The City of Slaughter
Chaim Nachman Bialik’s great poem about Russia's Kishinev pogrom of 1903 needs to be read and re-read.
May 29, 2011 - 12:00 am
Bialik still has their measure. This is why his poem stays fresh and contemporary and needs to be read not simply as a literary artifact but as a political lesson for the present and a warning for the future. I present below a sort of hybrid version, a cross between an adaptation and a free translation, substantially abridged and focusing on the spiritual and intellectual defection of far too many Jews wherever they may be found. I have taken a few small liberties in the rendering but I believe they are warranted in the evolving context of cultural resilement among a significant element of modern Jewry. The message of the poem is no less relevant today, when the very existence of Israel is increasingly threatened and terrorist charters call for the killing of Jews, than it was in 1903 when the Zionist movement was just gaining momentum.
From The City of Slaughter:
Do not fail to note
in the dark corners of Kishinev
crouching husbands, bridegrooms, brothers
peering through the cracks of their shelters,
watching their wives, sisters, daughters
writhing beneath their bestial defilers,
suffocating in their own blood,
their flesh portioned out as booty.
And what did these watchers
cradle in their hearts?
Did they pray for a miracle:
Lord, Lord, spare my skin this day?
These are the sons of Maccabees?
The heirs of Hasmoneans
who lie in the privies and jakes and pig styes
with trembling knees,
concealed and cowering,
crammed by the scores
in all the sanctuaries of their shame?
Their pious ruses and denials are of no account,
and in the time of affliction,
on the trampled ground of the present
or on the horizon brimming with blood,
their cries, their confessions, their scourgings
will be of even less account,
fists beating against the stones.
There will be no salvation for the shamed.
And even their resignation,
their making peace with shame,
will not redeem
the cracked pillars of the synagogue
the charred scrolls of the Sefer Torah.
For there is rot in their bones,
corruption in their hearts,
weakness in their knees,
and their bitter cry sent into the storm
of Kishinev and every Kishinev to come
shall not be heard,
not even in the porticos and corridors of heaven.