Screams in Ukraine

Alter-Sholem Kacyzne


How can it be told in simple, quiet words?
How can you gloss over the sharp outcry
So that people will listen to it and be silent,
With mute eyes, even without a sigh?
Without a sigh, since every sigh is empty,
An empty stalk in a field full of sorrows.
Today the sun will rise and tomorrow it will shine
And peer into the window of Reb Nokhemke.
It will look elsewhere too, where gloom strides on velvet,
Where mute stillness reigns, after screams in Ukraine.
After screams in Ukraine the family grows sparser,
Reb Nokhem remains alone—and with him, his daughter Brokhe.
They see each other seldom, they live like strangers.
She sits in her little room and combs her long hair.
He only knocks at her door, with fear and caution,
To ask for a clean shirt to go to the bathhouse.
“You needn’t be angry, a Jew must remember—
As long as a spark still glows—you must keep clean!”
The father’s eyes are red, from poring over sacred texts,
Hers are pale from darting to the ceiling.
They exude chaos and a bright emptiness.
Her father’s words make them darken, like empty graves—
Two empty graves where dogs have dragged away the bodies,
Hands and feet torn off and carried off the devil knows where.
If some ordinary man had spoken and not her quiet father,
Brokhe would have rushed at him with her grievance.
Brokhe would have reawakened the screams in Ukraine:
“Tell me! What is the use of the world when your soul is in rags,
Patched till the grave with a big yellow lie!”
Her father’s eyes are red, and Brokhe remained silent.
Silent, hidden in her humpbacked anger.
She can no longer go out to nearby places.
The glances of the everyday housewives stab her:
“How can a girl not feel shame for her calamity?
A calamity, for us all—it missed no one!
But the world is the world—you find a way. . . .”
A doctor from America, a specialist, a smooth talker,
Rummaged in attics and crawled into cellars,
Persuaded her father, while Brokhe was hiding.
She won’t, she insists, join the transport to Warsaw,
“To Warsaw with girls crammed like geese in the rail-cars?
No, doctor, no! A girl without shame is undeserving of pity!”
In Warsaw stands a house some seven stories high,
With ninety-nine rooms, with seven hundred beds.
And the girls with the numbers and matrons with the tags—
They are picked out like worm-eaten peas,
Selected and noted and written down:
Here is your place—here’s a cot and a number.
Dozens of doctors, thank God all are Jews.
White coats, bald pates and eyeglasses glisten.
Bellowing as at slaughter, weeping as on the Day of Atonement—
Jewish blood is flowing from the glossy pincers,
The glossy pincers in the maidenly entrails
Where the fruit of Ukrainian seed is ripped out.
Your Jewishness be praised, your learned sincerity,
Your skills be praised for making what is impure kosher,
We are used to blood, so let it run, no matter,
As long as the burned-in sign can be washed out
The burned-in stigma that tarnishes our honor.
Our honor is lost, but we can live without it.
Who is fated to live can live without it.
The pain is transient and the shame is forgettable.
But there are souls who wander in the alleys,
And drag their hunchbacked bodies like trash-bins.
The bodies are superfluous, the honor is broken . . .
Reb Nokhem sits in silence. In the other room—Brokhe.
What does the sad father seek in his prayer book?
Why does he sway like a graveyard tree in the wind?
A chant on the fifth note, a sigh at the octave,
But the chant coils smoothly and without interruption
Smooth and unending like the walls of a deep well.
It falls and falls and falls and finds no bottom.
The clock finished coughing and struck twelve o’clock.
The lamp flares up and rejoices in its dying.
Only then does the door to Brokhe’s room open,
Her hair let down, her eyes glowing wolf-like.
Her eyes glow wolf-like at her studying father.
Does he feel her steps? Will he hear her coming?
Her father did sense her. He turned to the side,
Fixing his tearless eyes on Brokhe.
He kissed the prayer book, bent back a page
And prepared himself for the tragedy whose time has come.
Timely and expected, its arrival has sounded.
The wine has fermented in its goatskin sack.
Brokhe came in, wearing her nightclothes
With fires in the window-eyes of her skull.
And Brokhe spoke up: “Oh father, let me die.
With earth and spade put out the fire of my shame.
The fire of my shame, and the rage of my anger.”
And Nokhem murmured: “You are right, my daughter!”
And Nokhem murmured—the weak and sickly old man
Lowered his head and dipped it into the Psalms.
So how can it be told in words, simple and quiet?
How the young day grew frightened from the murmurs,
Frightened from the sounds of mouths bursting open:
“Reb Nokhem’s daughter has hanged herself from a sheet!”
The sun shines today and tomorrow it will shine.
From the past resound eerily the screams in Ukraine!

Translated by


Alter–Sholem Kacyzne, "Kolos oif Ukraine" [Screams in Ukraine], from Gezamelte Shriftn (Tel Aviv: Y. L. Peretz Publishing House, 1967), pp. 255–58.

Published in: The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, vol. 8.

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