By the road stands a tree,
A three bent down
All the birds of that tree
have flown away.
Three to the west, three to the east,
And the rest to the south,
And the tree is left alone,
Abandoned in the face of the storm.
[Oyfn veg shteyt a boym, Polish translation by A. Słonimski]
POET BY GOD'S GRACE
Itzik Manger was born as Isidor Helfer on 30 May 1901 in Czernowitz (Czerniowce, Chernivtsi). His father, Hillel, worked as a modest tailor, but he was a great admirer of Yiddish literature and language. He passed his passion for literatoyre (a combination of two Yiddish words – literatur and Toyre, meaning literature and the Torah) on to his son. As a child, Itzik studied in a cheder and later enrolled into the municipal imperial-royal secondary school. He was very talented and liked to read, but was eventually dismissed from school due to inappropriate behavior.
After the outbreak of World War I, Manger and his family moved to Iași. There, Itzik became exposed to the work of the legendary Jewish troubadour, Velvel Zbarjer, and he himself began writing his first poems in Yiddish. His first poem was printed in 1918 in the Kultur magazine. After the end of World War I, Manger moved to Bucharest. He earned his living by writing press articles and giving lectures. He mingled with young Romanian creators of Yiddish literature. In 1928, in Bucharest, he published his first volume of poems and ballads, entitled Shtern oyfn dakh (Stars on the Roof), which was enthusiastically received by readers and literary critics. A year later, Manger came to Warsaw.
The 27-year-old wild-haired young man with burning eyes conquered Warsaw’s artistic milieu, centred around the Club of the Association of Writers and Journalists. Manger became a regular patron of the famous “Buda” club at 13 Tłomackie Street. In his memories of the Writers’ Club, Zusman Segałowicz described Manger as follows:
At that time, poet Itzik Manger really got under our skin. He was a great poet and a great gift for the art of Jewish poetry. To our Association [Association of Jewish Writers and Journalists – author’s note], where at least some discipline and order should prevail, Manger was a constant source of trouble. He did not recognise any rules whatsoever. He did not even want to hear about them. A glass of vodka meant to him more than we all put together. When drunk, he would start to swear, and he had an immense catalogue of obscenities. He would sometimes use expressions so vulgar that even the patrons of the shoddiest inns would find them unbecoming. (...) His face was pale. Deadly pale. The face of an intellectual. The face of a martyr[1.1].
Manger’s time spent in the Polish capital turned out to be the most creative period in his life. His poems and essays were published in the Jewish press, including the Literarishe Bleter. He also published subsequent collections of poems – Lamtern in vint (Lantern in the wind, 1933), Velvl Zbarzer shraybt briv zu Malkele der sheyner (Velvl Zbarzher Writes Letters to Malkele the Beautiful, 1937) and Demerung in shpigl (Twilight in the Mirror, 1937). He also published a fantasy novel entitled Di vunderlekhe lebns-bashraybung fun Shmuel Abe Abvero (Dos bukh fun gan-eydn) (The Amazing Life Story of Shmuel-Abe Abervo [The Book of the Garden of Heaven], 1939). At that time, Manger wrote his most renowned cycle of poems, Khumesh lider (Bible Songs), and published a collection inspired by the tradition of Purim performances called Megile Lider (Songs of the Megillah). He also reworked Goldfaden’s plays: Di Kishefmakherin (The Witch) and Dray Hotzmakhs (Three Hotsmakhs). His works were performed in cabarets and films. Among them, the most popular are the songs for the 1936 movie Yidl mitn fidl (Yiddle with His Fiddle) directed by Konrad Tom.
In 1938, when anti-Semitic sentiments were on the rise, Manger seemed to have sensed the impending disaster and left Warsaw for Paris. After the outbreak of World War II, he managed to reach London via Marseilles, Tunis, and Liverpool.
A certain English spinster running a small bookstore in Chelsea once stumbled upon a sick or drunk young man lying in the street. “He has the head of a prophet,” said the Englishwoman and picked the man up from the ground. It turned out that he was not sick but very drunk, which was more or less the default for the outstanding poet[1.2].
Thus Manger came under the tender care of Margaret Waterhouse. He spent the next 11 years of his life in London. His wartime and post-war output is filled with sadness and longing for a world that was brutally destroyed, for those who were murdered and for the language that died along with them – Volkns ibern dakh (Clouds Over the Roof, 1942); Lid un balade (Song and Ballad, 1952).
His post-war visit to Warsaw, a city where he had spent so many happy moments, must have been a particularly painful experience. He arrived to the Polish capital in April 1948, on the occasion of the 5th anniversary of the outbreak of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the unveiling of the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes. Instead of the city he remembered from a decade earlier, he saw a sea of ruins.
Under the ruins of Poland
A head with fair hair
Both the head and the ruins
Fate, my fate…
Over the ruins of Poland
The snow is falling and falling,
The blond head of my girl
Makes me dangerously sad.
[Unter di khurves fun Poyln, author’s transl.]
In 1951, Manger left Great Britain and moved to New York. Still, he was unable to settle there for good and find his peace. He decided to move to Israel. He wrote:
For years I wandered in exile,
Now I am going to wander in my family home.
He lived in Israel until his death. He died in Gedera in 1969.
He left behind volumes of great poems full of melancholy, but also gentle humour. They seem to ooze the atmosphere of long forgotten times. This begs the question raised by Antoni Słonimski in his reflections on Itzik Manger:
Who is Manger speaking to today and in what language? I fear that his voice is flowing into emptiness. The lucid lyrical voice is silenced today by the brutal and inhuman contemporary art. The English spinster recognised the prophet in him. He was not a prophet, but a mourner, weeping over the past and all distant and lost homelands in high synagogal songs[1.3].
- Jeszurin E., Icik Manger bibliografje, 1961.
- Kazdan Ch.S., Itsik Manger, New York 1968.
- Kazdan Ch.S., Di lecte tkufe in Icik Mangers lebn un szafn, Mexiko 1973.
- Leksikon fun der najer jidiszer literatur, t. 5, Nju Jork 1963, szp. 435–443.
- Roskies D.G., “Itsik Manger,” [in] The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe [online] https://yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Manger_Itsik [Accessed on: 28 Aug 2016].