A Very Frail Bridge Between Polish and Hebrew Cultures

Israeli Boris Gerus translates great Polish works into Hebrew, but a crippling disease prevents him from leaving his Warsaw apartment.

The ceremony staged last week at Poland’s embassy in Israel was a sad one. A table stacked with the season’s fruit, pastry, wine and champagne stood in the elegant guest room. A dozen or so guests sat on red-upholstered wooden chairs relatives and friends of Boris Gerus, the ceremony’s tragic hero.

Standing in the center of the room was Poland’s ambassador, Jacek Chodorowicz; he was holding the Bene Merito certificate and medal he was about to award Gerus on behalf of Poland’s foreign minister. About a month earlier, Chodorowicz had told Haaretz about Poland’s special relations with Israel and Jews. “Though we are determined to look to the future to build on the history but look to the future we will never and we should [never] leave behind us this history and the tragic end of the 3.5 million Jews in Poland,” he said.

Last week Chodorowicz proved that these words can be translated into deeds. Gerus, a 35-year-old Israeli, received the Bene Merito for his extraordinary cultural achievements and contribution to Poland.

Gerus is a translator, essayist, poet, researcher of culture and musicologist. He has earned a stellar reputation as a translator of Polish works into Hebrew. He  has translated into Hebrew writings by novelists and poets such as Marek Krajewski, Jacek Dehnel, Julian Tuwim, Adam Zagajewski and Ewa Lipska. At the ceremony, Poland’s ambassador declared that Gerus’ work is “stunning.” “He has translated into Hebrew poetry from the 17th century, and also quite modern literature,” Chodorowicz noted.

A heavyset man, Gerus comes from a Polish family that lived in Odessa and the Ukraine and immigrated to Israel in 1991. In Israel, Gerus learned that he suffers from a rare, fatal disease Takayasu’s disease.

“The fact that I am even talking with you now is itself a miracle,” he said after receiving the medal. “I should have already become a vegetable, with amputated limbs, or died. But I was told that if I continue to engage in intellectual activity, there’s a chance I might live longer. So apparently the almighty has, for the time being, spared me. With the extensive use of virus medication, I’m still alive.”

Gerus didn’t know Hebrew when he immigrated to Israel. “My grandfather knew eight languages. That’s where my talent [for languages] comes from,” he says. “When I arrived in Israel, I studied at the Zeitlin school in Tel Aviv. They developed my Hebrew skills; they sent a special teacher to work with me as a new immigrant. We learned passages from the Bible. After a year and a half, I read ‘The Name of the Rose’ in Hebrew, without a dictionary. Then I started to write poetry in Hebrew, and then I started to translate.”

Writing and translation are his calling. “I speak on behalf of three generations of Polish Jews. If he were here, still alive, my grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, would break into tears. I carry with me the legacy of someone who left his birthplace,” Gerus says. “This cultural cargo belongs to the generations of my parents and grandparents. The story continues; it is transmitted in the genes, even when Polish isn’t spoken. It remains within us. I see this as my mission and vocation.”

Due to his condition, Gerus can no longer walk. Worse, he says, Israel’s climate prevents him from living here, so the illness has exiled him to Warsaw, where he lives in penury in a small apartment. “I live in Warsaw by necessity, not because I deal with Polish culture,” he says. “I am completely alone. I have no family. I need all the help I can get. I find myself in a situation of total helplessness. Most of the time I’m unable to leave the house.”

His mother Yevgenia attended the ceremony. She too is ill; she lives in subsidized public housing in Rishon Letzion. Boris’ father is not in contact with them. Yevgenia is extremely proud of her only son, as was clear from the expression on her face during the ceremony.

Sitting at the side of the hall at the Polish Embassy was Oron Dahan, a close friend of Gerus’. Dahan, a pianist and dancer, gained celebrity in 2005 when he took first place in Israel’s “Dancing with the Stars” program. He knows Gerus from school. “He’s a genuine Renaissance man,” says Dahan. Prof. Yehudit Cohen, who has taught at Tel Aviv University’s musicology department, also attended the event. Gerus wrote a thesis entitled “Death in Bach’s Compositions” under Cohen’s tutelage.

A year ago, Gerus’ close friends arranged a show to raise money for his medical treatment. Ninet Tayeb, the Giraffes, Noam Rotem and Efrat Gosh appeared. The money helped, but Gerus says it has run out.

“The doctors say I’m alive only because of my intellectual endeavors,” he says. “I feel that I can still contribute something. But I need systematic help. I need the support of people who appreciate culture and who have the means to help. I apologize, but I’m not fulfilling the promise to die quite so quickly and if life goes on, that’s a sign I have a goal to fulfill .... I am completely destitute, I have only debts. Apparently, that’s my cursed fate.”

Resistance from the NII

Last summer, Gerus wrote a poem entitled “When the Owners Come.” It includes the lines: “Between one afternoon break and another comes the pain. It comes .... It does not sneak up, like a lover who steals in during the night. It comes like the language of the poets.”

In another poem, “I Searched,” he writes about his experiences in Krakow: “I doubt whether I will ever go there again. At the railroad ticket booth they sell tickets to foreigners who go down the escalator with their baggage, and my legs were amputated on those journeys.”

The National Insurance Institute says that since 1997 Gerus has received NII disability payments and special services amounting to NIS 5,500 a month. This constitutes “full use of his rights to national insurance.” The NII adds that it “helped Mr. Gerus advance professionally and fully funded his academic studies at Tel Aviv University.”

Gerus says the day he received the Polish award, he received a different sort of document from the NII. “The National Insurance Institute notified me about the cessation of its allocations, effective February 1, 2013, since it claims I haven’t proved that my medical situation requires me to live overseas,” he explained from Warsaw. “This decision is tantamount to deliberate assassination, since in my condition I can’t challenge them, especially as I’m in Warsaw and can’t leave my house.”

To corroborate his claim that he can’t live in Israel because of the climate, he provides the statement by his Rishon Letzion physician, who explicitly recommends that he live in Central or Eastern Europe due to the climate.

On this issue, the NII says that “Mr. Gerus frequently resides overseas, and in recent years he has spent most of his time abroad. The law stipulates that disability allocations cannot be provided to someone who resides overseas more than 30 consecutive days. This point has been made clear to Mr. Gerus.”

As to whether the NII ought to recognize that Gerus lives abroad due to his medical condition, it responds: “Gerus was asked to send documents that confirm he has received treatment, and the documents have been reviewed by expert physicians employed by the National Insurance Institute’s executive board. Based on the documents presented to them, these physicians concluded that this is not a special case in which overseas treatment is required; the documents provide no information attesting to this necessity.”

“I’ve run into an obstacle,” Gerus says. “If they cancel the allocations, that will be awful. Still, I need much more help than that.”

Jacek Olejnik