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  • Writer's pictureCorbin Allardice

My Lexicon - Avrom (Avraham) Zak

Avrom Zak

Born 1891 in a shtetl near Grodne (Grodno). 1914-1918, soldier in the [First] World War. Warsaw. 1939, fled into deep Russia.

Grodno is a beautiful city, a beautiful and truly romantic city, just as God commanded. There is a river there, but the Niemen itself is but a trifle, and there is a mountain there and on that mountain there runs a train beneath which you can see little houses and, in summer, rafts running timber down the river--and in the city of Grodno proper, you see old houses and around the old, brick houses, gardens with old-growth trees, their crowns rustling in the wind. And there are old churches which resound through the twilight, and old synagogues sounding mincha at dusk, and Avrom Zak comes from Grodno. Grodno had another romantic poet, but he died in the time of the Great War. His name was Leyb Naydus and he was one of the finest metric poets (formkinstler) in all of Yiddish lyricism and he remains one of the most romantic poets we have. There is a very romantic tombstone on his grave created by the Warsaw sculptor Abraham Ostrzega. On the occasion of the tombstone’s unveiling, the Warsaw literary association delegated Perets Markish to deliver an address. Markish’s speech had a colossal impact. The audience and the dead poet became, for a moment, one. And both understood his words...but the scene was beautiful because Markish is more beautiful even than Grodno.

The poets of Grodno have strangely unpoetic names: Leyb Naydus, Avrom Zak. And yet they are so lyrical, so romantic, and, indeed, so poetic. Judge them by the poetry and not their names.

Avrom Zak has a very lyrical face, women notice him, but he does not notice women. And if he does notice them, he speaks very little, and women, in their loquaciousness, prefer loquacious men. Considering his features, Avrom Zak ought to have been a classical starving artist type, but that was not the case, for he worked for the Warsaw newspaper “Moment” as a copy editor on the night-shift (nakht-korektur)...

After a half hour with Zak, the conversation would inevitably and absolutely turn to the subject of Leyb Naydus, a subject which was, for Zak, his sworn friend, inexhaustible. Both Naydus and Zak wrote about this eternal themes: love, grief, the Gentile calendar--that is, the four times of the year--and the Jewish calendar (luekh)--that is, the temporal motifs of Jewish folklore (folkstimlekhe yidishe tsaytmotivn.) But I must add that I prefer Zak. He is simpler in his form and, unlike Naydus, the passions of rhyme don’t beat his brow like some demonic primary school teacher (a ruekh a melamed). It is easier to understand and relate to his poetry.

Zak numbers among the few Jewish soldiers to author to write a wartime memoir about the Great War. He survived the war without trickery, and so too did he write his book Under the Wings of Death (Unter di fligl fun toyt), genuinely and without trickery.

Zak was beloved by everyone in that literary beehive on 13 Tłomackie Street. He was always on the board, though he never opened his mouth at meetings. It was for that reason, however, that he was so punctual, arriving at the meeting just as the clock chimed. There was once a stormy election meeting in the Writer’s Association. Entire worlds of the Yiddish word depended on a vote more or a vote less...during the scrutiny (scrutinium), during the counting of the votes, the crowd grew increasingly worked up, as if all the kingdoms of the world and eternity itself were at stake. And the names of the finest writers we had in Warsaw were being thrown around. Zak, too, was--as always--nominated. Ninety-eight votes were cast for the nine seats on the board. There were maybe sixty candidates. Those elected got between thirty and forty votes each. Avrom Zak was the sole person to receive the maximum number of votes possible. All ninety-eight votes. That was the prize for his absolute silence at our meetings. Speech is silver and silence is a sack (zak) of gold…

With each passing year, the less stylized, more melancholy, and, perforce, the deeper Zak’s poetry became.



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