A chapter from the memoir of Shmerke Kaczerginski translated by Seymour Levitan
Shmerke Kaczerginski, 1953
Hirshke Glik was among those captured by the Gestapo. I keep thinking of him. Just a few days before he was taken, I spoke to him about his poems.
It’s so odd in the Ghetto. You’d think everyone knows that his own end is coming, and yet we all speak with regret about those taken and killed. We hold memorial services for them. Just a little while ago there were even public tributes to the memory of Dr.Tsemekh Shabad (died before the war), for Dr. Kowarski (died just after the Nazis occupied the city), for the teachers Gerstein and Fludermakher. People made speeches and recounted memories.
I went to a beys medresh (house of prayer) not long ago, and I was overwhelmed with fear when the entire congregation stood to wail kaddish (memorial prayer) at the end. I had the nagging thought that the dead are lucky, really; at
least they have someone to say kaddish for them for the time being. Who will say kaddish for us? or remember us?
But life goes on. And makes demands. Hirshke, Hirshke Glik. 15 year old Hirshke rst spoke to me after a “Young Vilna” evening at a public auditorium. “I write too,” he said softly, “and along with me there are others who write, a whole group.”
Hirshke was the “lion of the group”— even though he was the youngest of these youngsters. I remember him in short pants and low boots laced up tight, sunshine ashing from his blue eyes, his hair cut short. His appearance didn’t change in the Ghetto. He wasn’t there very long. He was sent some distance from Vilna to White Vake, a work camp where he was forced to dig turf along with a few hundred other Jews. The very di cult living and work- ing conditions strengthened his resolve to describe this experience in an artistic form. And late at night, after work, in the dark shed where the Jews slept on hard bunks under a torn up roof, he didn’t sleep, he wrote. Glik was twice awarded the prize in competitions organized by the literary union in the Ghetto. From time to time he came into the Ghetto, to the Youth Club, the only place where he felt at home, and read his work to his young audience with great success. The work camp was liquidated at the start of 1943, and the Jews were transferred to the Ghetto. Extremely di cult times began, yet Glik continued to create his poems.
What sort of time was it – 5th April 1943? The sun rarely looked down into the lowest oors and the little alleys. Its pale rays over the Ghetto ignited longing for a bit of green, sun, air and water. Standing not far from the Ghetto gate, immersed in this great longing, I suddenly noticed a bloodied young man slip in from the street and disappear quickly into a gateway. We tore his clothes o , washed the blood o him, bandaged his wounded shoulder. “I come from Ponar,” he hissed, understanding that we didn’t want to disturb him with questions just then. We were stunned. “Everyone, everyone was shot.” Tears rolled down his washed face. “Who? The four thousand who were going to Kovne/ Kaunus?” “Yes!”
This happened at dawn on April 5, 1943. For a year and a half the situation in the Ghetto had been “stabilized”. The Jews thought that the aktsie (action) directed against hundreds of old people, against individuals and small groups had nothing to do with the ongoing existence of the Ghetto. There were even people who believed that the Germans consideredVilna Ghetto a “chosen” ghetto. Those four thousand Jews slaughtered at dawn suddenly set death before the eyes of the believers. Death that spares no one.
The mood in the Ghetto grew more intense a few weeks later when we received the news on the underground Polish radio station “Shvit”, that – “Hello, hello, the Jews remaining in the Warsaw Ghetto have begun armed resistance against the Nazis. The ghetto is in ames!”
There were only a few lines to the secret news-bulletin from the partisans. We didn’t know any of the details.There were only those few word-sparks — but we visualized the ames of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Jews battling with weapons in hand for our honour. The news about the uprising lifted our morale and strengthened us.
Days passed and we had no news at all about what was happening there. But we imagined our comrades battling. It was painful for us to know that the battle was not an equal one. But it made our own di cult time easier to endure. As if we’d been given wings. We looked proudly back at the Nazis and our tormentors. They knew what that look signi ed. They understood, and surely more than one of them thought, ”Who knows? I may have to ght the Jews ofVilna and be killed by them.”
On Shavl Street on the night of May 1st we organized an “evening” which we called “Spring in Yiddish Literature”. “Spring”— an innocent name, but the hundreds who attended knew that they had come to celebrate the rst of May.
One speaker after another, one song after another, everything was imbued with the spirit of theWarsaw resistance. “While we join together to celebrate the rst of May here at this local, the Warsaw Ghetto is in ames,” declared the evening’s chairman, Herman Kruk. “Honour to the ghters! Honour to the fallen!” Suddenly we all rose. The spirit of theWarsaw resistance ghters stirred in the crowded hall. We knew that tomorrow or the next day the radio would announce to the world that the Jews of the Ghetto of the Jerusalem of Lithuania had begun their uprising against the Nazis. There was dead silence in the hall, and then the trembling, grieving voices of the ghetto actors. Without my noticing, Hirshke Glik had come up beside me.
“Well, what’s the news, Hershl?”
“I wrote a new poem, do you want to hear it?”
“A poem in the midst of things? Well, read it”
“Not now, tomorrow. I’ll come up to your place, tomorrow. The poem is a song lyric.”
Hirshke arrived quite early the next day. “Listen carefully,” he asked of me.“I’ll sing it right now.” He began singing quietly, but with heart. His eyes ashed re: “Kumen vet nokh undzer oysgebenkte sho / The hour we are yearning for will come..” Where did this certainty come from? Hirshl didn’t give me time to think. His voice lost its quaver, he hammered the words out with con dence, tapping his foot as if he were marching: “Dos hot a folk tsvishn falndike vent / dos lid gezungen mit naganes in di hent / A folk emerging from collapsing walls / sang this song with pistols in their hands.”
“Wonderful, Hirshke, wonderful.” I pressed his hand. In these words I felt the impact of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising on him.
And then May, June, July and August passed. But for us partisans it was still April, the time of the uprising. Partisan headquarters in Vilna decided to make the song its ghting hymn. But they really didn’t need to wait for a decision on it; the song had spread quickly in the Ghetto.
Glik had written quite a few songs and longer poems. Few of them are still known. So far as I know, his strongest poem is Zog nisht keynmol az du geyst dem letstn veg / Never SayYouWalk the Final Path. The public understood and valued it as such, and for that reason I believe it will be the song that like a call to wakefulness will rouse coming generations to remember and to stand on guard.
And now when I remember Hirshke, it is entirely because of that song. It doesn’t allow me to rest. The youngster took a Cossack melody and so wonderfully tted his words to it that it seems there could be no other melody for those words and no other words for that melody.
Where is Hirshke now? Where all of us will be! I answer myself.
English translation copyright © 2006 Seymour Levitan