Gallows Humour

18 11 2006

The following is a 1942 poem by Saul Tchernikhovsky, entitled “The First Slain”. In translating this I have deliberately sacrificed content in favour of attempting to preserve the form: both the rhyming structure (the Hebrew is ABAB, although I have not been able to duplicate that entirely – favouring instead ABCB) and the almost-bawdy nature of the verse. An example of ‘gallows humour’ at its finest, Tchernikhovsky’s poem is both funny and sad. I reproduce it below in Hebrew for those who may be interested in reading it in the original language. If anyone has been able to find the author’s English translation (an educated Russian Jew, Tchernikhovsky translated his poems into several languages, including English), then I would be most interested in hearing how he chose to translate it.

הוא בא! הוא בא! הוא כאן! הוא כאן
המות השחור
אומר מכריז פעמון־נגן
בצריח הצחור

הוא בא! הוא בא! הוא כאן! הוא כאן
אים הוא ונורא
בצריף של עץ ובתוך משכן
רבי דת ושררה

הוא בא! קוצר את קצירו
בעיר בין החומות
בכפר ובשדה – נירו
אך לא בגטאות

במרחב כרים ועינות טרשים
עומד עולם בעינו
המות שם במעפשים
בגטאות – אינו

מכריז אומר הפעמון
מאה במעת־לעת
חוזר רוטן קול החמון
בגטו – שם אין מת

מה יהגו הבל הנזירים
זועף אספסוף רב
בגטו כל פנים קודרים
מקול עלה נדף

עד שהיתה גם הרוחה
שמחה גם במעונם
הנה בגטו מת! חג-חה
תודה לאל עולם

לא כדרכה, לא מחישה
עיניה מאירות
חברה צועדת קדישא
צאו, אזרחים, לראות

לא לשם מכור, לא לשם זכור
נא באו בגדודים
מכי המות השחור
מתים – שני יהודים

גם בנו, גם בחשודים
נגף, נודה לאל
גם ביהודים, גם ביהודים
הוא את קצירו החל

חבל, הצריח הצחור
לא לנו, ואין פעמון
ויכריז המות השחור
כבר בא פרנס־הגמון
שאול טשרניחובסקי, 1942

“It’s come! It’s come! It’s here! It’s here!
The Black Death is about!”,
The tolling bell within the belfry, white,
Appears to shout.

It’s come! It’s come! It’s here! It’s here!
So terrible and dread!
The homes of paupers lie in ruins,
The wealthy men are dead.

It’s come! He reaps his harvest
In the city. Everyone:
In villages and fields they drop;
But in the ghetto, none.

In pastures broad, by rocky streams,
The world begins to rot
For Death stands there, but in the filthy
Ghetto, it is not

The bell declares, “One hundred gone
Between this time and this!”
But mobs declare beneath their breath
That not one Jew is missed

What do the monks all whisper, why
Do all the Christians grieve?
The Jews within the ghetto jump
At every falling leaf

Until – hooray! – what a surprise!
What joy! What splendid news!
Oh, praise the God in heaven,
For the Black Death claimed two Jews!

With heads held high and eyes alight
The funeral is held
The ghetto citizens delight,
“Come look, O Christian world!

“‘Tis not for buying nor for selling
That we walk about
Two Jews are dead! Two ghetto Jews!”
The Jews, rejoicing, shout

“We too are now within His gaze
Oh, praise God, everyone!
The Jews as well, the Jews as well!
The reaping has begun!”

– “But what a shame that we don’t have
A belfry white, nor bell,
Declaring to the city
That the Jews are dead as well…”
Saul Tchernikohovsky, 1942.

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5 responses

19 11 2006
Jim

Thanks very much for this. It’s quite a piece.

19 11 2006
Jen

Haha nice. The black humour definitely does it for me.

19 11 2006
Daniel

My reading is not that it is so much black humour as a bitter sarcasm – a hatred (self-hatred?) of the idealised “ghetto Jew” who desires so much to be like everyone else and not be hated that he slits his own throat – the same ideal that the Zionist project claimed to attempt to overthrow.

Well done on the translation, though – I’d like to read more Tchernichovsky.

19 11 2006
Conrad

Yes, good job on the translation, although perhaps “Between that time and this”, and perhaps line 4 wants another iamb before ‘to shout’? Ie. ‘appears to x and shout’… I’m glad to see some modern Jewish poetry translated; most of the stuff I’ve seen is horribly maudlin stuff in the New Yorker about remembering hanukkah and crap like that.

28 11 2006
Sebelsky

I thought the point of the poem was that the Jews are now happy that they’re dying of the Plague so that the Christians can’t blame it on them and kill them.

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