Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review


Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review


Article excerpt

Resistance Abba Kovner. Sloan-Kettering. Translated by Eddie Levenston. Schocken Books 2002. 134pp. $17.00

There are many places on this planet where Abba Kovner is hailed as a hero, but none more meaningful to me than a particular mosquito-laden parcel of land in the southern Catskills. There, at the summer camp I attended as a teenager, run by the Zionist youth group Hashomer Hatzair, Kovner (1918-1987) was a legend. Kovner had been a member of the same youth group in Vilna when he led that city's ghetto uprising in 1943. Like Mordecai Anielewicz, another Hashomer member who'd led the Warsaw ghetto uprising, Kovner epitomized chazak veematz (strength and courage), the motto of Hashomer. The word "hero" wasn't bandied about quite as idly as it is today, but Kovner certainly qualified. And he wasn't a hero in the pedestal sense: he was an attainable hero, one of us. He could very well have been in the next bunk over, drinking bug juice, singing campfire songs, or doing kitchen duty with us. By the same token, we could have been with him in Vilna when the Nazis descended. And had we been-his highly accessible persona seemed to say-we would have stood courageously with him as he admonished the Jewish residents of Vilna not to be "led like sheep to the slaughterhouse." The kindred spirits of Kovner and Anielewicz made us young Hashomer members feel immensely proud and strong, even if our biggest challenge was three days of "rapids" in the Delaware River while paddling our yellow rubber rafts. We knew (or at least we fervently hoped) that we could be like them if such a situation were to arise again.

Anielewicz, sadly, was killed when the Germans flattened the Warsaw ghetto, but Kovner escaped the Vilna ghetto as it was being liquidated. he survived in the forest, leading the Jewish Brigade of partisans, who ambushed German soldiers, sabotaged supply lines, and stole weapons. These daring raids were carried out with Vita Kempner and Ruzka Korzak, two teenage girls who were Kovner's most trusted lieutenants and closest companions. Eventually Kovner settled on Kibbutz Ein Hachoresh, married Kempner, and shifted his focus toward the survival of the new state of Israel, and finally toward writing, this last with such success that he was awarded the country's highest honor, the Israel Prize for Literature, in 1970.

As a child in the Hashomer summer camp, my image of Kovner ended there: ghetto-uprising hero, wily partisan, Zionist pioneer in Israel, and writer in the paradise of kibbutz. Most accounts of Kovner's life essentially follow the same formula, with the five decades after the war given only brief mention. In some sense, though, that is how Kovner seems to have viewed his own life: The years of resistance pervade his writing like a perennial itch, always there below the surface, no matter what the topic is at hand. In someone with less of a resume this might be cloying, but Kovner clearly merits this prerogative. However much we may laud ourselves for facing challenges, not many of us would actually stand up to the Waffen SS armed with only acid-filled light bulbs and a few revolvers.

Although Kovner did write a certain amount of prose-his magnum opus, Scrolls of Testimony, weaves together remembrances, stories, and poems about the lost culture of European Jews-poetry was his first love, and the genre in which he worked his entire life. He managed to scribble poems in the ghetto as well as in the Lithuanian forest. On arrival in Palestine, he directed his poems toward energizing other young Zionists. Kovner is the prototypical warrior-poet, who has paid with blood and earned the right to place his thoughts and feelings before the world; his are the type of poems that Israeli soldiers carry into battle.

Sloan-Kettering is Kovner's final book of poetry. Although published in Hebrew in 1987-the year of Kovner's death-it has only now been translated into English. Somewhat inexplicably, Schocken has chosen to publish their edition in a 6" × 7" format, which forces many of the poems to run just over onto a second page; an added inch or two of height would have allowed many more of them to sit comfortably on single pages. …

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