A Second Chance at a Yiddish Poem

Closer Look at Abraham Liessin's 'Sereh' Reveals Meaning

Totalitarianally Committed: The subject of Abraham Liessin’s poem turns out to be a faithful Stalinist.
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Totalitarianally Committed: The subject of Abraham Liessin’s poem turns out to be a faithful Stalinist.

By Philologos

Published June 23, 2013, issue of June 28, 2013.
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Mr. Soyer is undoubtedly right, and I can only say that, in my defense, I had but a small part of Liessin’s 10-page poem in front of me when I wrote the column.

It’s a more subtle and moving poem than I described it as being, because Liessin’s Sereh, though teased by the poet for her ideological bellicosity, is also sympathized with as a woman who has given her life to a cause whose leaders, followed by her blindly, have suddenly changed their tune. As she sits listening to the banquet’s speakers and their new tone of moderation, she thinks of how, not long ago, she was leading a march through the streets of Manhattan:

Ot yogt zi af fertsnter gas un zi shalt,

Ir gvardye ir kemfnde yogt mit ir mit;

Es klapt zikh di tufles op on asphalt

Azh ‘skayskryepers’ tsitern unter di trit.

O soshl-fashist! O, rukt zikh avek!

Tsi zet ir nit den vi di mas-akstye geyt…?

Freely translated:

Down 14th Street she storms with a whoop and a shout,
And her fellow fighters stride in her wake;
Their shoes pound the pavement until it’s worn out,
And even the skyscrapers tremble and quake.
O social-fascists! Out of our way!
Can’t you see that the masses are marching today?

“Social-fascist,” like “business-agent,” was a new term for me. It dates to the sixth congress of the Comintern, the Communist International, in Moscow in 1928. There, Stalin declared that there was no difference between the fascist and social-democratic parties of Europe, which were “twin brothers” in opposing the spread of Bolshevism. The Communist refusal to collaborate with the Social Democratic Party of Germany in the fight against Hitler was partially responsible for the latter’s rise to power in 1933, and subsequently, Stalin did a turnabout and announced, in 1934, the Popular Front policy.

Liessin’s Sereh is a faithful Stalinist, but it’s nevertheless difficult for her to accept the “social-fascists” of yesterday having become her comrades of today. The poem ends with her back in her apartment, staring at the bouquet of flowers she has been given and bewilderedly mourning the years she devoted to fighting an enemy with whom she now has to share a banquet table.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


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