Friday, October 2, 2009

For God called forth the Spring and slaughter together - H. Bialik's pogrom poem

Get up, go to the city of slaughter and you will come to the courtyards,
And with your eyes you will see and with your hands you will touch the fences
And the wood and the stones and on the plaster walls
The congealed blood and the hardened brains of the fallen. (1-4)

That's the beginning of H. Bialik's "In the City of Slaughter" (1904), an angry poetic response to the 1903 Easter pogrom in Kishinev. The Biblical language reaches back, mostly, to the Psalms and Jeremiah and Lamentations and the other prophetic books. Bialik's poem sounds like a new prophetic book.

It's a brutal and unsparing poem, full of horrors, details about filthy hiding places and violent deaths. It's a bit hard to read, although perhaps not more so than, read in the right spirit, Jeremiah.

To the cemetery, beggars! Dig up the bones of your fathers
And the bones of your martyred brothers and fill your haversacks
And carry them on the shoulder and go out to the road, prepared
To do business with them at all of the markets; (258-61)

As this passage suggests, Bialik is not particularly angry at the Russians. He's angry at the Jews. Disgusted - "And everything will return to its usual manner, everything will return to its proper form." The Jews will clean up, grieve, and go on as if nothing happened. Vladimir Jabotinsky gives Bialik credit for inspiring Jewish self-defense leagues (he calls it "[t]he revival of Maccabean tendencies"),* putting "In the City of Slaughter" in the company of Uncle Tom's Cabin and Nicholas Nickleby as one of the rare literary works to have genuine political impact. Which is hardly why I read it.

For God called forth the Spring and slaughter together:
The sun shone, the acacia bloomed and the slaughterer slaughtered. (21-2)

* Quoted in Jacobs, Steven L., Shirot Bialik: A New and Annotated Translation of Chaim Nachman Bialik's Epic Poems (1987), Alpha Publishing Company, p. 124.


  1. It's interesting to compare Bialik's and Babel's writings on pogroms, both being extremely moving (even with Babel's ambiguous history and some of his other writings). Chilling and sobering stuff.

  2. The fragments you quoted have such an amazing energy about them! Intriguing.

  3. I agree with Emily, the energy in the fragments you quoted is amazing.

  4. That's an interesting word, "energy." I wasn't sure what you meant, but meine Frau was. She suggested that in a typical elegy, the exhortations are more passive or distant ("We must change our lives") while Bialik's commands are direct: Go, dig, do! Energetic, exactly.

    Chrees, I know which Babel stories you mean but I have not read them. I should.