Simchovitch’s Fiery Mountain

Readers of the Yiddish Forward may have noticed several published notices in the New York-based newspaper a while ago congratulating Toronto poet and writer Simcha (Sam) Simchovitch for passing the milestone of his 85th birthday.

Simchovitch is known as one of Canada’s senior Yiddish writers, yet he’s also achieved recognition for his literary contributions in English and Hebrew. As of last year, he’s also begun appearing in other languages. His autobiographical novel Stepchild On The Vistula, was originally published in Yiddish in 1990 and translated into English in 1994; last year a Warsaw publishing house produced a Polish-language edition, complete with a laudatory introduction by Elie Wiesel.

A regrettable occupational hazard of every Yiddish writer is the inevitably small and declining readership attendant upon a dying language. Consequently Simchovitch has published several collections of poems in his own capable English translation. He’s also written some poems in English, prompting a Globe and Mail critic to commend him for doing “what very few poets have ever done — completed the transition from a native language to a new vernacular.”

And like a child that weaves on his tiny feet
and walks, and falls, and tries again,
I try anew my pen
in English.

The winner of various literary prizes including two Canadian Jewish Book Awards and two I.J. Segal awards for Yiddish Literature, he is apparently not one to rest on his laurels. Mosaic Press recently published his translation of At the Mercy of Strangers: Survival in Nazi Occupied Poland, a Holocaust memoir that his aunt, Gitel Hopfeld, penned originally in Polish. And his various current projects include The Fiery Mountain, a proposed three-part collection of Yiddish and English poems about the shtetl of his youth, the Holocaust and Israel.

Despite philosopher Theodor Adorno’s well-known declaration that there can be no poetry after Auschwitz, Simchovitch has devoted a large segment of his literary output, including such poems as “Auschwitz Elegy,” “September 7, 1939” and “Memorial Book,” to the devastation of the Shoah.

He was born near Otwock, Poland, in 1921, grew up in Otwock and, as he describes in “September 7, 1939,” left his parents’ home as German planes threatened death and ruin.

I tie my bundle – two shirts,
a worn out coat for winter,
few photographs, crumpled sheets
filled with Yiddish writing.

Outside the house – my sobbing mom,
father, brother, sisters;
we embrace, few words said,
neighbours all around us.

The Nazis murdered most of the remaining Jews of Otwock in 1942: Simchovitch professes a sacred duty to bear witness and to remember. “My main goal in writing is to commemorate my parents who were killed in the Shoah — my little brother, my three sisters, my friends in the youth organization. I’m glad I was able to write about them in poetry, to immortalize them.”

His self-proclaimed mission also includes writing about the vibrant Jewish life that existed in Poland in the interwar years (1918 to 1939), a period whose culture and history he claims has been overlooked. Shtetl literature by the likes of Sholem Aleichem and other writers elegantly captures an early time, but far fewer words have been written about Polish-Jewish life in the 20th century, he asserts.

“There were three and a half million Jews in Poland then. There was an intensive Jewish life, religious and secular. There was a youth organization, political organizations, sports clubs — there was so much. All of this dispersed, all of this was wiped out, and there was no time for the writers of the new generation to appear and to tell their stories. So this I felt was my main task: to re-create this life.”

Having escaped the war in Siberia, he returned briefly to Poland after the war and saw firsthand the cruel devastation of his beloved hometown. He wrote his first poem in 1946 and his first collection, Thus A Youth Perished, appeared in 1950, after he and his wife had landed in Montreal. He worked in a leather factory for two years, took some courses at the Montreal Jewish Teachers Seminary, and taught cheder in Ottawa for six years. In the mid-sixties he and his family settled in Toronto, where he became curator of the Judaica Museum of the Beth Tzedec Congregation.

At the culmination of his studies, for which he earned a masters in Hebrew literature from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, he wrote a Hebrew thesis on the 18th-century Jewish philosopher Solomon Maimon; it appeared in 1972. His other book-length work is Stepchild on the Vistula, an autobiographical novel of Polish-Jewish life, told in the third-person narrative voice of a fictional character.

“This I wrote in one summer, in about ten weeks in Ottawa during a summer vacation. I went every day to the school and the school was closed, and I wrote every day. It [a draft manuscript] had been lying around for many years because I was studying. After my studies I dug it out and edited it.”

Stepchild on the Vistula is based on a much earlier work that has apparently been lost. In the late ‘30s, Simchovitch responded to a campaign from the YIVO Institute, seeking autobiographical essays from young people. “I wrote down my story and sent it to them, then war broke out. Afterwards I tried to trace it at YIVO in New York. They have a list of submissions: my name is there but my original is missing.”

His poetry collections include Selected Poems (1990), A Song Will Remain (1994), The Remnant (1999) and Out of the Abyss (2003). He’s also published The Song That Never Died, a collection of translated songs by Mordechai Gebirtig (2001); and After the Blood Inundation, a collection of Yiddish essays (2004).

Despite the images in many of these titles, Simchovitch also writes on less solemn matters: the pleasures of life in Canada, for instance, even some lyrical poems about old age. Perhaps it is this lyricism and what critic Moishe Wolf has called “the special Jewish feeling of mercy” that most elevates his work. For all their dolorous subject matter, his poems also celebrate life:

The cup nearly empty,
I thirst for more,
and count the bounty
hour by hour.

Like a scribe who pens
a holy scroll,
I sanctify the road
and pay the toll.

Because after all
I say: “It was good!”
My testimony —
to life a salute.

We hope that Simcha Simchovitch may record his joyous song for many more years to come. ♦

© 1999