Selma and her Friends
|Pearl Spiegel||Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger|
Among my earliest recollections of sunny afternoons and childhood joys, of climbing rocks and running along steep hills, in the late 1920s, they all happened in the large park known as Habsburgshohe (Hapsburg Heights), in my native town Czernovitz, in the province Bucovina, Northern Romania, formerly Austria. Mother used to take my older sister Sali and myself on that long walk to the park, from early spring, around the middle of April, till the end of autumn, until the snows set in. As I grew older, I spent just as much time there in the company of my friends.
That park was a heavily wooded area, from which the Austrians had fashioned a recreation section called the Plateau, with flat surfaces for sandboxes and playgrounds and for vendors of pretzels, sunflower seeds, sodas and ice cream. The park area spread very wide; people would decide to meet in different sections. There were locations like "Kaiserfelsen," a wide, high rock named "Emperor Rock." At the age of six or seven, I felt proud to be able to climb to its top. Many baby nurses would bring their charges to spend a few hours in the fresh air of the woods. As you went down the steep hills, there were benches along the lanes, along the quiet, shady walks. One could have as much playground as one desired and as much quiet and privacy, as one felt like.
This was a favorite meeting place of poets, of lovers, of people who would get together and just talk or discuss books or politics and of thinkers and brooders, who spend undisturbed hours communing with nature. It was also favored by groups of young Zionists, who would discuss, sing, socialize there. The other two parks in town:
Volksgarten (Peopleís Garden), which was in a different part of Czernovitz, with a skating rink and soccer fields and a carefully tended flower garden and Schiller Park, a hilly but small park - these two had none of the natural attractions of our beloved Habsburgshohe, with its atmosphere of calm forest. In my life and that of my friends, nothing compared and ever will with that place. The chestnuts, the beeches, the fir trees and pine trees exuded an aroma rarely matched anywhere. Whenever I happen to take a vacation in high mountains, that aroma returns as a smell of delight from years long gone.
I got to know, at least by sight, many other faithful lovers of that place. Some people sat at a certain bench daily. Their muse met them at that particular spot. I remember going to the park with Paul Celan (Antschel) and he carried a volume of Rilke poetry. He stood up on a bench and started reading a poem, while I was standing and enjoying the poetry as well as the lyrical sound of his voice. Something romantic as well as intellectual was permeating our activities. We talked of matters of feeling and of the intellect; nobody paid attention to making money or considering jobs; we were teenagers then; we lived frugally, left the making of a living to our parents. If we did some tutoring, it was not worthy of discussion.
Many romances started there and many ended there, too. What outpouring of ideas, of political convictions - Socialist or Zionist; what poems where written there; what declarations of immortal love were offered; what deceptions, what quarrels followed; we poured our hearts out in this forest.
Among the younger people that I often saw in the years 1938-39-40 spending time in the park were my cousinís friends, a group of boys and girls who belonged to a Zionist Youth Organization named "Shomer Hatzair," Hebrew for "The Young Watchman." They used to meet in town, in the Zionist Center, but in the summertime, they preferred the park. All were four years younger than myself and made up a group called in Hebrew "Kwootza."
The original organizer of this Shomer group, the one who brought these boys and girls together was Abrasha (nickname for Abraham) Gimpelman, a high school student, my own age. He was a dedicated activist, who instructed the young members of the group in Zionist-socialist ideology and how to prepare for life in Palestine. In fact, he had left high school two years prior to graduation in order to take agricultural training, to be ready for life in kibbutz, a collective settlement in Palestine. Besides his capabilities as an inspired organizer, he happened to have been unusually handsome, a very attractive personality, a rare human being, trusted and admired by all who knew him.
Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger, who lived not far from me, just a little closer to the park, was one of the girls in the group. I often saw her with Renee, Abrashaís girlfriend. Among the young men in the group was Leiser Fichman, my husbandís younger cousin. I remember Selma as a lively girl, short, with long, curly, dark brown hair, often in the company of girl friends. Her appearance was striking, a little sloppy, rather careless about her looks, as her brown hair was windblown. When walking alone, she looked preoccupied, oblivious of the world around her. Leiser, or Leisiu, as she would call him, was a quiet, serious, introverted youngster, very handsome, somehow in the shadow of his older brother Arye and older cousin Yuda. When Selma and Leiser would walk together, they struck as contrasting types: he was tall, impeccably neat, all in control, while Selma seemed rather lost in thoughts and impervious of appearance. They looked like different types of individuals, yet, she absolutely adored him.
Selma, a highly gifted poet, started to write at the age of fifteen. Whether by coincidence or as a family trait, Selma was a cousin of Paul Celan. The themes that permeated her poetry were nature, in all its shades, shapes, moods; she wrote about the rain, the wind, the night, flowers, dreams, fall, summer, storms and the deep, all consuming love for Leiser, who seemingly did not reciprocate her ardor. From the age of fifteen to the day she was deported to Transnistria, in June 1942, she wrote of her joy and suffering because of unrequited love.
When the Soviet Union occupied Czernovitz in June 1940, all political organizations were banned from existence, except Communist activities. The group led by Abrasha continued to meet, unofficially, in the park, as a couple of friends who just got together, with no agenda. However, people became aware that anything connected with Zionism was suspect in the eyes of the Soviet authorities. Somebody drew Abrashaís attention that it may be dangerous to get together, even as a small group, for not all former members participated any longer. Renee and Selma came regularly and, perhaps, another two or three.
One of the young men in the group, sure that Labor Zionism would be acceptable to the Soviet regime, wrote a long letter to Stalin, in which he explained that Shomer Hatzair believes in Socialism and communal living in kibbutzim, where there is no private property and thus no exploitation of workers, for they are all agricultural workers all equal members of a kibbutz. The only difference between a Soviet kolkhoz and a kibbutz would be that Shomer would encompass Jewish people in Palestine. This naive young Zionist wrote that he was sure that the leaders in the Kremlin were not aware that his ideology corresponded with that of the Soviets.
Little did he suspect the viciousness of the authorities. That letter, I am certain, never reached Stalin. The post office, probably, handed it to the N.K.V.D. (to-day K.G.B.) and the writer of the letter was arrested. He implicated Abrasha and another member of the group. All three were swiftly put on trial, found guilty and deported to Siberia. Abrasha was never heard of again, he perished somewhere in the frozen Far East.
Needless to say, after the arrests, they never met again as a Zionist group. Some remained friends, some were classmates in high school. Selma finished tenth grade in June 1941, a few days before the German attack on the Soviet Union. The airport of our town was bombed on the dawn of the first day, as we were living at the border and within days, the area was occupied by the Germans.
The Romanians and the Germans herded us into the Ghetto (October, November, 1941) and the majority of the Jewish population was deported to the Ukraine, yet not all. Leiser and his parents came back to town on the basis of a permit signed by the governor of the province Bucovina; Selma and her parents received a permit issued by the mayor of our town, Trajan Popovici. Half a year later, in June 1942, the Jews who resided on the strength of a Popovici permit were deported to Transnistria, the name, coined by the Romanians, for the territory East of the river Nistru - in Russian Dniesrt, the western part of the Ukraine, today called Moldavia. The territory between the rivers Nistru and Bug were newly named Transnistria and became the dumping ground for the Jews from our province. They were deposited there and abandoned to die there of starvation and sickness - no shelter, no food, no medical facilities.
In June 1942, the Romanians handed over the new deportees to the Germans at the Stone Quarry, called in Romanian Cariera de Piatra, near the river Bug; some were sent to the village Mihailovka. Of the thousands from our town, deported that summer, just a few individuals survived. Before the Germans retreated in defeat, in March and April of 1944, they shot the ones, who were still alive and, in some instances, set dogs upon stragglers in the forests.
Before the deportation, Selma handed to her
girl friend Else a notebook, in which she had neatly copied her poems and
asked her to give them to Leiser Fichman, who was, at the time, in a labor
camp in Romania. The title page bears the name of the collection:
Blutenlese (Anthology). The Romanian motto stems from "Lorelei," a novel
by the Romanian writer Ionel Teodoreanu and reads as follows: "I sing
hoarsely below the windows of your house as the Italian children sing, in
the streets of our towns, in the misery of their beauty, with
Mediterranean eyes." On the next page was the dedication of the poems:
To Leiser Fichman, in
remembrance and thankfulness
Upon his return to Czernovitz, after a few months in labor camp, the notebook with its fifty seven poems were given to him. Selma had fifty two original poems, two translations from Yiddish, two from French and one from Romanian. All were handwritten and were dated between the years 1939 to December 23, 1941. Whether any other poems existed but had not be transcribed into the notebook, will never be known. She was deported half a year after the date of her last poem.
The poetry showed an unusually sensitive person, who experienced nature in its most delicate changes and moods. She experienced great joy in living and laughing and loving. The love she felt so deeply so overwhelmingly was expressed with tenderness in Lullaby for You:
Iíll braid a cradle out of my hair
My eyes I will give to you
A Song for Yellow Daffodils
(June 30, 1941) p. 6
The more remarkable about it, this poem was written just about the time when the German troops were about to invade our territory and nobody knew whether we would be alive next day. This was composed a week after the outbreak of the war and yet, the sight of flowers could fill her with such uninhibited delight.
In the poem Chestnuts, she muses about nature and the melancholy passing of summer, the end of the life cycle:
On the smooth, bright path
As I pick one up and put it in my
and that the chestnuts must have
taken this soft song
She hears the song of the wind through the leaves of the tree and the loss of vitality, the loss of color and tightness of the chestnut, as fall approaches.
And the one here in my hand
(September 24, 1939) p. 7
A later autumn scene comes alive with a word painting of all the colors of the leaves, trees, an eagle flying high above, and, down below, a half-frozen patch of grass.
Allís calm. And many withered leaves
Firs are standing fresh and green
The scenes describe perfectly Habsburgshone
in all the seasons. The music of steps on frozen snow flakes, nightfall in
the icy landscape, nightfall and the darklooking fir trees. All these are
depicted in the short poem Colors, written on December 18, 1939, at age
Steps crackle in the snowís music
However, at times, sadness and sorrow
overtake this unusually sensitive poet, who expresses her despair, her
fright and inability to cope with the utter hopelessness of life at the
time. I am the Rain was written on August 8, 1941. I still remember that
summer, when we, the Jewish population, were forced to stay in our houses,
except for two hours a day, forced to wear a yellow star on our clothing
and we did not know whether we would live another day. At night, one heard
shooting and could not tell whether the Germans or the Romanians were
killing people in our street or a block away. That was the summer when
they burnt the Temple, when the flames lit the night with a fire that was
to extinguish the Jewish life in our town, our own lives. This was the
atmosphere in which the poem, which follows, was written.
I am the Rain
My sheer dress is made of cobwebs,
After these two stanzas, she brings forth her feelings of a young girl, who weeps lonely in the night. Besides the sorrows of everybody around her, the loneliness and longings and her awakening as a girl in love burst out in deeply sad tones.
I hold these ropes tight in my hand,
The last stanza of the poem is a repetition of the first and frames within it the grayness, the sense of poverty and deprivation: "I am walking barefoot from land to land" and the horror of homelessness. She gave expression to a time and place, when all the grown-ups were too petrified, too numbed, to put into words what the world around was inflicting on them. She never mentioned the words: guns, army, war, Nazis, ghetto, deportation - all the horrors which afflicted her and the world around her were never actually named, yet they loomed threateningly in her metaphors.
Selmaís unusual talent, blossoming at so young an age, had no chance to fully ripen, to mature. Her poems were the creations of a girl from the age of fifteen to seventeen. When one considers that she was educated in Romanian public schools and, in tenth grade, in a Yiddish school (1940-41), where Ukrainian and Russian were taught, too - yet all her poems were written in perfect, rich, literary German, the language spoken at home and among her friends. One can not draw any conclusion whether her focus in poetic creation would have taken a different turn, away from the trend in which she had started. Like Anne Frank, who expressed herself in prose, Selma poured out her feelings in poetry, at that same time, under similar conditions, in a different part of Europe.
Her awakening feelings of love, of loss and a mood of resignation and quasi acceptance show in Lullaby for Myself
I sing and I sing and I sing me a
I play and I play and I play me a
From the start, it seems that her deep feelings of love for Leiser were not reciprocated and caused deep pain. Whether this experience made her express her feelings in poetry may be just conjecture on my part, yet I am inclined to think so. Among her first poems, entitled Song, dated December 25, 1939, at age fifteen, she started out with the statement:
To-day you hurt me so
Her eroticism in the love poems reveals not a youngster but the feelings of a woman: they are fullblown, deeply felt and painful. In the poem Red Clouds, which was not dated in the collection, the depth of her passion as well as the poetic images just overflow, like a torrent of emotions and sights, too full, too rich to be contained in words. The full gamut of love, fear of loss of the beloved, implorations and fervor gush forth overwhelmingly. Here are some of the lines:
I am afraid. I am oppressed by the
darkness of every sultry night.
Itís true, youíll come? I wonít weep any
longer. Oh, no, I wonít
In the Song of Longing, she attempts to
bring forth, to compose a song, yet no melody arises, no tone comes out
and she sadly tells herself
You will always long for that unplayed
(January 9, 1941)
The last two short poems, both dated December 23, 1941, show Selma so devastated by the unresponsiveness of Leiser, whom she so deeply loved, that she invokes no metaphor from nature, no element that could soothe or temper her heartbreak, alleviate her pain. They are terse and devastating. One has no titles, just X X X.
Donít you sense when I cry for you
and dated the same day, another four lines entitled Tragedy
This is the hardest: to give oneself
While all the turmoil of love and desire was filling her own world, the large world around her was in just as much turmoil. The political events were tearing the world apart and were tearing the remaining Jewish population into shreds. Thus, in June 1942, Selma and her parents and thousands more were cruelly chased to their doom, the last bloodletting from among the small number that had remained in Czernovitz. In that last transport were also her relatives, Paul Celanís parents. Nobody knew exactly where they were taken or what their fate would be. Needless to say, the expectations were dismal, yet the reality turned out worse than ever imaginable.
Since the deportees had no way of communicating with anybody anywhere, the known data are sparse. After a short stop at the Stone Quarry, called in Romanian Cariera de Piatrua, the Eisingers were sent to Michailovka, a village near the river Bug. Selma managed to find a person, who would take along a letter to her friend Renee (Renee was deported from Czernovitz in October, 1941), who was in another locality in Transnistria, a village called Obadovka. This letter reached Renee and has been preserved, the last anybody heard of her, her last piece of writing, last communication.
Rena, Tatanca, it is so hot here that I am too lazy to close my eyes, that I am not able to hold the pencil, and I find it hard to toss a thought through my head. Nevertheless, I want to write to you. Actually, I donít even know whether I will have a chance to send you this scrap of paper - never mind. Now I have at least the impression that you are sitting next to me, that I can talk to you after almost a year.* What do I say: almost a year. Actually, the last year in Czernovitz was as if we were far from each other. Actually, it is over two years since the time when we spent long afternoons together, without talking; afternoons when you were playing (the piano) and I was listening and both of us knew how the other felt (Selma may have alluded to the time after Abrashaís arrest and deportation to Siberia.)
Perhaps it is no good bringing back these memories. But never mind. I donít know how you feel, but I, sometimes, long for the unspeakably sweet pain of such memories. There are moments when I try to conjure up a specially hot, live picture and donít succeed. At most, once a fleeting touch of a face or a word, but without really grasping or absorbing it. I sometimes think: Berta. Or - Leisiu. Or - a kiss. I donít grasp the meaning of these notions. Letís leave it. I have a poem here, the author of which I donít know. It is beautiful.
The title of the poem is: Heimweh (Homesick). The pervasive feeling expressed is of utter desolation, of wrenching pain felt by a person, who longs for every stone, bench, house - everything that was home. She felt that this poem put into words her own extreme longing for what used to be home. Then the letter continues:
Nettchen, how long will this go on? How do you bear it? I have been here less than three months and I imagine that I will surely go out of my mind. Especially, in these unspeakably bright and white nights that overflow with longing. Sing sometimes, late at night, when you are alone: Poljushka. (Poljushka is a romantic Russian song of longing.) Perhaps you will understand my frame of mind.
Do you remember the fifth chapter of "Home and the World?" ("Home and the World" by Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore (1919).) Iíll copy a few sentences: Why canít I sing? The faraway river glitters in the light; the leaves glisten; the morning light spills over the earth like the love of the blue heavens and in this autumn symphony I alone remain silent. The sunshine of the world hits my heart with its rays, but it does not hurl them back: August is here. The sky sobs wildly. And streams of tears crash on the earth and, oh, my house is empty." (In his diary, Mr. Daghani mentioned that Selma had promised to lend him this book, but it had been used as cigarette paper.)
I feel as if all my coming days are freezing together into one solid mass and will lie forever on my breast. Rena, Rena, if only you were with me. I donít know, maybe, if we were together, it would be too much. Maybe not. Anyway, we could still endure it for a month, if we were together. Of course, one bears it anyway. One endures, although one thinks again and again: Now, now it is too much. I canít bear it any more, now I am breaking down. Just now, Tunia brought me a note from Rochzie. I am using this chance to send you this incomplete outpouring.
Kisses, Chazak Selma
This letter reached Renee (Selma addressed her by her Hebrew name Rena) and has been preserved intact. Chazak was the greeting of the members of Shomer Hatzair and means: be strong.
The letter, written in August 1942, speaks for itself, her own words say it all - the brutality of tearing people out of their homes, just to let them perish of hunger, of sickness, of exhaustion, of despair. Yet, in the letter there was still a slight expression of hope.
One of the few survivors of this camp, Arnold Daghani, kept a diary, which he published on his return to Romania. In it he wrote on Wednesday, December 16, 1942: "Toward evening, Selma breathed her last." On December 17, 1942, he wrote: "Professor Doctor Gottlieb died of malnutrition. He and Selma were buried at the same time." As an explanation, he added that: "her real name was Meerbaum; the name Eisinger is that of her stepfather, I learned. She died of typhus, in her teens." On that page, he drew a picture of her body, wrapped in a shroud and mourned by people around. The original of that drawing is kept in Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. It is entitled: "Pieta." Mr. Daghani wrote that her parents died soon after of typhus, too.
When Leiser returned from the labor camp, he received the notebook with the poems. Since he was forced to return to the camp, he was not in a position to take along anything besides his clothes; again he left the poems in the hands of their common friend Else. Yuda and his cousin Leiser spent months in the same location, during compulsory work: digging trenches. Leiser never found out about Selmaís death.
In 1944, when the Russians approached Romania, while the German armies were retreating westward, toward their final defeat, Leiser escaped from camp and reached Bucharest. After contacting the Zionist Organization, he was granted first priority to board a small boat of illegal immigrants of their way to Palestine, from the Romanian port Constantza. The ill-fated boat Mefkure, on which he was travelling, was torpedoed and sunk in the Mediterranean Sea and none of the passengers survived. A few weeks later, when Yuda reached Bucharest, the fate of the boat was already known.
Thus the three young people about whom I wrote initially - Selma, Leiser, Abrasha - were all gone by 1944. A the age of twenty-one, Abrasha was lost in the frozen wastes of Siberia; Selma, at eighteen, perished in the steppes of the Ukraine and Leiser, at twenty, in the waters of the Eastern Mediterranean. All three young Zionists, idealists, never saw the land that they were yearning for, never lived to reach Palestine. Abrashaís father remarked in great sorrow that his son, like Moses tried to lead his people to the Promised Land, however, he did not live to see it.
There is no grave, no marker for any of them, yet they live in the memory of those who loved them. Selma left her poems, the spark of her vital personality, the fullness of her lively mind and the memory of Leiser, whom she adored.
In the poem The Storm (March, 1941) Selma
dwelled on the gentleness, the fragility of a rosebud and the expectation
to see it open and bloom and about the precariousness of all life. The
verse is her own epitaph:
If now a frost comes - it dies,
When we write nowadays that six million perished during the Holocaust, the number is awesome, abstract; it is hard for the mind to comprehend that number, yet each one was a world. Can we fathom what we lost, what the world lost?
For years only her small group of friends knew about the existence of the poems. Her two close friends, who kept the manuscripts, and her former mathematics teacher from tenth grade, Hersh Segal, got together and published the Anthology - Blutenlese in Rechovot, Israel, in 1976. This privately financed publication reached a larger public and her name and fame spread, but very slowly. A second edition was published by the Diaspora Research Institute, Tel Aviv University, in 1979.
The translations in this article are all my own, from the original text: Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger (1924-1942) Blutenlese.
Czernowitz is one of the Museum's World Jewish Communities .