvisation. Later, Shtern expanded on the analysis of poetry and literary criticism, casting rays of light on writers and works.

When he finished, the audience burst into applause, thus thanking him for the spiritual pleasure that had lasted for about two hours. However, the story did not end there. People surrounded the head table, to shake hands, to extend personal thanks and to ask questions. We decided to continue the event and allow questions and answers. The questions were of a varied nature; the lecturer, with his short but to-the-point answers, illuminated literature and artistic problems. In his answers, there was not only expertise, but also descriptions from the best of the field.

In particular, Shtern dealt with the question of inferior literature. He answered humorously, blending satire into his words, until we felt that a new lecturer stood before us, a brilliant feuilletonist and satirist.

“In every literary class, you will find an inferior aspect. This is the proud person, who strolls in the streets with his nose in the air, and knows how to curry favor with everyone. He speaks to each in a different

[Page 452]

tongue. His idealism is pure gold. Of what can you accuse him? Of material pleasure? Nonsense! Even if you give him money, he has nowhere to put it… One of his pockets is full of good qualities; in the second, he has good deeds and, on his back, may it not happen to us!, is a heavy bundle of honesty… He takes all injustice on himself. And who should, if not him? He has all the tools for it. This is the nature of the inferior man – he has in his storehouse all good, and lacks for nothing… If he needs something, he goes to what is ready and takes it.”

Shtern said all of this with a smile on his lips. At the end, however, he became serious and finished in a loud voice. “… We often get the feeling that we are facing a new flood, but God has sworn that there will never be another. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov explained it thus: there will never be another flood of water, but a flood of sullied thoughts, of bad ideas, of inferior conduct – will certainly come! Genuine, pure art and poetry, however, will wash this from our lives. I believe this! In a man's heart is a treasure. We need only know how to reach it… “

* * *

Many years have passed since that holiday, when Yisroel Shtern was with us in Ostrolenka. Most of his audience has turned to ashes; a few came out unburned. And the great poet, who so believed in poetry and art, in the treasure of the human heart, wandered the streets of Warsaw, bloated with hunger. He, the prince of poetry, in his final hours, as well, believed in the treasure of the human heart. One need only know how to reach it. Who knows? He has taken his secret with him for eternity.


The Poet Who Remains a Deep Secret

Yitzhak Ivri, Tel Aviv

 

a. The Poem Ostrolenka

He was at war with this world all his life. It was as if he maintained that everything in the world was soul only, without body… and the proof was that he lived in seclusion, cut off from all substance. Despite his heavy, broad-shouldered body and appearance, he went about the world as though lost, a soul without a body. His glance always wandered off into the distance, above everything… He lived as if “in heaven”. Supposedly, all his walking about on this earth was only because of “a secret something there”…

He arrived from his native city of Ostrolenka and settled in the big city of Warsaw, where his strange behavior, both as a person and a poet, caused everyone to wonder.

He dedicated the poem Ostrolenka, one of his most beautiful works (see Literarischer Bletter, No. 41-42, Warsaw, 1927), to Reb Efraim Goldbruch (the father-inlaw of the lamdan [teacher] from Ostrolenka and the community worker, Reb Henach Flakser, may God avenge his blood). Exactly like Shtern, he scorned this sinful world with all its lusts and pleasures, its businesses and shops. This sterling Jew – “the stars of the sky followed him at night and helped him search for a place to rest” – was near to the heart of Shtern the poet.

Although his poems and essays opened a wellspring of poetic, creative and personal revelations, he remained incomprehensible. On the one hand, he cast off this world with all its pleasure. He was hungry and solitary, and devotedly went to the “dead Chassidim”. He stubbornly refused to allow book publishers and newspaper editors to publish something of his wonderful works. On the other hand, he stuck to the Bundists, who exalted maintaining Jewish existence in the Diaspora (by the way, this idea went so horribly bankrupt…!). How was such a combination possible? It was beyond the grasp of common sense. People tried to understand the riddle named Yisroel Shtern, but without success.

[Page 453]

Who was Yisroel Shtern? A poet – this is known – even a rare poet. To what did he aspire and advise others to aspire to? What line did he take? Can we label him a barometer of a miserable period of the Jews? A prophet of that time of perdition? No more? Yes, he was a poet with a soul, but without a body. A poet who remains a deep secret.

 

b. All Alone…

He was, I would say, more devoted to God than to people. He sought his God day and night, roaming the streets of Warsaw, where he met hungry and wretched people whose fate was sealed, and who awaited destruction… These searches purified his soul. There, he found his truth and breathed in the inspiration of his works, in which he threw sparks into our sinful vale of tears.

* * *

Was he a man who genuinely believed, and rejoiced in every seed of life? Or was he a pessimist, as others claim? He was dismissive of life, both its “coarse” pleasures and his personal development as a poet. If he already published something of his brilliant works, a poem or an essay, it was “as if the devil forced him”, as if an invisible, higher power forced him to do it… He was a poet and a visionary “for its own sake”. It was more important to him to see for himself, than to tell others what he had seen… He cast off life with its iron rules. I would say that he also dismissed death. Even death “lived” for him. Everything for him was – the soul. The body was nothing but an external vessel in which the soul lived. Or – it was also a soul, and the soul lives forever and does not age or ever change. This was, in fact, the idea of his Breslow Chassidim, the “dead Chassidim”, which Shtern clung to with all his mystical fervor. The Breslow Chassidim do not need a new Rebbe. Their “dead” Rebbe lives forever and they are his “dead” Chassidim. Death can also replace the concept of life. To live, according to Shtern, meant to be with God, to draw near Him, to become integrated into Him. “He has no body and no bodily form.” This was Shtern's approach to “The One in Heaven”, He whom he sought and found. His approach to Him was other than that of his great colleague, Reb Hillel Zeitlin, of blessed memory. Innumerable ways lead to Divine Guidance. Each according to his way, to his own nature; each in his own way. Each one feels it differently. Shtern's way to the Master of the Universe was characteristically “Shternish”. Concealed, secretly encrypted, it remains an unsolved riddle… Shtern preferred to befriend the nights, rather than the days. The day was too little for him. Shtern's secret was tied to dark nights. It was precisely the nights that lit his way. Only the nights knew how to decipher the riddle whose name is Yisroel Shtern. Therefore, he said in his poem For the Curious:

When someone asks me who I am,
I send him to my nights.

The first says:
A grave.
A stone has yet been erected on it.
He flew about as quietly
as a dove,
and fell asleep somewhere
like a dove.
No one cried for him,
and there is not yet a stone.
But sometimes while the world
laments somehow so white
and soft
as a white dove, –
the moon
stands still in the middle of the sky
and points with a long finger
at the window of a little house:
he died here!

The second replies:
Always in love
always in love,
he could stand for hours
in the midst of the sleeping town
and burn and burn
between two suns.

The third night looks down
and the clouds at her side
drift, drift and sway… .

Yes, the nights knew Shtern better than the days.

*

[Page 454]

“One goes to God alone”, Shtern said in a poem. Quietly, without vulgar bustle, without the noise of drums… The Lord of the Universe, who is also Master of crude lusts and “coarse” pleasures, “listened to” these wonderful poems, to the poetic cooing of the doves and the mystic prayers of the lone individual, a complex enigma in and of himself all his days.

In his personal life, as in his poems, he was always alone; no one resembled him and no one could compare to him.

Shtern also went “alone” to his God, through the gas chambers of Treblinka, even though there were millions who went with him. Each of them walked in his own martyrdom, alone…

 

c. The Poem that Heralded the Jewish Holocaust

On that night
a thousand Jews will lie, silent – dull clods of earth,
and in one of the thousand, a thought will sprout:
If God has lost us, then God will find us…
and quietly, as a flower in the wind, his lips will move:
Sh'ma! – [“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One”]
And another, who this very night has lost his senses
will rend the night with his Ha-ha-ha-ha ¯]
Not my home… not my word… not my child… not my wealth…
On that night
the sound of weeping will fill the world.

(From Shtern's poem It Will Come to Pass)

Yisroel Shtern was one of those who foresaw the destruction of the Jewish people. The lines of the poem above, It Will Come to Pass, were written in 1933 – precisely the year when Hitler and his gang, may their names be eradicated, gained power. The German Nazi nation, with a few exceptions, bears witness to the intuitive feeling harbored in the heart of this unusual, spiritual man, who was also deeply involved in a union with the Lord of the Universe.

When World War II broke out, Shtern lived in Warsaw, and suffered the hardships of the ghetto with all the Jews: poverty, hunger, degradation to dust, the expectation of death. He protested to Heaven, did not want to taste anything of the vile world in which his Master of the Universe, to Whom he was close, so cruelly turned His back on the Jewish people… Bloated from hunger, he was sent to the gas chambers of Treblinka. According to one version, he breathed his last in the streets of Warsaw…

As said, he foresaw the Jewish destruction. Everything that was supposed to come to pass

“on that night” – came to pass! The dark night, the night of blood, descended on the world, destroyed it and obliterated from the face of the earth the Jewish city of his birth: Ostrolenka.

ost454.gif

 

Footnotes
  1. He never completed this poem, which was published in Literarischer Bletter (Warsaw, No. 41-42, 10/14/1927) Return
  2. Yiddish Writings, a collection of literary writings, Lodz, 5707 (1947). Union of Yiddish Literature and Journalism in Poland Return

 

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