Not this did we want, no no, not this.
Without them, who are we and what is ours
Not this did we want, not thus did we think it would be
how the Land would devour and devour.
~ Tuvia Ruebner, from “One Plague and Another”
March 24th, 2016 / Yud daled bi’adar: an Introduction
Uncharacteristically, I begin this essay with the date on which I am composing it – yud’daled in the month of Adar, Purim. This holiday has always felt to me a difficult, even dangerous, one: on the one hand it commemorates how the Jewish people were saved from destruction; on the other hand, it is a holiday marking the Jewish people’s own violent impulses and need for revenge (as expressed in the gratuitous killing of all of Haman’s sons). The violence of the day is fully evident in its ritual expressions – the noise, the drunkenness, the deliberate inversion of order – that have blotted out for me the levity of costumes and even the generosity of mishlochei manot and Purim tsedakah.
This year, Purim’s danger feels to me heightened. Two days ago, bombs exploded in Brussels, killing over 30 people, wounding hundreds. The terrible images of carnage and destruction claimed our television screens and newspapers yet again, announcing the new age of terror that is changing life in Europe forever. Fear is the common lot now, as terrorist bombs make no distinctions in race, religion or nationality; inevitably, fear for oneself becomes fear of the other, with all its accompanying prejudices and even hatred.
But it is the response of the Israeli government to the Brussels bombings – specifically, the response of Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu – where I feel my fear of Purim and all it signifies come most forcefully to the fore. In a video message to the AIPAC conference on March 22nd – just hours after the bombings – then in a press conference aired on Israeli news on March 23rd, Netanyahu asserted the following: the terror of stabbings that have made Israeli streets bloody these last six months is identical to the terror now sweeping through Europe; the uprising of Palestinians (who have been oppressed and denied basic rights for almost 50 years) is the same as the indiscriminate violence of ISIS and its fundamentalist objectives. Conflating completely the Palestinians and ISIS, Netanyahu stated the following: “[They] have no resolvable grievances…what they seek is our utter destruction and their total domination.”
The obscenity of this conflation, the obscenity of this claim, is born of decades of lies. The obscenity of this conflation and this claim is born also of generations of utilizing the violence visiting upon us, the Jewish people, as absolute justification for the violence we have visited and continue to visit upon the Palestinian people, and our refusal to allow them to create an independent state on the West Bank for their own homeland.
An unlikely introduction to an essay on a nonagenarian Israeli poet and his poetry. And yet, this poet, Tuvia Ruebner, demands that we make these connections between our history, how we tell that history and our current actions. This poet – traditionally identified as a Holocaust poet – is no less a protest poet, speaking out against Israel’s continuing occupation of the West Bank and the resulting oppressive policies visited on 2.5 million Palestinians. From the 1990s, through the beginning of the 21st century and into the dark days of 2016, as each new wave of violence sweeps through Israel, this poet offers us poems that categorically refuse and refute the false claims and narratives told by Netanyahu and company,
A pre-eminent and award-winning poet in Israel and in Europe too, Ruebner is as yet less familiar to the English reader. As such, a short biographic framing is necessary, together with an elucidation of his Holocaust poetry – the poetry that is foundational in his oeuvre, as in his life, and is the poetry that leads eventually toward his particular brand of protest poetry.
Poetic peer of Yehuda Amichai and Dan Pagis, literary executor and close friend to Lea Goldberg, translator of Agnon and others, Tuvia Ruebner was born in 1924, in Pressburg Slovakia, into a semi-secular, German-speaking Jewish family. In his poem “Postcard from Pressburg-Bratislava,” Ruebner takes us on a short tour of the Pressburg of his youth, describing it thus:
Pressburg lies adjacent to the Danube, at the edges of the Carpathian slopes.
Near the Cathedral the Neologist Synagogue once stood
Built in some kind of Moorish style. Below is Fish Square,
above is where the Street of the Jews began. The Danube flows as always.
I was born in Pressburg. I had a mother, a father, a sister.
I had, I believe, a small and happy childhood in Pressburg.
Once, the Danube froze solid.
With these straightforward, unembellished descriptions, devoid of any emotional commentary, Ruebner introduces us to the lost world of his childhood, a postcard from the lost world of European Jewry. Of course Hitler rises to power – becoming Chancellor of Germany on Ruebner’s 9th birthday (a bitter coincidence Ruebner relays on the first page of his memoir), and history unfolds as it does. In 1941, permission papers are purchased for 17-year old Ruebner and eight other youths, allowing them to leave Slovakia; Ruebner bids farewell to his parents and little sister in the Pressburg train station – a farewell that Ruebner describes as “still weighing on my bones” decades later. From Bratislava to Budapest, via the Black Sea to Istanbul, through southern Turkey to Aleppo in Syria, from there to Beirut and southward. Ruebner and his friends journey until finally crossing the border at Rosh Hanikra, into British Mandate Palestine.
Ruebner was settled in the Jezreel Valley kibbutz of Merchavia, where he worked as a shepherd, in the fields and kitchen, and in other branches of the communal economy; in the afternoons he and the other members of his group studied, primarily Hebrew and Bible. During his first six months in Palestine, Ruebner still managed to exchange isolated letters with his parents and sister in Slovakia – tiny missives of no more than twenty-five words, conveyed into occupied Europe via the International Red Cross. In January of 1942, Ruebner received what would be the last letter from his father: “Dear one,” wrote his father, “we’ve heard nothing from you since September. We hope you are well. We are all fine. Write every month. We think of you all the time. Loving kisses, your parents and everyone.” Ruebner continued writing anxious and unanswered letters into the void. Only years later was his family’s exact fate made known to him: in June 1942 his parents and sister were deported on Transport 46 to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they were murdered.
His murdered family is the scarlet thread woven through Ruebner’s poetry; their absence is a steady and weighty presence. But above all it is his little sister Alice (nicknamed Litzi), his only sibling, 12 years old when he last saw her, 13 when she was murdered, who wanders unceasingly through his lines. She hovers over the pages of his poetry like a bird, like smoke, present and absent at the same time, then – as described in this untitled, fragment-like poem -flees like a deer:
Between one voice and the next
here, fleet-footed gazelle, quiet
as a shadow falling
over my open eyes
a figure lighter than fire
toying with me
with her games
“my father is dew
my mother the star’s spire”
I’m still here and she’s
This poem is one of many that Ruebner writes to or about his lost little sister. Twice in this small, even playful poem, the enjambed line-breaks – lines 2 and the penultimate line – incarnate the suspension of the “she,” her being severed from whatever follows, her hovering state; twice, the reader, together with the poet, wait anxiously, even hopefully, at line’s end for what might ensue, for what will modify the suspended “she.” At poem’s beginning, that anxious waiting is rewarded with “here” – “she is // here,” and the poem swings for a second toward the redemptive possibilities offered by the imagination: “she’s // here, fleet-footed gazelle…” “a figure lighter than fire / toying with me.” The poem’s speaker and the sister are, in the image, for the moment, reunited. However, this reunion is speedily undone at poem’s closure, with the fatal single-syllable, single-word “gone” – followed by a period sealing that terrible fate: “…she [is] / gone.”
This terrible fate is the fate of the victims and the survivors both; this fate of losing his most beloved is Ruebner’s lot in life. What he does with this fate, how he translates it into words, into what words, what new realities he establishes through those words – all that is the poet’s choice. Thus, in Ruebner’s second Hebrew poetry collection, published in 1960, in the exact middle of that volume – located as though it is the axis around which all else revolves – stands a poem entitled “Testimony.” This poem is, I believe, Ruebner’s statement of poetics, his artistic raison d’etre. The English reads as follows:
I exist in order to say
this house is not a house,
place of confiscations, parched rock, fear
there by the central square, did I say central square?
I exist in order to say
this road is not a road,
clung to by its travelers, ascending on dream’s rust
from the forest, the sand mountain where
I walk, there, who is walking? There where I used to
walk, a child in the sun
of cessation, with outstretched arms, searching
and searching for my father’s face my mother’s
I exist in order to say
these are the crossbeams and chronicles
of my parents, coal,
of my sister in my hair blowing
back and back, a night wind
in my day I exist in order to say
to their nighttime voices yes, yes to their weeping, yes
to the lost in their house of abeyance, to the falling from its wall’s shadows
on the fear in my voice saying yes
in the emptiness.
The emptiness at poem’s end – much like the single-word closure of the previous poem “gone” – is vast, overwhelming, existentially threatening. However, the resounding, reverberating “yes” the poet speaks in that emptiness challenges it, even fills it a bit. An emptiness filled even a little is no longer empty; thus the echoing “yes” repels the threat of cessation – pushes back the nullifying wind, ash, fear, shadows – and asserts the life-affirming force one must carry out of the devastation.
The life-affirming force Ruebner carries out of the devastation of the Holocaust, the “yes” in the emptiness, is a central aspect of his poetry. A crucial component of this life-affirming sensibility is the poet’s complete refusal of bitterness, anger, recrimination or self-righteousness. For Ruebner, the Holocaust does not grant the Jew, or the Israeli, any extra rights in the world; in fact, the horrors of the Holocaust are why the Jew, and the Israeli, must exercise extra compassion and extra intolerance of injustice. Thus, in the last years of the 20th century, this Holocaust poet starts writing protest poems, poems that acknowledge and expose what Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid termed (speaking of his own context) “the difficult knowledge” of the day. Within the Israeli context, this “difficult knowledge” is the deeply scarred psyche of the Israeli collective consciousness that prevents it from exiting deadly cycles of violence; this “difficult knowledge” is the great suffering visited on countless innocents because of Israel’s inability to exit this paradigm of violence.
Ruebner’s 2002 collection Almost a Conversation contains many of his most powerful protest poems. In 2002, the second Intifadah was raging, and any attempts toward peaceful resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict were moribund. Israel was claiming, as always, the position of ultimate and eternal victim, justifying its actions through this self-serving self-positioning. Within this context, Ruebner composed the following poem:
Being a victim, again and again a victim –
what a job! Here and there both.
A victim begets a victimizer, a victimizer begets a knife
a knife begets fear, fear
begets hatred, hatred – wickedness
wickedness like locusts eats greedily
parcel after parcel of a land
bleeding like the feet of Jesus on the cross
worthless, plodding along
in wheelchairs, blind –
In Khan Younis five children on their way to school stepped on
something. In one second they became torn flesh, ragged flesh.
A sixth child was shot there the same day, on the twenty-third of
November 2001. The army…is checking… investigating…from
that same spot…artillery fire was shot…expresses…deep… sorrow…
The wagtail is again rising and falling, rising and falling on air currents
the warbler is warbling in the bushes and the robin too has been spotted.
Who else hears something in this terrible noise
Fear and hatred and hatred and fear
contempt of hatred and fear
How do we end that which has no end?
The military-speak integrated mid-poem is extracted as though from any news report – today, a decade ago, two or three decades ago. The life-affirming cyclical nature of the wagtail rising and falling and rising again on air currents stands in stark contrast to the deadly cyclical nature of a victim begetting a victimizer, begetting a new victim. The song of the warbling warbler stands in contrast to the “terrible noise” of fear and hatred and contempt. The implicit critique of the victim-narrative, together with the unflinching gaze at this terrible reality, is the poet’s protest.
The 2002 collection contains also a ten-poem series titled “One Plague and Another.” In this series, Ruebner rewrites the ten plagues visited upon the Egyptians as the ten plagues of the Occupation; surprisingly, in this rewriting, these are not plagues visited upon the Palestinians but they are rather plagues suffered by the Israeli population. These are the plagues of ignorance, prejudice, hypocrisy, moral corruption and willful blindness. The penultimate poem in the series, located in the position of the Exodus Plague of Darkness, reads thus:
Oh Let the Darkness cover our eyes!
Where can we flee from the sound of our hearts
proclaiming: was it not our hands that spilt our blood!
To where can we still run from ourselves?
Inverting the biblical narrative wherein darkness is a terrible punishment no one wants, this poetic speaker prays for darkness, prays that darkness may “cover our eyes,” lest we see what we have done, lest we witness our own terrible deeds and the lies we have told ourselves.
The epigraph poem to this essay is from this same series and is its tenth poem; that is, it occupies the place of the Death of the Firstborn plague. However, in this contemporary rewriting of the biblical plague, it is not God who claims the first-born sons. Rather, it is “the Land” – that is, land-idolatry and dangerous nationalism – that devours not only the first-born sons but all the children, Israeli and Palestinian both. Until the Israeli government faces the biblical dimensions of its own sins, the peoples, both peoples, pay with the blood of their children and entire generations are scarred by and sacrificed to the violence.
The focus on children in Ruebner’s poetry of protest takes on new force in a poem written in the bloody days October 2015. The poem is titled simply “The Boy” and reads thus:
The skies open.
The boy’s face grew white and faded.
He who killed him has been killed.
The stars fall like leaves from the pecan tree.
His face grew white and faded. He who killed him
hasn’t been killed. God keeps time turning.
He will be and he was.
The boy’s face grows white.
Afterwards he rises and rides away on his bike.
That’s what was and what will be.
God keeps time turning.
God – what a dream!
The pecan nuts are bursting forth.
The doctors work for the miracle.
The poem conveys the terrible absurdity of the daily news: Palestinian boys, often as young as 13 or 14, armed with simple knives, seek out random victims in Israeli streets. After the stabbing is done, the boy-stabbers are most often killed, by the gathering crowd or by the police, even after they are immobilized. In Ruebner’s poem, there are no named nationalities – there is a boy killing a boy, being killed himself, or not. There is a boy who seems to rise from the dead and ride away on his bike, as though the child’s world can continue amid such blood. The surrealness of the scene is the surrealness of a world ruled by meaningless violence; the surrealness of the scene is the endlessness of the violence, its random nature, and the profound failure of those in power to recognize the despair they have created in others, despair that may lead a child to kill another child.
One must acknowledge the great significance of this poet of the Holocaust generation writing poems of protest against the current state of affairs in Israel. Part of the clear and dangerous legacy of the Holocaust has been a Jewish claim to ultimate suffering and persecution, as indeed the world never knew evil of the degree manifested in The Final Solution. For Ruebner too Auschwitz is, and must be recognized as, the central and definitive event of the twentieth century. It was Auschwitz, he argues, as reality and symbol both that “…created a new human being, a person who is terror-stricken. With Auschwitz before his eyes, he sees clearly now what he is capable of….” However, what Ruebner asserts, in his prose and poetry both, is that the response to this horrific “central and definitive event” of the twentieth century must not be a Jewish bunker-mentality (re: the world is ever against us), but rather a heightened human self-awareness of what we are, as individuals and as states, capable of – the suffering we may cause others, the injustices we must work unremittingly to avoid.
Tuvia Ruebner marked his 92nd birthday in January 2016; he continues to reside on Kibbutz Merchavia, with Galila, an acclaimed pianist and his second wife of more than 60 years. He published his 16th poetry collection, titled The Cross-Roads, in the winter of 2015; a year later, the poetry keeps flowing from him, at an even greater pace than ever. Many, if not most, of these new poems cast an unflinching, unforgiving gaze at “what we have done.” Thus, as starkly described in the opening lines of a new poem titled “Gaza Nightmare,” the Zionist dream of making the wilderness bloom has been replaced by the nightmare of oppression and occupation – a nightmare reality wherein bombs sow the land and only death blooms:
They started it. They started. And so
we sowed and seeded their lands
till there sprouted like wildflowers
babies babies mother and father none.
Women like sea-winds search for their sons among
the ruins ruins ruins …
One wants not to read these lines; one wants not to see this image. However, Tuvia Ruebner – Holocaust refugee, poet of his own lost beloveds and a continent’s unfathomable devastation – will not let us not see. Wilfred Owen, World War I poet and World War I casualty, stated it simply: “a true poet / must be truthful.” Ruebner’s terrible truthfulness demands of us that we see, that we listen and that we act to change the terrible truths he describes.
Rachel Tzvia Back, poet and translator, resides in the Galilee, where her great great great grandfather settled in the 1830s. In the Illuminated Dark: Selected Poems of Tuvia Ruebner was a finalist for both the National Jewish Book Award and the National Translation Award for Poetry, 2015.
 From In the Illuminated Dark: Selected Poems of Tuvia Ruebner, translated and annotated by Rachel Tzvia Back. Hebrew Union College Press, and University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014. Unless otherwise stated, the quoted poems in this essay are from this bilingual collection