Artistry & Activism: The Poetry of Irena Klepfisz

— Ursula McTaggart

“I see now the present dangers, the dangers of the void, of the American hollowness in which I walk calmly day and night as I continue my life. I begin to see the incessant grinding down of lines for stamps, for jobs, for a bed to sleep in, of a death stretched imperceptibly over a lifetime. I begin to understand the ingenuity of it. The invisibility. The Holocaust without smoke.” —Irena Klepfisz, “Bashert”(1)

AS A JEWISH child growing up in Nazi-occupied Poland, Irena Klepfisz had parents who taught her only Polish so that she could pass for Aryan and escape the concentration camps.(2) It wasn’t until after the war that she began to learn Yiddish, the language she would try to maintain and revive in her adult work as a poet.

For Klepfisz, then, language has always been intensely political. As a child, language meant life and death, and today, in her work as a professor at Barnard College in New York, Yiddish is a remnant of pre-Holocaust Jewish culture and a sign of hope for the future. But attuned to the political nature of even the language used for communication, Klepfisz also uses her poetic language to call our attention to urgent political issues in our own lives.

Translation between languages, geographical locations, and time periods, Klepfisz demonstrates, is the key to understanding how stories of oppression and trauma — whether our own or those we read about — can help us understand and act in our current political situations.

Irena Klepfisz came by her own political activism honestly. While she was a child in the Warsaw ghetto, her father Michael and his sister Gina Klepfisz helped fellow Jews escape the Ghetto as part of the Bundist resistance movement. Both died during the war, her father in a shootout with a German soldier during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 and her aunt of illness while posing as a Christian in a Polish occupied hospital.(3)

Klepfisz and her mother survived the Holocaust by passing as Christian Poles, and after a detour in Sweden they immigrated to the United States when Klepfisz was eight.(4) Today, she identifies herself as a Jewish lesbian feminist poet. She is also an activist whose dissent from Israeli politics led her to found the Jewish Women’s Committee to End the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

As a poet, Klepfisz draws upon her first traumatic years of life in a way that foregrounds the present as the site of political action — against racism in the United States and against an oppressive occupation in Palestine/Israel. The tradition of Holocaust remembrance and scholarship, however, has been loathe to link past and present in order to compare the Holocaust to other traumas: The Holocaust, many have argued, is unique and incomparable.

For activists concerned with preventing or overthrowing current systems of domination and oppression, such an attitude toward history might seem counter-productive. But at the same time, easy slippage between genocide and other political oppressions strips activist rhetoric of its complexity. By declaring those they oppose “fascists” or “Nazis,” for instance, activists sometimes employ a shorthand for atrocity that doesn’t do justice to the particulars of either the present or the past.

Translation, Not Equation

Klepfisz offers us a productive alternative to this strategy both in her poetry, most recently published in "A Few Words in the Mother Tongue: Poems Selected and New, 1971-1990" (1991) and in her non-fiction essays, released in Dreams of an "Insomniac: Jewish Feminist Essays and Diatribes" (1990). Although she insists that we can’t simply equate the Holocaust with other events, she does tell us that we can translate between political oppressions.

Translating, unlike defining or labeling, asks us to recreate the original, word for word, in its new setting. Klepfisz’s poetry and her prose do exactly this by telling stories of the past and the present — Nazi Poland and contemporary Israel, or Nazi Poland and the post-war United States. By doing so, she links current Israeli-Palestinian politics, American systems of racial and economic oppression, and the Holocaust.

This project of translation, she tells us, is not an easy one. Her most famous poem, “Bashert,” begins with the untranslatable Yiddish word that Klepfisz associates with “predestination, inevitability, a sense of finality, hopelessness, inexplicability,” and it takes readers from wartime Poland to Chicago’s South Side in 1964 and Brooklyn in 1971.(5)

The narrator hears the echo of Yiddish names read at a 1955 Holocaust memorial when, in 1971, she calls roll in her Brooklyn classroom. She, the teacher, is the only white face in the room as she reads “James. Reggie.  Marie. Simone. Joy. Christine. Alvarez” in a voice that recalls the recitation of “Surele. Moyshele. Channele. Rivkele. Yankele.”(6) On the streets of 1964 Chicago, she sees another echo of her childhood in “a silent mass migration. Relocation. Common rubble in the streets.”(7)

The poem’s extended dedications, the first to “those who died” and the second to “those who survived,” further allow the reader to translate between past and present traumas. While her subjects can be read as Holocaust victims and survivors, they can just as easily be read in other contexts.  As Klepfisz noted in a discussion with Gary Pacernick, “I’ve been told that those two dedications have been read for gay men who died of AIDS. They were included in a gay and lesbian oratorio. They’ve also been included in endless Passover Haggadahs and all kinds of Jewish and non-Jewish rituals.”(8)

The poem series “Solitary Acts” similarly draws links between political and historical moments, and this text quietly looks forward to possibilities of resistance. The first poem is a dialogue with the poet’s aunt Gina Klepfisz, who was known for aiding Jews in their escape from Warsaw’s umschlagsplatz, the departure point for the Treblinka concentration camp. According to the poem’s narrative, Gina Klepfisz hid her Jewish identity when she became ill but spoke her name to the Catholic priest at her deathbed in a final moment of resistance.

Aside from references to Gina “inch[ing] people out of the umschlagsplatz” and declaring herself to the priest, Klepfisz presents few details that locate aunt and niece in time and space. Instead, she prompts the reader to make historical connections based on the dates that begin and end the poem series. The first, “1908?-1942,” marks Gina Klepfisz’s life and death. It also subtly identifies the poem as a “Holocaust poem,” for Klepfisz makes no reference to camps, SS men, or gas chambers. Instead, the first poem relies on the phrases “I am a Jew” and “It was 1942” to set a historical context.

The second date, “Cherry Plain, New York/August 1982,” follows the final poem and indicates the date of its composition. Klepfisz does not typically date her poems, and when she does, the dates appear at the beginning. Like the first date, then, August 1982 is not simply a reference to the present, 40 years removed from the Holocaust.  Instead, it is a date that asks the reader to place the poem in context — to translate between the crucial political moments of 1942 and 1982.

While the first poem in the series asks us to make the easy link between “I was a Jew” and “it was 1942,” the final poem asks us to contextualize with slightly more obscure phrases. It is the last line of the poem, in particular, that begs for context:  “This night I want only/ to sleep a dark rich dreamless sleep/ to strengthen myself for what is needed.”(9)

Two months after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, “August 1982” juxtaposes Gina’s resistance with Irena’s future in the movement to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Although Klepfisz does not directly reference Israel, her “essays, speeches and diatribes” describe her fraught relationship to the Palestinian struggle and cite the 1982 invasion as the event that motivated her activism.

Remembrance and Resistance

In the years following the invasion, Klepfisz visited Israel and founded a Jewish-American women’s group opposed to the Israeli occupation. Taken in this context, the speaker’s dialogue with her aunt in “Solitary Acts” becomes not only a personal narrative but an alternative means of integrating Holocaust history into our understanding of today’s repressive regimes.

While the beginning and the end of “Solitary Acts” confront the reader with moments of war, much of the poem series depicts the narrator gardening in her New York home. For Klepfisz, the translation between past and present that occurs through storytelling relies on the mundane and the peaceful as well as on the traumatic.

More importantly, however, Klepfisz’s emphasis on the quotidian reminds us that we do not need a Holocaust to justify political action. While few would deny the importance of memorializing a mass genocide, the daily acts of invisible oppression also require our political attention. She asks us to tie these moments of oppression together not simply with theoretical or historical comparisons but with personal stories.

For Klepfisz, then, it is a single Palestinian woman in East Jerusalem of 1987 who allows her to narrate the occupation in her poetry: “One of us,” she writes, “lives in the neighborhood/ you were raised in/ where you took your first steps/ and met the world./ then everyone left./ Your uncles and aunts/ carried their belongings/ and left. It was ‘48.”(10)

Such moments of personal narrative offer the opportunity for a productive and sensitive comparison between political atrocities.  Because, as Klepfisz insists in her 1989 essay “Yom Hashoah, Yom Yerushalayim: A Meditation,” comparison is both necessary and impossible:

"When we reject the analogy [between Nazis and Israelis] (as we should), and say that Israel is a democratic state and then turn away from the Palestinian struggle, are we not saying we are willing to object to Israeli policies only when Israel does finally resemble a completely fascist state?"

In the next paragraph, she offers the necessity of a more intimate form of comparison:

‘What does it remind you of?’ I ask my mother, and read her the Newsday article about the Palestinian men in Rufus: rounded up by the Israeli police, they’re told to lie face down in a nearby field. ‘I know what it reminds me of,’ she answers and says nothing more. Given the images etched on our collective consciousness, how can this not remind us of the Holocaust?(11)

With this subtle distinction between comparisons, Klepfisz tells activists that they need to think more like poets in order to translate between political oppressions. In a more recent, post-9/11 piece, Klepfisz gives us a glimpse of an activist literary project:

Since our primary way of communicating is through language, the question is how do we Jews deal with the linguistic knots that words like victim, defense, resistance, and terrorism create in any dialogue around this issue and how do we make real the context — the Israeli occupation — in which we use these words. We must either reclaim these terms in their root meanings or find another vocabulary that evokes the special history and characteristics of this particular conflict.(12)

Questioning Ourselves

While Klepfisz asks this question from the perspective of a Jew and a Holocaust survivor, we can ask ourselves similar questions as socialists and activists.  How do we generate a vocabulary that allows us to translate between the particular narratives of two different political and historical situations? How do we invoke past atrocities as real events rather than slogans?

Although Klepfisz can’t offer us a firm answer, she gives us a starting place when she undertakes translation as a project that goes beyond language and into geographic locations, times, and personal stories. She asks us to hear the translated echo of Palestinian names in Jewish names and Jewish names in African-American or Latino/a ones.

Notes

  1. Irena Klepfisz, "A Few Words in the Mother Tongue: Poems Selected and New" (1971-1990), Portland: Eighth Mountain, 1990, 193.
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  2. Maeera Y. Shreiber, “The End of Exile: Jewish Identity and its Diasporic Poetics,” PMLA 113.2 (March 1998), 279.
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  3. Irena Klepfisz, "Dreams of an Insomniac: Jewish Feminist Essays, Speeches and Diatribes," Portland: Eighth Mountain, 1990, 86-7.
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  4. Op. cit., 144, 61.
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  5. Gary Pacernick, "Meaning and Memory: Interviews with Fourteen Jewish Poets," Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2001, 244.
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  6. Irena Klepfisz, "A Few Words in the Mother Tongue," 195.
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  7. Op. cit., 193.
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  8. Pacernick, 242.
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  9. Klepfisz, "A Few Words in the Mother Tongue," 210.
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  10. Op. cit., “East Jerusalem, 1987: Bet Shalom (House of Peace),” 237.
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  11. 11. Klepfisz, "Dreams of an Insomniac," 130.

  12. Irena Klepfisz, “Finding the Words,” Responding to Violence, Barnard Center for Research on Women, 2002, http://www.barnard.columbia.edu/bcrw/respondingtoviolence/colloquium/rtv.htm.
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ATC 128, May-June 2007