From the Foreign to the known
Lately, a five year work ended, of translation, study, conversation and editing of the anthology of contemporary Slovenian poetry in Hebrew. This is a moment of great satisfaction from the very existence of a book of this kind, and from the fact that I embarked on a personal as well as a group journey, rife with obstacles, and overcame it. However, following the end of the journey and the editing, I realized, that this is more than a book. It was a journey into a foreign culture, into a foreign country, to make it known, and perhaps into the self. To that which is visible and invisible in language. Slovenia in general and Ljubljana, its capital city, in particular, were not meaningful in my or my family’s biography. Other places in Europe, especially in the Balkans, are meaningful. However, last summer I was the guest of honor at the three days “Jewish Languages” Festival, at the Mini teater in Ljubljana. It dawned on me, that somehow, Ljubljana has become a place for me. A point in the world fraught with meaning, a place of biographical, social, and cultural associations. A place where love may reside. And, talking about love, Ljubljana means “Love.” In other words, people may live in 8 Hagfen St. Love. Some would exclude Slovenia from the Balkans, being situated north, bordering on Italy and Austria, and never been a part of the Ottoman Empire, but part of the Austro-Hungarian one, as other central European countries. Poetry and the language brought me to her.
My voyage began with the poetry festival in Vilenica in 1998, one of the worst years in my life. Yossi, my man, was very sick, the girls were young, and life shook in unknown rhythms toward the unknown. Being invited to the festival, among the poets inaugurating it in the karst cave, was like the hand of the almighty, showing me that a wider world awaits around the corner, that poetry goes beyond the local swamp, it is a borderless world of words, a place of love. Years later, in 2016, the circle would close, by the labor of translation, which is occasionally a labor of love to poet friends, to poetry and to the meeting of languages and cultures. This is a boundless attraction, and this too became one of the most difficult years of my life, a crossroad of life and death, of the possible and impossible.
One of the poems I was asked to read and translate was written by Tomaž Šalamun:
how does the sun set?
what color is the sea?
Jonah are you salty?
Jonah are you a flag?
I’m a flag
the fireflies rest now
what are stones like?
how do little dogs play?
Jonah are you a fish?
I’m a fish
Jonah are you a sea urchin?
I’m a sea urchin
listen to the flow
Jonah is the roe running through the woods
Jonah is the mountain breathing
Jonah is all the houses
have you ever heard such a rainbow?
what is the dew like?
are you asleep?
Barbara Pogacnik, Piran, August 2011
While reading the poem, I felt it touching the pupil of my Jewish anxiety, even if written in a foreign language and relating to another people. One day during the festival we spent in Ljubljana, reading poetry in a library/book store, when an Austrian poet, writing in Slovenian (an interesting complication by itself, giving up a great language like German for a minor language) pulled my sleeve, saying: “You must read this poet,” pointing at a book by Srečko Kosovel, 1904 – 1926, and testifying about himself that since stumbling on this Slovenian poet, he began reading Slovenian poetry, and eventually writing in it. The poem which attracted my attention, and I translated later, is among the first in the anthology: “Ljubljana is asleep:”
In red chaos a new humanity
is approaching! Ljubljana is asleep.
Europe is dying in a red light.
The phone lines are all dead.
Oh, but this one is cordless.
A blind horse.
[As if your eyes were from
White towers rise
out of dun walls.
Europe is stepping into a grave.
We come with a hurricane.
With poison gasses.
[Your lips are like strawberries.]
Ljubljana is asleep.
On the tram the conductor is asleep
is read in the Europa cafe.
The clicking of billiard halls.
An expressionist poem, prophetic in my eyes, written a long time before World War II, foreseeing Classical Europe’s death, due its loss of values and morality. Needless to say, I bought the book, and went searching for Europa café, still in existence, as well as the newspaper mentioned in the poem.
- A synagogue wakes up in the theater
Imagine, a Sabbath Eve, you receive an invitation to a premiere of a known Roman tragedy at the Mini teater. People are thronging in their Sunday clothes, to an evening of theater, “Thyestes” by Seneca, a Roman philosopher and playwright. The audience is invited to the narrow colorful alley, blossoming with the flowers planted by Rubi along the lane leading to the theater. The show begins outside, where the actors, clad in Roman togas, shouting to the beating of drums, as the audience walk along into the small, well-groomed, hall.
From the entrance to the lobby one may see a lovely sign hanging on the gate, announcing “A Jewish Cultural Center.” Another exit is leading via a flight of stairs to a small synagogue, within it a Holy Ark, a table serving as a pulpit, some formularies and prayer books. The synagogue is active on Sabbath eves and mornings. One may imagine that Kabalat Shabbat begins earlier, perhaps at six or seven o’clock, and following the service, the participants exit the synagogue and enter the theater. This is only my imagination, since, actually, a small museum, adjacent to the synagogue is slowly amassing information and items belonging to the vanished Jewish community. Most important is the memorial corner, where photographs of deportations to concentration camps and names of the martyrs are endlessly displayed on a digital display. In fact, the synagogue only functions during the summer months. Rabbi Haddad conducts Sabbath services, and if some Israeli visitors arrive at the closed gate, Rubi instructs them to please knock on the Mini teatar’s door, Krizevniska ulica 1, someone will open the synagogue and museum’s door.
Well, this was the current state of affairs greeting me on September 2016 in Ljubljana. I arrived at the invitation of Robert Waltl, owner and manager of the Mini teater in the old town, next to the river, in a seventeen century renovated residential building. Some floors around a common yard, letting the light enter the various spaces, thus allowing eye contact among all floors. One half of the building was renovated as a theater hall. Above it one climbs a spiral staircase to the theater office and Robert’s office, and one more to a set of guest rooms: hosting visiting directors and actors, a makeup artist or a soundman. There I stayed with my daughter, living above the theater, listening to the sounds of rehearsals, the music, the stage.
The background noises made us feel like in a continuous play having its own logic, interrupted formally by ushers standing at the doors, tearing the tabs off tickets. But for me the show went on without any interruption. The lobby became a home for me. Women and men blended in it, musicians and actors. The Mini teater lobby is the space where I was invited in March 2015, when I stayed for ten days in the apartment of the Slovene Writers Association, a small flat in a suburban housing project built in the communist period. Then, I used to walk each morning from the suburb, along the river to Barbara’s house, my partner in translating and editing. In those days we worked on the anthology, for many hours on each poem, source versus translation, line after line, examining the accuracy of the translation and editing, each day from morning till evening. Walking along the river, and the evening hours spent with our poet colleagues in coffee houses, were my relief. On Sabbath eve I was invited along with Barbara and friends, the translators of the anthology, to a Kabalat Shabat, at the Mini teater. There to be introduced to Robert and Polona, and to the imaginary Jewish cultural center, then emerging.
The lobby was decorated with art works collected meticulously and with love, a personal collection, including candlesticks, a large seven stalks Menorah stood on the window sill, a Hanukkah candlestick, and the Holy Scriptures in the cabinet. We sat around a table covered by a white cloth, having tea or coffee, telling stories. Polona Juh – a famous actor in Slovenia’s National Theater and the Mini teater, and a close friend of Robert Waltl – is from a Jewish Italian descent, whose appearance is dramatic and humorous and her speech is interspersed with Yiddish and Hebrew. In those days she was staging a monolog by Mendelsohn’s sister. Around the table sat…., our partners in translating the anthology, Barbara Pogačnik and me.
We did not pray around the table, but conducted a Saturday eve festive conversation. Robert Waltl does not regard himself as Jewish, but is committed to establish a home for the Jewish community of Ljubljana. He described what motivated him to establish a synagogue and a Jewish cultural center. Years earlier, he received letters inquiring about the fate of his Jewish family, prior and during the Second World War. With his typical smile he said that the whole thing was like a bad joke in his eyes, he used to tear the letters and forget all about them. In recent years Jewish colleagues approached him again and again, asking for his help in establishing a Jewish center. Finally, he decided to help by clearing a space in the theater for Jewish events.
Rubi began by declaring a Hanukkah candle lighting ceremony in the Mini theater. Rabbi Uriel Haddad, Chabad’s representative in Trieste, heard about the new activity and joined it. Naturally, members of the Jewish community and friends began celebrating Hanukkah and Purim. Both holidays, with their carnival atmosphere, were natural to the theater atmosphere, and convenient for everybody, thus, after decades of silence in Ljubljana, a renewed Jewish life was celebrated in the theater’s lobby. The theater’s lobby became a venue for celebrations.
One day, Rabbi Haddad called Robert, telling him that a Passover Seder should be celebrated, a traditional table should be prepared, matzos, etc. Robert should announce the Seder, and prepare the table. Robert, with his typical smile, half wonder half humorous, told us about setting the table with the theater’s magnificent cutlery set. However, upon arriving the rabbi asked him to replace it with a disposable cutlery. Robert turned to me, asking for explanations.
Since asking, Robert learnt a lot about holy days and praying. He bought the other half of the building, old and deteriorating, hoping to arrange for its renovation. On the second floor, a room is already defined as a synagogue, and an association maintains a “Jewish Cultural Center” in Ljubljana, announcing itself proudly on the main door of the Mini teater. Despite the establishment of the center and the initial functioning of the synagogue, a big step from a total to a partial vacuum, Rubi says: “Sometimes I am so depressed and tired, not knowing how to advance, suddenly, a small light appears, and I feel committed again. Currently I am encouraged for a good reason, because on January 27, the Jewish Community Memorial Day, a new digital display will be inaugurated, displaying the Jewish presence in Ljubljana and Slovenia, the first step in Ljubljana of which I am very proud. I hope that the museum shall preserve the names of the dead, and host educational activities. I expect it to be filled with poetry, and supportive friends.” When a stage exists, literally and metaphorically, things occur very fast. Professor Katja Schmidt, Born in Maribor, who lives in Madrid, an expert on Ladino, told me enthusiastically about translating Asher Kravitz’s play, “The Jewish dog.” The play describes the Holocaust from a dog’s point of view. A dog, Cyrus his name, finding itself at the home of a Nazi officer, following the deportation of its Jewish owners to a concentration camp. The play shall be presented at the Mini teater, on the Holocaust Memorial Day, January 27. Thus, people exposed to the Jewish-Slovenian association, can express themselves at Rubi’s who opened the doors of the Mini teater to Jewish and Israeli culture.
And perhaps the association of the theater with the Jewish center is no wonder. Survivors of Ljubljana’s Jewish community still remember a poet and writer who was also a well-known actor in Ljubljana Puppet Theatre, Berta Bojetu Boeta. Some of her poems were translated by her son, Klemen Jelinčič Boeta, for the anthology. I knew about the talented and beautiful actress, even before knowing anything about the Jewish community of Ljubljana. She died young, leaving behind a poetry manuscript. The following is one of her poems, written in her unique syntax.
- The bridgeable tension between what is and what is not
Initially, my work on the anthology was mainly in translating, alongside other poets, colleagues, getting to know them, without paying attention to their origin or mine, to Slovenian or to Hebrew, and mainly disregarding the issue of identity. I thought that it is possible to remain in the domain of poetry and culture, without dwelling on questions of identity and Jewishness. However, apparently the very meeting of Slovenian and Hebrew summons people and issues, thus we began conversing, which led to me learning to know Ljubljana, its cultural and human richness. A layer began uncovering, whose essence is the meeting between what is, and what is not. A huge absence. Jews lived here, not any more. Behind, they left their marks, their outlines, their memories. The absence of Jews is part of the collective experience of post-World War Two, part of the city’s implicit silence about their being and disappearance.
The streets where they lived, remained, the houses, are still there, the synagogue remained but serves other purposes. Physically nothing changed, but the people, the families, the spoken language, the books read, all these disappeared. In the lobby of the improvised synagogue there is a memorial display for those killed in the holocaust. A name list of Slovenian Jews, taken to the camps, never to return.
Standing in front of the digital display and the alternating names, names of men, women, children, babies, old people, all gone, I noted to myself that this is a new and recurring motif, all over the Balkans. Not far from Ljubljana, just a short drive, in Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, a Jewish museum opened recently, also displaying a list of names. In Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, a Jewish museum opened, describing and preserving the story of the Spanish Jews, from their expulsion in 1492 and dispersion all over the Balkans, under the Ottoman Empire, until their extermination by the Nazis in 1944. At the entrance to the Jewish museum in, in Skopje main square, a tree stands, but instead of leaves it is covered with photographs of members of the Jewish community of Bitola, smiling faces, women, girls, men, babies, old men and women. By an order of the Bulgarian police, all had their photographs taken at a local photography shop, a passport photograph each, with their names written in its margins. Date of birth, profession, and address. All had their photographs taken, unknowing the purpose of the community album kept by the Bulgarian police. On March 7, 1944 the riddle was solved, but too late. The whole community was led to its extermination. Today one may note from a historical perspective: the Spanish expulsion ended by extermination.
Poetry in a karst cave
I arrived first in Ljubljana in September 1998, on my way to a poetry festival in Vilenica, west Slovenia. Curious as usual about the fate of the Jews in the former Yugoslavia, I asked about Jews or a synagogue in town. I was told that there are very few, a tiny community, and no synagogue. There was a congregation place, which I did not manage to visit. I knew that Slovenia’s Jewry disappeared in Mauthausen and Treblinka, that after the war only a few of them returned. The huge absence, in middle Europe, and the absence is great. Who listens to the voice of absence, and who forgets or causes to forget?
Veno Taufer, the veteran Slovenian poet, born in 1933, invited me to read at the festival, to open the festival by reading poetry in a big karst cave in northwestern Slovenia. For the Slovenians, reading poetry in the karst cave, is more than an exotic experience. For them, this is a dialog with their past, with the period, when under communist rule they were forbidden to speak their language, and forced to speak Serbo-Croatian. These caves are where they could sing and speak in their own language. The Slovenians are a small people of two millions only, a small country between Italy in the north, the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the north and Croatia in the south. Slovenia has never been independent, only after the civil war in Yugoslavia, and its disintegration, did it gain its independence. For centuries under foreign rule, the Slovenian language had a special status, for language is identity, setting the political boundaries of a country. In 1985, Veno Taufer established the International Poetry Festival in Vilenica, an act whose meaning was a cultural, linguistic separation of Slovenia from the other nations of Yugoslavia, namely, the language serving as a political tool to create a national identity.
In his poem, Sarajevo, Taufer writes: SARAJEVO
two thousand years in the library books maps
in flames the wind carries leaves away from memory
blood sticks letters and pages in stiff fingers
pens tremble as the sound of the spheres reaches the listening
who have only commentaries to resist death
the age pursuing the shot to the heart struck by the echo in sarajevo
sinks with one of those ships in that list in the poem
the elements crumble water disperses into noxious vapours
flames petrify to ash and cold
stone rots to dust swallowed by mud in the depths
the disgusting lips of cracks suck the shredded air
where trees grew the wailing is degraded to drooling
the age pursuing the shot to the heart struck by the echo in sarajevo
sinks with one of those ships in that list in the poem
surviving scribes blinded by the seasons’ explosion
scrabble for shards of letters and scraps of parchment
to write down in brief what the ancients already
repeated in the terrible mystery of their fragments
the word couples with mortal flesh to survive
the age pursuing the shot to the heart struck by the echo in sarajevo
sinks with one of those ships in that list in the poem
Translated by Michael Scammell & author
Neither arms, nor demonstrations, wars or borders, but language sets identity. Barbara Pogačnik, the Slovenian poet and translator describes these days:
” A question, so much alike the statistic criteria in the era of an oligarchic capitalism, and so improbable to ask in Slovenia during the days in 1990 and 1991, just before the tiny country got its independency. It was Slovenian poets and writers who, in the times of anguish, when no one knew if this part of land, somehow lost on the map of the world, if the countryside with blades of grass in front of the houses on the crossroads of Central Europe and the Mediterranean, was going to be swept into a Balkan war, it was them who were giving people the reason to hope and believe to a possibility of existence. Today, many other professions raise the attention of people, a Slovenian politician can preside the EU, compete for the function of Secretary-General of the United Nations or for example the president of the UEFA – but not even thirty years ago, poets were the only real substance of this community, they were the ones who meant hope, constituting the reason that could be defended, they almost seemed a kind of prophets, their readings were listened to by thousands. I can still recall their modest grey faces in front of the grey faces of a two million nation – a nation raised for centuries under the Austrian monarchic regime, and later learning to swim in the chaotic brotherhood of the Balkans – I can still recall Dane Zajc reading his lines »And, in the silence of the night, I heard / someone kill the birds in the garden… «, and above all, I can recall how poetry was then incomparable to any other human activity, how far more important it seemed than any other kind of speech. It was an essential word of survival: a lot of nations in the world do not get this chance. Also, a lot of world`s poets and writers do not get the chance to play such a role. People forget the mission of poets in times of peace and prosperity. They throw poetry away like some used toy from childhood that no longer has its charm. Still, poetry remains, hidden in some place, waiting for its time to help and rescue. ”
Even before knowing the details of this poetry, I sensed the central role of poetry in the Slovenian experience, the closeness to Hebrew, another language which maintained the affinity of identity and belonging among various Jews in different generations, who, dispersed among the nations, spoke the language, prayed in it, inscribed it on their tombstones, named their children in it, preserving the language as the language preserved them. The Vilenica festival takes place in the Lipica Stud Farm, where white horses are bred for centuries; a legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which used Slovenian lands in an imperialistic manner. A green expanse of green meadows fenced by white fences. And in the most difficult days of 1998, when Yossi my husband fought for his life, and I lived in dread of the approaching death, Veno Taufer, and the junction of limitless poetry endowed me with energy and faith in me and in Poetry:
A place where the benches speak poetry
The Mini teater is situated in Krizevniska ulica, a narrow alley climbing from the river, paved with old stones. The theater is at number 1, and the synagogue and the Jewish Cultural Center at number 3. One day, while climbing the alley, I noticed a white note, handwritten, glued to the wicket of an old door. It reads: here lived the poet Srečko Kosovel. The anthology’s name, “Burning with my scalding fire and I can’t reach the silence,” is taken from one his poems, and the anthology opens with poems of the prophet, the brave poet. From here he saw Ljubljana, a town in decay, calling her “dying,” as if to say: love is dying. I kept climbing, and could not ignore the benches along the alley, painted white, their wooden planks inscribed with verses of poetry. Benches speaking poetry. These lines are taken from Milan Dekleva’s poems. I knew Dekleva (1946 – 2016), who wrote about everyday situations with a philosophical touch, combining humor and irony. His friend found a way to preserve his presence by verses traveling from his books to the walls and benches…. Today I feel that his verses traveled from Slovenian into the Hebrew anthology. I thought, how good it is for the poets that the city and its streets keep their memory. The verses lead to the theater and to the Jewish Cultural Center.
Lately the anthology was published. A whole world, among the lines, perhaps a journey toward home. The journey began with the acquaintance of the poet and editor Barbara Pogačnik, who invited me to a workshop of poetry translating in Piran, a small medieval port town on the coast of the Adriatic Sea. For ten days we stayed there, poets in various languages, with Slovenian poets, translating each other. Our labor yielded translations and friendships. Following the workshop I suggested to prepare a small representative anthology of twelve poets. I had nothing else in mind. But Barbara surprised me with a meticulous blueprint, including six generations of poets, chronologically and by schools. Editing was done in Slovenian, English, and occasionally in French. I was impressed by her meticulousness, and could not refuse or reduce the size of the anthology. While translating, a whole world spread before my eyes, like a fan. A world bearing witness of a people speaking the language, singing the poetry. Like Hebrew poetry, Slovenian poetry carries on its back a heavy responsibility for the integrity of the nation, for its continuity, its identity.
It is evident that the older generation, the founders of modern poetry, until the end of the 1990’s, tend to write national or political poetry, symbolic poetry. Few women are among them. The reader may observe that more female voices are heard among the younger generation; that after the 1990’s when national responsibility no longer burdened them, the presence of women poets is increasing, as well as of personal poetry, family life, life at home and urban experiences. Thus, Essad Babcic, a native of Bosnia (1965) and a poet with a strong social awareness, can write a minimalist, universal ars-poetic poems and dweals with relations with his father, Or Maya Vidmar who writes poem about Itzak .Veronika Dintinjana (1977), a physician and artistic director of a young poets’ festival, wrote a poem about the mythical Veronica, who stood by the side of the road, wiping with a linen kerchief the face of Jesus carrying the cross. The poem reveals the landscapes of the country, of Jerusalem, as seen by a person who only visited Jerusalem in her imagination….
The poems were placed in my hands by Barbara Pogačnik, a beautiful poet and translator, whose love of Slovenian poetry, led me among people, manuscripts, alleys and coffee shops, but most of all to myself in a way I thought impossible.