Arts & Culture

The Neglected Poetry of Yossel Birstein

This summer, Zeek has been re-examining the work of Yiddish writer Yossel Birstein. Our summer print issue includes a never-before translated Birstein story; here, we offer Andrew Firestone’s discussion of Birstein’s only book of poems, written when he was living … Read More

By / June 30, 2009

This summer, Zeek has been re-examining the work of Yiddish writer Yossel Birstein. Our summer print issue includes a never-before translated Birstein story; here, we offer Andrew Firestone’s discussion of Birstein’s only book of poems, written when he was living in Australia, before making aliyah to Israel–Adam Rovner, Zeek Translations Editor

I have always loved poetry, so I was delighted when the Jewish Museum of Australia asked me to research and report on the Yiddish poets of Melbourne. Of several gems which came to light, no book impressed me more than Yossel Birstein’s Unter Fremde Himlen, Under Alien Skies, (Melbourne, 1949).

Most of these pre-War poems movingly describe a young man’s immigrant experience of alienation, as he holds on to his Jewish Yiddish culture far from home. But some of the strongest writing appears in the series of fifteen memorial poems that open the book. Here Birstein makes his poetic response to the martyrdom of his family and the other Jews of their Polish town of Biala-Podlaska. When he wrote most of these verses, in 1945, he was twenty-five years old.

Yet, after he wrote Under Alien Skies,Birstein gave up poetry for prose. Why?

From Poland to Melbourne

The bare bones of Birstein’s biography are these. He came to Australia unaccompanied at the age of sixteen, in 1937. He was the eldest of four, and two years later, in the nick of time, Reyzl, the next child, followed. Grandparents in Melbourne paid the fares and arranged their papers, and Birstein lived with them. His home was in Carlton, which then resembled New York’s Lower East Side–as much Yiddish and Italian were heard on the street as English.

Birstein worked in a clothing factory and began to write poems, which the two local Yiddish newspapers were pleased to publish ("a homegrown product").  His friends were left-wing bohemian writers and artists. His best friend, whom he had met on the journey from Poland, later illustrated Under Alien Skies. This was the artist Yosl Bergner, whose father, the famous Yiddish poet Melekh Ravitch, was then living in Melbourne.

The rest of Birstein’s family never followed. The war came and Birstein’s parents and the younger children all perished. By 1949, Birstein was married with a daughter, and working as the first paid secretary of the now thriving Yiddish cultural organization in Melbourne, Kadimah. (In this Birstein was unusual in his generation: few of his own age were interested in Yiddish, and more than once Birstein publicly bemoaned his own generation’s abandoning of Yiddish.)

He didn’t work for Kadimah long; soon after his book of poems was published, Birstein and his family moved to Israel. There, Birstein became a writer of short stories and novels, in Yiddish and Hebrew; and a well-loved storyteller, on the radio and at festivals.. He wrote but one more poem after leaving Melbourne. He passed away in Jerusalem in 2003. 

Poetic Influences

Birstein left school at age twelve to assist his father, a poor shoemaker. Birstein was a voracious reader though, and in Melbourne he continued his reading, in Yiddish and in English. In addition he was a regular at weekly left-wing lectures.

His friend Bergner has recorded that, soon after the two of them arrived in Melbourne, he visited Birstein at home one day, and was invited to "seat thyself": Birstein was teaching himself English by reading Shakespeare!

Bergner’s father, the famous poet Melekh Ravitch, must have impressed Birstein; but Birstein’s work is quite different. Many of Birstein’s poems resemble folksongs, albeit refined ones, perhaps due to the influence of his mother, a singer of recognized talent. His verses, written to be heard, are always rhymed. (It is difficult to convey their musicality in translation, though there have been some remarkable successes.)

Birstein’s earliest poems often sacrificed clarity for musicality; but his technical mastery developed rapidly. Soon after his first poems were published Birstein soon was contacted by I. I. Giligich, the doyen of Melbourne’s Yiddish school principals, who introduced Birstein to the verses of Leyb Naydus and Itzik Manger.

Birstein was also influenced by the short stories of Pinkhas Goldhar, a social realist writer, and the social realist paintings of Yosl Bergner and Noel Counihan-all artists Birstein knew well in Melbourne. Like them, Birstein tried his hand at poems in the social realist mode, perhaps the best among them being "At the Factory," translated by Floris Kalman.

At the factory

Translated by Floris Kalman

I murmur to myself timeworn everyday words until they pass into silence – and silence too is just a game.

Looking around I see from every separate thing a muteness flowing out and weeping, in its own tongue. Bending down I say to the iron head of the machine: I too am a thing, nothing more… of a different kind, I know. The silvery dust covers me too, the walls surround me as well, through the pane a luminous ray stretches out to me a warm hand

Caresses my dust-covered head at the iron head of the machine – I too am a thing, nothing more… of a different kind, I know.

Another influence was the poet Moyshe Leyb Halpern. Halpern, like the social realists, was also interested in social justice, but his style and tone is much more modernist. Indeed, Halpern was often criticized for his "coarse" writing, according to scholar Julian Levinson.

Birstein echoes the alienation of the modernist in the following poem, both musical and suspenseful, which morphs from the Gothic into personal angst:

A Visitor On My Doorstep Translated by Leigh Fetter

I clean away the plenitude from my table, remove my wellbeing, as if another’s clothing. A visitor is on my doorstep – come to stay for ever, he’s intending. He sits down at the table by me, near, to wait until these become my own: the misfortunes of his body, his sadness, and his fear

which lies hidden beneath his load of silence. On bowed shoulders his head is firmly set, and I can tell he waits for me to say: I want to be humiliated like you,

like you I also want to be depressed. I don’t know if I tell him that or not, but over me starts swaying low the heavy fate of my father’s lot

which my father too hid silently below. It may be that my father – it is he, this visitor seated by my side silent, heavy and constricted, as if awaiting

my forgiveness for some wrong he’s done. But it could also be, the visitor is simply me, and I’m beside myself, by sorrows overcome – waiting for a word to rise in me waiting, to tell myself something.

This sense of sorrow is felt most acutely in the poems that open the book, the Memorial poems.

Memorial Poems

 

Hard on the liberation of Europe, in July1944, a left-wing anthology of Yiddish prose and verse , Tsushteyer (Supporters), appeared in Melbourne, Australia. Yossel Birstein, then twenty-four years old, wrote

In the folds of my granny’s clothes Yellow prayer-psalms smoulder, Making my little gran herself A prayerbook of oldfashioned laments.

And continued

The secret is secret no longer Out of the dust a reckoning is coming…


The emotional composure of this poem suggests that confirmation of the deaths of all of Birstein’s family in Eastern Poland was yet to come.  When it did, the force and poignancy of the series of fifteen memorial poems he wrote for them was remarkable. (Translations following are by Beni Gothajner. All the poems of the book Under Alien Skies can be found in Yiddish, along with English and Hebrew translations of some of them, at www.YiddishPoetry.org).

Who can I reach out a hand to? a whole house: a wall, a table, a chair; even they silently demand that we remember them.

Each of his family is memorialized. Here is the first verse of "My little brother":

The Yiddish word and the Yiddish song are held in stocks of sorrow and pain. Such a store is the soul of each who takes part in our weeping. May they shine, the word and the song that dress young spirits with dreams of happiness -my little brother is a small mound of ash.

Every verse of that poem ends with the same line…

But the most poignant poem of the series is the one for his sister, "Oyf dayn fayerdiker khasene." The word fayerdik means both fiery and celebratory, for light and fire are part of all festive occasions.

At Your Fiery Wedding Translated by Beni Gothajner

You would have been a virgin bride by now with all the graces of the young and chaste. Instead, Death snatched you to his side and married you in haste.

Who was missing at the ball? Everyone came; strangers, neighbours, all. The devil danced a reel with the whole world, with you – and all Israel in one. How beautifully you danced; with flare, with flame. Only our people can dance the same, committing to the fire both body and heart. Only our spirit and flesh know how to dance this part.

I alone did not turn up at all to dance at your fiery wedding ball.

You are not mistaken if you detected survivor guilt in these poems, which can be read even more plainly in the following piece, translated by Miriam Leberstein, New York:

 

No More To Do With The Roar Translated by Miriam Leberstein

I have no more to do with the roar of the city and no more to do with the hearth of my neighbour. Door murmurs to door signing like the deaf "Who was it that halted him in his tracks?"

It isn’t the beautiful sky or the sun nor is it the day, autumnal and windy but a kind of a bell ringing out its command which resounds in my head "you are guilty… are guilty."

Why am I guilty? I don’t know why. The tragedy is spreading like weeds through my life. My dear ones that died visit during the night, they demand sorrow of me, but I have none to give. They stand by my bedside, immovable, stubborn staring in silence, as is their habit as I lie outstretched in my cushiony bed dying of surfeit, not from privation.

And what happens next? Nothing else happens. I wake to a morning splattered with sunlight and try to forget in the taste of my bread the world that visits my bedside at night. But a bell keeps on ringing: "Know this, you are finished – and what is more – you have been cut adrift. You have no more to do with the roar of the city and no more to do with the hearth of your neighbour."

Where could Birstein go from here?

 

From Poet to Novelist

After Under Alien Skies, Birstein would only write one more poem, just after arriving in Israel, and then no more. Why? I have asked his wife Margaret, and she doesn’t know. They are not lying unpublished in a drawer. Though he continued writing almost all of his life, Birstein published poetry between the ages of 19 and 30 only.

One reason might have been the lukewarm reception with which his poetry was received. Even though the book was reviewed by two of the Yiddish world’s most respected critics, Yehoshua Rapoport in Melbourne and Yankev Glatstein-perhaps the best-regarded Yiddish poet then living-in New York, neither reviewer seemed to appreciate Birstein’s work and both ignored the strongest poems of the book, the Memorial sequence.

We can appreciate the critics’ wishes to shield their readers at that time from Birstein’s Memorial poems. They had their own losses, and those of their readers, to take into account. But how much was Birstein affected by this response?

Instead of characterizing Birstein as a poet of the Jewish world, Rapoport in particular put Birstein into a smaller box, as an Australian Yiddish poet-not quite the scope an ambitious writer wanted. The only poem Rapoport discussed in depth was The Plea (given here in Gothajner’s translation), as descriptive of Birstein’s struggle to remain an authentic Jew while adapting to Australia. From another perspective, Birstein here expresses his existential angst (which he did a good deal) very unusually–with Jewish imagery:

 

The Plea Translated by Beni Gothajner

I come now from caves, from forest and field. Wonderful – wonderful God – is your world… What am I to do with myself?

More than alarm felt for my home town the fear pursues every step of my own… What am I to do with myself?

How cruel it is here? How quiet, how still? I too am made numb and tired of it all… What am I to do with myself?

I envy the stone that someone has thrown into a well, where it sinks straight down… What am I to do with myself?

Your call: Let light be! has dimmed and turned dark. My life is laid waste. But not yet my heart… What am I to do with myself?

Birstein, as we now know, was not planning to stay in Australia at all, having already made plans to move to Israel. In fact, that move may be another reason he stopped writing poetry: poetry may have been a medium he associated too much with pain and loss.

Birstein’s last published poem, written on Kibbutz Gvat soon after his arrival in Israel, is very different from his previous work. All angst and urgency have vanished. A relaxed tone, an easy pace–the lines are open, as if to the sky and the fields: "I drink and drink – can I continue to drink like this, without measure? Is there no one behind me to ask ‘why?’ The answer comes from the encompassing silence. The world is wonderful, humans more so."

Birstein’s poetry up until 1949 had nearly all been written in a narrow emotional range of negative emotions–of grief and loss, emotional pain and despair and alienation. Perhaps once he felt at peace in himself, in Israel, it felt right to jettison the poetic vehicle altogether?

In any case, such a transition from poetry to prose is not so uncommon. Two of Australia’s best known novelists, David Malouf and Rodney Hall, for instance, published very good poetry and then turned to prose–and readers will think of other examples. Yet, however Birstein understood his poetry, for us today it is an important legacy, not just as a record of an Australian Yiddish Jewish response to the 1940s, but as a set of excellent poems well worth reading in their own right.

I think it would have pleased Birstein that last year a Melbourne musician, Ben Nisenbaum, set to music his poem Oysyes (translated as Signs). And at long last, one of his poems has been read at a Warsaw Ghetto Commemoration.

Perhaps at last Birstein’s poetry will get "a fair go", as we say in Australia.

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Dr Andrew Firestone is a psychiatrist. He edits websites of Yiddish poetry translations under the umbrella of YiddishPoetry.org. He is an Adjunct Research Associate at the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilization, Monash University, Melbourne. His current project is an anthology of the Yiddish poetry of Poland between the two World Wars, with sound files of the Yiddish poems read by native speakers. There will be translations into Polish, English, French and Hebrew.

All images courtesy of the Birstein Project