Kaddish

(by Mascha Kaléko; translated from the German)

Red shriek the poppies in the green fields of Poland.
Death lies in wait in the black forests of Poland.
Wheat rots, unharvested.
The reapers are all dead.
However much their mothers starve
The children cry for bread.

And frightened from their nests, the birds have ceased
To sing; the trees lift up their limbs for grief
And bow and whisper lamentation towards the east;
And when the wind takes up their sorrows like a prayer
And when they bow down like old Jews in attitudes of prayer
The broad, blood-sodden earth is shaken,
The stones themselves awaken.

This year, who will sound
The Shofar for the supplicants beneath the ground?
The hundred thousands whom no headstones name,
The hundred thousands God alone can name.

How shall they be entered into Heaven’s book aright?
Lord, we beseech you,
Let the prayers of the trees reach you
Tonight, as we light the last light.

Image: Burn, copyright 2012 by Amy Ischt-Lipscombe.

Mascha Kaléko (1907-1975) was born in Poland, and moved (more accurately, was moved) to Germany when her family fled the pogroms in Galicia. As a young woman in Berlin, she became a celebrated poet:

The numerous poems she wrote for the Vossische and for the Berliner Tageblatt over the years made her a celebrity in the capital. Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann and Alfred Polgar all expressed their admiration. She read her poems at the KüKa (Artists’ Cabaret), where stars such as Rosa Valetti and Tatjana Sais sang her chansons, which became popular for their combination of quick Berlin wit and the melancholy of Jewish Eastern Europe. Public response was so enthusiastic that the Rowohlt publishing house put out her first book of poetry, The Lyrical Shorthand Pad (Das Lyrische Stenogrammheft) in 1933. This was followed two years later by The Little Reader for Grown-Ups (Kleine Lesebuch für Grosse).

(From the Jewish Women’s Archive.)

People copied her poems by hand and circulated them secretly after the Nazis banned them. In 1938 she, her husband and their young son fled Germany for America. She became an American citizen in 1944. Kaddish is from her book of German-language poetry Verse für Zeitgenossen (Verses for Contemporaries), which was published in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1945. The original German runs thus:

Kaddisch

Rot schreit der Mohn auf Polens grünen Feldern,
In Polens schwarzen Wäldern lauert Tod.
Verwest die gelben Garben.
Die sie gesät, sie starben.
Die bleichen Mütter darben.
Die Kinder weinen: Brot.

Vom Nest verscheucht, die kleinen Vögel schweigen.
Die Bäume klagen mit erhobnen Zweigen,
Und wenn sie flüsternd sich zur Weichsel neigen,
In bärtger Juden betender Gebärde,
Dann bebt die weite, blutgetränkte Erde,
Und Steine weinen.

Wer wird in diesem Jahr den Schofar blasen
Den stummen Betern unterm fahlen Rasen,
Den Hunderttausend, die kein Grabstein nennt,
Und die nur Gott allein bei Namen kennt.

Sass er doch wahrlich strenge zu Gericht,
Sie alle aus dem Lebensbuch zu streichen.
Herr, mög der Bäume Beten dich erreichen.
Wir zünden heute unser letztes Licht.

… so much more moving than John McCrae’s romanticized In Flanders’ Fields, where the animate dead urge the living, “Take up our quarrel with the foe.” Mourn the dead, rather.

More of Kaléko’s poems, in German, are available here; Andreas Nolte has translated a number into English, some of which are available here. Nolte’s translations are published all together in his book, “‘No matter where I travel, I come to Nowhereland’ – The Poetry of Mascha Kaléko,” but I have not found a copy.

Verse für Zeitgenossen, whose copyright was registered in 1946 and not renewed, is in the public domain in the United States.

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One thought on “Kaddish

  1. Pingback: That Old Feeling | Bag of Anything

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