Very best wishes for a sweet and successful 5778 to all who are celebrating the Jewish New Year.
Natalie Wood and Brian Fink (Karmiel, Galilee, Israel).
(© Natalie Wood (17 September 2017)
As we mark the bi-centenary of the death of novelist, Jane Austen scholars still debate its cause.
We’ll never know the full truth. But I reflect on this as I consider the coincidental passing of Ukrainian dissident poet, Irina Ratushinskaya as the modern writer also died far too young, aged only 63.
While the immediate cause was cancer, Ratushinskaya’s constitution had been irreversibly damaged by her incarceration in the ‘small zone’ of a labour camp in the republic of Mordovia, a ‘prison within the prison’ reserved for women deemed as particularly dangerous political criminals.
Initially deprived of paper, she wrote by scratching her work on bars of soap; memorised and erased the verses then rewrote them when paper became available before somehow smuggling them to her husband, Igor Gerashchenko who arranged their publication.
Ratushinskaya had been found guilty in April 1983 of “agitation carried on for the purpose of subverting or weakening the Soviet regime” and so given a maximum sentence of seven years in the camp followed by five years internal exile.
She was released suddenly on the orders of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev who wanted to prove he was genuine about improved domestic human rights as part of his policy of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reconstruction).
Ratushinskaya then emigrated to the U.K., moved on to the United States and then returned to Russia in 1998, settling in Moscow with her family, but in relative obscurity.
While many of the best known dissidents of the period were Jewish, Ratushinskaya was a devout Christian. It seems the cruellest irony that she is now dead while contemporary Jewish heroes of the Soviet human rights movement like Jewish Agency chief Natan Sharansky who was released only a few months before her and Knesset Speaker, Yuli Edelstein survived to live at the acme of Israeli society.
I conclude this short tribute with her appropriately titled piece, Too Soon to Say Goodbye.
I must point out that the date at the end of the poem implies it was written after her release:
Too soon to say goodbye,
Too soon to say forgive me,
Too soon to send us your instructions:
You know what our luck is like.
Not a door but it will be locked!
Not a net but it will be cast!
Others took to the bottle,
And others just vanished.
Only a few of us left now,
So they're firing at us point blank.
What now? We can read Dostoevsky;
Chip in roubles - for vodka,
Only a few of us left anyhow.
And we know we must fight to the death.
And we know that cruel blacksmith
Forged as out of some unknown metal,
Perhaps doubting our endurance,
Perhaps expecting us to recant.
No! Give us your instructions!
We swear to fulfil them precisely.
Too Soon to despair yet.
You ought to know our luck.
Kiev, 9 December 1986
© Natalie Wood (20 July 2017)
‘Erasure poetry’ is defined as a form of ‘found poetry’ or ‘found art’ created by erasing words from an existing text in prose or verse and framing the result on the page as a poem.
This piece is based largely on a feature and blog post by former BBC correspondent Andrew Whitehead, whose sympathetic research has helped to rescue the short existence of Victoria M Sofaer, a young Baghdadi Jewish woman, from total oblivion.
I have attempted to use an ‘erasure’ style format to echo - metaphorize – what happened to Victoria.
Most of the words in this piece are Whitehead’s, along with some of my own.
Restoring Miss Toyah
In Chennai, once Madras,
lies a half-forgotten resting
place for the twice re-settled
residue of the town’s long-time
Here, half-faded, and one
further step removed, stands
a solitary gravestone illumined
briefly by a shaft of sunlight
sifting through the trees.
So mystery’s spotlight
shines for the moment
on ‘Miss Victoria M Sofaer’,
lying for eternity aged only
Who was she?
How did she end
in Chennai? Why
did she meet her
death so young?
Baghdad beginnings had
also ended in an untimely
end when Victoria’s (‘Toyah’)
birth led to her mother,
Then in 1939, perhaps 1940,
as a second universal war
began, Toyah romanced an
From different worlds,
different religions, they
met in secret and when
Toyah's family found out,
they sought to marry her to a
But she rejected all suitable
suitors and was shipped out
to India in disgrace.
Towards the close of 1942,
Toyah’s father, Menashi and
Naima, his second wife, who
was Dina’s sister and so Toyah’s
aunt, arrived in Bombay with his
daughter in tow.
There onlookers saw something
in Toyah - her face and demeanour –
that deeply perplexed them.
Her silence left an impression
of a person in shock. There
was something mysterious;
most difficult to understand.
She would not utter a word.
After some time, the three
moved on. In another
Indian city, Toyah died.
So her parents returned
Abraham, Toyah’s only surviving
half-brother, now aged 94 and
once the closest to her in the
entire family, still wonders what
caused her untimely demise.
The doctor who had looked after
her in India felt the urge to
tell the authorities about her
serious decline and the role
her parents played.
But he did not pursue this.
The Armenian lover also felt
the need to alert the authorities
about Toyah's deplorable condition
and the role that her parents
played in her incarceration.
But he did not go through with
this idea, either.
So there was no public scandal.
Even within the Jewish
community in Baghdad,
the romance was hushed up.
No-one talked of how Toyah
had died from a broken heart.
And there is yet one more
tragic aspect to this tale:
One rare photo shows Toyah’s
three half-brothers : Elias, the oldest
and tallest; Abraham, standing beside
him and Jack, the toddler.
It was taken in 1927 when Toyah
was aged seven.
Why isn’t she there?
But she once was!
On Elias's left!
After her death, the
image was retouched
to excise her likeness.
This was to ensure there
would be no reminder of the
scandal and tragedy of her life.
Then there are unfounded rumours
of a Baghdadi Jewish custom;
that when people died all pictures
of them were destroyed.
Still, one further photo,
shot in Baghdad, probably
in the early thirties, shows
Grand mère Farha Shamash;
her husband, Saleh and Toyah’s aunt,
Then – finally – stands
a girl with wavy hair, peeping
out above Khatoun’s head.
This may, just may, be
© Natalie Wood (04 July 2017)
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin was abroad when his predecessor Shimon Peres died.
So perhaps his visit and important speech to the Ukrainian Parliament marking the 75th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre didn’t receive the international attention it deserved.
“We must not play a part in the sin of forgetting or denial … national leaders who support antisemitic, racist, or neo-Nazi ideas will not be welcomed as friends among the family of nations,” he warned.
Mr Rivlin’s words were a stern reminder of how the huge-scale atrocity was concealed by the Nazis and their Soviet collaborators for 21 years before being exposed by the renowned Russian poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko in Babi Yar. The translation below is by Benjamin Okopnik.
No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid.
Today, I am as old
As the entire Jewish race itself.
I see myself an ancient Israelite.
I wander o’er the roads of ancient Egypt
And here, upon the cross, I perish, tortured
And even now, I bear the marks of nails.
It seems to me that Dreyfus is myself.
The Philistines betrayed me – and now judge.
I’m in a cage. Surrounded and trapped,
I’m persecuted, spat on, slandered, and
The dainty dollies in their Brussels frills
Squeal, as they stab umbrellas at my face.
I see myself a boy in Belostok
Blood spills, and runs upon the floors,
The chiefs of bar and pub rage unimpeded
And reek of vodka and of onion, half and half.
I’m thrown back by a boot, I have no strength left,
In vain I beg the rabble of pogrom,
To jeers of “Kill the Jews, and save our Russia!”
My mother’s being beaten by a clerk.
O, Russia of my heart, I know that you
Are international, by inner nature.
But often those whose hands are steeped in filth
Abused your purest name, in name of hatred.
I know the kindness of my native land.
How vile, that without the slightest quiver
The antisemites have proclaimed themselves
The “Union of the Russian People!”
It seems to me that I am Anna Frank,
Transparent, as the thinnest branch in April,
And I’m in love, and have no need of phrases,
But only that we gaze into each other’s eyes.
How little one can see, or even sense!
Leaves are forbidden, so is sky,
But much is still allowed – very gently
In darkened rooms each other to embrace.
-“No, fear not – those are sounds
Of spring itself. She’s coming soon.
Quickly, your lips!”
-“They break the door!”
-“No, river ice is breaking…”
Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgement.
Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.
And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I’m every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here.
No fiber of my body will forget this.
May “Internationale” thunder and ring
When, for all time, is buried and forgotten
The last of antisemites on this earth.
There is no Jewish blood that’s blood of mine,
But, hated with a passion that’s corrosive
Am I by antisemites like a Jew.
And that is why I call myself a Russian!
Meanwhile, it is time to recall that poetry was among Mr Peres’s interests and soon after his passing, members of Voices Israel, the English language poetry society were reminded how he often quoted from Acceptance by Bene Israel Indian poet, Nissim Ezekiel.
… I am all alone
and you are alone.
So why can’t we be
alone together …
Indeed, he quoted this fragment at the opening of the 2013 Maccabiah Games, whose words it has been observed, should resonate with every citizen of Israel’s rainbow nation.
© Natalie Wood (03 December 2016)
Among the flood of tributes to the late Cuban leader, Fidel Castro has been one at The Guardian newspaper where historian Richard Gott noted:
“Cuba under Fidel was a country where indigenous nationalism was at least as significant as imported socialism, and where the legend of José Martí, the patriot poet and organiser of the 19th-century struggle against Spain, was always more influential than the philosophy of Karl Marx.”
Regarded as the symbol of Cuba's bid for independence from Spain in the late 1800s, José Julián Martí Pérez may also be viewed as being in the tradition of the valiant soldier poet. One must wonder how he would have reacted on learning that whereas his work to unite the Cuban émigré community, particularly in Florida, was crucial to the success of the Cuban War of Independence, many 20th century Cubans fled back there once Castro gained power in 1959.
Although Marti is now best remembered for the poem that became the lyrics to the Cuban anthem, Guantanamera, I pause below with a few simple lines that may be more appropriate for the day of Castro’s passing.
I Wish To Leave The World
I wish to leave the world
By its natural door;
In my tomb of green leaves
They are to carry me to die.
Do not put me in the dark
To die like a traitor;
I am good, and like a good thing
I will die with my face to the sun
But the past half-week has also been one of more semi-mourning for Israel where, The Times of Israel reports, the mix of terrorist-triggered arson and wildfire blazes have caused thirty per cent more land devastation than the Carmel Forest fire of 2010.
Ordinary Israelis – Arabs along with Jews - have reacted as ever with gestures of love, sympathy and practical support for those who have had homes and businesses wrecked – and memories destroyed.
At times like these even the non-religious seek comfort in the bible and among items posted on social media has been this wonderful version of Psalm 121, attributed to King David, one of the world’s first acclaimed soldier poets. The singer is Shelly Markalov, who was aged only eight at the time of recording. You have my permission to weep. I did!
© Natalie Wood (26 November 2016)