A SMALL ERROR IN THE MACHINE
When the Nazis came they were quite polite.
The father was a known figure, at least to them,
the Italian mother was no problem, they only wished
to verify a few minor details. That’s all, according to protocol.
They entered the flat, didn’t even presume to sit down.
However, that very night a friend – incredibly, a police officer –
called and advised to leave immediately, preferably within the hour,
for the injunction was already out—
because of the wealth, as usual. Jews were always
well-to-do and a Judas would always be found,
even among Jews. And so an hour passed,
two hours, two difficult hours for a man
having a hard time deciding. But with first light
he packed his wife and son,
saying soothing words, such as: It’s only temporary,
a small error in the machine. You’ll see,
before the year is out we’ll be back.
Said it once, twice, and only on the third burst into tears,
weeping: It can’t be happening to me, not to me…
Hello Berlin, said the wooden leg,
Hello Nazis, Hello anti-Nazis,
Hello sons of Nazis, granddaughters of anti-Nazis,
I’ve heard all your stories,
what are they to me.
Hello Berlin, said the wooden leg,
I lost my sister on the train,
or in the camp, the location no longer matters,
I’m no longer the loving leg,
I am, in fact, just the step-leg.
I came to say goodbye, not to sing your praise.
I’ll tread all over town, give a bleeding speech
in a central, empty square. I’ll kick
with my shoe, not my sister’s, all that wasn’t mine and is no longer hers,
in a place that may be repaired but is irredeemable.
Hello Berlin, here we meet again. Because of you, not me,
I lost a sister, flesh and blood, made for humans.
Because of you, not me, I’m only a leg that hurts,
like back then in the train or camp,
the location no longer matters.
Goodbye to all that, every parting is hard,
even for a genuine wooden leg,
even from a town like my sister’s.
On her behalf or mine I’m still around,
spying on you all the time,
damning your worldly ways.
May your dust, Berlin, be blessed.
May your memory be your grave.
This is my sister speaking from my throat.
Your dirt is her dirt,
your dust her dust,
and your past passed her over.
I was born to be gentle.
Fact: I have gentle hair.
You want to check? Go right ahead,
my shampooed head is laid before you.
Forgive the bald spots. These are just
the teeth of time.
I was born to be gentle. It so happens
that my parents decided they must emigrate
to a non-gentle country. They weren’t frivolous,
they consulted whomever they could. Even Hitler
supported their decision, said it was definitely wise.
And so a man born to be gentle arrived
in a non-gentle country. You tell me
what choice did I have. I still comb my hair
with a gentle comb, brush my teeth, grow bald,
take my clothes to the cleaners,
never insult the neighbors unless
it’s absolutely necessary.
It’s all a mistake, they said, some terrible mistake. As for me,
I content myself with crying out in my sleep.
Will it help, do you think?
Don’t make me laugh, I’m a serious man.
And were I not cursed by the times,
I’d give you a sharp answer,
perhaps not so gentle.
Reprinted from Poets on the Edge: An Anthology of Contemporary Hebrew Poetry, by permission of SUNY Press.
Born in Berlin in 1930, Natan Zach arrived in Haifa as a child. From 1968 to 1979 he lived in England and wrote his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Essex. After returning to Israel, he lectured at Tel Aviv University and was then appointed professor at Haifa University. He led the group of poets who started publishing their work after the establishment of the state in 1948 and revolutionized Hebrew poetry in the 50’s and 60’s. A poet, editor, critic, and translator, Zach published fifteen books of poetry, a book of short stories, two collections of essays, two memoirs and four books for children. His work has been translated into twenty-three languages, and collections of his poems have been published in the U.S., Europe, and China. He has received many awards for his work, including the Bialik Award, and the Israel Award. He has also received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Geneva for his “contribution to the renewal of [Hebrew] poetry in the second half of the 20th century.”
Novelist and translator, Tsipi Keller is the author of ten books. Futureman, her volume of selected poems by the late David Avidan is forthcoming from Phoneme Media in 2017.