By Karen Alkalay-Gut:
I have never been able to tell her story
Sometimes it escapes me, sometimes I am not sure
It could really have happened, sometimes I read
Different accounts of her demise, or a paragraph
From some testimony jogs my memory and the terrible days
When I first heard what happened to her return.
This much is in my blood:
I was conceived on the day she died.
This much is in my blood.
She blew up trains.
The courage came from her uplifted chin
And the two infants she watched
Dashed against the wall of their home.
Avram twelve months old and Masha two years.
My first cousins.
They too – in my blood – all that is left.
If I can write of these babies,
I can manage the rest –
Following her path as she escaped
The prison camp with her husband
And joined the Otrianski Otriade
Lenin Brigade, Lipinskana Forest.
I can feel her mouth, her narrow lips clamped
As she bends over the delicate mines,
Solemn as in the photo when as a child
She sat for with the rest of the choir
Unsmiling amid the festive singers
Unwilling perhaps to feel poetic joy
Perhaps destined for so much more.
There are at least three accounts of her death:
The partisan Abba Kovner told me she was caught
In a mission and hung. He looked away when he spoke,
Not piercing me as always with his tragic eyes,
And I knew there was more he would not say.
Another book says she lagged behind the platoon
Escaping an attack, perhaps pregnant,
And was imprisoned in Zhedtl.
The jail was ignited, perhaps by accident,
And she was just one of the victims.
When mother first told me the story
She had just heard at the hairdresser’s,
I must have been fifteen, and outraged
That she was weeping, tears
Rolling down her face. She knew
All I cared for was my own life,
And her latest discovery
Of the fate of her youngest sister
But who else could she tell?
The loft in the barn, she said,
They were hiding there – three women,
Her husband and her. They came
And set the barn afire. He helped
The women first, and his wife came last
But didn’t come, was burnt alive.
Malcah Malcah who saved all our lives
Malcah who was waiting for them
When the ship brought them back to Danzig
After they were barred from the Holy Land,
Who found them the agricultural visas to England
And saw them off the night that Hitler invaded.
But there is no real story.
All that remains is a faded snapshot
A few sentences in unread memorial tomes,
And me, who cannot tell any story for sure.
Karen Alkalay-Gut is now easing out of a fifty-year academic career at Tel Aviv University and beginning to concentrate on writing. Born in London during World War II, she was raised in Rochester, New York and moved to Israel in 1972. She has published almost 30 books in English, and Hebrew, Spanish, and Italian translation, and has collaborated on half a dozen music CDs.
Editor’s Note: Is it possible to read today’s poem without being moved to tears? To wax poetic (this is the place for that, after all), when I read today’s poem the first words that come to mind are “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” No, really. Let me.
1) Parallelism, as both an incantatory device and as a conversation between the poem and biblical poetry. “This much is in my blood: / I was conceived on the day she died. / This much is in my blood.” “Malcah Malcah who saved all our lives / Malcah who was waiting for them.” This parallelism is working on more levels than we might imagine. To echo the Bible in this way is a tradition that dates back to the earliest World War II and Holocaust poetry. But, in fact, it dates back to long before the Holocaust, finding rich roots among the varied history of all Jews in exile, and particularly those in Spain’s Golden Age and the time of the expulsion.
2) Vivid imagery that does not let us forget the many tragedies of “her story.” “[T]he two infants she watched / Dashed against the wall of their home,” “I can feel her mouth, her narrow lips clamped / As she bends over the delicate mines,” “He helped / The women first, and his wife came last / But didn’t come, was burnt alive.” This poem is rife with what Aristotle termed Pathos, the emotional connection to the audience. This is not a poem that you can read without feeling, deeply.
3) The poet herself shines through as a character, real and flawed and human. We know her struggles and her failings, and we experience them with her. “If I can write of these babies, / I can manage the rest,” “When mother first told me the story… I must have been fifteen, and outraged / That she was weeping… She knew / All I cared for was my own life, / And her latest discovery / Of the fate of her youngest sister / A disruption.”
4) Malcah, on the other hand, is made a hero through raw nostalgia. Malcah means “queen,” and while the poet did not invent her lost aunt’s name, bringing her name into the poem elevates the heroine to near-godly proportions. “She blew up trains. / The courage came from her uplifted chin,” “Malcah who saved all our lives / Malcah who was waiting for them / When the ship brought them back to Danzig / After they were barred from the Holy Land, / Who found them the agricultural visas to England / And saw them off the night that Hitler invaded.” Malcah the martyr, who did not die before first ensuring that the poet and her family would live.
5) “Her Story.” It is no secret that I am a big fan of herstory. I created a project to revive and celebrate it. But herstory, as today’s poem makes clear, is multi-faceted. It is women’s history, it is one woman’s history, it is women’s stories, and it is one woman’s story. But in today’s poem it is also the admission that there is no one story. (An idea I am incredibly interested in, as I spent the fall of 2013 researching my own family’s history through the lens of varying versions of the same story, much as today’s poem does.) In today’s poem we are given every known version of Malcah’s story, but the poet twins the telling of “her story” with the idea that “there is no real story” to tell. This is as true to an accurate historical retelling as anyone can come.
Want more from Karen Alkalay-Gut?
Karen Alkalay-Gut’s Official Website
Interview in The Madison Journal of Literary Criticism
Tel Aviv Radio
Buy The Encantadas: Evolution and Emotion from Amazon
The Bridge at Raqqa (eBook)