The warrior in old age
Abba Kovner, Sloan-Kettering: Poems, translated from the Hebrew by Eddie Levenston;
Foreword by Leon Wieseltier.
New York: Schocken, 2002, xvi + 134 pp. $10
New edition, Toby Press
And where will fate send me death --
In battle, in wandering, in the waves?
Or will the neighboring valley
Receive my cold ashes?
Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin,
"Whether I wander down noisy streets..."
Achilles knew (his mother Thetis, a nymph, told him) that his life, should he choose war and glory, was fated to be short. The Iliad ends with Hektor's funeral: both Achilles and Troy are doomed, yet Homer leaves their end to his listeners' imagination. Wandering Odysseus was fated to die at sea, but it was about two thousand and fifty years before the next installment, Dante's Inferno, appeared and the reader found out how.
Now let us suppose that a talented sculptor and painter becomes, quite unexpectedly, the leader of a small fighting band. The most they can hope for is survival, and that against impossible odds, for the vast mechanized army of the richest, most technologically advanced nation in Europe has invaded their home, the tiny Baltic republic of Lithuania, not to conquer them, but to wipe them out. As the intended victims are Jews, many of the local Lithuanians and Poles collaborate with the Germans. Urban people whose life had been books and music had no place to run but the cold forests, where many partisans did not welcome them either. The leader of this band, Abba Kovner, hero of the Vilna ghetto uprising, survives the war, though Zeus and Hera are against him. Thetis lies in some mass grave. Phthia is gone.
Kovner crosses the same Greek sea, to another war. The Arabs, with the help of the malevolent British government and its army, are determined to wipe out the Jews in the land of Israel. Kovner fights yet another despairing war. There is no Homer to record the Jewish victory, whose sole prize, again, is mere survival. Kovner has survived. He and his wife settle in kibbutz Ein ha-Horesh, and he writes poetry.
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From previous issues:
Wagner in Israel
How Jewish is Modigliani?
Loneliness and Faith