Man of many parts
Was he born in Siberia or Ukraine? Was his grandfather a Swedish count or a teacher? Was his mother Jewish, or a governess, or did she run away with a cavalryman? A new biography of the poet Alexander Penn examines the many versions of his mysterious life story.
Thirty-three years have passed since the death of Alexander Penn, and his origins and childhood are still shrouded in mystery. "Penn was vague about his life in his childhood and youth, and created a biographical legend that accompanied him from the day he came on aliyah until his death," writes Prof. Hagit Halperin in a new biography of him, the second she has written about the poet.
According to Penn's account of his life, his grandfather Yitzhak was a scion of Chabad rabbis, a poet who knew Russian and Hebrew. His father, Yosef, who also knew Hebrew perfectly, received rabbinical ordination, but abandoned religion. Yosef married Sarah, Penn's mother, after the death of his first wife, the mother of his four children. Sarah, claimed Penn, was the only daughter of a Swedish count named Jensen, who was an oceanographer, a bear hunter and a fisherman. Jensen lived in Siberia, in Nizhnekolymsk, on the banks of the East Siberian Sea. According to Penn's version, he was in charge of the district and of a station for hunting seals and fish, in which they produced grease and animal skins.
Sarah was a Subotnik (a Sabbath-observant cult of Russian Christians) who studied medicine in Vienna, where she met Yosef, who became her husband. When she was in her seventh month of pregnancy she visited her father in the far north and on February 14, 1906 she gave birth to her son Alexander there. After the birth, her father told her that the baby, born in his house, was to stay with him. When the child was two years old, his mother died of pneumonia.
Jensen, who lived alone, used to take the child hunting with him, and when he was forced to be away, left him with a guardian - a Saint Bernard dog. One day, when the grandfather returned from the chase, he found a dead bear, and the dog prostrate over the baby's face, protecting him.
Jensen taught his grandson to hunt and fish, and Alexander grew up with Arctic skis on his feet, speaking the Chukchi language. When he was about 10 years old a polar bear injured his grandfather. Before he died, Jensen managed to sew new cloth shoes for the boy and write the name and address of his Jewish father on a piece of paper.
Penn said that during the civil war in Russia he wandered 6,000 kilometers over its snowy expanses, keeping warm in the bosom of Saint Bernard dogs. The canines even stole vodka and food for him. After villagers killed the dogs, the youth protected himself with a knife he had stolen. Later, he joined a gang of street urchins, many of whom wandered around Russia during the years of the revolution, and from them he learned how to survive with his fists and his knife, to steal food and to beg. In order to keep his feet warm he filled the cloth shoes with pieces of newspaper, and according to his daughter Sinilga he continued to stuff newspapers into his shoes until his final days, and also used to save bread crusts in case of hunger.
Penn related that in his youth, he had a natural tendency to compose rhymes, poems and songs, one of which became a popular tune. At the age of 14, after four hard years on the roads, he found his father Yosef in Piatigorsk in the northern Caucasus. There was a lively household, with adult brothers and sisters.
Even after reuniting with his family, Alexander continued to wander the streets with the street gangs and his father, who understood him, said nothing. One day he gave his son a book of poems by Mikhail Lermontov, the Russian poet who was killed in a duel at the age of 27 and managed to publish only one book of poetry. (The same thing happened in Israel to Alexander Penn, who saw only one volume of his poems in his lifetime). Lermontov's poems changed his life completely, said Penn. Suddenly mature, he stopped wandering the streets and began to write.
When he was on his deathbed in the hospital, in April 1972, the 66-year-old Penn muttered fragments of sentences relating to the marvelous legend of his origin and childhood on the northern ice steppes, in the company of his grandfather the hunter. In her book "Tzeva Hahaim" (The Color of Life) Halperin cites several of Penn's last sentences, as recorded by his daughter Zerubavela in the hospital: "Grandpa, Grandpa! I'm hot - I'll burn!...Here are the icebergs! Move away from here, you'll be crushed! Grandpa! The polar bears ..."
Over 30 years previously, Penn had Jensen say similar words, as one of the characters in his novel "Shalekhet Kokhavim" (The Autumn of Stars - 1935), who hallucinates during his illness: "And the snow is very deep ... very white ... here are the icebergs! Move away from here, you'll be crushed! Grandpa! The polar bears ..."
"Life mingled with art, and the formative experience of his life cropped up in his last moments," says Halperin.
Origins of a name
Penn was a contemporary of Israeli poets Avraham Shlonsky and Natan Alterman. He left romantic love poems, conformist and non-conformist patriotic poems, political poems and well-known songs. But most of his fame seemed to derive from his Bohemian lifestyle. He contracted diabetes before the age of 30, but did not stop smoking and drinking large quantities of alcohol, and saw himself as someone who can overcome the weaknesses of the body in defiance of medical science. His cruel attitude toward women did not prevent many of them from falling in love with the talented and handsome poet. His romance with communism, on the other hand, led to his ostracism. To the end, he was upset that Alterman, who wrote "The Seventh Column," a weekly column of political verse in the now-defunct Labor Party newspaper Davar, was identified as the father of the genre in Hebrew poetry, while he, Penn, had had a similar column in Davar even before Alterman.
In 1989, Prof. Halperin published a first biography of Penn, "Shalekhet Kokhavim" (Shedding of the Stars: Alexander Penn. His Life and Work Until 1940, Hebrew). In the new biography she presents updated facts about his life. He was born Avraham Pepliker-Stern in 1905 - that is what is written on his card in the Political Red Cross archive, says Halperin. His father, Yosef Stern, ran a heder (a Hebrew school for young children) for a while, and afterward was a Hebrew teacher and wrote poems as well. He changed his family name to Pepliker in order to avoid military service. Penn shorted the name and took the "peh" from Pepliker and the final "nun" from Stern.
Halperin mentions the fact that Penn gave the name Stern to two of the characters in his work: the hero of the script for the 1927 film "Hehalutz" (The Pioneer) and the hero of his autobiographical novel, "Shalekhet Kokhavim." Another figure in this unfinished novel is called Vladimir Jensen, after his bear-hunting grandfather, and Halperin points out that his name is composed of the names of the two poets that Penn admired: Vladimir (Mayakovsky) and (Sergei) Yesenin.
"It's not a blood relationship, but a clandestine declaration that he considers Yesenin his 'father,' or to be more precise, his spiritual grandfather," wrote Halperin. "The hero Jensen in 'Shalekhet Kokhavim' hallucinates during his illness and fights a polar bear. Here the three figures are combined: Penn, who is described as Jensen's grandson; the legendary grandfather who was killed while hunting, and Yesenin, the Russian poet. And since Jensen is a typical Swedish name, it was convenient for Penn to describe his grandfather as a 'Swedish aristocrat,' and that may be how the fantastic legend was created."
Another version of the origin of the name Penn comes from one of the members of the Hehalutz movement, who knew Penn in Russia. She says that the name was given to Alexander by his neighbor, the poet Yesenin, who was always drunk and when he forgot the name Pepliker called him "Penn." Other friends recalled that Penn chose the name when he removed the middle letters from the name of the poet Pushkin.
Halperin, who found Penn's card in the archive of the Political Red Cross (an organization that assists political prisoners) discovered that he was born in southern Ukraine, in the town of Akimovka. His parents were poor and lived with their children in the yard of their grandfather David - his maternal grandfather. When the family moved to the district capital of Melitopol, the boy Alexander was registered in the travel certificate as having been born in Kalisch, Poland. But in a 1959 passport request form Penn wrote that he was born in Nizhnekolymsk in Siberia.
Halperin heard another version of his origins from a maternal cousin of Penn. He said that Penn's mother was Sonia Zefferman, a Jewish woman from the city of Melitopol. Her father was a teacher and her grandfather was named Avraham, and she may have named her son Avraham - Alexander - after him. But Rika, Penn's sister, told his first wife that Penn's mother was a Subotnik, who worked as a governess in the home of his father Yosef and took care of his children after his wife fell ill. They married after his wife died, and they had two children: Alexander and Lena. The mother traveled to give birth to her son in her father's home, and young Penn did not grow up in the house with his father's other children. After his mother died of tuberculosis, Penn was forced to search for his father, and arrived at his home after a difficult journey on foot. Rika says she didn't want to cause unhappiness to her half-brother, and spared him these details about his origins. Another version in the book comes from a writer named Avramsky, who claimed that Penn came from a good home and that his Jewish mother ran a soup kitchen for Jewish refugees who came from Siberia.
"I cited the four versions of his origins in the book," says Halperin. "There were versions that I heard after the first biography I wrote about Penn had been published. His daughter, Sinilga Eisenschreiber Penn, was convinced that her father's stories were true, and she believes the legendary story. Prof. Dov Sadan told me that Agnon told him that he had heard the story of Penn's mother from Penn himself, and used it in his book 'Shira' for the character of Shira's father, who was caught for revolutionary activity, fled to Galicia and became a Hebrew teacher, where he fell in love with one of his students and married her. When the couple returned to Russia, the young woman missed her parents and traveled to visit them, and while she was sitting in the city park, a cavalryman fell in love with her and she went with him and died a short time later."
Whether Penn's mother was Jewish, or the daughter of a Swedish aristocrat, or his father's second wife, or a governess who took care of his children, or a woman who ran away with a non-Jewish cavalryman - his poems express his longing for a mother who died in his childhood. Orphanhood became a formative event in his life, says Halperin. The past was cursed and was not to be mentioned. He did not mourn the past, but he saw it as the main reason for all the vicissitudes in his life, the drinking, his inability to stay on the straight and narrow path. "Everything about me is good, except for my character. It curses the landscape," wrote Penn in 1936 to poet Yaakov Cohen.
A prisoner of Zion
In 1975 Sinilga Eisenschreiber Penn transferred her father's literary archive to the Katz Institute (today the Kipp Institute), headed at the time by Prof. Uzi Shavit. Halperin was asked to work on the archive and she did so in Penn's house, at 211 Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv, sitting at his table in awe and sorting the manuscripts. Penn's widow walked through the rooms and occasionally served tea. The house, said Halperin, was furnished with monastic simplicity and the bookshelf overflowed with books in Hebrew and Russian. There was a narrow bed in the room with an armchair next to it, and Penn's paintings hung on the walls.
The drawers were full of manuscripts. The poems were written in fountain pen in a clear and attractive handwriting and were accompanied by his drawings, and everything was in perfect order. Halperin became so deeply involved in his legacy that she decided to devote her doctoral thesis to his work. She was interested in researching how it happened that Penn became a forgotten poet, a large part of whose poetry is unfamiliar to the public, and in discovering how the new face of the poet would look when his work was revealed in full.
Halperin, 62, runs the writers' archives in the Laura Schwarz-Kipp Center for Hebrew Literature and Culture at Tel Aviv University, and lectures at the Seminar Hakibbutzim Teachers College. Two years ago "Alexander Penn, the Poems" was published, two volumes she edited together with Prof. Uzi Shavit. She had difficulty deciphering the secrets of his biography. In 1979 she interviewed his one-time lover and the mother of his daughter, actress Hannah Rovina, who told her what she knew about his childhood.
Later she interviewed dozens of people, including his daughters, his wives and his partners. Because of the large amount of material she decided to limit her research, and the ensuing biography, to the first part of his life.
The present biography, "Tzeva Hahaim" (The Color of Life, published by Hakibbutz Hameuhad and the Kipp Center at TAU), Halperin tries to answer many question raised by Penn's life story: Was he a Zionist? Did he know Hebrew before immigrating to Palestine? Was he a romantic or a misogynist? How did he maneuver between his communism and his warm attitude toward the fighters in the 1948 War of Independence? Did he engage in soul-searching and eventually change his political opinions? What did the Communist Party do to the writer who was its most prominent symbol?
In 1920 Penn traveled to Moscow. According to him, at the train station he bumped into a man who turned out to be the poet Ivan Rukavishnikov. He invited the boy to be a guest at his home and helped him to get organized. Penn registered for courses in cinema, among other things, but didn't last in any study framework. Meanwhile his father and sisters arrived too, and stayed in a small apartment in the city.
These were the first years of the Soviet Union, and Penn was infected by the passion and the ideological excitement aroused by the Communist revolution. He saw and heard Lenin speak, and after Lenin's death he even walked past his coffin; the impression left on Penn by Lenin's personality was indelible. "The symbols of the revolution were and remain objects of admiration until the end of his life," writes Halperin. "All his life he continued to see the Soviet Union through the eyes of the revolution, he preserved and 'froze' this picture without considering the negative processes undergone by the Soviet Union."
These were years that were no less tumultuous in Russian literature, and the young Penn, who belonged to Yesenin's group of Imagists and attended quite a number of evening poetry readings, became personally acquainted with several of the greatest Russian writers. In 1923 he participated in a poetry-reading competition in Moscow. Penn read the poem "The Abandoned Son." Mayakovsky, one of the leaders of the Futurist group, liked the poem, and invited Penn to join the group. He never forgot the few meetings with Mayakovsky; in 1950 a selection of Mayakovsky's poems was published in Israel, translated by Penn.
In Moscow Penn began to train as a boxer in the underground Maccabee sports club, and also edited its monthly; in 1920 the club had been closed down by the Yevsektsia, the Jewish section of the Communist Party. Persecution by the Yevsektsia strengthened Penn's Jewish identity. He was a Zionist, loved Hebrew and learned entire sections of the Bible, as well as poetry by Bialik and Schneur, by heart. In 1926 he was arrested for Zionist activity and exiled to Central Asia.
With the help of the writer Maxim Gorky's first wife, Ekaterina Peshkova, who was active in the Political Red Cross, he managed to leave the Soviet Union in 1927. When he arrived in Palestine Penn declared that he was a Zionist, but after a while he denied it, and preferred to present himself as a non-Jew. "I arrived without the hunchback of the shtetl. I'm healthier than you in my rootedness in the country and my love for it," he once said in an interview. Years later he claimed that he had never been a Zionist, and that he wound up in Palestine only by chance. He said he didn't know anything about Palestine, "but if I'm being accused of Zionism, and they want to force something on me like that, there's nothing to be done. Palestine? Let it be Palestine."
Halperin's biography tells of his first years in Palestine and his adventures in local cinema, which was in its infancy. He worked with Nathan Axelrod and with Yerushalayim Segal, who founded a studio and made films. Penn wrote and acted and even directed, but not a single project in which he was involved made it to the screen. For a while he tried his hand at agricultural work in Kibbutz Ruhama, but it quickly became clear that he was not suited to physical work and he was placed mainly on guard duty. On the other hand, he was very good at breaking hearts.
Bella Don, whose father was murdered in Ukraine during the revolution, came to Palestine with her mother. She was the girlfriend of a good friend of Penn's from the days of Maccabee Moscow, and when the friend traveled to Berlin for medical treatment, Penn took advantage of the opportunity and wooed Bella energetically. When she didn't respond to his advances, he threatened suicide. He injured himself on guard duty, and told his friends that Arabs had shot at him. An investigation was conducted, and in the end they kicked him out of the kibbutz. All his tricks helped and in 1928 Bella, who was 18, married Penn. "I am not the man, not I/ whose imminent return you are anticipating," he wrote that year.
The first year of their marriage was magical. At the end of it their daughter Zerubavela was born and the couple moved from Tel Aviv to Rehovot. Penn barely managed to support his small family by giving boxing lessons; he began to drink and quite often beat his wife. During that same period he met Shlonsky, the first one to support him in his literary career in Palestine. A short time later he met Alterman. He was also very close to Bialik, whose poetry he read often.
A short time after Zerubavela's birth Bella became pregnant again and wanted to have an abortion, but Penn convinced her that he would find a good job and earn a good salary. They returned to Tel Aviv and rented a room, and in 1931 Adam was born. Penn joined the "Trask Group," which consisted of construction workers and Bohemians in Little Tel Aviv. They sat in cafes, drank a great deal and had a good time. Among other things they organized Purim balls, and Penn began to write songs for the Matate theater.
Tall and impressive, Penn was a much admired figure in Tel Aviv. He wore leather boots and riding breeches and a black embroidered Russian shirt with a leather coat over it. When he was drunk he would recite poems by Yesenin and Mayakovsky in Russian. Legends spread about the fact that women could not resist his charms. He had lovers and women he loved, including older women.
Bella, who had a little girl and a baby, could not work much, whereas Penn, who translated plays for the theater and wrote songs, did not bring home money and preferred to spend time at Sheikh Abrek (near Tivon in the Lower Galilee) with the legendary guard Alexander Zaid. Penn admired Zaid, whose mother was a Russian Subotnik, and Halperin claims that the myth of being a non-Jew began with Penn after the meeting with Zaid. There Penn wrote several songs. He wrote his famous song "Adama admati" (Land, My Land) for the third anniversary of the murder of his friend Zaid, who was shot by an Arab assailant in 1938.
His affair with Hannah Rovina, who was 18 years his senior, also began at Sheikh Abrek. He was still married to Bella at the time, and in her book Halperin describes the tragic background to their divorce: Bella begged him not to travel with the Habima Theater on a performance tour to the Jordan Valley, but he went. There was no food in the house and she went out with the baby in the carriage to look for food. She picked up a radish that she found in the sand and fed the baby, who was a year and a half old at the time. The toddler contracted an intestinal infection. The doctor refused to treat him because his mother had no money to pay, and the baby died on the way to the hospital. She buried the child without informing Penn, and returned with their daughter to her mother's house.
Much has been said about Penn's affair with Rovina, including in Rovina's biography "Hamalka nasa ba'otobus" (The Queen Traveled By Bus), written by Carmit Guy. Their great love ended less than a year after the birth of their daughter Ilana in 1934, but they kept in close contact throughout the years, until Penn's death in 1972.
Penn met Rachel Luftglass at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, where she was working as a nurse; she took care of Rovina after the difficult birth, which almost cost her her life. They became close, and in October 1936 a daughter was born to them, whom Penn called Sinilga ("daughter of the snow"). They married only afterward. Penn was already suffering from diabetes, but he continued to drink and chase women. In spite of that, the marriage lasted for 36 years, until his death, because Rachel accepted everything lovingly and devoted her life only to her husband, quite often at the expense of their daughter.
Censorship and a boycott
During Penn's first five years in Palestine, until 1932, he wrote about 30 delicate and melancholy poems, writes Halperin. That year he prepared a collection of his poems, "B'li gag" (Without a Roof) for publication, but no funding was found for it and the book was not published. Penn traveled the country as a troubadour and read his poems in settlements and kibbutzim.
A fascinating chapter in the book deals with Penn's transition from lyrical to political poetry. After the suicide of the two poets he admired, Yesenin in 1925 and Mayakovsky in 1930, Penn was looking for a reason to live and a meaning to his life, and saw himself as the Mayakovsky of Hebrew literature. After he was censored in Davar he started to publish in Bamifneh, the organ of the Party of the Workers of Zion and the Marxist Circles of the Land of Israel Party, a small Zionist Marxist organization, and in April 1935 he joined the party. "He paid a high price," writes Halperin. "It obligated him to give up large parts of his personality and his poetry." This step, and his choice of writing "poetry," also led to his isolation and to his severance from his fellow poets and from most of the readers in the country.
A clash between him and the party leadership developed prior to the publication of his first book of poetry in Hebrew, "Le'orekh Haderekh" (Along the Road) in 1956. The heads of Maki, the Israel Communist Party, were opposed to the inclusion of poems of a Zionist-nationalist nature, such as "Adama admati." Penn fought the censors inside the party and the boycott imposed on him outside the party. Because of the boycott he was unable to find any non-Communist to write the foreword to the book. In the end, for lack of choice, he asked Michael Harsegor, a member of Maki at the time, to write it. When he finished editing the book Penn was so ill that he was hospitalized for several months. In March 1957, about a year later than scheduled, the book was published.
In 1959 Penn was invited to the writers' conference in Moscow and took his daughter Sinilga along. It was an exciting visit. He met with his sisters. He met Mayakovsky's sister. He met twice with then-prime minister Nikita Khrushchev. His poems were published in the Soviet Union during his visit, but the KGB did not stop following him and he became well aware of the atmosphere of repression.
In the conference in which he participated the Russian Jewish poet Boris Pasternak and his book "Dr. Zhivago," which had been smuggled to the West and published there, were condemned. Pasternak, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, was then under house arrest in his summer home. Penn asked for Pasternak's address and his request was refused. He found a way and reached his home and when he returned from there, said his daughter, he looked like "a man who had aged 20 years," and he cursed in Russian: "Damn them, let them burn." He was so angry that when he was honored with a bottle of cognac he didn't even touch it.
In spite of that, upon his return from his visit to Russia, Penn remained a devout Communist. During the split in the Israeli Party in 1965 he remained in Maki along with most of its Jewish members, but in July 1967 he asked to resign from the party.
After his death a surprise awaited his acquaintances. In his will Penn gave instructions that he wanted a Jewish funeral, that he didn't want eulogies, and that he didn't want the Communist Party to take over the event and appropriate it. He instructed that Kaddish be said over him and asked that his body be interred among his fellow writers, and if possible next to the grave of poet Avigdor Hameiri.
How does Penn's biography contribute to understanding his poetry?
"The mingling of poetry and life is prominent in Penn. There are not many poets whose biographical legend is bound up in their poetry in such an interesting manner. One of the important things is the huge gap between the fact that he was boycotted and ignored during his lifetime, and the tremendous publicity he enjoyed after his death. There's another interesting thing: During his lifetime almost no articles were written about his poetry, except for the article by Michael Harsegor that was written at Penn's request, and maybe another article that was published in Bamifneh. In other words, during his lifetime nothing was written about Penn." W
Like us on Facebook and get articles directly in your news feed