Article on Rajzel Zychlinsky, Poet, 88. from Gombin, Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, Jan. 29 1999
Yiddish Poet, 88, Crafts Beauty From Shoah Horror
Yiddish poet and Holocaust refugee Rajzel Zychlinsky created hauntingly beautiful poems from the ashes of war.
Now 88 and living in a Walnut Creek nursing home, she still manages to find poetry in even the most confining circumstances. On a recent Thursday afternoon, surrounded by the distressed cries of fellow residents, she focuses her attention on a cardboard cutout of a buffalo pasted to a wall opposite her bed.
"I am enchanted by the buffalo," the Polish-born writer muses. "If I would be able to touch it, to see it, I would write a poem."
One of relatively few living Yiddish poets, the widely published Zychlinsky has been writing since the 1920s. She says she hasn't penned a poem since moving to California from Brooklyn just over a year ago. Still, nothing excites her more than talking about poetry -- other's or her own.
Her eyes, shaded by a red cap, noticeably light up when she picks up "God Hid His Face," the most recent collection of her poems and the first full volume translatedinto English. With gnarled hands, she raises a magnifying glass and slowly reads aloud:
When I Was Eighteen Years Old,
what was I searching for
in the chestnut alley?
that dripped from the evening
Was I in love with the priest
who walked around
with a prayer book in his hands
and made the trees thinner
with his presence?
The moon left me there alone
on a bench --
She then asks a visitor to recite the poem again, listening intently to each phrase and cautioning the reader to pay close attention to intonation. "I am in love with my poems," she says, speaking not out of vanity but out of a genuine appreciation for her craft and what it has meant to her. "Poetry saves my life. For example, if I have troubles, I recite to myself one chapter of Charles Baudelaire's poem `Death of the Poor.' I recite it and I feel better."
Local audiences recently heard three of Zychlinsky's poems recited in A Traveling Jewish Theatre's production "Diamonds in the Dark." In it, performers wove the words of Yiddish poets into a tapestry of Jewish experience. The production featured one of her many poems about memory:
Everything we have seen
ATJT performers considered hundreds of poems before choosing a handful for inclusion in the production. ATJT actress and co-founder Naomi Newman lauds Zychlinsky's seamless depiction of the inner life. "Her images are extraordinary," Newman says. "My hunch is she will end up being a major poet."
Zychlinsky wrote her first poem as a teenager, standing at the window of her family's Polish home gazing at the falling snow. "It inspired me and I started to look for other inspirations," she says.
Her first collection, "Poems," was published in 1936 in Warsaw. Her second volume, "The Rain Sings," came out just weeks before the occupation of Warsaw by Hitler's troops. More books followed.
Zychlinsky chose to write in Yiddish rather than Polish, she says, because her mother spoke to her in Yiddish and because the language provides "melody, music" for poetry.
Zychlinsky, whose poems have been translated into German and French, was born in Gombin, Poland, in 1910. Her father, a tanner, made several trips to America before settling in Chicago, where he died in 1928. Her mother, a religious woman, feared the secular blandishments of this country would corrupt her children's piety. She thus refused to emigrate. The poet's mother and siblings perished in the gas chambers of Chelmno. Zychlinsky, however, escaped to Russia in 1939 with her late husband, psychiatrist and author Dr. Isaac Kanter. They had one son, Marek, a mathematician for Pacific Gas and Electric who lives in Berkeley. The poet writes of her personal losses over and over again -- subtly, as in this verse from the poem "My Sister Chaneh" :
But often the mirror weeps.
Zychlinsky writes of womanhood, motherhood, solitude and nature. But she has been most widely commended for her Holocaust poems. "When one reads her poems, one is convinced that only poets can rescue this most tragic episode in the life of the Jewish people from the jaws of meaninglessness," writes Emanuel Goldsmith, a Queens College literature professor, in an introductory essay to "God Hid His Face."
After the war, the poet lived in Poland and France before arriving in America in 1951. Settling in New York, she continued writing while working at a factory, attending City College and raising her son.
"She's a very self-willed person," Marek Kanter says of his mother. "Once she gets an idea into her head, she doesn't let go."
When she looks at her work as a body, Zychlinsky sees her poems' accessibility as a common thread. "My poems are very aynfakht, uncomplicated," she says. "I don't try to climb walls as some poets do."
To poets, she advises: "Don't make yourself more poetic than you are." Today Zychlinsky suffers from congestive heart problems and has difficulty walking. Age has taken its toll on her body but her artistic spirit remains intact. "I am a very old woman," she says, "but with young poems."
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