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  • Writer's pictureCorbin Allardice

My Lexicon - Hershele (Herszele)


Hersh Danilevitsh (Danilewicz), born in Lipne (Lipno) in 1882. Traveled to Geneva (Genf) in 1908. Lived near Warsaw. Died in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1941.

When I was in my teenage years, I saw a picture of Hershele--the folksy poet. It was a picture of a handsome young man with his hair parted right down the middle; he was the spitting image of the protagonist--the hero!--of a walk through the woods on a Shabes afternoon. Based on that picture I assumed that Hershele was a tall and extremely thin man. In this instance, the truth was not in the middle of the road--it was on the other side of it.

Hershele writes his poems in tiny script in little booklets so that he can carry his entire work, in its written form, with him wherever he goes. They look like a miniature library. They are, of course, numbered by volume. There are, it appears, ten such volumes. Were Hershele ever to happen upon a publisher interested in his collected works, he could sign the contract and deliver his entire oeuvre to the publisher right on the spot. With the advance, Hershele would buy some merchandise for his perpetually empty store in a Warsaw suburb, where he lives with his family, his wife and children, who he loves even more than he loves his verse.

Hershele has long been the adopted child, the “child of the regiment,” of the Warsaw literary union. His wedding--and he did not marry especially young--was celebrated on the premises of the union--the only wedding ever to be celebrated there. Soon after his raucous wedding came days of economic anxiety (parnose-zorgn). To this day, Hershele complains to his friends about why they didn’t provide him with a good job. When someone visits his apartment by the city limits, Hershele shows them his store with its desolate shelves. With justified reproach, he says:

“This is how you provided for me and how you…” And, with his work-hardened (spratevater) hand and his bone-worn (oysgeshorevete) fingers, he gestures to the empty shelves. And yet, in this very gesture, you notice that Hershele is wearing an Ehering (Ger. Wedding Ring). For Hershele is a European; he was in Geneva once. When discussing world-travels, Hershele waits his turn before beginning to descant on Geneva with such spontaneity (frishkayt) that you would think he had just yesterday returned--although, in point of fact, thirty years have passed.

Hershele is terribly au courant and so, in the fashion of a Polish peasant, he wears his pocket knife on a chain. [Perets] Markish once borrowed his pocket knife and, accidently, pocketed it. Hershele didn’t dare to demand his knife back from so stormy a poet as Markish--the exact opposite of Hershele’s quietude--and so he spent an entire day tied, quite unwillingly, at the hip to Markish by a little chain. More than once, Markish bellowed at the quiet poet following him around, but Hershele, as was his way, took the abuse and...continued behind him. Did he have a choice? When night came, the two poets--they are diametrical opposites in every way--took to the street. Markish began striding, as was his way, with a wayward and fiery (a tsefayfter un tsepoleter) gait. Hershele began pleading with a teary whine:

“Take pity on me and let me go home to my wife…”

It was only then that Markish realized the mix-up and realized the folksy poet from the chain; and that dear pocket knife returned to its twenty-year rest.

Hershele is a very proud man. He is even known, on occasion, to slap you across the face. He is not like other poets, who constantly threaten to hit you and never will. He does not threaten--but he hits, although he does so expecting to receive ten in return, for he is surely not an athlete. Hershele loves to take to the stage at literary salons (ovntn.) Then, he transforms quite suddenly into a lion. He reads with such pathos and so mighty a voice that he terrifies the entire audience. His colleagues too. He thunders:

“We went into the woods on Shabes”--and the backwater woods become a mighty forest, and that forest begins to tremble.

I once sent a Hershele a book from Switzerland containing a few translations of his poetry into German. It hardly made an impression on him and he never thanked me for the attention. It is but a hundredth of the recognition he deserves. According, at any rate, to his profound and unbending self-belief. May it be easy for him. We all wish him well, though we rarely do anything for him. And yet, Hershele can manage on his own--though a few more sales at his country store (shtetlshen kreml) wouldn’t hurt him.


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