Texts & Translation

„מײַן טאַטע פֿאַרברענט מײַנע לידער“ און „דער שרײַבער־באַל...“

“My Father Burns My Poems” and “The Writer’s Ball”

Malka Lee

Translation by Faith Jones, Anita Norich and David Mazower

INTRODUCTION

Best known as a poet, Mal­ka Lee (born Mal­ka Leopold, 1904, in Gali­cia) also wrote children’s fables and a full-length mem­oir of her child­hood and teenage years. Always a book­ish child, she sur­vived World War I with most of her fam­i­ly in the war zone, and began writ­ing poet­ry in the wake of those years. In the two chap­ters from her mem­oir here (which do not appear con­sec­u­tive­ly in the mem­oir), she reflects first on her father’s dis­ap­proval and then on her male peers’ approval of her poet­ry-writ­ing, but finds in both cas­es that she is lim­it­ed by her sta­tus as a young woman. Lee lat­er mar­ried Aaron Rap­poport, whose lec­ture on poet­ry she gen­tly lam­poons below.

These pieces appeared in Durkh kinder­she oygn (Buenos Aires, 1965), pp.144 – 146 and 172 – 174. It was trans­lat­ed by Faith Jones with Ani­ta Norich and David Mazower. 

Fur­ther Read­ing:
On Mal­ka Lee
Books in Yiddish

My Father Burns My Poems

I already had three notebooks of poems. How did I write them down? Not at the polished writing table, but on my knee. I didn’t know I was writing poems. They tore out of me, like living beings escaping from my fingers. Their cries emerged from my wounded young heart, from the suffering of those I knew, from the horrors of war.

O my poems, what were you to me back then? You were the prayer through which I appealed to God in those terrible days of war.

O my poems, you were my salvation from death and destruction.

O my poems, how I gathered you, holy and luminescent, in my notebook of treasures, and filled my days and nights with you.

O my poems, you laughed and cried with me; You spoke to me through the whispered language of unspoken words. You did not desert me in the days of fire and need. You nursed me with care and tenderness. You were the bread and water of my thirsty youth.

O my poems, you did not desert me when I was lying sick with typhus; You stayed with me during nightmarish nights and when I began to sit up in my sick bed you wrapped yourselves around me and in short, quivering lines you laughed through me and sang through my heart.

O my poems, never desert me. My poems, my dearest possessions, which the enemy could not take from me…

But my father hated them. A Jewish daughter shouldn’t be running around with evil spirits, with demons in her heart. A Jewish daughter making rhymes?

But my mother delighted in my writing. She saw her dreams in me, her girlish hopes, her sunsets rising in my poems… Her fingers, which embroidered enchanted woods and human figures in silk on canvas, were draped in words through my poems.

But my father was embarrassed that a daughter of his wrote rhymes.

Early one morning: my mother, as usual, rises first to heat the stove. She sets a match to the kindling but it does not burn. She blows on it over and over, but the fire does not burn. She reaches into the oven door and far, far back, the flue is blocked with paper.

She pulls out the crumpled paper and looks. She is horrified. They are my poems. My mother screams in a voice not her own. I jump out of bed barefoot, as if the bed itself might burst into flame.

I am no longer human. I am an animal. My head is spinning. I scream so hard that a clot of blood comes from my hoarse throat.

The children jump out of bed. I go mad. I want to die. Without my poems, I no longer want to live.

They lie torn, desecrated, and who had done this? My own father. The entire house is in an uproar. My mother and the children are crying; everyone is screaming and my poor, hapless father stands frightened, wanting to calm me.

Only now does he realize what my poems mean to me. He gives me money to buy new notebooks. Everyone will help me copy them into the new notebooks.

But I cannot forgive him. I am now his greatest enemy. My own father wanted to burn my creations, my poems.

I feel I no longer belong here. I want to go away, somewhere far, far away, maybe to America, into the wide world, so that I can create freely and sing out what leaps from my heart, and nobody will bother me, and I will not have to write hiding from my father as if I were a criminal.

My mother understands me. They are her poems too. My little sister Toybele brings me new notebooks and sits down to copy them. She pieces together the ripped pages, wanting to make them whole again.

And my father takes a prayer book and laments, and asks for consolation: let God teach him to understand his own flesh and blood.

His daughter… maybe it is God’s will that she writes poems?

The Writers Ball

A large, round hall with lamps and faces. This is where Chana brought me to meet Yiddish writers.

Chana explained: once a year there’s a Writers Ball, and folks come to meet the writers and poets in person.

I had not yet read these writers; I was completely unfamiliar with their work. There I stood in a corner of the noisy room, watching them. Their faces were unremarkable, like someone you would pass on the street. There was nothing special about them. Girls fluttered around them like butterflies. Bustle and noise.

Suddenly, I found myself encircled by three. They were young poets, all in the ambit of The Pen. The editor was Aaron Karlin. He was round as a barrel, with small, clever eyes, thinning hair, and a cheerful smile. The second was A. Lutsky. He stood as if holding a violin or an arrow. Such blue eyes—no: in one blue eye there was a grey shadow. It was as if the two eyes were angry at each other. But the blue, laughing eye beat out the shadowy eye. He moved uneasily, hesitantly, as if he would drift up into the air.

The third was Aaron Rapaport. Quiet and studious, a bit shy, with a head of thick, black hair and black-rimmed glasses.

The three of them stood around me in a circle and I spoke German with them. It was hectic and loud. Music played. I floated into a dance. Happy faces waltzing in one big mass of humanity.

One of the men in the corner watched me dancing. His silent, clear gaze met mine. It was as if his eyes wanted to dance up to me and pull me back to the corner.

Aaron Rapaport couldn’t dance, so instead he sat with me and gave me my first poetry lesson.

To tell the truth, I understood very little about form and content. When a poem is born, it’s already fully-formed; it has arms and legs, eyes, lips, a face. Of course, you still have to clean it off and warm it up. But the main thing is the created poem itself, because to create is natural and real.

Aaron Rapaport spoke to me of form and content, and I looked at the floor and his shoes and noticed the laces were untied and it had been a while since the uppers had seen a shoe-shine cloth. But his words were strangely powerful. I may not have understood them with my head, but they were absorbed into my blood.

A. Lutsky asked me to dance. The room was awhirl with people, young and middle aged, women and men, like a wedding in the old country… And then I returned to “the three”—Rapaport, Lutsky, and Aaron Karlin—and they asked me to recite a few of my poems by heart.

I recited a German poem, “In the Air,” and Karlin said he would translate it into Yiddish right away and publish it in The Pen.

Aaron Rapaport again lectured me about form and content and I thought to myself, “I’m not a poet, I just write about my own pain. My poems don’t need a form, because if I sprain my finger and it hurts terribly, I have to push away the pain, I have to write it out, otherwise my heart can’t rest.”

I didn’t write poems at that time because I wanted to be a poet. It was a superhuman force, like the force of nature that eats its way into a tree, and the tree is compelled to burst into bloom. Like a stream that forces its way through a mountainside to the light, my poems come to me from the depths and make themselves into the lines we call poetry.

Of course, I didn’t share my innermost thoughts at the time. I just listened quietly to their talk. The music blared, the drums beat, and couples spun through the clouds of smoke as if on waves.

Among the dancing couples one head stood above the rest: the strange figure of Moyshe Nadir. Chana introduced me to him.

Moyshe Nadir shook my hand, looking for all the world like a tall poplar in the human forest of poets. Moyshe Nadir wanted to know where I came from; when Chana told him that I wrote poems, he said, “She smells of the wheat stalks back home in Naryev, Galitcia.” I was so embarrassed, I didn’t know what to answer.

Aaron Rapaport was standing beside me again. And then Avrom Reisen came over. He was thin and wore a black suit. He stretched out a friendly hand to me. A cheerful fire danced in his black eyes. He looked at Rapaport and Lutsky, and then asked me if I had been published yet. He suggested that Rapaport bring me to visit him and Sarah at home so I could read my poems to him. He told me he knew German so I needn’t be embarrassed over that.

Reisen complimented me lavishly and asked how old I was.

I answered, “Not quite seventeen,” and was again embarrassed that he had complimented me to my face.

And the clever, worldly, famous poet Avrom Reisen started singing the praises of Lutsky and Rapaport. I became even more embarrassed. Lutsky, moved, hugged Reisen.

The room started empyting out. People were putting on their coats. I became lightheaded. Rapaport asked if he could visit me at Chana’s house, that I should bring my notebooks, and he was still talking about form and content.

I was no longer listening to the meaning of his words, but his voice ran in my blood like wine and warmed me. I was still looking at his feet and I wanted to bend down and re-tie his loose shoelaces, because a poet should look nice, his form should suit the content of the poem in his soul…

MLA STYLE
Lee, Malka. “"My Father Burns My Poems" and "The Writer's Ball".” In geveb, December 2023: Trans. Faith Jones, Anita Norich, and David Mazower. https://ingeveb.org/texts-and-translations/my-father-burns-my-poems-and-the-writers-ball.
CHICAGO STYLE
Lee, Malka. “"My Father Burns My Poems" and "The Writer's Ball".” Translated by Faith Jones, Anita Norich, and David Mazower. In geveb (December 2023): Accessed May 30, 2024.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Malka Lee

ABOUT THE TRANSLATORS

Faith Jones

Faith Jones is a librarian and translator in Vancouver, Canada.

Anita Norich

Anita Norich is Tikva Frymer-Kensky Collegiate Professor Emerita of English and Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan.

David Mazower

David Mazower is chief curator and writer of Yiddish: A Global Culture, the major new permanent exhibition at the Yiddish Book Center, where he is Research Bibliographer and Editorial Director.