Poetry Became My Homeland'

Zionist ideology may have saved him in 1941, but since then octogenarian poet Tuvia Ruebner's heart - and loyalties - have laid elsewhere, outside the boundaries of what he calls this land of death and victims.

One poem a day is what Tuvia Ruebner recommends. Upon the publication of "New Selected Poems 1957-2005," a selection from the 12 books of poetry he published between 1957 and 2005 (including some new works as well), he notes that a poem - regardless of its length - should have a page of its own and that it is enough for a person to read one like it a day, in order to conduct a dialogue with the text. Perhaps a surprising comment from someone who has published 12 books of poetry in Hebrew.

About a year ago, when Rafi Weichert, from Keshev, a publishing house of poetry, suggested to Ruebner that he put together a selection of his work to mark his 80th birthday, the poet hesitated. "I had no desire to publish a selection," he recalls. "I am at a far remove from my poems," he explains in his home in Kibbutz Merhavia, now being renovated. "If Weichert had not persuaded me and taken on himself the hard work, the book would not have been published. I have not yet opened it and I don't think I will in the near future. But thanks to the book's publication, a few new poems that aren't too bad came to me, which were written in a freer tone than in the past."

Ruebner is 81. His hearing is getting worse because of a bad nerve and he is getting ready to undergo his third catheterization (he had a heart attack during the previous one). In his long and far-from-easy life, he endured terrible deaths of the five people who were closest to him: his parents, his younger sister, his first wife and his youngest son. However, Ruebner neither looks nor behaves like a person who has been slowed down by any of this. Every morning he works in his kibbutz studio, on his computer, until lunch. He is far from having stopped writing. "The poems used to be shrunk," he says, "as though I wrote with the palm of my hand covering my mouth, whereas today I write without that covering."

Ruebner, who did not complete high school, had a splendid academic and poetic career. From 1972 to 1993 he was a professor in the comparative literature department at the University of Haifa and was a literary editor at Sifriat Hapoalim publishers, where, among other books, he edited a selection of masterworks in aesthetics and the entire oeuvre of poet, essayist and playwright Leah Goldberg. He wrote essays and articles and a monograph about Goldberg, and is still engaged in translating some of her German writings into Hebrew. He travels frequently, not least in order to read his poetry in Europe, but also because he is a member of the Germany Academy for Language and Literature in Darmstadt and the Academy of Science and Literature at Mainz - only two of a long list of European literary bodies of which he is a member.

He is also the recipient of distinguished prizes: In Israel he has received the Prime Minister's Prize, the Jerusalem Prize, the Anne Frank Prize and the AKUM (Israel Composers, Authors and Publishers Association) Prize; abroad he has received, among others, the Paul Celan award, the most important translation prize in Germany, for his translation of S.Y. Agnon's novel "Shira."

After getting back from the studio and resting a little, Ruebner devotes the remainder of the day to reading and listening to music. He has more than 2,000 CDs of classical, medieval and contemporary music, and he continues to acquire new ones, even though he knows he will need a few additional reincarnations to listen to them all. He continues to take occasional photographs, as he has done for most of his life, and is a pretty good photographer. He has no writing ritual; when a poem "comes to him," as he puts it, he writes it down immediately on whatever piece of paper is at hand.

Ruebner has always been a lone wolf. "By nature I am not a sociable person," he admits. "I have always been on the sidelines and have never belonged to any literary group. I never met with anyone. I sat here in the corner." He is not enchanted with either the general situation in Israel, nor the local literary scene. With irony he quotes a poem of his own which was published a year ago in "Children's Nasty Rhymes and Others," a thin volume with many politically poetic texts: "Poetry is not the audience favorite. Apart from the graveyard - who needs it, anyway? The people like prose, says Aunt Rose."

The state of poetry in the whole world is bad, Ruebner believes: "Even though poems as wonderful as those in the past are being written today, my feeling is that the thread - that mental and spiritual chain - has been severed. As long as mankind felt that there was something bigger than it, such as reason, for example, poetry had a cause for existence. The world today has become commercialized and cynical as never before and all that has induced me not to publish."

`Cult of death'

Ruebner is not given to fits of megalomania. "They say old age is accompanied by wisdom and serenity," he observes. "I am still waiting for both." He is disdainful of those with overweening egos and is proud to belong to a generation that does not volunteer intimate confessions. "Estrangement is my muse," he says, thus explaining his self-irony.

On the other hand, as one who admits that he is capable of changing his mind twice in an hour, it becomes clear how he was persuaded to publish a selection of his correspondence, and even earlier to write an autobiography, "A Long Short Life," which appeared in 2004 in Germany, on the occasion of his 80th birthday. He is now working on the Hebrew version. The opening sentence of the book is engraved in his memory: "I live in a land flowing with blood. If I think back, and that is a hard proposition, as what was, is never now what we think it has been. It seems to me that in my youth I accepted the way things were more easily than I am capable of doing today."

Most of his friends are already dead. The poets Dan Pagis and Ozer Rabin, the musician Yehoshua Lakner and other dear friends. Only two are still alive - artist Yosl Bergner and the poet Yisrael Pinkas. That makes him and his second wife, Galila, who is 10 years younger than him, increasingly lonely. He has already written about the death of his friends and about how the body perishes.

Ruebner: "I write poems from life, not learned poems. That is the reality I feel today. I came to this country under the sign of death, and then, in 1941, we did not yet know what would happen there, but when I took leave of my family at the train station I had a vivid feeling that I would not see them again."

He was born Erich Ruebner in Bratislava, Slovakia; Tuvia was his grandfather's name. "The first sounds a person hears in his life, and the sights and landscapes - that is the foundation of his psyche. I love the landscape of Israel, but inside I am connected more to the landscape of the Carpathians. Leah Goldberg wrote that there are two homelands [the one in which we are born and the one we choose]. I feel that I have two `no-homelands.' I was uprooted twice. A person can have only one homeland: the place where he was born. Slovakia spewed me out and what is happening in Israel today made me uproot again."

What do you mean?

Ruebner: "This country has a cult of death. This is not a Jewish country. Judaism is the Torah [or doctrine] of life. Death is worshiped here just like Moloch. From the false slogan `It is good to die for one's country,' to the mass celebrations of funerals on television within the framework of the `news,' which belongs to the entertainment department of television. Funerals have become folksy entertainment - the killing on the roads is part of this, along with the romanticism of the poetry and the articles that are written here. The most commonly heard word here is `victim.' This is the land of victims [the same Hebrew word means "sacrifices"]. The land of death. But it is also the most certain land, because there is no one who opens his mouth publicly here without saying `I have no doubt that ...' once-twice-10 times in an evening. I have only doubt. I have never connected to this place. Maybe only in the poems, which are a tremendous connection to the Hebrew language and refer to the place very emotionally."

Isn't that a bit of a small contradiction?

"Emotionally I am tied to this place. I assimilated nature when I lay on the earth in the spring. That was a marvelous moment with the flowers above me and the squills, and a connection with the earth was forged. I am a person of landscapes and from this point of view I am an anachronistic poet, because everyone today is urban. As for Zionism, I have no talent for ideology because it demands loyalty from its followers and I am capable of being loyal only to people. Not to ideas. With me, ideas come and go. I can say something and its very opposite within an hour and it will not be a lie. Whatever is connected to the ideological lie - and Zionism is an ideology - I do not have. So the Zionist ideology saved my life in 1941, but that is not the point. I am here because I am here. Poetry became my homeland."

In your political poems you are more than disappointed with the country. In one of them you write, "Lice have conquered you, land of the hart, and sucked your blood."

"It began in 1967, in the Six-Day War, with the conquests and the rule over another people. I knew it would be the disaster of the country's youth because it would corrupt them. I am not a political person and I came from a came from a country in which I saw what nationalism is, so now do I have to see Israeli nationalism in its crudest, most brutal and most terrible form? In the second intifada I exploded. I wrote, `You and I, what a horror (such a monster / No one has seen yet) ...' [Renowned scholar of Jewish mysticism] Gershom Scholem, who was friends with the poet Werner Kraft, told Kraft at the end of the 1970s that he had despaired of the country, and afterward Kraft told me it was a good thing Scholem [who died in 1982] did not live to see what happened after his death."

The lost sister

Ruebner was the first-born of Else and Manfred Moritz Ruebner. His father was a member of the Freemasons, and in his poetry and his autobiography his son describes an elegant, stylishly dressed man who was addicted to the opera and was a voracious reader, who wore white gloves. Ruebner has a poem about his father and about his library, in which Joyce's "Ulysses" is perched next to the works of Franz Werfel, Thomas Mann and Arthur Schnitzler. The library also contained a luxurious edition of the writings of Heinrich Heine, from which Ruebner copied poems as a child and decorated them with photographs he cut out from travel brochures.

He completed only nine years of school - five in an Evangelical elementary school, three in a German gymnasium and one in a Slovakian high school. After Jews were forbidden to attend school he worked as an apprentice electrician, and for his safety had to wear on his lapel a pin with the German eagle holding a swastika.

His sister, Liechti, was born in 1929, when Ruebner was five. He wrote about her ballet shoes and about the circle she frequented with her cousin. Both girls were murdered on the same day, when they arrived in Auschwitz in July 1942. His younger sister is present in many of his poems. "When we parted she was about 12 and we had not spent much time together, because the age difference was meaningful then. But years later I felt her and her loss more than I felt the loss of my parents. It is difficult to describe that closeness to her."

At the age of 13, Ruebner joined a Jewish swimming team, Bar-Kochba Bratislava, which held most of the Jewish swimming records in Czechoslovakia. His parents sent him to compete. He never became a great swimmer, but membership in the club paved his way to Hashomer Hatzair, the left-wing Zionist youth movement.

He began writing at the age of 10. His first short story was about a mountain climber who reached the peak of a mountain at sunrise and fell into the abyss. His teacher sent the story to a youth journal; the text was returned with the comment that no 10-year-old boy could have written such a story. The boy also wrote rhymes, while mainly copying verses from Heine. He continued writing stories, which were published in a wall-paper of the Hashomer Hatzair club in Bratislava and afterward also in the movement's agricultural training groups for Palestine. In 1938 his father conducted negotiations with an emissary of the Jewish Agency to purchase land in the moshav of Shavei Tzion to build a chicken coop, but in the meantime the war broke out.

At the age of 17, Ruebner and another eight young people, among them his first love, Aya Goldstein (who died several years ago), and his good friend Lakner, set out for Palestine. This was in 1941, when the Slovakian government decided to pay the Germans 500 Reichsmarks for every Jew, provided they left the country never to return. The high payment was made for Ruebner's parents, his sister and others in the family, but only he managed to leave.

Ruebner and his friends left on April 28, 1941. Although exactly 64 years have gone by since then, he says, "that farewell still weighs on my bones." They received entry certificates for Palestine in Budapest, traveling through Romania, Turkey, Syria and Lebanon. They arrived on May 9. There was a particularly heavy hamsin (hot, windy, dry weather) and the group was convinced they had reached a devils' island. In Kibbutz Merhavia, in the Jezre'el Valley, they were dropped off next to the offices of the Kibbutz Ha'artzi movement. Nearby were a few dusty pine trees to one of which a monkey was tied. Ruebner went over to pet the animal, which in response bit him in the leg.

The young lover

Having received a Zionist education in two preparatory groups, which enjoyed a rich cultural life and inspired him to write expressionist poems, Ruebner was flabbergasted when he saw the stone buildings at Merhavia (designed by architect Alexander Barwald) and the mud structures, alongside a few huts and tents, instead of what he had imagined: one big collective commune.

In his autobiography he writes that his group did not get an especially warm welcome at Merhavia. The kibbutz's first dining room had just been completed, and straw mats were spread on the floor for them. They filled the mattresses themselves, using corn plants. Later, they placed pieces of plywood between the spaces and created a semblance of rooms. The kibbutz members displayed little empathy, perhaps because of the tension and the fear that the forces of General Rommel, which were then outside Alexandria, Egypt, would invade Palestine. "We were a nuisance," Ruebner writes.

Their parents paid a great deal of money to ensure that they would study and work, but the four hours of work followed by four hours of study - in a hut which, with the temperature at 40 degrees Centigrade or more, resembled a furnace - were unbearable. They were stunned when the kibbutz confiscated all their private property, including their clothes and anything else that reminded them of home. All the items were distributed among the kibbutz members. A hunting cap that Ruebner was especially fond of appeared one day on the head of a veteran member, and in 1947, when Ruebner traveled to Europe, he had to borrow a suit from a kibbutz member, as he had handed over the two suits he had brought with him.

"To these acts of theft - after all, they were clear acts of theft - and to the treatment we received overall, we reacted by singing Nazi songs in the courtyard, by showing contempt for the British Army as compared to the German forces, and by other similar means, which angered the kibbutz members," he writes in his autobiography, and explains: "We behaved as we did out of feelings of anger tempered with disappointment. Today I know that we were also enthralled by the discipline of the Nazi army. Sometimes the persecuted is amazed at his persecutor. But because I did not get permission to say these things in our name, I will say: I was both frightened and enchanted by the might of the Nazi mechanism. There is something enchanting in fear. Not only evil has a power of attraction. Your enemy also lures you, I reflect in my heart. It is precisely in the acute contrast that a strange affinity exists. Your enemy is in some way part of you, perhaps in the same way that death is part of life."

Most of his first poems - in his first 12 years in the country he wrote in German - were written while he tended the sheep in the pasture. "I composed them inwardly, and even if they were quite long and in some cases quite ecstatic, I remembered them by heart and wrote them down when I got back to my room," he relates in the autobiography. He also described having to slaughter lambs as part of his work and how he did so cruelly and repulsively, but "accompanied by a lust for murder that was well concealed."

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