Writer, teacher and Historian –
(A biography and selective works will be added.)
Lea Greenstein was born on 2.8 1903 in the small town Seda (Siad) in Northwest Lithuania, where she spent her younger years. She attended the first Yiddish middle school, located in Ukmerge (Vilkomir) and then moved to Kaunas (Kovno) where she worked as a secretary in an orphanage. Later she received nurses training and worked in the local Jewish hospital. In Kovno she increasingly joined and was part of various literary circles, and in 1931 she married the teacher and writer Israel Kaplan. Two children were born to the couple; Shalom in 1933 and Yehudith in 1937.
Lea Greenstein published her first poem – “Ich Vart” (I wait) – in 1930. Thereafter she published poems in local Jewish papers and journals, which after the world war were partially traced in Israeli archives. Her poems are suffused with a deep lyrical mood, and they sensitively observe the human condition. At the time, they were noted favorably in reviews and they were much appreciated in literary circles. Some of her letters that have survived from the 1930s speak of her wide interests in literature and art and express serious reflections concerning these. They also indicate how she was torn between the duties of a housewife and her desire for independence.
In 1940, Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet armies. Lea Greenstein’s last poem reveals the support and enthusiasm with which she greeted the Soviets, using the image of an itinerant Gypsy woman who will now give birth in a clean bed and not in a barren field. Her joy was short lived. In summer 1941 German armies occupied Lithuania and she together with her family, like all the Jews, were imprisoned in the ghetto. Less than a year later, Israel Kaplan was deported to the Riga ghetto and Lea was left to fend alone for herself and her children.
For the next two and one half years, Lea Greenstein worked in a felt factory outside the ghetto. Miraculously, she and her small family survived several Aktions until, at the beginning of 1944, she smuggled her seven-year old daughter out from the ghetto and sometime later her son as well. Both children were hidden with Lithuanian people.
Lea Greenstein perished when the Germans liquidated the ghetto in July 1944. Her daughter Yehudith was denounced by the people who had first sheltered her and was killed. Israel Kaplan managed to survive in several German death camps and after the war was reunited in Israel with his son Shalom.
On the end of 2010 a publication that contains Lea Greenstein’s original eleven surviving poems, as written in Yiddish, its Hebrew translation, several reviews and essays dealing in detail with her life and poetry, and a selection of her letters has been published. The book bears the title “To Flicker,” based on a citation from one of L.G’s letters to the writer Nathan Greenblat (Goren).
(From the preface of “To Flicker”):
May this book be a memorial to a brave young woman, devoted mother and poet, whose young life was snuffed out by an evil hand.
Further details about her life, especially the final years, are in Shalom Eilati’s autobiography, Crossing the River, The University of Alabama Press, 2008 .
Lea Greenstein – Poems
(Translation by Vivian London, Jerusalem 2012 – Final Draft)
I’m Waiting! (p. 12)
I’m waiting for you, you have yet to come.
I know the day is still so far away.
How good it is to think about the flowers
That will blossom with your steps.
I’m waiting for you, you will surely come;
I know that you are still far, far away. My heart
Is full of flowers now, — missing you
I see you in the silence
Wanderlust (p. 14)
The flame of my passion to see you, world,
Has been kindled, to see you large as life
To walk across your breadth,
Drink up your sorrow
Now I’ll spread my steps
On strange and distant sidewalks
On long and narrow byways.
My eyes will climb up rows of tall buildings,
Ramble all alone on earth, and wildly,
With pain or joy, my teeth
Will bite deep into my own flesh
And let the wind caress me;
I shall swoon, swoon for you, world,
At how wanton you are,
Lost in longing is the forest (p.18)
Lost in longing is the forest
The day of joy has seeped away.
Trees are woven with the night
Curling inward to themselves.
Birds have flown to distant suns.
Wind and storm possess the woods
Whoo – shoo – whoo – shoo No time
For longing now:
Now is the hour to rejoice in creation
The birth of something new
Before it is lost.
How I envy those
Who can weep out loud.
Whose tears flow not inside
Deep within their eyes,
But are borne like airy blooms
Floating far and pouring out to blend
With the world’s clamor.
My tears lie deep inside me
Squirming and scratching at me
To the point of pain.
If I had a God now
Even an imaginary one
I would pray to him to make my tears
Flow, flow, silent and sad.
Blood in the Spring (p. 24)
Blood in the Spring.
Blood on the sun…
A drop of blood glides
On the pure white blossom
The tree shakes itself:
I know rain on my body
Now – blood?!
By whose hand?
From whose heart?
– Murderous hand.
Blood of pure
Innocent children –
Hisses the red drop
Through its teeth.
The sky is silent
In the valley today,
The sun is silent.
– – – – – – – – –
And rows of graves sprout up
Beneath white blossoms
The eye sheds tears
From the white blooms.
Blood in the Spring
Blood on the sun….
Hear my pain (p.30)
Hear my pain, my silent pain,
But be still, like me.
Words are weak,
Sounds too small,
To speak of silent pain.
There was a quiet fall of leaves
When I met you in the street,
You smiled and nodded to me.
Coldly I nodded back.
And buried my eyes in the asphalt.
I entrust my sorrow
To the stillness of the pond,
To the evening breeze.
My loneliness grows yet deeper
And sadder my steps.
The Liberated Gypsy Woman (p. 32)
Long fingers in a black braid
Red sky looks down
On a white bed in Ward Two,
The gypsy woman’s full breast
Nuzzles the baby’s little lips.
Her birthing bed was once
A field, gray skies, gray earth,
Hounds baying outside;
The wind would wrap
The newborn wandering child.
And the lovely, brooding gypsy woman
A single tear upon her breast, smiles in the night.
Gypsy woman! – No longer are you a child of the wild.
An end to wandering, stop where you are
Raise your head proudly.
Eyes peering, eyes on the watch
Spreading joy on you both
You and your child shall now have
A home, a roof, and bread.
From Ha’aretz, Friday, October 21, 2011, Culture and Literature Section
“When She Becomes a Mother, a Woman Ceases to be a Person.”
On the poetry of Lea Greenstein, a contemporary and countrywoman of Leah Goldberg. Greenstein’s poetry and other works have now been translated from Yiddish into Hebrew for the first time
Flackern (To Flicker), by Lea Greenstein, Poems, letters and articles on her life and work, compiled and edited by Shalom (Kaplan) Eilati, Carmel, 2011
A Kovno poet and journalist named Mordechai Yafo ventured to propose a cluster of features common to all the Lithuanian Yiddish and Hebrew writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: brooding intellectualism, elegaic melancholy, sharp-wittedness, skepticism, and a connection to tradition and family. It may well be that Yafo arrived at this generalization from the famous “Litvaks”: Y.L.Gordon, Broydes, Preil, Dinezon, Yehoash, Lilienblum, Leah Goldberg. Many of these characteristics are indeed present in the small corpus of poems by Lea Greenstein, a lesser-known Kovno poet, a book of whose poetry has just now been published.
Flackern (To Flicker) was brought out by her son, retired agronomist Dr. Shalom (Kaplan) Eilati, in his late 70s. Seven decades have passed from the day his mother sent him off from the Kovno ghetto across the river to the Gentile world and salvation. Lea Greenstein herself perished in the ruins of the Kovno ghetto in July 1944, two weeks before the Russian liberators entered the city.
The book is bilingual: the original in Yiddish stands as a monument to the world of imagery and associations encompassed in that language, and the Hebrew seeks the eye of the Israeli reader. The son translated the poems. The book contains 11 poems that she published before the war in Yiddish literary periodicals, and some letters that she wrote to relatives and friends in Eretz Israel and America. The poems were collected painstakingly by her son and her husband, Israel Kaplan, in periodical libraries in Israel and abroad. The letters were supplied over the years by their recipients or their heirs. All the poems and letters were written by Lea Greenstein before the time of the ghetto. “In dem kessel” (in the boiler), as she put it, she no longer wrote.
Lea Greenstein, like Leah Goldberg, of the same city and generation, was an independent and stormy woman, solitary and introspective. Unlike Goldberg, who chose to immigrate to Eretz Israel and became a master of the Hebrew language, Greenstein opted for the Jewish cultural integration into the Communist environment and the continued use of Yiddish.
Most of the poems have a personal and emotional tone: the passion of love, storm and suffering, the soul’s wandering and its trembling. Here is a poem she dedicated to an anonymous lover, Sh.Sh., whose absence apparently cast a shadow on her whole life:
My soul’s constant wanderings
Belong to you and you alone.
Who else so understands
The volcanic tangle deep within me
That ferments in you as well!
You are the last in this generation
Who suffers from an honest heart.
In every moment of my existence
I see you and you alone –
You are the silent flutter of my being.
This poem captures Lea Greenstein’s personality, an inquisitive, empathic and soaring spirit, who felt trapped in a shackling and unsatisfying marriage. In an article about his mother, the last in the book’s series of articles, Eilati points out the blatant mismatch of personalities between his parents: “It is an enigma, how a tie was found and tightened between two such opposite types – the scholarly, serious, stable, home-loving son of a Rabbi and the vivacious young woman (her friends nicknamed her “Umru” – the stormy, restless one.)” The unhappy marriage yielded, in the Spring of 1933, the baby boy Sholemkeh, and two love poems in the book are dedicated to him:
Here I’ll sit, yingeleh
All my evenings with you
I’ll tell you a story
Sing you a song
….We’ll play and play
We’ll roll on the floor
I’m a little girl now too
Wild and mischievous like you.
In the face of this maternal love poem, it is interesting to note her extremely independent opinions, provocative and ahead of their time, towards the essence of motherhood as they appear in her letters to her younger sister Liba-Haviva, who settled in Kibbutz Tel Yosef in the early1930s: “In general I am now a broken vessel…so I say again…that to bear children…is neither necessary nor essential, at any rate for a woman this is a regression of years. I am now of course in opposition to men. The great fault is with nature, which preferred them so much, and gave us the short end… That’s the way it is, that is the tragedy of woman. When she becomes a mother, she ceases to be a human being and becomes the project of a tiny person who is endlessly demanding….so what does it mean now to write poems, songs? He is now the ultimate Song of Songs.”
Apart from the personal poems there are poems of universal ideas that reflect the trans-nationalist, Yiddish-Soviet ideology that was several decades ahead of the America-centric multiculturalism. In Blood in the Spring, a poem published in October 1936, about four years before the onset of the slaughter in the city of Kovno, she casts her eyes far to the west. This is a poem of weltschmerz regarding the superfluous bloodshed in the Spanish Civil War:
Blood in the Spring
Blood on the sun
…a spray of blood
stains the pure white blossom:
The tree shakes itself:
Always rain on my body
Now – blood?!
The final poem in the collection, too, reflects the same caring towards others. The poem To a Liberated Gypsy Woman, written from the point of view of a nurse – the profession she practiced before the war – is written with a joy in which it is impossible not to hear the passion of her commitment to Communism. In it, she celebrates the relief that the Soviet occupation brought to the Gypsy woman in childbirth, who previously had to have her babies in the open field to the sound of baying dogs, and now: “in a clean white bed in Ward Two.… you can stop wandering now, hold your head up proudly.”
A letter she wrote to Nathan Greenblatt, her older colleague in the group of young Kovno poets Mir Alein (“We Ourselves”), who chose, like Leah Goldberg, to immigrate to Eretz Israel in the mid-1930s, also reveals her passion for social justice and concern: “I am working as a nurse in the Jewish Hospital and am completely satisfied. The work is interesting. It is not boring tailoring or office work…. This is live social work… this is not being frozen inside the house, which I would not be able to stand. Gorki writes somewhere: ‘There are trees that burn and those that rot.’ Oh, I do not want to rot; to burn, to flicker, is more beautiful. Oh, how deep and true is what he wrote.” The word “flicker” gave the book its name, and not by chance: juxtaposed with the word “flutter” which also appears in one of the poems, it symbolizes very well Greenstein’s stormy temperament, she who chooses to flicker and flutter, and shuns “foiln” (decaying) and “fargeyn” (fading away).
Not only in her writings but also in the choices she made one hears the echo of Abba Kovner, the poet-partisan from the neighboring ghetto, the Vilna ghetto, who exhorted, “Let us not go as sheep to the slaughter.” Lea was active in the Communist underground in the Kovno ghetto although, in the end, she did not succeed in her plan to join the partisans in the forests. And another activist move of hers failed as well: her effort to save her little daughter Yehudith in the same way she succeeding in saving her son. The Lithuanians to whom she entrusted the girl watched over her for a while and then turned her over to the Germans.
Lea Greenstein has not enjoyed the waves of popularity and affection enjoyed by the famous Leah, Goldberg. But Lea Greenstein is worth reading too, and not only in Departments of Gender Studies, some of which have already discovered her, her poems and her letters.
Translated from the Hebrew by Vivian London