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Chaim Nachman Bialik: Holocaust Poetry with English Translations

Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934), also Hayim or Haim, was a Jewish Holocaust poet who wrote in Hebrew. Bialik was one of the pioneers of modern Hebrew poetry; he came to be recognized as Israel's national poet. He combined in a unique way his personal wish for love and understanding with his people’s desire for a homeland.

Bialik was born in Radi, the Ukraine, on January 9, 1873, and died in Vienna, Austria on July 4, 1934. Fatherless at the age of seven, Bialik received an Orthodox Jewish education. In his youth he studied at the Volozhin Yeshiva in Belarus, while leaning toward the enlightenment movement, an attraction that led him to move to Odessa at the age of eighteen. There he devoted himself to studying Russian and German, and the reading of secular literature. Two years later he married, then worked as a Hebrew teacher and coal dealer for a decade.

In 1901 Bialik’s first book of poems was published in Warsaw, where he lived from 1903-1905, editing the journal Shiloah, and later founding the Moriah publishing house for classic Hebrew textbooks. In 1904 and 1908 he visited Palestine. During these years Bialik turned increasingly to writing and translating, publishing Hebrew translations of the European literary canon: the poetry of Heine, Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and Cervantes’ Don Quixote. In 1921 he founded the Dvir publishing house in Berlin and moved to Tel Aviv three years later, where he occupied himself with cultural activities and public works.

Ever since that time, and to this day, Bialik has been generally considered the foremost modern Hebrew poet.

After My Death
by Chaim Nachman Bialik
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Say this when you eulogize me:
Here was a man — now, poof, he's gone!
He died before his time.
The music of his life suddenly ground to a halt..
Such a pity! There was another song in him, somewhere,
But now it's lost,
What a pity! He had a violin,
a living, voluble soul
to which he uttered
the secrets of his heart,
setting its strings vibrating,
save the one he kept inviolate.
Back and forth his supple fingers danced;
one string alone remained mesmerized,
yet unheard.
Such a pity!
All his life the string quivered,
quavering silently,
yearning for its song, its mate,
as a heart saddens before its departure.
Despite constant delays it waited daily,
mutely beseeching its savior, Love,
who lingered, loitered, tarried incessantly
and never came.
Great is the pain!
There was a man — now, poof, he is no more!
The music of his life suddenly interrupted.
There was another song in him
But now it is lost

On The Slaughter
by Chaim Nachman Bialik
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Merciful heavens, have pity on me!
If there is a God approachable by men
as yet I have not found him—
Pray for me!

For my heart is dead,
prayers languish upon my tongue,
my right hand has lost its strength
and my hope has been crushed, undone.

How long? Oh, when will this nightmare end?
How long? Hangman, traitor,
here’s my neck—
rise up now, and slaughter!

Behead me like a dog—your arm controls the axe
and the whole world is a scaffold to me
though we—the chosen few—
were once recipients of the Pacts.

Executioner!, my blood’s a paltry prize—
strike my skull and the blood of innocents will rain
down upon your pristine uniform again and again,
staining your raiment forever.

If there is Justice—quick, let her appear!
But after I’ve been blotted out, should she reveal her face,
let her false scales be overturned forever
and the heavens reek with the stench of her disgrace.

You too arrogant men, with your cruel injustice,
suckled on blood, unweaned of violence:
cursed be the warrior who cries "Avenge!" on a maiden;
such vengeance was never contemplated even by Satan.

Let innocents’ blood drench the abyss!
Let innocents’ blood seep down into the depths of darkness,
eat it away and undermine
the rotting foundations of earth.

Al Hashechita ("On the Slaughter") was written by Bialik in response to the bloody Kishniev pogrom of 1903, which was instigated by agents of the Czar who wanted to divert social unrest and political anger from the Czar to the Jewish minority. The Hebrew word schechita (also transliterated shechita, shechitah, shekhitah, shehita) denotes the ritual kosher slaughtering of animals for food. The juxtapositioning of kosher slaughter with the slaughter of Jews makes the poem all the more powerful and ghastly. Such anti-Semitic incidents prompted a massive wave of Eastern European emigration that brought millions of Jews to the West. Unfortunately, there have been many similar slaughters in human history and the poem remains chillingly relevant to the more recent ones in Israel/Palestine, Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo.

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