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Take a book of poetry and go out to fight


On the dramatic day of September 1, 1939, the day Hitler invaded Poland and launched World War II, the British newspaper Times Literary Supplement published an article calling on European poets to fulfill their duty and write "songs of encouragement and comfort" to soldiers fighting the Nazis.


But the young Hebrew poet Leah Goldberg vehemently opposed the call and a week later, published a response list in the Hashomer Hatzair newspaper. She wrote:

 "It is not only a right for a poet in the days of horror to sing a song to nature, to the flowering trees, to children who know how to laugh, but a duty, the duty to remind a person that he is still a human being."


Her list provoked agitated reactions from all the poets around her, led by her close friend, Nathan Alterman (in the photo). Alterman argued against it that a poet must not shut himself off from the world and deal only with his personal world, he must devote himself to writing poetry that is attached to people and dramatic events that take place in the world. This argument has cast a heavy shadow over their relationship.


During World War II, when the Holocaust had not yet been fully revealed, Alterman published poems that encouraged the people. He clung to small consolations of comfort published in the paper. For example, following a news item published in early May 1942, "The Nazis confiscate Jews' shtreimel hats for military purposes," Alterman wrote the "Revenge of the Shtreimel." But in November of that year, official news came from the United States and England that millions of Jews in Europe were being systematically murdered. One can only imagine how hard this news hit the public in Palestine, many of whom had families and friends in Europe.


After the war, Alterman heard from the partisan Abba Kovner a description of a brief moment he witnessed when Kovner released a little girl who was hiding with her mother. The first question the girl asked was "Mother, is it okay now to cry?" Following the story, Alterman wrote the famous poem "Mother, is it okay now to cry?" which begins like this:


Yes, girl, yes, thin hands.

Yes, now it is time to cry.

Yea, an angel of plucked lashes and hair,

Yes, now it is already allowed, already allowed.

It is calm and clear tonight,

Already uncle Joseph Kramer has left,

Already the radio has counted and numbered

What have they done to you, O sheep of torment.

You were obedient and wise

And in the dark you did not cry

And even (so no ear would hear!)

You grew your teeth in silence.

And about all, and about all, and about all

Already prepared, my tiny, a protocol

Arranged and tightened with shields - -

And now it is time to cry.


Want to hear more? Sign up for Melton Centre's open professional day on April 26, "Poetry and Memory." The session, led by Dr. Rachel Korazim, will explore three different notions of commemorations as seen through poems of Nathan Alterman, Avner Trainin, and Itamar Yaoz Keszt.

We will discuss the development of the Shoah narrative in young Israel and its lasting impact and offer a model for teaching about Shoa and Israeli society through poetry. Free admission, register here>> 



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