The Heavens, the Poet, and the People

Ha'azinu By :  David G. Roskies Sol and Evelyn Henkind Chair in Yiddish Literature and Culture and Professor of Jewish Literature Emeritus Posted On Sep 25, 2015 / 5776 | דבר אחר | A Different Perspective
“You cheated us, eternally. My ancestors, my prophets, too you have deceived . . .
To you they first addressed themselves, Give ear, O Heavens, let me speak—
You have a God in you! Open the doors, you heavens, fling them open wide,
And let the children of my murdered people enter in a stream.
Open the doors up for the great procession of the crucified,
The children of my people, all of them, each one a God—make room.”
“The Song of the Slaughtered Jewish People” by Yitshak Katzenelson

Between May and December 1943, the poet Yitshak Katzenelson was incarcerated with his last surviving son, Zvi, in Vittel, a German transit camp in France. There Yitshak kept a diary-cum-journal in Hebrew and completed The Song of the Slaughtered Jewish People in Yiddish, the longest epic poem to have survived the Holocaust. The pivotal ninth canto, from which this passage is taken, is a bold, even blasphemous, response to Parashat Ha’azinu.

“I did believe in you and sang your praises in each song of mine,” the poet writes, addressing the heavens. “I loved you as one loves a woman, though she left and went.” That was once upon a time, when the Jews dreamed of achieving an artistic and political renaissance on European soil. But now that only a few surviving Jews remained in Europe and those dreams had all been destroyed, the last act in the covenantal drama was to throw the words of Moses and the Prophets back into the face of heaven. The heavens are void and devoid of hope. Instead, it is the martyrs who have achieved transcendence and have won a place in eternity.