“My Child, You Are a Refugee”: 1942 poem achingly familiar today
The photographs of Ukrainian children clutching stuffed animals, peering through train windows, and tearfully hugging their fathers—who are also weeping—as they flee their war-torn homeland, are not only heartbreaking. For American Jews with long memories of the destruction of East European Jewish culture in Polish, Russian, and Ukrainian lands, it also feels like a nauseating déjà vu. The madness of 1939-1945 has engulfed the region, 75 years later.
A little-known poem, written by the Polish-born Yiddish journalist and poet S. L. Shneiderman (1906-1990) in 1942, achingly telescopes the twentieth century’s catastrophes in Eastern Europe with today’s. Published in the Forverts in 1986 on Shneiderman’s 80th birthday, the poem, “My Child, You Are a Refugee,” is voiced by a father (Shneiderman himself) to his 4-year-old daughter (Shneiderman’s daughter Helen) who had been born in Paris but immigrated with her family to New York City in 1940. It is an anguished expression of the intergenerational trauma of displacement and flight.
The following is a translation of Shneiderman’s poem by his daughter, Helen Sarid. To hear her reading it in Yiddish, click here.
My Child, You Are a Refugee
Turn off the music, my child
Too calm and dreamlike now
The European thermometer shows 38.5
But I have no fever.
This is not Paris – and not the Seine.
It’s night in New York by the Hudson.
The planes play Wagner staccatos.
A constant siren song.
I know the notes by heart
From Warsaw, Paris and Madrid.
Turn off the light.
The enemy looms among the stars.
Come closer and sit here on my bed.
I am not the only one who needs salvation
Among the world’s endless Lazaruses.
And now, my child, is the time
To tell you your story:
You were born in Paris, in a small street by the Pantheon
And on the day of your birth, your father, the reporter
Flew in from bombarded Barcelona.
When, from your eyes, for the first time,
Their blueness struck me, so bright.
I thought then of the Spanish children
At night, In the cellars of Guernica and Teruel.
And your father, like a fool,
Prophesized and warned: (I knew so well)
Spain’s war will reach all of your borders
And neither will the children of Paris and Warsaw
Escape Nazi shrapnel.
And that was true for you as well, my child.
In December 1939 – on your second birthday –
The first sirens woke you in Paris by the Seine.
And late at night, your father carried you
Down to the crowded cellar by Port Saint-Martin.
And now in New York, Manhattan by the Hudson,
(True, child, the ship that brought us to the United States was called Manhattan)
On your 4th birthday, at night in December
Again a siren! – of a different tone
With heavier metallic tenors.
You are – as am I – a child of war.
Our home is the world, the suitcase our lodge.
My father led me over villages and hills,
And I lead you over countries and continents.
It is, in the end, the same refuge,
The same escape.
S. L. Shneiderman was born in Kazimierz nad Wisła (Kuzmir in Yiddish), a picturesque shtetl about 150 kilometers southeast of Warsaw on the banks of the Vistula River. He was educated at both a religious Jewish school and a Polish middle school and later moved to the capital to study literature in the university. Shneiderman wrote in both Yiddish and Polish, and his oeuvre includes literary studies, film criticism, stories, poetry, war and travel reportage, and translations.
In Warsaw, he was co-editor of the magazine Shprotsungen (Sprouts) and contributed to Ilustrirte magazin (Illustrated Magazine), publishing two poetry collections, Gilderne feygl (Gilded Birds, 1927) and Fayren in shtot (Fires in the City, 1932), as well as film criticism in the short-lived magazine Film Velt (Film World).
Shneiderman was identified in his youth with the Linke poalei tsiyon, the Left Marxist-Zionist movement inspired by the theoretician Ber Borochov; his commitment to modern Jewish ethnic consciousness and to the Yiddish language shaped his entire career. In 1932 he and his wife Eileen (née Halina Szymin, known as Hala) went to Paris, where he became co-editor of the bi-monthly journal, Bleter (Pages) and edited the weekly Pariz (Paris).
During the Spanish Civil War between 1936 and 1938, Shneiderman served as a correspondent for both Yiddish and Polish newspapers, later publishing Krig in shpanyen: hinterland (The War in Spain: Hinterland), accompanied by photographs taken by his legendary brother-in-law David Seymour (b. Dawid Szymin, aka “Chim”), one of the founders of Magnum Photos. Shneiderman’s work in Spain earned him the moniker, “The first Yiddish war reporter,” by Shloyme Sheynberg who wrote the preface to Krig in Shpanyen.
Caught up in the maelstrom of German aggression in Central Europe, Shneiderman considered taking a permanent editorship for the Yiddish newspaper Afrikaner idishe tsaytung (African Jewish newspaper) in Johannesburg. World War II thwarted those plans and he settled with Hala and Helen in New York City in 1940, where he spent most of the rest of his life, authoring hundreds of articles, travelogues, reportage, and translations in the Yiddish and Anglo-Jewish press, including Morgn-zhurnal (Morning Journal), Tog-morgn-zhurnal (Day-Morning Journal), and the Forverts. His travelogues included Tvishn shrek un hofenung (Between Fear and Hope) about his visit to postwar Poland in 1946 and Ven di vaysl hot geredt yidish (When the Vistula Spoke Yiddish).
“My Child, You Are a Refugee,” with rhyming final couplets in each stanza, was written a year after the United States entered the war. The father, hearing planes overhead in his New York apartment, is retraumatized, recalling the sirens of Warsaw, Paris, and Madrid. The enemy is no longer so distant from his city of refuge, which he Europeanizes by naming it “Manhattan on the Hudson,” invoking his childhood near a grand river. Although the war is an ocean away, its agonies have been internalized by the poet, who tells his daughter that “the enemy looms among the stars.” Bombs and bombardments resound in the poem; the father greets his blue-eyed daughter on the day of her birth after fleeing bombarded Barcelona. On her second birthday, he takes refuge with her in a cellar by the Seine when sirens shout out the danger in Paris. In hiding, he recalls the terrified and terrorized children of Guernica and Teruel. And then on her fourth birthday, sirens again sound, evidence of the war’s closeness.
The poem’s last stanza gives voice to the eternal unrest of the refugee, who carries his trauma within. Shneiderman tells his young child that she, like him, is a child of war, a refugee, with no stable home, a trunk his only domicile. Their plight and pain are universal.
What greater hope does a parent have then to protect her children from harm’s way? How many Ukrainian mothers who have left their husbands, fathers, brothers, nephews, and sons to defend their country are writing poems to their children now, trying to find succor and catharsis in language and rhyme? How many Ukrainian children will shoulder this war’s sorrows for their entire lives?
Nancy Sinkoff is a historian at Rutgers University, whose book, “From Left to Right: Lucy S. Dawidowicz, the New York Intellectuals, and the Politics of Jewish History”, won a National Jewish Book Award in 2020.