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[Col. 77]

The Town and Its History



[The town's main street and marketplace. Ed.]


[Col. 79-80]

Heersha-Leyb Tarshish

Menke Katz

Transalted by Benjamin and Barbara Harshav



Menke Katz


And you are rich, my small town Sventzian –
Rich with fire, your blazing earth,
With darkness, your anguished sky.

I saw your heart on every spear.
Midnight in conflagration I thought:
In Hell
There was a sunset.

So you're rich, my town Sventzian,
Oh, rich with blood as your twilight with gold.
Rich –
My rag town Sventzian.

How many abysses in your fear?
How much doubt – in the expiring light?

That you are big, my little town Sventzian –
Is shown by two synagogues and three baths,
Is shown
By ten alleys and so-many courtyards.

That you are big, the carters brag about it,
Waving their swishing whips:
Your roofs
Cannot be reached with pokers.

But what measure will take the size of your desolation,
At night, in the hollow of suicide attics –
When with white
Hair of fear, boys and girls hang themselves.

Oh Earth – where can you be gloomier,
Than behind a graveyard fence – at the suicide graves?

Big you are big – oho, my small town Sventzian –
With the ruin demons and the poorhouse beggar,
You're almost
A whole little dot on the map.

Who else but the madman – Heersha-Leyb Tarshish
The under-beadle of the Hasidic minyan
Laments here
Every sigh of your collapsing walls.

He curses the hands that set you on fire,
He's tired of chasing the crows
That blacken
The crusts of sun on the poorhouse panes.

When conflagrations carry sunsets through the night,
He bends to kiss the ash of your wounds.

At the holiest prayers in the Hasidic minyan
Heersha-Leyb ponders, how many pillars of smoke
Will be missed on Sabbath Eve
In the twisted chimney of the cold bath in the synagogue-yard.

How many dead are registered in the town Chronicle,
How many stars will fall: odd, how many even,
How many tears
Still remained in the eyes of the mourners.

Night after night, he is bent in sorrow
For he cannot say the confession with the sun –
Because even
In the quietest leaves of April
Unrest blossoms –

Because even in the rustle of Yuritshka's forest
The voices of future screams are whispering.

Twilight. With the horror of the ruined Holy Ark
He sits, a sick piece of evening, at the pump near the Church,
Amazed, how bright is Sventzian.
You cannot chase the sun from the whole market place.

How beautiful is Sventzian: at night, every stone is a star.
From the well, you cannot draw out all the shining water.
But when he hears
no angels singing in the old synagogue –

Only the stamping of wounded horses, deafening
The violated synagogue with their neighing prayer,
As if
Lamenting their horsy luck to an illusory God –

Heersha-Leyb remembers that Sventzian is the Hell,
And deeper than the night here is the well of blood.

How tired he is, Heersha-Leyb Tarshish, the Under-Beadle of
The Hasidic minyan – King of the lice-infested poorhouse,
Tired from his forty
Old springs, tired from dragging God in his pious rags.

The evening winds fire-skeins in his thoughts.
In the West, the sun clamors again to the kingdom of light –
And minute after minute,
The day sinks fast, as if buried in a heavenly grave.

The dog-catcher on Zablotna Street deafens the howl of the dogs.
Heersha-Leyb Tarshish thinks that, with evening, the world too dies.
Only he and Death – alone,
And even God is scared in His sinful heaven.

He knows: his soul is begging out of the cursed body,
Like a tormented flower under a gruesome stone.

Heersha-Leyb Tarshish hears an old silence resounding from the twilight
In the shofar of the wind. He sees executed armies carry
The corpse of the sun
Through the ovens of Hell – in the coffin of Og-King-of-Bashan.

With shut eyes he sees: former humans hammer
Wounds and darkness into an endless cleansing-board,
And wash the dead sun
With the ink of night and the blood of their own bodies.

He sees the alleys shrink in horror,
And he suddenly weeps a desolate prayer of demise,
To the first stars –
Heersha-Leyb Tarshish, the Under-Beadle of the Hasidic minyan.

A windy nothingness carousing in the abandoned market place.
Heersha-Leyb guards the sky: lest God flee the world.

Cursed April, do not step over the desolate thresholds.
In your brightest lights, all the dark will stand up.
The barking of empty butcher shops
Will deafen the shimmering chatter of your brooks.

How will you pair your wind's laughter – with children snorting?
How will you raise, soft and cool, evil thorns instead of rye?
In the spiderweb of attics
You will wither in the blood of raped twelve-year-old girls.

Cursed April, do not step over the desolate thresholds.
The chain-clatter of imprisoned Russians will assault you
With their skeleton-eyes –
Through the moldy blindness of prison-cellars,
They are seeking one beam of light.

On the cheeks of anemic girls, your sky will be blue.
The shadows will exile the sun. Your night will never dawn.

The virgin night of April spreads death in stars over the town.
Heersha-Leyb Tarshish plods – a shadowy prayer near the dog-catcher's shed.
He strokes the praying tails
Of the flogged dogs, the dog-catcher will flay them at dawn.

With his corpse hand he conducts a choir of sixteen dogs.
He asks each dog where is Hell and the hottest place in Hell –
And from the dog-catcher's death shed,
The dogs respond with a terrifying howl: there, t – h – e – r – e.

Heersha-Leyb asks: are there depths beneath the deepest depth –
And the dogs in the shed answer
With hoarse wailing, clamoring from the catcher's axe – to the light.

Dulled with barking, the dogs merge with the silence, with stars' anguish.
Heersha-Leyb Tarshish counts and counts the torments of their final sleep.

April eternally-in-love. Children blow through a straw – rainbows of soap.
Pale, thin little girls ripen in the anguished passage to womanhood.
Grass shadows are childish-cool.
At Badonna's house, the tree with shy berries is flaming red and raw.

Elchik and Dveyrka huddle in the orchard of Hotel Italia.
They step lightly, like thieves, their unrest rustles in apple-trees.
They hear harps play in their blood.
Dveyrka undid her fresh hair from her knot to her pretty loins.

They watch the leaves being born. The apple-tree understands
Dveyrka and Elchik's thoughts, and hides them with blossoming branches.
They are alone – so much spring,
And as through the roots of the tree, April sings through their senses.

Night – mystery of Creation. Dveyrka caught herself in Elchik's arms.
Generations of tomorrow flash like lightning in her shining eyes.

* This authorized translation by Benjamin and Barbara Harshav will be included in the translated collected Yiddish works of Menke Katz, soon to be published by The Smith Press, New York. The Yiddish text of the poem is reproduced from the book where it appeared (Brenendik shtetl , vol. 1, N.Y. 1938, pp. 85-94), with the original typography and "phoneticized" spelling used by the publisher (Signal Press) in the 1930s. Although the name of this two volume epic on Sventzian in World War I (Brenendik shtetl ) may be translated 'Burning Village', it is not to be confused with Menke Katz's own much later Burning Village (published by The Smith, N.Y. 1972), written in English, which is a different book rather than a translation.

During his lifetime, Menke Katz (1906-1991) published nine books of poetry in Yiddish and nine in English, and for thirty years (1961-1991) edited the poetry magazine Bitterroot. This poem is presented here by the kind permission of the Harshavs (Yale University), the poet's son, Professor Dovid Katz (Vilnius University), and Harry Smith, publisher of The Smith Press (New York). At the request of all three parties, we are including the authorized English translation of Menke Katz's actual poem instead of a translation of the abridged Yiddish version which appeared in the yizkor book. All three parties would like to express their sincerest gratitude to Marjorie Rosenfeld for her enormous efforts in coordinating among all the parties and processing the correct text for inclusion here.


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