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  • Writer's pictureCorbin Allardice

My Lexicon - Yisroel Ashendorf

Yisroel (Israel) Ashendorf

Born 1909 in a shtetl in Galicia, spent his life in Lemberg (Lviv), in the Soviet Union since 1939.

We use du (informal second person address) just like a father and son, an adult son and a father who is not yet old.

Ashendorf always has a half-ironic smile, like all Galitzianers, on his broad face, that face of his which is always five years older than he himself is. This is due to the fact that he has worked hard his entire life--his bed is no bed of roses. But that is why his poems are nourishing. And he writes simply and rarely allows a verse to leave his pen--and never a stanza--without the specific sheen of talent. He is not overly rhythmic, sometimes it seems as if he is writing straight prose. In the middle of song, he begins to speak. Just to speak, but to speak the way a poet speaks. Reading his poetry, you get the feeling that he comes from the nation Moyshe Leyb Halpern. And even if he is clear under that poet’s influence, so what? Poets are like a head bobbing along on the surface of a river of scripture (peyrek-taykh): Because you were influenced, so too will you influence others, and those who were influenced by you will influence others.

There is not yet a proper collection of Ashendorf’s poetry. If the same miracle occurs for him as has occurred for all other Yiddish poets (all of them: from head to tail and king to servant) and a big, full, satiated book is published, then people will see a genuinely artistic poet whose dominant artistic orientation is proletarian, sincere, heartfelt, experienced, and committed to high art (hoykh kunst ibergegebene).* In his very first published poem, he depicts an unemployed man’s house in which even the pots open their unhappy mouths, wanting to simple and how new (it was then around 1927), how painterly and how convincing. How Ashendorfish--yes, Ashendorfish--because those influenced by him will influence others in the future. Certainly Ashendorf!

It seems that I am the first editor under whose pen--in the folks-tsaytung far literatur (People’s Newspaper for Literature), the weekly supplement to the naye folks-tsaytung (New People’s Newspaper) in Warsaw--Ashendorf’s poetry was published.

His joy was immense and his letters inspired when his first poems were published in the Assyrian alphabet** in black and white, black and gray, really, since that was the color of the cheap paper on which the folks-tsaytung was printed. But we quickly began to quarrel when Ashendorf rebelled against me, wanting to tear me limb from limb for the few verses in his poem which I had corrected. He said every foul thing in the book about his “rebbe,” and it brought tears to my eyes that I had gotten to hear that.-- He’s young, I thought, and he’s got guts. He can handle it (er vet zayn shtetl bashteyn).

Once, in Warsaw, he came to visit me wearing a Polish military uniform, it must have been about 1930, and the guiltier he felt, the more graciously I greeted him until we both burst--not from rage, but from laughter. “You think that I don’t know?” I said. And, with an insolent laugh, he said “You think that I don’t know that you know?” in that way that only Galician poets can.

Here and there, in the course of my travels around the globe, I would receive his letters, his poems, which were all mixed together like one long cry, punctuated by short breaths, from the whole of Polish Jewry: “We want to escape from here, or else life here escape by asphyxiation!” Perhaps the strongest, truly national expression of them all was Ashendorf’s poem about the packed suitcases...Moments before the war began, he sent me a little book “Distant Greetings” (grisn in der vayt), with this bold note: “So your son--for I have no inheritance to leave him--will not have to fight with my true son--eleven years his junior--about his father’s “left” paternal love…”


*-Hoykh kunst ibergegebene” could also be rendered as “highly, artistically committed” or “highly committed to art.”

**- Meaning the Jewish alphabet. This is apparently a phrase, although not a particularly common one, the YBC’s OCR returns 9 attestations of it.

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