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Susan Cohen: California Poets Part 6, Six Translations

Susan Cohen

October 18th, 2023

California Poets: Part VI

Susan Cohen

Six Translations

By Rajzel Zychlinsky translated from Yiddish by Susan Cohen

My Child Knocks

My child knocks with closed eyelashes on the gate of the world. It is the month of Kislev— the willows shiver in frost and the starry cold is scented. The heart of my child knocks: Open!

At the street corner I met up with the eighth moon. With Jewish eyes I look into the moon’s face: –my child, the blood in your veins is the sap of belief and pain, purified by the rivers of the Bible and by the shores of the Nile. So, my mother in a shtetl in Poland prayed in a synagogue. The synagogue was of wood six hundred years old and the bones of my grandfathers shone light in the valley.

The synagogue was burned, the valley trampled over. On the effaced tombs

only shadows hover.

I place my steps slowly. I walk easily as a light-beam, as a wanderer in the desert who has found a spring.

My child knocks with closed eyelashes on the gate of the world— the sky is still full of stars and promises the way it once was above Jacob’s tent.

(Kazan, 1943)

Rajzel Zychlinsky translated from Yiddish by Susan Cohen

I Cannot Protect You

I cannot protect you, my child, from fearful dreams. Am I permitted to hide the path followed by generations who weep inside your dreaming? Your cot—a little wooden ship on black waves of hate— I touch your head with my lips, and outside, the street quiets.


Rajzel Zychlinsky translated from Yiddish by Susan Cohen

Here Germans Lived

Here Germans lived. In these homes— the ground swayed and swayed. Together with the graves.

Here Germans drank wine from our Sabbath goblets— and dispersed our bones over all the fields of Europe.

The clock here struck the sticking hours— when in the gas chamber

my mother closed her blue eyes.

Trees rustled, the sun shone, when my people were consumed in the ovens of Majdanek and Oświęcim.

Why did you not rain sulfur —envoy of God? Why did you not hail stones here, over German heads?

Why did you not rain tears at least for one Jewish child? With blood, why did you not wail over the German towns?


Rajzel Zychlinsky translated from Yiddish by Susan Cohen

Dear Neighbors

Buy, buy, dear neighbors, buy this little piece of earth. Cheap, dirt-cheap! You will build a house here, dig a well, and plant a garden outside the window. No specter will terrify you; my mother will not return from the gas chamber, her grandchildren either. And I will also not come back here, with my tear. I take only a stone— that felt my mother’s tread. In foreign, homeless nights it will be a pillow for my head.


Rajzel Zychlinsky translated from Yiddish by Susan Cohen

We Live On

We live on, upon the earth that swallowed our blood and tear. It will be a green springtime— our bones finely ground ash. We live on, a handful surviving for Kaddish.

We eat bread made from the fields, drink water from a well. The sun is merciful, it touches us with a beam… We lead our children by their small hands, past ruined homes, ruined walls, past dead islands of dead childhoods. The wind romps happy and free.

We live on. Snow falls on us. We meet white trees, yes, we see. We drink the twilight with dark eyes, and speak mutely to small, gray birds.

Rajzel Zychlinsky translated from Yiddish by Susan Cohen

Two Stones

The river near our house began in the eyes of my brother— quiet and gray.

Quiet and gray flows the river, two stones consider me; these are the eyes of my brother— already stripped—of terror and hope.

Author Bios:

Rajzel Zychlinsky was born in 1910 in Poland. She won early praise for her poetry and her first book appeared in 1936. She escaped to the Soviet Union in 1939 where she and her husband had a son. She returned briefly to Poland after the war, settled in New York City in 1951, then moved to California for her final years. Before her death at the age of 90, Zychlinsky published seven collections of poems in Yiddish and received Israel’s Itzik Manger Prize for Yiddish literature. Though she knew five languages, she chose to continue writing only in the language spoken by millions who died in the gas chambers, including her sister, brother, and mother. These poems all appeared in Silent Doors (1962) and were written during and shortly after the war. Translated with permission of Marek Kanter.

Susan Cohen is the author of two chapbooks and three full-length collections: Democracy of Fire (2022), A Different Wakeful Animal (2016), and Throat Singing (2012). Her poetry has appeared in 32 Poems, Prairie Schooner, The Southern Review, Verse Daily, and won the Rita Dove, Red Wheelbarrow, Terrain,org and other prizes. Her translations of the work of Rachel Zychlinski can be found in Asymptote, Loch Raven Review, Los Angeles Review, and Women’s Voices for Change. She lives in Berkeley, California.


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