Story Teller… Unraveling a 1942 Yiddish Poem

Genealogical Forum of Oregon

The Bulletin

March 2011, Volume 60, No. 3 Page 31

Story Teller…

Unraveling a 1942 Yiddish Poem

“Copied from the handwritten cursive Yiddish script, the phrase, read from right to left phonetically, is “nehkumah far lahteh dee gehleh.” In Poland, this meant, “Revenge for the yellow patch with the Star of David!””

By Ronald Subotnick

One evening at an event at Shaarie Torah Synagogue, I overheard Menachem “Manny” Teiblum mention a poem he wrote in 1942 during the Holocaust when he was only 13 years old.

1

I asked Manny about his poem. Sadly he told me that he had for years tried to get his poem translated, but had been unsuccessful. I asked Manny for his phone number and told him I would see if I could help him.

Manny made a copy of the poem and left it at the Shaarie Torah synagogue office for me to pick up. Although I was expecting to see a hand written document in cursive letters, not a typed document, I felt chills down my spine when I opened the envelope and took the poem in my hand.

Although I did not understand all the words in the poem, I could clearly see at the bottom of the poem the year

1942 and the word Warsaw in Yiddish.

2

Later one day when I was talking to Manny on the phone, he volunteered that “no one had a typewriter in the Warsaw ghetto” and that the original poem was handwritten in 1942, but not typed until about 1950. Manny had the original and made me a copy of the handwritten poem.

Why has Manny not been able to find someone to translate his poem? The poem is an historical document and belongs not only to Manny, but also to the Jewish people as a witness to the experiences of the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust.

But who could translate the poem? Manny asked for help from Jewish organizations known for outreach to Jews who want to learn more about Judaism. They told him they would help him, but they did not follow through. Yiddish speaking members of these outreach organizations have one thing in common. They have a belief in God, in Hashem.

3

They often use Yiddish as their vernacular language for asking questions and discussing Talmudic texts written in Hebrew. Using Yiddish, rather than Hebrew, is a way to reserve the biblical Hebrew language and text only for holy purposes.

Although Manny’s poem was a religious poem expressing his faith, the outreach organizations may have

seen his poem as secular Yiddish poetry. There is a long history of opposition to secular Yiddish literature by these groups who saw this as a historical challenge to religious thought and orthodoxy. “Yiddish lives on as a spoken language today among only a number of ultra-Orthodox Hasidic communities in America, Israel

and elsewhere, and these communities frown on secular literature.”

4

There was another outreach organization that Manny also asked for help who spoke Yiddish, but they also did not follow through. Both these organizations may have lacked the skill to translate the poem, but did they also lack the commitment? In my mind, unraveling the meaning of the poem was more important than just helping Manny.

Manny said, “translating the poem was a way to honor the six million neshomes murdered by the Nazis.”

5

Since the religious Yiddish speaking Jews had not been able to help him, I thought that I probably should seek out the advice of Kol Shalom, a secular Jewish organization that has a monthly Yiddish class. I reasoned that they might be more knowledgeable because of their commitment to secular Yiddish literature going all the way back to the Arbiter Ring, or Workmen’s Circle, during the 1930’s. During that time, they helped Jews organize to get better working conditions and had their own schools and self-help societies.

I called Kol Shalom’s office and spoke to their administrator explaining my predicament. I pointed out that

Manny’s past attempts to get the poem translated were frustrated since no one was willing to follow through

and make sure that it happened. At first Kol Shalom said they were not sure if it could be translated. Their

Yiddish teacher was not sure if she could do it justice. What is needed, they told me, is not just someone who

can translate Yiddish, but an expert in Yiddishkeit — a Yiddishist.”

6

Manny had told me he wanted someone to translate the poem that had a Yiddishe Haimish feeling for the language

.7

A Yiddishist is someone who not only understands how to speak and read Yiddish, but someone who is an expert on Yiddish literature and poetry. Just translating the words would not convey the meaning of the poem — the rhythm and cadence of the poem would be lost in the English translation. In fact, he told me that he had shown the poem to Rabbi Geller, of blessed memory, who told Manny that although he understood the Yiddish words of the poem, substituting English words would destroy the poem and it would lose all meaning for anyone reading or listening to the poem.

As the difficulty of translating the poem began to sink in, I began to understand why Manny was having

so much trouble. There were no Yiddishists in Portland available to translate the poem.

8

There were religious Yiddish speaking Jews in Portland, but their primary concern was studying Halacha, or Jewish Law — they did not usually study secular literature that would qualify them to translate a Yiddish poem.

After a lapse of several days, I received an email from Kol Shalom telling me they had located someone outside the country at the Peretz Centre in Vancouver, British Columbia, who might be able to translate the poem.

9

The Peretz Centre is part of a group of secular Jewish Humanist organizations that have preserved Yiddish literature and culture. They forwarded my scanned copy of the Yiddish poem to the Yiddishist that they thought could translate the poem.

After a delay of about a week, the Yiddishist sent me the translation via email from Barcelona, Spain.

He was temporarily visiting Spain, but the request was sent to him and he responded. One phrase was unclear to him. This phrase includes the word gehleh that means yellow or blond colored, but also includes another word,

leroyta, that means red. I asked Manny about it and after consultation with the Yiddishist and Manny, we finally

were able to understand how to translate the poem into English after more than 60 years.

I later learned that Manny had mistakenly copied the word leroyta from the original cursive handwritten poem. The word he meant to type, transliterated, is lahteh meaning a patch. In spite of this confusion, the English translation was correct.

According to Manny, the phrase that confused the Yiddishist involved a colloquialism that is peculiar to Yiddish spoken in Poland. The Yiddishist interpreted the phrase to mean, “Revenge for the yellow armband!” required by Jews to identify themselves.

10

Copied from the handwritten cursive Yiddish script, the phrase, read from right to left phonetically, is “nehkumah far lahteh dee gehleh.” In Poland, this meant, “Revenge for the yellow patch with the Star of David!”

11

Manny told me there were other groups who also wore armbands who were Nazis” and that in Poland it meant a patch sewn onto a garment, not an armband.

In order to understand what was going on, so I could communicate with the Yiddishist and Manny at the

same time, I had to learn the meaning of the words in the poem so I could broker an agreed interpretation that was

true to the original. The Yiddishist gave us permission to improve upon or make changes. What I could not do,

and what nobody but a Yiddishist could do, is figure out how to come up with the English phrasing that would not

destroy the rhythm, cadence and meaning of the original Yiddish. It is a highly specialized art and very few people can do it well. Manny thinks in Yiddish, not in English, and it is difficult for him to find the correct English phras-ing that approximates the Yiddish, especially in a poem. He finds it easier to translate Yiddish prose.

Since I am retired, I was able to spend a full month finding a translator and then learning how to read portions of the poem in Yiddish. I also used Uriel Weinreich’s Yiddish English Dictionary

and the Stephen Morse program, “Translating between Yiddish and English in One Step,” on the Internet, where I inserted Hebrew characters that formed Yiddish words to clarify the meaning of each word.

12,13

After considering the experience of dealing with just this one phrase, it became clear that Manny’s Yiddish poem would not yield to an easy translation by those who did not have the skill to translate it. I could not translate the poem any better than the Yiddish speaking Orthodox; but in spite of my limitations, I found someone who could translate the poem because I thought it was my duty as a Jew and a friend to get it translated. Failure was not an option. After the Holocaust, Jewish survivors and escapees from Nazi persecution initially did not want to share their experiences in Europe.

14

New immigrants did not want to appear to be new immigrants and Yiddish was only spoken to their own kind. They wanted to look as though they had lived here for a long time. This is described in the Yiddish song “Greena Cousina” about a green cousin who had just arrived from the Old Country and had not learned American culture. You would hear phrases like ‘Not in Yiddish Ma’ by the children to their parents if spoken in a public place.

15

The result was that eventually Yiddish was not spoken by future generations. Immigrants who spoke Yiddish were less willing to share their stories with others who did not speak Yiddish. Many Jews did not understand the rich-ness of the secular Yiddish language and literature in their effort to become Americanized. Jewish Humanistic organizations like Kol Shalom have always remained interested in learning and studying Yiddish as a secular language, which is why I sought their help. They are the exception in Portland.

16

The Yiddishist said he preferred to remain anonymous and did not want to take credit for the translation because “it was only a rough translation.” I think he was being overly humble as I wrote back and told him that I thought it was an excellent translation, but said I would respect his wish to remain anonymous.

I immediately called Manny and told him that his poem had finally been translated. He could not believe it.

He said he had tried for many years, but no one would translate it.

I read the translation to Manny over the phone and asked him if the English translation captured the poetic meaning of the original Yiddish. He said it did. He was overjoyed and could not thank me enough.

Menacham Manny Teiblum, Hebrew name Menachem Mendel ben Israel, was born in Poland July 22,

1928 and was only ten and one-half years old when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939.

17

His family had lived in Warsaw for a thousand years. His entire family was required to live in the Warsaw Ghetto after the Nazis defeated Poland.

After escaping the Warsaw Ghetto, joining the Jewish partisans, fighting the Nazis, taking part in the 1948 Israel War of Independence, and outliving two wives, Manny has found a way to move on with his life and feels connected to the community.

18

When only 22 years old, he married Feiga Brenner, the daughter of Aaron and Sara Brenner. They had a daughter, Rosa, who was born in Israel. From his daughter, Rosa, he now has five grandchildren. In addition, his grand-children married and he now has three great grandsons. His family lives in Canada and he usually visits them during the Jewish observance of Passover. One of the reasons Manny wanted the poem translated was so he could read it to grandchildren and great grandsons. They do not read or understand Yiddish and it was frustrating to Manny that he could not read his poem to them.

Volunteer work to help others is an important part of Manny’s life. He is a volunteer at Friendly House in

Northwest Portland where he is welcomed as part of a close-knit family of volunteers. He says that when he

volunteers there, he feels the same as if he was in his own home.

19

It is important to Manny that children born after the Holocaust remember, so that history does not repeat

itself. For this reason, he is available to visit schools and share his experiences with high school students.

20

Manny has the ability to reach out to others and make new friends. In addition to his volunteer work, Manny is

the Gabbi at Shabbat early morning services at Shaarie Torah Synagogue, while also filling in as a cantor when

necessary.

. 21, 22

Living independently on his own terms, he has made a new life for himself while giving back to

the community.

In spite of the limitations of finding a Yiddish-to-English translator in Portland, what I find especially profound is the Yiddishist’s comment on why it was so difficult to get the poem translated.

In an email to the administrator of Kol Shalom forwarded on to me, he said: “I’m pleased that I could be of some help and that both gentlemen, Ron and Manny, are happy. Really, it was just common courtesy, and as I said

before, the translation didn’t take much time and is rough. But what a sad state of affairs for Jewish culture, that in a large city like Portland there was nobody who could do Manny the favour. All around the world, here in Catalonia, Spain where I’m living at the moment, people fight tooth and nail to maintain their language and the culture that goes along with it, but secular Yiddish-speaking Jews themselves willingly (almost) abandoned theirs.

The Hebrew language and culture of Israel is no substitute; it in no way resembles the secular Yiddish-speaking culture I grew up in. . . . There’s really no need for Manny to send a thank-you letter, but here’s my address in any

case….”

I gave this information to Manny as he told me he wanted to write a thank you note in Yiddish and send it directly to the thoughtful person who took the time to translate the poem.

His experiences in the Warsaw Ghetto inspired Manny to write his poem. One evening Manny returned to the Warsaw Ghetto and found his father, mother, younger brother and younger sister were gone. He did not know what happened to them. He waited for several hours, but they did not return. Manny found a way to go outside the

Ghetto in the evening to get food from a friendly farmer. This farmer supplied food to his parent’s grocery store

before they lived in the Ghetto. As fate would have it, Manny was gone the evening the Nazis rounded up his

family and took them away. This saved his life and was the inspiration for his poem.

23

The translated poem gives Manny an opportunity to be heard and to be believed. It also serves as both a

historical artifact and as a witness to history — a counter weight to Holocaust deniers who want to rewrite history

and deny the importance of living memory.

Manny does not want to release the complete poem to the public just yet.

He is writing a book in Yiddish and wants to include the original Yiddish poem with the English translation.

24

After the poem was translated, Manny confided to me that he had stopped writing his Yiddish book because he had lost hope that anyone could translate his poem. He told me “if my poem cannot be translated, then what chance is there that my book can be translated?” Now that the poem has been translated, his spirits have been lifted and he has a renewed sense of purpose.

25

On a still and cold night, I sit on my little bed tired, sick, and I think:

where will I go, how will I find some bread so my brothers and sisters don’t die of hunger.

Copyright© Menachem Teiblum aka Taiblum

Endnotes

1 Monthly Shaarie Torah “Empty Nesters” group at a private home year 2008.

2 Quote from the original Yiddish 1942 poem.

3 The word Hashem means “The Name” and is another word for God.

4 On Language by Philologos, The Forward Newspaper Feb 5, 2010, Arts&Culture, Section B, pg 11.

5 Neshamah is a singular Hebrew noun suggested by Charles Schiffman, retired Executive Vice-President of the Jewish

Federation of Greater Portland, after he read a draft of Manny’s story. It is related to the Hebrew word “nefesh” meaning soul and is pronounced “neh-sham-ah.” Manny changed this word to the plural Yiddish “neshomes” pronounced “neh-shom-es,” which I quoted in telling Manny’s story. Please consult The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe for additional uses of this term.

6 Yiddishist is a word that Kol Shalom used but not found in standard dictionary.

7 Haimish is a Yiddish word meaning “home like” or “from the home.”

8 Portland State University Jewish Studies translation request, but was told they do not provide this service.

9 Named after I.L. Peretz, (1852–1915), a modernist Yiddish language author and playwright.

10 The Jewish Star of David symbol is sewn onto the yellow shoulder patch.

11Quoted from the Yiddish 1942 poem using Ain Yiddishe Fronts Traditional Cursive. “Star of David” symbol was not part of the phrase, but was implied by the context and everyone knew what it meant.

12 Son of Max Weinreich, founder of YIVO, acronym for The Yiddish Scientific Institute. YIVO promotes standardized Yiddish grammar for writers and speakers.

13 http://www.stevenmorse.org, http://www.stevenmorse.org/hebrew/ytranslate.html.

14 “The Faith and Doubt of Holocaust Survivors,” pg.4, Reeve Robert Brenner, The Free Press 1980.

15 Abner Cohen interview Silver Springs, Maryland Oct. 19, 2009 during his 95th birthday celebration.

16 Kol Shalom is part of the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations (http://www.csjo.org)

17 Manny is Menachem’s legal English middle name, not his nickname as I thought.

18 For historical background, see Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation at http://www.jewishpartisans.org/

19 The Oregonian, July 18, 2002,” A Place to Belong,” by Erin Hoover Barnett, Updated 3-30-09 by Jerry Casey.

20 Lake Oswego Review, March 15, 2007 “Meacham [sic] Manny’ Taiblum is living proof of “Surviving then, Surviving now” by Mara Woloshin, Updated October 30, 2009.

21The Gabbai calls congregants up to the bimah, an elevated platform, to read from a parchment scroll [Torah] of the Five Books of Moses.

22 The word Shabbat is the Hebrew word for day of rest observed on Saturday.

23 Valiant Pride 2004 Newspaper article by Sawako Yonekawa, published by Valley Catholic School.

24 Manny is retired and he will need a pro-bono editor to help him translate his Yiddish book.

25 Manny has given me permission to include the first stanza of his 1942 Yiddish poem below translated into English.

Comments and suggestions should be sent to the Column Editor: Judi Scott, JudiScot@gmail.co

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