Today’s show deals with the Israeli poet and translator (and photographer) Tuvia Ruebner. Jack’s guest is American-born Israeli poet Rachel Tzvia Back, translator of In The Illuminated Dark: Selected Poems of Tuvia Ruebner.
Tuvia Ruebner was born into a semi-secular, German-speaking Jewish family in Bratislava, Slovakia in 1924. His father was a Freemason. He completed only nine of years of school: five in a Protestant elementary school, three in a German gymnasium and one in a Slovakian high school. After Jews were forbidden to attend school, he worked as an apprentice electrician. He immigrated to Mandatory Palestine in 1941, eventually settling in Kibbutz Merhavia, where he continues to live. He wrote in German—the language in which he spoke to his “lost beloveds”—for more than a decade but in 1953, at the age of twenty-nine, he began to write in the “new/old” language of Hebrew. He published The Fire in the Stone, the first of his books of Hebrew poetry, in 1957. Back writes, “Like a foreigner encountering a foreign language for the first time and hearing only the strange sounds it produces, Ruebner retains an awareness of his adopted language’s strangeness, and its great musicality.” She insists on “the enduring exilic resonances of [his] work.”
Ruebner’s father, mother and his much-loved “little sister,” Litzi, were murdered at Auschwitz in 1942. The specter of Litzi, who was 13 when she died, haunts his poetry. His first wife Ada died in a bus accident in 1950 and his son Moran (b. 1960) disappeared in South America in 1983, though his other children Miriyami (b. 1949) and Idan (b. 1956) are alive and remain in touch with their father. All these losses surface and resurface in his poetry. Auschwitz, Ruebner insists, is the central and definitive event of the twentieth century. Auschwitz “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….”
Ruebner’s virulent critique of late twentieth-century Israel includes a fierce censure of Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank and its oppression of two million Palestinians. He writes in “One Plague and Another”:
The Heart is parched. The dirty blood shines.
You, me, he.
What we have done even God, Full of Compassion, will not forgive.
And the panicked run wild through the City of Terrors.
Commenting on his “exilic” status, Ruebner writes, “I love the landscape of Israel, but inside I am connected more to the landscape of the Carpathians. Lea Goldberg wrote that there are two homelands [the one in which we are born and the one we choose]. I feel that I have two ‘no-homelands.’ I was uprooted twice. A person can have only one homeland: the place where he was born. Slovakia spewed me out and what is happening in Israel today has uprooted me again…Zionist ideology saved my life in 1941, but that is not the point. I am here because I am here. Poetry became my homeland.”
He goes on, “The poet writes when his life becomes language. When the distant is near and the near is distant. When frost is fire and fire—frost. When words that were once strangers find each other, and are amazed they were not connected previously. When a word finds its sister.” Art, he suggests, “is a type of radiating corrective over reality.”
Rachel Tzvia Back comments on the role of the translator, “The translator’s craft and art is a confluence of paradoxes. The challenge to the translator is to negotiate these paradoxes without attempting to resolve them…The art of poetry translation precipitates the unexpected across language borders: the translator of poetry is the privileged practitioner of the multiple, the unexpected, the paradoxical, and the ceaselessly coming into being.”
Ruebner’s work, Back insists, is “a place of in-betweenness, doubleness and fragmentation, eschewing in content and form notions of poetic (and political) completion, perfection or redemption.” This is her version of Ruebner’s untitled poem, “My father was murdered”:
My father was murdered.
My mother was murdered.
My sister was murdered.
My grandfather was murdered.
My grandmother was murdered.
My kinsmen were murdered.
My friends were murdered.
A dog barks. A child cries. A wind is trapped in the leaves.
My uncle was saved.
My aunt was saved.
Ada was killed.
My uncle died.
Moran is missing
Moran has been been missing.
There are shouts outside. A police car wailing.
My aunt is dead.
Werner is dead.
Aya is dead.
There’s a lizard on the window screen.
Eva is dead.
Natan is dead.
Ernest is dead.
Ozer is dead.
Have I forgotten anyone?
Have I confused the order?
I go to the mirror
I close my eyes.
I open my eyes.
What’s wrong with this image?
Part One of Two.