Something About Whales
“How will a reader with independent thinking react
About critical literature that does not shy from any
Measures in order to bypass the Jewish significance
Of the last story of Kafka, “Josephine the Singer,
or the Mouse Folk” with the ridiculous claim
that the word “Jewish” does not appear at all in that
same piece of work?
Gershom Shalom [Od Davar, 304]
In 5749, 1989, some two years after the death of Abba Kovner, a children’s book that he had left appeared in the Poalim library by the name of: “Something about Whales” (Illustrations: Hannah Adlan). “In this poetic and allegorical fable” – thus the golden words of the publishing house on the back cover – “Abba Kovner recounts how the tiny whales became the giants of the sea and how they managed to survive in the global darkness that befell all the seas and the oceans”. The wording continues: “The book is designed for all ages – from eight to eighty.”
In preparation for Holocaust Day we will decipher this allegory here, which falls on the head of the understanding reader like embers of fire from there, a place in which the sun “ascended to the pyre of blood”, alike the “Remember the Memorial Day for the Holocaust and the Uprising”, that Abba Kovner wrote in the fifties of the 20th century (from: Abba Kovner, Of him and About him, edited by Roseke Korczak-Marla and Yehuda Tobin, (Heritage Gazzette, Mordechai Ainilevitz Memorial and Poalim Library, 1988, p. 25).
Beforehand, beforehand, before man
There was a kingdom of wise fish
At the bottom of the sea
Abba Kovner, who complained in a letter to his daughter Shlomit on 2.9.84 that “since the day that my first book saw the light of day and until the date that I was given the nauseating lable of “the Holocaust author” (ibid, p. 61) he does not appear such to his eight year old reader. Any story with animals as heroes, about humans, in fact, he says, and the eight year old reader “knows” this as if he was eighty. However the story takes place “before the time of Man” – only a dull echo of the allegory drums, it would seem, in the depths of the seas, even if their neighbours are characterized as “intelligent”, even if from Abba Kovner’s book who is the heir if Itzik Wittenberg who was the commander of the FPO in the Vilna Ghetto.
Using irregular rhyming, sometimes explicit and sometimes implicit, sometimes somewhat childish and sometimes mature as a lion, the poet continues to describe the kingdom of the fish as a community of animals who adhere to mutual aid and friendship between its members:
They had a lot of good virtues:
They knew how to speak to – each – other
They learned how to look after – each – other
And when there was trouble or an emergency
They helped – each – other
And they had warm hearts
To love – each – other
In the cold waters,
They had hardships
That hid in the stones
Because many enemies
In the depths;
Because they had one big disadvantage,
They were small!
The smallest of all fish
In a huge ocean
Where there were monsters
Which often devoured them and gorged themselves on them!
The eighty year old, and the eighteen year old, could already at this time think to
themselves delusions about the small Jewish people in the large ocean full of monsters – let them think that! The eight year old will think that these are no more than fish and an ocean and monsters. The happy eight year old will be amazed to here thereafter that:
However we almost forgot to tell you here
That the small, transparent and white fish
Were called – whales...
And from this point onwards the eight year old has curious questions: how can there be such a contradiction between the way they are called – in reality the hugest fish of all and its description in the story as the smallest fish of all – and that is the very same name! And he hears about the small mother who returns from wandering in the upper waves and she has a difficult message:
“My dear” called the mother whale
With trembling fins
“my eyes have seen a global darkness!
Huge icebergs covering the sun
Again it is impossible to differentiate between today and last night
Oh my God! Our home the sea is freezing over”
Oh the eight year old! Asks his father and he says, your elders will tell you what “global darkness” is.
And the family of whales was frightened and gathered together
From all the corners of the sea
The king also came, a small white fish whale
Very small but very wise
And Malchifish, who is the king, will call
His first born son – who will come near
And he will beat his tale and hear his father’s words
“My sons of my people” the king said “it is a terrible time
It is clear that firstly the whales will freeze
From the cold, because we are a small nation
And the weakest of all”.
“It was a terrible time for Jacob”, the eighty year old can quote, for the eight year old who does not ask, as the story is a story is a story. A king and a prince together – and a small child is reading about them. The eighty year old remembers: In January 1940, before the sea froze over completely. Abba Kovner wrote, in Vilna, the last line of his travels “in the place where the hull rests....” (ibid, p. 11): “the acts of God are drowning in the sea, and we – who are the first in the drowning world – we are still saying poetry....”
Oh the eighty year old! Do not cry before the eight year old! It is just a story about fish!
And then there was frightening silence in the eyes of the fish
And the king emphasized each and every word
“But our great strength is in our wisdom...
And in love –
And if the powers that we have
We transfer into one body
And all the warmth that we have we put into one soul
Then this one body will grow and become stronger
And it will remain – and live!”
The powers of wisdom and love – they are a means and an objective. A means of the one extricating himself, and saving them by his survival, because they are the main thing.
What eight year old will not be scared of the flowing silence?
What eighty year old will not understand
And the fish listened and understood the intent
And they beat their fins
In a sign of agreement
The fish immediately surrounded the prince,
The most beautiful.
And each and every one of them transferred to him all his powers
Of the body and the soul – by breathing mouth to mouth
As well as the treasures of wisdom
Which every community possessed they gave to the chosen
And then suddenly everyone saw, how the small prince
Grew and grew and the place was too narrow
For him because his body was huge
Almost like an entire ship!
And afterwards they gave the remainder of their strength
To his girlfriend who he loved – the princess
In front of his brothers who were wondering and lost
The chosen couple rose and sailed away
Paddling with huge strength between the sharp icebergs
Through seas and oceans of ice and frost
The couple arrived at the shore of the land of fire
Here with the hot flow they sat and waited for the transition
For the ice age and the world to recover
Hurrah! Hurrah! The eight year old calls, they were saved!
Oy! Oy! The eighty year old sighs.
The eight year old almost forgot about those who stayed to die
The eighty year old’s heart could not be happy.
And when the ice melted order returned to the world
They then went out to wander, he and she alone
They loved each other and they procreated
And they filled again the kingdom of the sea.
They lived happily ever after, cries the eight year old. The prince and the princess in love, whales are born to them, and they also grow like them. The contradiction between the names is ended. This is how the huge whales were created. And the eight year old wants to close the book, but the eighty year old does not let him, and Abba Kovner also does not let him. And the whales also do not let him:
Since then the white whales have tried
To swim alongside each other, in couples
Because the loneliness is hard for them
And with all the friendship with their marine neighbours
They cannot disclose to strangers
The history of their family who were lost in the depths.
Not only did the community pile their wisdom and love on the chosen ones, but rather also their memories, a silent and flowing gift, terribly grateful.
And each time that one of them remembered the fathers
Who will never return
A huge jet launches from his innards
When only those who do not know the language of the whales
Think erroneously that it is a jet of salty water
And not tears breaking forth
In memory of his father and mother, his brothers and sisters
Who gave their strength, their love and their souls
In order that he could live
And be king of the seas for all times
The strength, the love and the soul – all of these have been safeguarded, survived. However the memory of the lost body leaves the huge heirs as eternal weepers. The whale’s jet of water is an eternal and flowing memorial of a community that was destroyed, of a family. Just as Abba Kovner wrote in that same “Remember the memorial day for the Holocaust and the Uprising”: “Remember our brothers and sisters, the houses of the town and the schools, the streets of the town that were as loud as rivers – the living will remember the dead because here they are before us, here our eyes will look around us, around, and at my blood, and our blood, and our lives will always be remembered”.
We are the whales. The eyes of the dead gaze at us. The eyes of our children gaze at us. We have the duty to teach them how we were created from the power and the love and the soul that remained to die.
Holocaust Day 5764
The eight year old fell asleep. The eighty year old cries.