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[Page 157]

Chapter 6

Avraham the Son of Yitzchak Sonne

by H. Ch.

Translated by Jerrold Landau


Abraham Sonne


A unique charm and mystique were embedded in the noble, variegated, and firmly based personality of one of the prominent sons of Przemysl, who fled from honor and fame during his lifetime, and left behind him the name of a blessed poet, forger of ideas, educator, and spiritual leader of a generation of Zionists.

Abraham Sonne was born on the 11th of Elul 5643 (September 13, 1993) in Przemysl, the son of Yitzchak Sonne and Tauba of the David family. During his childhood he was orphaned from his father, who was a native of Stary Sambor. He then returned from there to Przemysl along with his mother, who remarried Reb Yisrael Intrator, the owner of a wholesale business for food and fruit, such as rice, plums, etc.

Abraham was educated in the home of his maternal grandfather in the traditional religious spirit, by the melamdim. He also obtained a general education from private teachers, for he never sat on the school bench. As the fruits of his private studies, which he continued throughout his life, he acquired a deep, almost universal education. He had wondrous knowledge in all areas of science, arts and life. He especially acquired knowledge of the original and spoken Hebrew Language, as well as knowledge of the German language, which he mastered with fluency that was unusual even amongst the German maskilim, and which he primarily used in his contacts with other people.

He delved into books and distanced himself from the community for many years. He lived a life of isolation dedicated to his spiritual perfection, and apparently also to writing. During those years he became friendly with A. M. Lifschitz of Lvov, who later became famous as an educator and a writer. Lifschitz was impressed with the talents of the young man, and expended great energy to encourage and direct him, for he regarded him as a rising star.

Those days were at the beginning of the 20th century, when the first generation of Zionist intelligentsia arose in Przemysl from among the graduations of the Polish gymnasium. A few of them succeeded in forging contact with this loner of their vintage, who was handsome in appearance and noble of spirit, wearing spotless traditional garb. They enjoyed discussions with him on fundamental thought, wisdom, beauty and grace. When these groups came in 1904 to found an organization of

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Zionist youth, Sonne advised them to call their group the Herzl Organization. After a few years, Sonne left his hometown and went to the capitals of the West, Vienna and Berlin, where he completed his education. These were also the days of the writing of his first poems and publications.

Sonne returned to Przemysl from time to time, to the joy of his friends and admirers, who eagerly absorbed his words and at times even succeeded in involving him in local Zionist activity, even though he kept his distance from any organized group.

Sonne greatly assisted in the forging of the character of the Organization of Academic Zionists (H. A. Tz.), which was founded in Galicia in 1912 with its headquarters in Przemysl. He participated in its convention in 1913 and delivered a speech in German entitled “Our Youth” that left a great impression.

Already in 1912, he was invited by the teacher's seminary in Jerusalem, established by the Ezra organization of Germany, to serve as a lecturer in Hebrew literature and psychology. However, on the day that he arrived in Jerusalem he was seriously injured when the train car in which he was riding overturned. He took ill, and after he recovered, he returned to Vienna in the summer of 1913. Without his knowledge, the Zionists of Przemysl chose him as a delegate to the 11th Zionist Congress in Vienna. He participated in that congress and met with Ch. N. Bialik, who in his time published the poems of Sonne in Hashiloach. Many people received him with admiration and enthusiastic friendship.

When he recovered, he returned to the Land of Israel in 1913, after a short visit to Przemysl. He lectured in the teachers' seminary in Jerusalem that was directed by David Yellin until the summer of 1914. During his tenure, the battle for the primacy of the Hebrew Language in the Jewish schools in the Land began. However, Sonne refused to participate in it, for he took exception to the manner in which the struggle was conducted.

Sonne was in Vienna during the time of the First World War, where he dedicated himself, in accordance with his nature, to reading, writing, and making contact with the representatives of culture and the arts. Among his acquaintances were well known writers in the field of literature, such as James Joyce, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Arthur Schnitzler, Richard Ber-Hoffman, Joseph Poper-Linkiaus, and especially Herman Baruch and Elias Canetti, who were connected to him with bonds of strong friendship.

In the meantime, his hometown, the fortress of Przemysl, fell to hands of the Russians for some time. During the time of the occupation, all of his manuscripts that he left in his mother's home were lost. It can be stated that without doubt, this left a harsh wound on his soul.

In Vienna, Sonne drew near to Jewish communal life and began to become active in the Zionist institutions. At the end of the war and the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he was chosen as a member of the National Jewish Council that was set up in Vienna and headed by Robert Shtriker. When the first news of the pogroms perpetrated by the Polish army in eastern Galicia – and to a small degree in Przemysl as well – reached Vienna, Sonne was sent by this council to Western Europe in order to sound the communal alarm to the world. His first stop was Copenhagen, where at the beginning of the war he set up an assistance office under the auspices of the high Zionist command, which was then headquartered in Berlin. Sonne filled his task there with dedication. In that city, he came into personal contact with George Brandes, to whom he was introduced by Arthur Schnitzler.

Sonne was invited to the first convention of the European Zionists after the war was convened in 1919. At this time, he came into contact with members of the Zionist upper crust, became friendly with Julius Simon, and accepted his request to join the new management Committee of the Zionist directors in London, which was led by Chaim Weizmann and Nachum Sokolov. He was appointed as J. Simon's assistant in the managing of the settlement division. As the senior advisor of the management, he crafted a plan to support the needs of settlement. With the passage of time, this plan served as the basis of the program of the Keren HaYesod, which was founded by the World Zionist Congress in London in the summer of 1920.

After this convention, Sonne was appointed as the chief secretary of the Zionist leadership. He went to the Land of Israel along with Julius Simon, Nechemia De-Lima and Robert Sold in order to investigate the situation there. He was one of the authors of the

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report on the “Committee of Reorganization” that gave wide ranging recommendations in the matters of agricultural, financial and educational activity in the land. When the delegation returned to London, a fundamental change took place in Dr. Weizmann's relationship to the delegation, so the members of the delegation decided to separate from the leadership. Sonne left his position along with them, and never returned to communal activity.

He once again settled in Vienna and served as a teacher, and later as a directory, in the Hebrew pedagogical institution that was founded by Rabbi Tzvi Peretz Chaies. When the Nazis took over the government in Germany and actualized their racial laws, Sonne joined the group of people headed by the scientist Ignatz Culshan [Kulszan, Kaliszan, Kulesza - ?] took upon themselves the task of refuting this false theory. As he was one of the activists in this circle, he was forced to escape from Austria when it was conquered by the Nazis in March 1938. He arrived in the Land of Israel in August 1939 via Italy and Switzerland, and he settled in Jerusalem.

There, he set up his way of life far from the community. He chose a group of good friends with whom he remained in spiritual contact. His state of health was frail, and when the lung disease from which he had suffered from for many years worsened, the doctors sent him to the hospital in Ramataim. He died there on the 13th of Sivan 5710 (May 20, 1950), and was buried in the Nachalat Yitzchak Cemetery near Tel Aviv.

Avraham the son of Yitzchak began to write poetry already from his youth. However, he hid them for many years until he agreed, under pressure of his friends, to publish the first of them in 1908. Throughout all the years of his life, he only published 12 poems, including “Hazorea” (“The Sower”), which he did not want to be considered his, since the editor Pechman was the editor.

The following are the poems that were published during his lifetime:

“Choref Bahir” (“Clear Winter”) (Lvov, Adar 5663 / 1903), Hashiloach, 19, 5668 (1908).

“Balayla Yaavor Zaam” (“The Anger Will Pass at Night”) (Lvov, 5663 / 1903), Hashiloach, 20, 5669 (1909).

“Lo Yadati Nafshi” (“I did not Know my Soul”) (Vienna 5669 / 1909), Hashiloach, 21, 5670 (1910).

“Laylot Ki Yalbinu” (“When Nights become White”) Haivri Hechadash, 5672 (1912).

“Mizmor” (“Psalm”) The New Hebrew, 5672 (1912).

“Kintot Hayom” (“As the Day Declines”) Hashiloach, 27, 5672 (1912).

“Heharim Shechorvu Misaviv Leiri” (“The Mountains that were Destroyed Around My City”), Revivim, Gimel-Daled, 5672 (1913).

“Elul Bashdera” (“Elul on the Boulevard”), Revivim Gimel-Daled, 5673 (1913).

“Malchut” (“Royalty”) Revivim, Gimel-Daled, 5673 (1913).

“Bodedim Omrim” “Loners Say”, Haogan, Second Anthology, 5678 (1918).

“Ashrei Hazorim” (“Fortunate are Those that Sow”) Mitzpe Almanac, 5690 (1930).

As has been noted, most of his poems were published during the era before the First World War. From that time, the poet was silenced from a literary perspective, and he did not publish anything except for isolated articles that were published anonymously in the Jewish newspapers of Vienna, and one article on Mendele Mocher Sefarim that was published in “Der Jude” (In the German language) in 1919.

Only after his death, in the year 5712 (1952) were all his aforementioned 11 poems published in one volume by his friends, along with an anthology of poems and partial poems that were found among the papers in his estate, including the poem “Lamah Navlu Digleichem” (“Why did your Flags Wither”).

That year, Leah Goldberg published a book in his honor entitles “Pegisha im Hameshorer” (“An Encounter with the Poet”). Since then, many articles about the value of his personality and literary activities were published in newspapers in the Land, and several of his poems found their place in anthologies and textbooks.

With his death, one of the great people of our city left us, a man of poetry, who earned his eternal place in the world of Hebrew culture.

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About Avraham the son of Yitzchak Sonne

by Leah Goldberg

Translated by Jerrold Landau

The Mountains that were destroyed around my city
Hide the secret in their forests
These words of poetry, a poem of Avraham the son of Yitzchak Sonne, certainly serve as a reminder of the landscape and natural surroundings of their childhood in the hearts of many natives of our city. These images are kept with them from their childhood. There are others among them who remember the poet himself from that era, in that city, when he was a bright young man, according to what they say. They knew him then and he would lecture before them on occasion and plant many hopes in them – as they say. Those who knew him during the latter phase of his life, here in the Land of Israel as well as those who knew him during their youth when he was still a young man, realize that there is something of him that is hidden, that nobody could reveal or even guess about.

Those who remember him from when he lived in our city, and even a bit later when he was a central figure in the Zionist organization and still relatively young, when his poems were already known and had won great acclaim and he had already stopped publishing them for some reason – if we place the facts together from those few facts that we all know about his life – all those people would seemingly have to agree to sum up the man as someone who “did not succeed”, who “did not fulfill that which he promised”, and who did not accomplish anything.

Indeed what is left for us? A very scanty anthology of poetry, even if we include the complete poems and fragments of poems that were found among his papers after his death; one article in Der Jude of Buber; and the oral doctrine – those words that he had said in the ears of various people who live now in various cities scattered throughout the entire world, some of whom have already passed away as he did. We could say: that is all. In reality, it is very little.

However, a personality stands before for which any “practical” description in the general usage of the term is not appropriate. This is the image of a man whose wandering ship reached father then any ship that reached the shore, a person whose “practicality” of life was his spiritual power, whose spirit turned to practically, and the little that he left in writing accomplished something for Hebrew poetry, more so that other poets who might have written ten thick volumes; and whose incidental words unintentionally penetrated the books of others – Hebrew and non-Hebrew – and they are now read without anyone knowing who uttered them and who said them first. A man who was the most important station in the lives of others, and of whom there are no few people even today who when making a public approach in writing or orally ask themselves: “What would Sonne say about this?” I myself met one such person in London, the writer Canetti – who to this day does not cease to ask himself this question with regard to every issue to which he relates seriously. Thus do I do, and there are certainly many others whom I do not know.

The poet Avraham the son of Yitzchak separated himself from literature at the time that success lightened up his face. The man Avraham Sonne did not succeed because for some reason that was nothing more ridiculous to him than success. He broke the practical world with his own hands. I will not try to guess why. I will not come with theories and assumptions. He did not want that anybody

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should know this, even those who were closest to him. He did not want to reveal anything about himself until the day of his death in that dismal room in the tuberculosis hospital in a Moshava in Israel. He did not will it, and to me, his will was holy.

I knew him during the last twelve years of his life. He was isolated with the love that those who considered himself his friends loved him (or who were his friends – with him it was difficult to determine the exact bounds of this area of human relations), ill and concealing his illness – very few people knew how ill he was! He went about idly according to the conception of most people, according to the conception of those who do not know how difficult that spiritual fact is within a person who does not expose what is inside himself at all, and is always dwelling with the tragic feeling of a destroyed world, of destroyed Europe, of the Jewish nation left with zero means in the bottom of the depths. I knew him with all these, albeit with refined humor that shined, with the exposing of his hidden good-heartedness and his wonderful ability to laugh.

He had two traits which cannot be passed by silently. He definitively hated any false pretentiousness of “culture”, of the upper grabbing hold of the smaller, intellectual pretentiousness that displays the face of spirituality and spiritual (and political) leadership. He related with great love and respect to simple people and the simplest matters of life. From this came his humor. From this also came that which he displayed on rare occasions, but with convincing and conquering might – that which has no word in Hebrew and what the French call tendresse. He did not like to display this second trait publicly, and few knew of it. However he would display it despite himself. A. Canetti, who was very much loved by him, told me in London how when he met him on one literary evening and the well known writer Robert Musil attacked Canetti, Sonne passed through the entire large hall with a full goblet of wine in his hand, and served it to him. Everyone knew that with this discrete action, he displayed a token of friendship to someone who had been unjustly injured. Whoever did not see him and did not know him would not be able to describe for himself this picture. However those who knew him, who were familiar with his movements and gait, only need to close their eyes to see a picture of the entire incident. This was as if a king arose and humbly offered wine to somebody whom he wished to comfort.

There are small snippets of his personality. I have already told in another place about his conversations, his manner of speaking, the breadth of his knowledge, and his literary memory and thought, and I cannot repeat myself. I only wish to repeat and stress one thing with regard to his memory: his warm relationship to the days of his childhood, to the landscape of his childhood, to the Judaism into which he grew up. This relationship had no trace of sentimental ideology, no attempt to see things better than they were – but there was the idea that this was the life of living people, and whoever is alive has with him both truth and beauty. From his books, I have heard the rustling of those forests from the line that I have brought down at the beginning of this article. I have the image of his grandfather, and I have even known the maidservant in the house. I knew the fish market and the synagogue, and many other various things. It is only about his parents that he never told me anything. There was certainly a reason for this. However the city and some of its people – especially those who were older and younger than he – would appear from time to time in his fine stories, and it would be felt that they still accompany him in his loneliness. Some of them were with him here in the Land, and we, who came from nearby, knew that his relationship to them was different than it was to us because of that common background that bought the personal character with personal memories and the native city.

I will once again repeat that poem:

The Mountains that were destroyed around my city
Hide the secret in their forests
Above it is the din of the ocean of trees
And in the secret place is hiding the image of the secret.
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This poem was one of the first Hebrew poems that was written with the Sephardic pronunciation (at least with the stress on the ultimate accent), whose ring was not corrupted throughout all these years. This is the poem whose discrete greatness will only be grasped by a person who is attuned to musical completeness of the rule of Hebrew poetry, “our lyric poetry does not pretend to be an 'outpouring of the soul' whose spirit is hidden in the harmony of the language and the clarity of the portrait, and in which nothing becomes old or corrupted at all.” He – as in all of his other poems – stands to this day at the threshold of the new Hebrew poetry. Furthermore, whoever knew the man would almost be surprised at how complete is the line that runs from the first poem until the last one that he published. This poem begins with the “secret”. Indeed it is the secret of the forest, but the poet does not view the secret in the universe if there is no secret in his head. This secret is one that was not revealed and will never be revealed, for he guarded it and concluded his poem with that well known line:

“And this is their constant statute, without saying.”
This is indeed the statute of the loners upon whose lips, as the words of another poem (“Loners state”) “The song is stifled”, the statute of those that “sow but do not reap”.

Anyone who reads all the poems is surprised at the amount of light in them. The word “light” is a refrain in many of the poems of Avraham the son of Yitzchak. In the first poem it says, “And on its secret rests the light”. In the next one, there is “lights of dreamers”, and “lights of the holes”. After that, in “I did not know my soul”, we have “at the time when the land shines for its light from its midst”, and “Clear Winter” which is a poem all about light. In “Psalm” it says, “A world that is full of its sun and with broken colors”. When the poem “Loners Say” and even the concluding poem “Fortunate are Those that Sow” are read, they describe generous people about whom is said, “Whose glory in youth has enhanced the extravagant brightness of days – who shed”. Indeed, the light of days accompanied his poems until the end, and if they express agony they are not prone to weeping. These poems stand as an illuminating rock at the threshold of the new era of Hebrew poetry, and we still lift our eyes to them from the midst of the complexity of the language of his creativity of those days.

Many years pass, many literary styles were destined to be exchanged from one to the other, “the tastes of the young generation” which changes and makes way for a different style and different choice. However, a day may come when a researcher who summarizes the first 50 years of Hebrew poetic creativity in the Diaspora and the Land will realize what is correct: these few poems, the poems of Avraham the son of Yitzchak, were the sole proper conduit to enable the development of the living Hebrew language in poetry. Those who do not realize this now – should attempt to read many things that were written before the First World War, and compare their linguistic and expressive style in an unbiased manner with that which we now hear with the accepted style. They should listen and judge, and perhaps they will understand the words of this researcher as the days go on. This is said, and this is everything.

This is the poet. The poet was a human being. And he human being left us and did not request that we will explain it. For those who knew him, he remains like that very forest which he described in his first poem:

Its head is in the heavens
And on its secret
Rests the light.
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Fortunate are those who Sow and do not Reap[1]

Fortunate are those who sow and do not reap –
They shall wander far away.

Fortunate are the generous ones whose glory in youth
Has enhanced the extravagant brightness of days –
Who shed their accoutrements at the crossroads.

Fortunate are the proud whose pride overflows the bounds of their souls
To become the modesty of whiteness
As the rainbow that rises through a cloud.

Fortunate are they who know, their hearts call out from the wilderness
And silence will sprout forth from their lips.

Fortunate they are, for they will be gathered into the bosom of the world,
Wrapped in the cloak of oblivion
Their destiny's offering unsaid to the end.

Translator's Footnote

  1. My translation of this poem drew on a translation of this poem that I found on an Amazon book review at http://www.amazon.com/Collected-Poems-Shmuel-Ben-Yizhak/dp/9659012497. This was from a Washington Post article by Edward Hirsch. My translation has changed several aspects of the version on that website, according to my style. Back

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