The Great War

from Poems of the Great War, an electronic edition


It is twelve years since I have been there --

I was born there,

In the little town, by the river --

It all comes back to me now

Reading in the newspaper:

"The Germans have seized the bridge-head at Kartúshkiya-Beró;za;

The Russians are retreating in good order across the marshes;

The town is in flames."


Sweet-sounding, time-scented name --

Smelling of wide-extending marshes of hay;

Smelling of cornfields;

Smelling of apple-orchards;

Smelling of cherry-trees in full blossom;

Smelling of all the pleasant recollections of my childhood --

Smelling of Grandmother's kitchen,

Grandmother's freshly-baked dainties,

Grandmother's plum-pudding --


I see before me a lane running between two rows of straggling cottages --

I cannot remember the name of the lane;

I do not know whether it has any name at all;

But I remember it was broad and unpaven and shaded with wide-branching chestnuts --

And enters the market-place

Just a few houses after my Grandfather's --


I can see it even now

My Grandfather's house --

On the lane, to the right, as you come from the market-place;

A big, hospitable frame building --

Big like my Grandfather's own heart,

And hospitable like Grandmother's smile --

I can see it even now,

With the white-pillared porch in the centre and the sharp-gabled roof

Pierced with little windows;

And the great quadrangular garden behind it;

And the tall fence surrounding the garden;

And the old well in the corner of the garden;

With the bucket-lift

Rising over the fence --


I can see him even now,

My Grandfather --

Bending over me, tall and sad-eyed and thoughtful

Lifting me up and seating me on his knees


And listening to all my childish questions and confessions;

Pardoning, admonishing, remonstrating --

Satisfying my interrogative soul with good-humored indulgence --

And my Grandmother,

Dear little woman!

I can never dissociate her from plum-pudding and apple dumplings,

And raisin-cakes and almond cakes and crisp potato pancakes

And the smell of fish frying on the fire --

And then there is my cousin, Miriam,

Who lived in the yellow house across the lane --

A freckle-faced, cherry-eyed little girl with a puckered-up nose.

I was very romantic about her;

And then there is my curse, my rival at school, my arch-enemy --


The synagogue sexton's boy,

On whom 1 was always warring --

God knows on what battlefield he must be lying now!

And then there is Nathan and Joseph and Berel and Solomon

And Ephraim, the baker's boy,

And Baruch and Gershen and Mendel

And long-legged, sandy-haired Emanuel who fell into the pond with me that time,

While we were skating on the ice --


I can see myself even now

In the lane on a summer's day,

Cap in hand, chasing after dragon-flies --

Suddenly, near by, sounds the noise of drums and bugles --

I know what that means!

Breathlessly I dash up the lane --

It is the regiment quartered in the barracks at the end of the town, in its annual parade on the highway --

How I would wish to be one of those gray-coated heroes!

I watch them eager-eyed --

And run after them until they reach the Gentile Quarter --

And then I turn back --


I am in the market-place --

At a Fair;

The market-place is a heaving mass of carts and horses and oxen;

The oxen are lowing, the horses are neighing, the peasants are cursing in a dozen different dialects --

I am in Grandfather's store,

On the lower end of the market-place, right opposite the public well --

The store is full of peasants and peasant women, bargaining at the top of their voices;

The men are clad in rough sheepskin coats and fur caps;

The women are gay in bright-colored cottons and wear red kerchiefs around their heads;

My Grandfather is standing behind the counter measuring out rope to some peasants;

Grandmother is cutting a strip of linen for a peasant woman, chaffering with another one at the same time, about the price of a pair of sandals --

And I am sitting there, behind the counter, on a sack of flour,

Playing with my black-eyed little cousin --



It comes back to me suddenly --

That I am sitting here, with a newspaper in my hand,


"The Germans have seized the bridge-head at Kartúshkiya-Beró;za;

The Russians are retreating in good order across the marshes;

The town is in flames!"