Halina Birenbaum Speaks Out
Judih: Halina! I have so many questions.
Halina: I don’t have the time to answer a lot of questions or write volumes of responses. I’ve written so much already.
Judih: Yes, I understand. I know you’ve written a great deal and I’ve read some of your writing. I’m interested in you as a poet: how writing helped you survive. How it helped your soul.
Halina: I didn’t write in the camps. I wrote only once, when I was 11, about the flames and the horror around me. I ripped off a piece of a cement sack and found a pencil nearby and I wrote. But after that, it was impossible. Impossible in the camps.
I wrote in the ghetto in Warsaw. I wrote stories. And I read. I read books and studied with my brother.
I read books about another way of being and that’s what gave me the strength to go on. Knowing there was another world, and that the world could be the way it was written in books.
That’s what kept me going. Through all the waiting.
Waiting. Waiting for another day. Another scrap of food. When would they bring food. Waiting for the hunger to pass. To get through the cold. The conditions were so terrible. And fear.
The fear of death was always there. When would they take me?
My first poem was written as a story. I wrote “The Tears” as a short story and people told me that it was a poem, so that was my first poem.
they say that they are bitter
pungent, they choke, suffocate
they burn eyes, cause wrinkles
everyone is afraid and ashamed of them
they are considered a sign of weakness, effeminacy
an expression of adversity, sickness, mourning
people run away from their sight, hide behind them
for me it is much worse when they are not there
when their source dries out
this means that I am numb
that nothing can move or affect me anymore
that I don’t know how to worry dr how to be glad
that I have given up the fight
that nothing is left to conquer, desire or experience anymore
it means that I don’t care about anybody
and no one cares about me
therefore I am a stone
a living corpse
for me tears are necessary
I have to feel their burning fire under my eyelids
feel their wet warm trace on my face
that cramp in my throat
that shiver in my body
that quickened heart beat before they appear
I have to feel their welcome beneficial warmth
that burning pain of bitterness, indignation or protest
I have to see them in other people’s eyes
like a reflection and a response of their emotions
which are in me and grow in others toward me
for me tears are very precious
they are a cleansing form of life’s evil dust
from mediocrity, weariness, contempt
tears are sincerity, the truth, human sufferings
but also human gladness
tears can show human soul
often hurt, wretched and embittered
but often radiant, rejoiced
never stone hearted
for me tears are necessary to feel alive
to show that I have a heart
and that I am truly a human being
(ed.note:”Tears” and other poems are available online at Poetry on the Shoah )
Then I wrote a great deal and a book was published, Hope is the Last to Die, about 330 poems, and translated into Polish and it’s now in the Auschwitz Museum.
These days, I’m occupied taking care of my husband from six in the morning and I need to go to sleep early in order to wake up early. I’m very tired and I receive so many e-mails that I don’t have time to answer. It’s very difficult. I’m tired and I have no Shabbat.
But tonight in Ashdod, there’s an event being held by Yad Vashem. Children have been rehearsing songs for the Holocaust, in commemoration of International Holocaust Day. They’ve also selected one of my poems to sing. The composer of the music will be there, performing on piano, and I’m invited to attend.
This is a real mission for me to go there, but I must go for these children who’ve worked so hard.
The event is by invitation only, but I’m inviting you if you can attend. (ed. note: Halina offers me a chance to see her, to be with her at a location closer to my home than her city of Herzliya)
Judih: Unfortunately, I have to attend a seminar this evening, but I’ll see if I can make it, afterwards. Thank you, Halina. Thank you for your time. And I hope you enjoy the evening.
Halina’s book: Hope is the Last to Die is available at this site.
What will happen? Will Judih get to Ashdod to hear the concert and one of Halina’s poems set to music and performed by a Children’s choir? (to be continued…)