Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Yiddish Poets & Writers: Rachel Korn

Montreal Yiddish Poets


Rokhl Korn reading one of her much beloved poems, “Fun Yener Zayt Lid” (On the Other Side of the Poem; 1962).
Via: Youtube

Rokhl Häring Korn [1898–1982], known as Rachel Korn, published eight volumes of poetry and two collections of fiction. It is as a Yiddish poet, however, that she made her reputation, recognized not only in Montreal but elsewhere. Korn was born in a village on the San River, where her grandfather owned land, on a farming estate called Sucha Gora (“Dry Mountain”) near Podliski, eastern Galicia (a region in southeastern Poland and northwestern Ukraine)in what is now part of Ukraine.

During the First World War, the family relocated to Vienna; after the war, they moved to Przemyśl (or Premisle in Yiddish), a city in southeastern Poland, with a sizable Jewish population, writes  the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe: “In 1921, Przemyśl was home to 18,360 Jews, who constituted 38.8 percent of the city’s total population.” Since most lived in rented accommodations, this was considered a shtuet

It was here that Rokhl Häring married Hersh Korn in 1920; when the Germans invaded, he did not survive the Second World War, murdered by the Nazis. Rokhl was fortunate that she was visiting her daughter (Irene)  who was attending university in Lvov, which gave both sufficient time to escape the German advancement, announced by artillery and bombs. It was short of a miracle that they did.

Her earlier poetry had to do with the land and imagery of nature. The Jewish Women's Archive writes:
In 1919 she published her first Yiddish poem in the Lemberger Tageblatt. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s she was a steady contributor to Yiddish literary journals and newspapers. With the publication of her early volumes of poetry, Dorf (Village, 1928) and Royter mon (Red Poppies, 1937), and her first collection of stories, Erd (Land, 1936), she was recognized as an accomplished and original writer. The profusion and directness of her nature imagery, the dramatic confrontations of village life as she pictured it and the intensity of her love poetry were all new to Yiddish literature.
While she was initially ardently pro-left, by 1939, she realized that communism was not good for the Jews, yet Korn, forced by circumstances, had to spend a decade in the Soviet Union, before being able to execute her exit. It was not a direct route, but a common one then for Jews. From 1941 to 1949, after the German invasion of what was USSR-occupied Poland, Korn wandered again to escape danger: to Tashkent to Fergana in Uzbekistan, and then to Moscow; and after the war, and repatriation, to Lodz and then Warsaw in Poland. She came to Montreal, via Stockholm, Sweden, with Irene, her daughter, in 1949.

I couldn’t find out precisely where Korn lived in Montreal when she first arrived, but I remember reading that she first settled in the old Jewish neighbourhood near the mountain, near the Jewish library and near Park Avenue—all places that are familiar and carry memories for me. Between 1958 and 1982, she lived at 21 Maplewood, in Outremont, which is near the mountain and the old Jewish community. Outemont is also home to a sizable number of Yiddish-speaking Hasidic Jews.

Now, it might be that for Korn there was little familiarity, but this was part of a bargain to gain something else: now that there was less of a need to physically wander around the earth, and she was free from decades of constraints, and free from the totalitarianism of Europe. This freedom allowed her and, possibly, compelled her to finally write about her losses, including the loss of a way of life.

Itsik Manger Prize (1974): Presentation of the Itsik Manger Prize for Yiddish Literature to Rokhl Korn, Israel, 1974. Rokhl Korn is seated right of the speaker; Prime Minister Golda Meir also seated at the table, is four seats to the right of the speaker. 
Photo Credit: Jewish Public Library, Archives; retrieved from the Museum of Jewish Montreal

Understandably, the tenor of her poems changed, reflecting what she had to undergo, her ordeals. The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe writes about Korn during these transitional years in Montreal:
Although Korn settled in Montreal, the anguish she had experienced in Europe remained at the forefront of her mind. Poet of sorrow and pain, she published two more collections of poetry (Heym unheymlozikayt, 1948; Bashertkayt: Lider, 1949) and another collection of stories (Nayn dertseylungen, 1957). About her writing, Elie Wiesel has said: “No one else has her ability to paint the landscape of a buried village or [her] eye to portray the rapport between a mother and her daughter, a vagabond and the sky, between a child and his longing” (in Korn, 1982).
We have longings for what we can not have, for what escapes our grasp, for what was once in our grasp. Nu, dos iz di emes. Again, it need be said that it is understandable that many of her poems were about loss, personal (family) and universal (way of life). Not only her husband but her large family in Poland were murdered by the Nazis. I found a fascinating and wonderful site, JewishGen, based in New York City, which has written testimony about the many Jewish communities destroyed by the Holocaust, as part of its comprehensive Yizkor Book Project.

About Korn, a daughter of Przemyśl, someone with the initials A.B. writes:
In 1962, the Y. L. Peretz Publishing House of Tel Aviv published Rachel Korn's anthology of poems, “Fun Yener Zeit Leid” [Poems from That Time], dedicated to the poet’s mother. The following dedication in the book is typical of the creative path and voice of the poet.
“The memory of my mother Chana the daughter or Rivka shall be sanctified.
My mother, who was the greatest audience of my first poems, lived together with me through the fate of the poor and the shamed. She always wished that I would dedicate a book to her, even if this was not meant to be. She lies somewhere in a forest with a German bullet in her heart – in her heart that was full of love for humanity, animals, the forest, and even a minute blade of grass.
My poems are the continuation of her snuffed–out life.”
This is a beautiful dedication. Korn spent the last three decades of her life in Montreal; and after so much wandering, this might have been a welcome relief for Rachel Korn. Yet, like many who were both victimized and traumatized by the catastrophe of eastern Europe, she could not forget. While Montreal might have provided safety and refuge, it was not the home she knew.

Yet, one way that Jews deal with tragedy is to both write and document, to keep alive the memories of the people and reveal their lives, with facts, with figurative language and with feeling and emotion—with the hope that future generations will know, and possibly understand, that these were real people living real lives. The poems and stories live on, and in taking on such endeavors,  Rokhl (“Rachel”) Häring Korn, has done us a service. Zi hat getan dos zeyer gezunt.

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