Poem of the Week

Children Teach an Adult About the Holocaust

'A stone for a pillow, my head lower than the grass': Tuvia Ruebner takes his offspring on a roots trip and finds his expectations confounded.

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There, I said

Tuvia Ruebner

I left my home to show my children where I came from.
There, I said, I lay on the ground
a stone for a pillow, my head lower than the grass
like the earth’s dust –
everything is preserved there.

We passed hills and forests that were
caves, and water collected in pools along the way and the roads were bad.
The car lurched over the ditches

In the waning light we reached the city of my birth.
What is this sweet air? my children ask.
What is that plaster falling from the walls?

Tuvia Ruebner
Moran Ruebner-Fridriksson

It’s nothing, said the old woman in the window.
Here, also the future is past. And she closed her dry eyes
Like a bird that flies high, then folds its wings and dives.

I was born here, I told my children.
My parents were born nearby.
Everyone is born. Here was a house
I told my children and the wind passed
between me and the words.

I wanted to show my children where I came from, and when
will we eat, they asked, and where
will we sleep?

From Col Od (“As Long As,” Sifriat Poalim, 1967. English translation from “In the Illuminated Dark: Selected Poems of Tuvia Ruebner ,” translated and introduced by Rachel Tzvia Back, Hebrew Union College and University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014.

Holocaust education is a controversial and inexhaustible topic. For starters: Was this genocide unique?  How young is too young? Here children teach the adult.

Tuvia Ruebner was born in 1924 to a German-speaking Jewish family in Pressburg-Bratislava, so we may guess that the setting is Slovakia and “my home” is Kibbutz Merhavia, where he has lived since coming to Palestine in 1941 with other youngsters from the Zionist-socialist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair; his parents and only sister perished at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

However, none of this information is in the poem -- the birthplace could be anywhere from Phnom Penh, say, to Kigali or Srebrenica.

In Genesis 28:11-22, Jacob lays his head on “a stone for a pillow” and dreams his ladder dream in which God promises: “the land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants” – not the case in this poet’s biography. Awakening, Jacob exclaims: “How full of awe (or awful – ma norah) this place is” – indeed the case.

The children react differently. In stanza 3, they ask cheerfully: “What is this sweet air?” much like Ferdinand in “The Tempest” by William Shakespeare (whose birthday is later this month). After arriving shipwrecked on Prospero’s island and believing his father dead, he marvels: “This music crept by me upon the waters, / Allaying both their fury and my passion / With its sweet air.”

In English, “air” has added value in meaning both music and what is breathed; in Hebrew it is only the latter. “What is that plaster falling from the walls?” tells of neglect and perhaps hints that a component of (literal and figurative) plaster could be bone ash.

The key sentence is “Everyone is born.” All parents eventually must tell their children “everyone dies” but we often forget that everyone we have known or seen, awake or dreaming, was born – a stronger connection to this world than awareness of death.

The children’s concerns diverge from the father’s agenda to show them “where I came from.” The two questions at the end of the poem are questions all children ask on trips and initially seem banal given the nature and intent of the excursion – but in reality they explore basic human issues: “Where will eat? Where will we sleep?” And indeed, an important part of the nitty-gritty of Holocaust awareness, and of Hebrew literature, is who gets to eat and sleep where.

*Musing: Who says: “Here, also the future is past” – the old woman or the man in the poem?

*Bonus: Ruebner’s wife pianist Galila Ruebner plays Bach’s “Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother”