4.24. Yehuda Haim Perahia, poem ‘A Little Light’ (1944)

The author of this poem, Yehuda Haim Perahia (1886-1970), lived in the northern Greek city of Xanthi as a poet, novelist, journalist and employee of a tobacco company. The adoption of Ladino as his literary language was an ideological choice, dating from the years before the Shoah. *Gruss, “Una lengua materna por adopción” 129.

In 1940, the north of Greece was occupied by fascist Italy and Perahia realized he was in immediate danger. In 1942, the Italian army was reinforced by the German Wehrmacht and the next year, the deportation of Jews from northern Greece to Auschwitz and Treblinka began. With luck and the help of some non-Jews, Perahia succeeded in escaping to Athens. “I reached Athens from Kavalla and the villages of Khalkidhiki without guards asking me who I was. They would look at me but would not see me.” *Perahia, postscript to his poem El terzo grito en la angustia en Salonique (“The Third Cry in Anguish in Salonika”). In Lévy, And the World Stood Silent: Sephardic Poetry of the Holocaust 137.

The Italian capitulation in September 1943 did not relieve the tension, because Germany also occupied southern Greece and started the deportation of Jews from Athens. On October 14, 1944 however, Athens was liberated by the British in an operation with the biblical name “Operation Manna” and the next day, Perahia wrote A Little Light.

This Ladino poem with its original title Oun poco de louz has been preserved in manuscript; later, it was translated into English and included in an anthology of Sephardi poetry on the Shoah. *Lévy, And the World Stood Silent 150-5. In the twelve poems by Perahia in this anthology, the word louz is used five times (pp. 118, 142, 150, 158, and 162); Lévy translates it four times as “light;” in the title Oun poco de louz, however, as “hope.” In this chapter, the obvious translation as “light” has been chosen. The 15-stanza poem is a knittel verse, in which the lines do not have a fixed number of syllables or beats; the knittel technique stresses the narrative character of A Little Light, whose content resembles a page of a diary or a letter to a friend.

Perahia’s point of departure was his depression after the liberation and from this situation in the Present, he reconsiders the events of the Past. Stanzas 1-3 depict the celebration of the liberation in Athens with the flags, flowers and tumultuous parades; the more subdued celebration by the Jewish survivors in the synagogue is described from stanza 4 onwards:

[4] En grande Keyla ouna orasion dé alégria ès organizada
Todos a ouna kiéren alavar al Dio en esta bouéna sémanada
Eillos cantan en djountos todos los salmos dé alégria
Mourmouréados por los assistientès en toda compagnia.—

[5] En soupétas los sonès del Chofar sentir sé iziéron
Al primo toutouroutoutou los corassonès sé dezliéron
Ménéo las almas dé todos los ombrès i las moujérès
Ké tétéréaron como nounca en sous profondos essérès.—

[6] La commossion ressentida foué mouy grandé i fouerté
Los sonès del chofar paressian espander sonès dé mouerté
El aver i las parédés mezmo dé esta caza dé orassion
Retenblavan como mozotros, aférados dé santa émosion.

[7] Todos, tchikos i grandès sé récojéron en si tremblando
Non sé descrivé lo ké sous almas ressentian en tétéréando
Los ojos sé empagnaron i las lagrimas abondantès cailleron
Lagrimas santas entré las santas como coual nounca ouviéron.

*[4] “In the main synagogue a joyful prayer is organized. / All, in unison, want to praise God in this blessed week. / They sing together all the happy psalms, / Murmured in unison by those in attendance.” // [5] Suddenly the sound of the shofar was heard. / On the first blasts all hearts stood still; / It moved the souls of all the men and women, / Who trembled as never before in their innermost hearts. // [6] The agitation they experienced was very great and strong; / The sounds of the shofar seemed to spread funereal wails. / The atmosphere, even the walls of this house of prayer, / Trembled as we did, seized with the feeling of holiness. // [7] Everyone, young and old, withdrew within himself, trembling; / One cannot describe what their shivering souls felt. / The eyes became blurred and many tears fell; / Holiest of holy tears such as never were before.” In And the World Stood Silent 150-1. The Ladino version contains a few typographic particularities, such as a lack of interpunction and a capitalized Chofar in stanza 5. The original poem was probably written in Hebrew characters and transliterated by Lévy. Stanza 4 relates how the surviving Jews in the synagogue utter their complicated emotions not verbally, but musically in psalms of praise, “murmured in unison” as Perahia puts it; though singing in unison is usual in a congregation, the term “unison” also stresses the solidarity, while the “murmuring” could express their deadly weariness; perhaps that is why, just as at the end of stanza 5, Perahia uses a subtle hyphen to recover his breath. If “all the happy psalms” *According to Gunkel, An Introduction to the Psalms, there are 26 “hymns in general,” 11 to 13 “thanksgivings of the individual,” and four “thanksgivings of the community.” Two “hymns in general,” Pss. 98 and 150, mention the shofar is to be understood literally, the mentally and physically exhausted congregation chant dozens of them. The shofar in stanza 5 performs the qualitative leap of the verbal into the nonverbal utterance; the answer to the shofar blasts consists in the equally nonverbal trembling and tears, and using a praeteritio, Perahia even states that “One cannot describe what their shivering souls felt” (stanza 7). This transition from the word into the blast is emphasized by an onomatopoeia, which is lost in the English translation. The toutouroutoutou in stanza 5 is a general term for trumpet blowing in Ladino and some other Romance languages, ​and here in particular, it is an onomatopoeia expressing the repetitive shevarim and teruʿah.

The personification of the ram’s horn in stanza 6: “The sounds of the shofar seemed to spread funereal wails” is reminiscent of a passage in the Yom Kippur prayer book, in which a rabbi mourns the death of a martyr: “[He] wailed over him bitterly, / in a voice like a shofar.” *The Koren Yom Kippur Maḥzor 932. The superlative genitive “holiest of holy tears” in stanza 7 refers to a midrash on Judg. 5 with Deborah’s hymn to God after the victory over the Canaanites. Jael has killed the enemy commander Sisera, but his mother does not know this yet and awaits his homecoming. *Judg. 5:28-29: “Through the window peered Sisera’s mother, / Behind the lattice she whined: / ‘Why is his chariot so long in coming? / Why so late the clatter of his wheels?’ / 29 The wisest of her ladies give answer; / She, too, replies to herself:” (and then, she thinks of things her son might be doing.) The midrash about the 101 tears of Sisera’s mother is based on the 101 Hebrew characters of Judg. 5:28-29; the blowing of 100 shofar blasts in the Rosh Ha-Shanah service is the symbolical annihilation of the cruelty of Sisera and his mother as an accomplice in crime; the 101st tear, however, is the utterance of the real sorrow of the mother who had lost her child. *The Complete ArtScroll Machzor Rosh Hashanah 584.

In stanzas 5-7, the usual authoritative discourse of the shofar blasts becomes internally persuasive discourse in a literal, physical sense: at the first blast, all hearts stand still; then, the words tétéréaron (“trembled”), retenblavan (“trembled”), and tétéréando (“trembling”) appear, echoing the consonants of the shofar’s toutouroutoutou, and finally, all members of the congregation withdraw into themselves. The remaining stanzas 8-15 of A Little Light do not describe the events in the synagogue but, instead, the thoughts of the poet. He realizes the seriousness of the situation after the murder of 85,000 of the 90,000 Greek Jews. *Gilbert, Atlas of the Holocaust 242 estimates the number of surviving Greek Jews at 12,000. “The heart breaks, O God!” says Perahia in stanza 10, “O that this never had happened!”

This prayer with its background of wordless shofar blasts is the end point in Perahia’s dialogue with God in the eleven poems from the period 1941-1944 in Lévy’s anthology. As a result of his suffering, Perahia loses his trust in God, and eventually even the will to live. Thanks to the dating of the poems, the development of this dialogue can be followed in verses from these poems:

February 12, 1941: “O God! Put an end to our suffering and to our desolation.”
July 14, 1942: “Why did God take us to be His chosen people / And for that reason bear endless tortures and sufferings?”
November 17, 1942: “O Lord! Do not send fire into the bones of those who love You.”
March 17, 1943: “Loving Father! How could you close Your heart to such a tragedy?”
March 30, 1943: “O Creator of the Universe! How could You let this crime take place?”
May 16, 1943: “Lord of the Universe! If You were a man / I would have brought You to judgment even in Your holy name!”
October, 1943: “You deserted us like a flock abandoned and without a shepherd.”
December 22, 1943 (Ḥanukkah): “Could it be, merciful God, that our lips will no longer praise You?”
July 29, 1944 (9 Av): “What do I care, Eternal God, whether I live or die?”
August 20, 1944 (1 Elul): “You have brought us to the point of telling You in spite of ourselves / That we are weary of being Your pitiful children.” *And the World Stood Silent 117, 119, 125, 127, 131, 137, 141, 143, 161, 147.

In these ten quoted verses, the Present remains directed by the Past, because even in his alienation from God, Perahia continues to use the language and the imagery of the Bible. “Fire into the bones” (November 17, 1942) can be found in Lam. 1:13: “From above He sent a fire / Down into my bones.” “A flock abandoned” (October, 1943) is an image in some prophetical books and “praising lips” (December 22, 1943) in Psalms.

Deep frustration is the theme of A Little Light as well, though the persona does not reproach God but, instead, the other members of the Jewish community. After the twelve stanzas of mourning, the turning point, where he is hit by frustration, is reached in the three final stanzas 13-15. He remembers having predicted the persecution of the Jews in Greece and pointed at the possibility of an escape to Palestine, whereas almost nobody took his advice:

[13] I las lagrimas dé estos salvados dé oy dé mouévo caillen
Dé sous boccas aviertas ni oun biervo, solo souspiros salen
I portanto à moutchos dé los prézentes, con affliction
Yo mezmo les avia prévédido esta maloroza persécoution.

[14] Les avia conséjado con amor dé yrsen en Eretz Israel,
Dé instalarsen i servir el Paez con dévouamiento fièl
Assegourandossen sous salvation i la dé toda sou Djenté
Egoyzmo altanto ménéstérozo por las oras solamenté,–

[15] Mouy pocos sintiéron. Los otros kédaron indéférentès
I la dezgrassia vino, mos toco i mos aharvo profondamenté
Ké al ménos la lission sierva i lo ké non sé izo dé antès
Sé aga agora presto i tornen à Sion todos sous amantès!

*[13] “And the tears of those who are safe today fall once again; / From their open mouths not a word is uttered, only sighs. / And I, however, to many of those present, with grief / Had personally predicted this disastrous persecution. // [14] With love I had advised them to go to Eretz Israel, / To settle and serve the country with faithful devotion, / Assuring themselves of their salvation and that of all their people. / That degree of selfishness was necessary for those times. // [15] Few listened. The rest remained indifferent. / And the disaster came; it touched us and hit us deeply. / At least, let the lesson be useful, and what was not done before, / Let it be done immediately and all the faithful return to Zion.” As these final stanzas reveal, redemption in A Little Light has no eschatological, but a Zionist character, being connected to a concrete return to Ereẓ Israel. At the same time, this redemption relates to Yom Kippur. The Day of Atonement fell on September 27, 1944 before liberation, and could not be celebrated in the synagogue; instead, the liberation may be celebrated on shabbat October 14, or on October 15, the date of the poem. In any case, God is praised at the end of Neʿilah and this prayer is followed by a tekiʿah gedolah on the shofar, the wish “Next year in Jerusalem rebuilt!” and a prayer for peace: “May He who makes peace in His high places, / make peace for us and all Israel.” Whereafter the Ark is closed. *The Koren Yom Kippur Maḥzor 1198.

The motif of the fatal decision of not to flee a catastrophe and the motif of compensation are also found in Paul Goodman’s A Memorial Synagogue, *Chapter 4.31 also written after the liberation at the end of World War II. In Goodman’s novel chapter, a Jewish artist expresses his sorrow over the death of his friends, who decided not to flee persecution in World War II, and he decides to commemorate them in a mural on the biblical theme of Noah’s ark: “So the day came and Noah blew on his shofar a loud blast . . . He blew a blast and some of the animals came, and then came the rain and the flood. But the others didn’t come, and they drowned. . . . But I shall paint these beauties into existence again, on every wall in the world!” *Goodman, “A Memorial Synagogue” 529. Here, the shofar blast is not a liturgical blast of repentance or remembrance, as in Perahia’s poem, but an alarm and assembly call.

 

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