Liberty – Fraternity – but Equal to Ourselves…

In this text, both fragmented and choral, Daniella Pinkstein brings together significant Jewish figures of writing and representation who once crossed paths in Warsaw and Paris — notably around the two issues of the magazine Khaliastra. Between references and excerpts from the works of Kafka, Chagall, Markish and Greenberg, she pays homage to the davar that held them together, that “dislocated thing that joins, undulating and impatient, the word.” In this in-between period when Jewish artists were at the forefront of modernity, she describes a condition where “responsibility is not acquired, not learned, it is transmitted, in this inhabited language, which places the individual in front of its duplicate.”

 

Khaliastra, numéro 2 de la revue, Paris, 1924, illustration de Marc Chagall (c) mahJ

For Rachel Ertel who, seeding the earth with giant trees, forced me to look up.

 

When the world was created,

The world was divided:

Some had the good wine

And others the thirst.

Baal Shem Tov

 

If the phrase Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité is as familiar as it is obvious to us today, even though the dyad “nation and people” remains under constant construction everywhere, including in Europe. It can also, taken out of context, be strangely dissonant. For the Jews, with an insatiable thirst for history and knowledge in movement, knowledge is never static, ethics are never a mere theoretical notion, but a practical notion, freedom has always been intrinsically linked to their becoming, to their vocation as men. “From the mud of the most atrocious misery to the most prestigious miracle by which human dignity is restored to its greatness, the evening of the Seder throws man into a body to body relationship with himself; “we are free with an eternal freedom”[1]. Fraternity was in its reflection unceasingly exalted, theirs, like that of the vast European hopes to which a majority clung until the door of annihilation. But beyond the Enlightenment notion of equality, the Jews remained on the threshold, as if on the border of a foreign land where what is equal to the Other remains obscure.

Who have we been to each other, who will we be to each other, when it comes to representing ourselves before the shattering of the Equality of European nations?

*

At the end of the First World War, Europe looks at itself, “ruins that threaten ruin” [2]” in awe of what remains of the old world. Nothing is suddenly more levelling to the other than a broken face on one side or the other of the border, than a mutilated man, than a field of devastation on that line or the one, in the distance, over there.

Since everything has been annihilated, what is left of the idea of man?

A frenzy takes hold of the world and makes everything fracture. “A new era is beginning that can only be compared, by the magnitude of the upheavals, to the period of the Renaissance [3]

Take it all back.

To start again, differently, upside-down, breathing, thought, unsuspecting expressions, because from now on we have to find new idioms for the world. Everything must change or the barbarism continues.

Europe, from the Atlantic to the Urals, suddenly begins to boil. The sharkskin tuxudos have been thrown into the cultural cooking pot, the clothes of yesterday’s world. It was necessary a “metamorphosis”, urgent this one, of the man, the art, the hope, the vision of the future, the horizon that it was necessary to draw on other skies. The Expressionism born before the war is then dressed in other postures of refusal of the reality, the New Objectivity takes off in Germany, the movements of avant-garde are suddenly pressing. Futurism, Surrealism, Primitivism, already in gestation before the war, enter the world dance. February and October 1917 for Russia added to this incandescence the reality – and its fantasy – of Revolution.

Apollinaire, who had just coined the term “Surrealist” in connection with the ballet Parade, would be one of the closest allies and promoters of the Cubist painters. In 1918, he published Calligrammes, poems of war, poems of peace arranged on the sheet as a vision – inventor of a davar [footnote : The Hebrew davar, like the Greek logos, can mean both “thing/event”] this dislocated thing which joins, undulating and impatient, the word.

Guillaume Apollinaire, “Cotton in the ears”.

Art suddenly thinks art. The Creation fixes the man, full of self-doubt, fatally inferior to the creator. The omnipotence of the dream, of the form or of its obsession out of control, must subdue the will by destructive nature.

At the same time, Jewish writers of Yiddish language enter suddenly into modernity. Shaken by the Haskala, struck down by pogroms and forced conscription, then wrought into future division by the the First World War, the Jewish world was subjected to the vicissitudes of history, by frightening and incessant shocks.

Yet, as desperate as they were destabilized, Jewish artists showed an extraordinary fighting spirit and creativity:

Day after day – I see caravans of ships journeying,

sails splashed by the sun – ready for thunder and tempest

– I have not come to ask you: where then and from where?

I came to vanish and be reborn.

Day after day – bright foam calls

to the blue harbour of rest – like a blessing –

No, I shall not reach the shore of the hazy blue harbour with the others

on my journey an ill wind has smashed my mast…

Day after day like a messenger cleaving the air

of holy annihilation – in thunder and tempest,

all alone, all alone, like an ordinary day

I came to vanish and be reborn.

Peretz Markish, “Unconsecrated days”[4].

Just after this catastrophe that decimated Europe, the first issue of Khaliastra, The Gang, was published in Warsaw in 1922[5]. Epitome of avant-gardism, this magazine among the most spirited, brings together poems, essays, fictions, reviews of polemical works, but also constructivist and expressionist drawings and engravings (by Chagall, Brauner or Weintraub) of artists and writers embodying the whole palette of Yiddish modernity[6]. In these works, through diametrically opposed positions from one author to another, the Jewish universe is reinvented, swirling, vigorous, relentless, like an impetuous torrent that has been too long held back, through raw and violent images and imprecations. 

Uri Zvi Greenberg & Peretz Markish, Warsaw, 1922.

Peretz Markish, Uri Zvi Greenberg, companions and accomplices of the Gang, they who two decades later would embody the two great Jewish destinies of the time, each at the other end of the spectrum, are still standing at this time, shoulder to shoulder, gazing at the horizon[7].

They walk and walk, from cross to cross –

It’s already two thousand years that one man has been up there dangling.

They all cry out:

You, the man who looks just like us! Get down from the cross!

Get down! The world clock has struck thirteen!

Now it’s time to go the Last Supper of Sin!

Get down! You’re invited to the Last Supper of sin!

What are you waiting for, hanging up there?

All the believers are part of our gang

Only the syphilitic or the cripple or the odd dog

is behind you.

The crucified man answers: I cannot take a step

on the earth. I don’t know… now it’s the sunset

I no longer know the way to Bethlehem

Two thousand years since I came to Galilee…

And for just as long I haven’t prayed in a temple.

They depart, they depart. On the way they are met by

a horde of prostitutes headed by a Madonna with a crown

and her bare sex which the Holy Spirit fertilized…

Where is my favourite Jesus? Where is he?

Isn’t he still keeping the company of sinners?

But here are voices overhead that grow louder and louder

– Bring salvation to Myriam – naked of Midgol

-To the dance of ecstasy at the table of orgy!

All the temples are abandoned.

There burns a purple pain on their windows

And the blasphemers tug on the ropes

in the belfries, and the bells are ringing

It’s the day before black Sunday!

It’s the day before black Sunday!

Uri Zvi Greenberg: “World downhill”, Khaliastra 1, translated by Lucien Berman.

 

The ‘World downhill’ was the literally the shared experience of these authors, each had a different dimension to bring, each concerned in their own way to a hinterland always part of their vision, which might announce the future of humanity.

Here the art does not think in the place of the man. It is the individual that is raised, through the medium of creation. To look at each other fixedly, without blinking – the reader all to the admiration of the author, whilst the writer looks for he one who listens to him, disposing of the reader as his superior. At an unequalled distance the one guarantees the height to the other. Indefinitely.

“Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent? Who may live on your holy mountain? — The one whose walk is blameless, who does what is righteous, who speaks the truth from their heart, whose tongue utters no slander, who does no wrong to a neighbour[8]”.

Responsibility is not acquired, not learned, it is transmitted, in this inhabited language, which places the individual in front of his duplicate.

In the book Dark Forest by the American writer Nicole Krauss – a masterpiece of crystalline beauty – the enigmatic character of Friedman is absorbed in the heritage of King David, as a bloody warrior who aspires to be a poet.

“David who might have been only the tribal leader of a hill clan, had brought his people to a high culture that has since given shape to nearly three thousand years of history.  […] A man who begins as a shepherd, becomes a warrior and a ruthless warlord, and dies a poet. [9]

Oser Warszawski (right), Peretz Markish and H. Lievik reading the Yiddish proofs of the magazine Khaliastra, “La Bande”, with the printer (Paris, 1924). On the right, manuscript of Oser Warszawski’s diary (Rome, 1943), BNF.

Ilya Ehrenbourg, a Russian Jewish writer who would contribute with Vasily Grossman to The Black Book, tells the following anecdote years earlier about his meeting in Paris in 1923, with the flamboyant Peretz Markish who was most handsome at that time, and the truculent Oser Warzsavski, who had already made a name for himself (to much fanfare!) with “The Smugglers” (The two young authors preparing the second issue of Khaliastra):

“We were at the Rotunda. I don’t remember why, but Warzsavski told a Hasidic legend that Markish certainly knew but that I discovered: On the day of the Last Judgment, the Jews of a small town gather in the synagogue and pray to be forgiven for their sins. But apparently they had sinned too much and God did not forgive them: the evening star did not light up. A rumor starts to spread in the synagogue: the people are afraid of God’s vengeance. They accuse each other of turpitude, of deception, of false testimony. But the evening star still does not light up… Near the door of the synagogue is a poor old tailor with his little son. The boy is bored, he has already repented of all his sins and the sins of others do not trouble him too much. He finds a small reed pipe in his pocket and starts to play it. The Jews throw themselves at the tailor: it is because of tricksters like your son that God thunders against us! But the rabbi silenced the Jews: he had seen how God had smiled at the boy and how the star had lit up”, I remember, Ehrenbourg continued, how this story had marked me. Markish looked at me sideways, his eyes were sad and bright. “It is indeed a story about art!” he had replied[10]”.

If I am asked what all this ardor, this terrible flamboyance including that of the Psalms has to do with equality?

In this exceptional period, literature has sought its way to exist there as the unshakeable force of a human future, its destiny, its tool, its lantern, and its revolution. “One believes to think” said Meschonnic, “one is thought by the words”, and by them would perhaps come the redemption. “We are all entirely ourselves the content of language” he added.

But in Jewish literature there is a sibilance – a distant call of a reed pipe. It is a long way from the slightest redemption, or even from the notion of equality, because equality for whom?

A few days from asphyxiation, Kafka still exhales a frail breath aiming at the infinite: “Was her actual piping notably louder and more alive than the memory of it will be? Was it even in her lifetime more than a simple memory? Was it not rather because Josephine’s singing was already past losing in this way that our people in their wisdom prized it so highly?[11]

At every dawn, we should ask ourselves, for what are we men? And among men, what are we Jews? The exodus from Egypt is the historical basis of the identity of this People: its continuous whistling, through which everything is heard or silenced. Hence the exceptional proportion of our specialists in language and its expressions, for this “sibilance” of the first steps in the desert, at the end of a long march from which were born the commandments of a humanity separating day from night, separating good from evil, letter from letter.

Forverts!

Onward!

Drawing by Marc Chagall for Khaliastra

The Jewish authors of that time continued the march. Faced with the full force of the history of which they were the unwitting subjects, they in turn asked themselves who they were – as individuals, but also as Jews who had come out of Egypt – in that world.

Manitou said that a single letter separated the “equal” from the “vain”. “Two words are very strangely similar in Hebrew, the word “שׁוה” (shvai) which means “equal” and “שוא”, (shvai), “vain” which is distinguished by its final “א”[12]” aleph can thus plunge equality into vanity: this letter that paradoxically also connects us to the silence of the divine, this letter that binds us with every breath in this struggle with the Angel, this letter with which Adoni begins, when we greet another man. My lord! From the height of their immeasurable courage, these Jewish authors of yesterday, whose destinies are still ours, have found the equation, the one that finally ceases to give reason to Cain, offering the other his dignity, a moral act that is acquired with his own dignity. For we are neither free nor equal. Nor outside the heavenly miracle and what it demands of us.

“The injunction placed upon us to be present in person when the law was given on Sinai signifies too, and above all, the obligation each of us inherits: to listen. For it would not be enough to be there dumbly in the flesh and at the same time absent in the soul, fugitive in the spirit. It is absolutely not a question of bleating yes, yes, yes like all the others, since this runs the risk that we immediately forget our beautiful Jewish cultural or folkloric heritage. To be there in person means: to allow oneself to challenge the status quo without creating a diversion, and to accept the burden of placing on one’s own shoulders a great human responsibility. It is to resolve to hear at all times the divine utterance echoing within oneself, to seek it, to find it, to grapple with it all through history.[13]” Writing in the destiny of the Jewish People, writing with the same ink that forged the stone, has made these authors, those of yesterday, today, but surely of tomorrow as well, giants who exhort us to be even more than we are. They have generated, from generation to generation, from centuries in bravery without time distilled, the feeling of an absolute life, which makes each of us, a little more than our own “same”. These David kings, “too poetic not to be prophets” as Elie Wiesel said about Markish, question, even when we are down on one knee, our place in the face of the future of man. And, I am never another. “Man becomes an I in contact with a You[14],” with the sharpness of their pen, which makes us the receiver of a commitment. The earth was nothing but solitude and chaos, darkness covered the face of the abyss… The letter does not fight the Word, in Judaism they are organically linked, but between the one and the other a heady breath is heard. The Jewish world today is changing as quickly and probably as badly as the world in general. What it is, what it will become in this Europe which was for a long time its centre and then its misfortune, raises many concerns. “A true utterance is one which, from the start, points towards the place of the unnamed, and bounces back to us from there, laden with power and justice, like a light which speaks,” said the great poet Claude Vigée. In this timeless dialogue, we must hope to be able to distinguish again this light reeded sibilance, whether it was hidden or even diffracted , enjoining us, riveted or proscribed in this world, to prepare again for what will be our song. Liberty – Fraternity – but Equal to Ourselves…  these People, from the Beginning.


Daniella Pinkstein

Daniella Pinkstein, a linguist by training, has worked as a consultant in French and European political and institutional offices, and as a translator, editor, journalist and columnist in France and Israel. Following a doctoral scholarship, she moved to Hungary to study the minorities of Central Europe and the discourse underlying their emancipation. This long sejour informed and changed her view of Europe. She was awarded the European Jewish Writers in translation 2021 prize (awarded by the Jewish Book Week).

Notes

1 André Neher, Moses and the Jewish Vocation. l
2 Paul Valéry, “Le monde foudroyé,” Reception Speech at the Académie française.
3 Rachel Ertel, Brasiers de mots, Liana Levi.
4 Peretz Markish, “Unconsecrated days”, Khaliastra 2, Lachenal & Riter, p. 154, translated by Lucien Berman.
5 The Waste Land of T.S. Eliot appeared in the same year
6 Khaliastra will have only two issues, one published in Warsaw in 1922, the other in Paris in 1924. Participating in Khaliastra 1 were the writers and artists who would bring Jewish literature into the modern world, alas with a frightened and prophetic awareness of its future, and of Europe’s doomed fate. In order of appearance: Moshe Broderson, Peretz Markish, Melekh Ravitch, Joseph Opatoshu, Uri-Zvi Greenberg, Israel Joshua Singer, Israel Stern, H. Leivik, Avrom Leyeles, Oser Warszawski, Menachem Flakser, David Hofstein, Joseph Tchaikov, Lipa Reznik, Itzik Kipnis, M. Khachtchevatzki, Itzik Brauner, Marc Chagall, Joseph Tchaikov, Victor Weintraub.
7 Peretz Markish (1895 – 1952) is one of the most outstanding poets of Yiddish literature. He used innovative forms his works, – Futurism and Expressionism -, to open the Jewish world to Modernity and brought through his culture knowledge to his readers, an irrevocable will for justice and a touch of genius. His creative world was informed by the pains, misfortunes, and annihilation of which he was witnesss. During the Second World War, he was full of foreboding for the persecutions against the Jews, of which he had a partial knowledge but a frightening lucidity. He became involved body and soul for the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, with other fellow poets, actors and Jewish writers. They were all arrested in 1948 and executed on August 12, 1952, in what has since been called “the night of the murdered poets” on the orders of Stalin, who liquidated in twenty-four hours the immensity of Yiddish culture in the Soviet Union at the height of its excellence. Uri Zvi Greenberg (1894 – 1981) met Peretz Markish in 1921 in Warsaw, was born in Galicia to a Hasidic family. He was a scholar of both biblical Hebrew and Yiddish literature, to which he devoted himself at a young age. He mixed curses, imprecations and blasphemies in his verses, not to shock but to awaken the Jewish world, which he saw Europe suffocating, in the early days, by fits and starts, before destroying completely, as he had predicted in “The Kingdom of the Cross – In malkhes fun tseylem”. Greenberg left in time. In 1924 he joined Palestine and became one of the great poets of the new state at independence. He wrote only in Hebrew. At the time, his positions were unambiguous regarding the “division” of the young state. In 1948 he ran for the Knesset under the banner of the right-wing party Herut. He was a friend, perhaps also a lover, of Rachel (Bluwstein), a Russian poet, who lived in Palestine. She was already ailing with tuberculosis. He was one of the few who dared to approach her before her sadly premature death. She was the mirror of his soul, as had been Peretz Markish – full souls, solitary stars, who never ceased to embody the destinies of the Jewish People. Will you hear my voice, my distance …?  “רחוקי שלי,התשמע קולי”. These distant songs still so relevant now…
8 David Psalms, 15
9 Nicole Krauss, Forest Dark, Bloomsbury, p. 84
10 In The Long Return, Esther Markish
11 Franz Kafka, Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk, Everyman’s Library, 1993, p. 250, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir.
12 Leon Ashkenazi, Dialogue between Fathers and Sons, Jerusalem, 1992.
13 In the Silence of the Aleph [Dans le Silence de l’Aleph] translated by Anthony Rudolf – Two volumes of Vigée’s poems have been published in English by Anthony Rudolf, Songs of Absence (2007) and Flow Tide (1992).
14 Martin Buber, I and You.

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