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Yehuda Amichai, From an interview with Lawrence Joseph (1992) and a Poem ("Memorial Day for the War Dead")

Yehuda Amichai

Lawrence Joseph interviewed the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai for The Paris Review, Spring 1992. Amichai was born in Germany in 1924. With his family he fled from Hitler  in 1936, emigrating to Palestine with his orthodox Jewish family. He fought form the British in World War II, for the Haganah uderground in 1948, and for the Iarseli army in 1956 and 1973.

"I really have the feeling that I am the result and very contents of the twentieth century," he tells Larry Joseph.


I was [raaised a Zionist], but my family’s Zionism wasn’t ideological in any intellectual sense. It was the Zionism of religious orthodoxy, a practical Zionism—going to Palestine. For my parents, going to Palestine was typically romantic, motivated in part by their sense of Orthodoxy and in part by the longing to be in their own country. I had cousins who may have seen Zionism in utopian socialist terms, though my parents did not. There was, of course, zealous anti-Semitism before Hitler, which also had something to do with my family’s going to Palestine. Some people think that anti-Semitism didn’t really exist in Germany until 1933. I certainly don’t want to take anything away from Hitler’s guilt, but the anti-Semitism I grew up with predated Hitler. We were called names. We had stones thrown at us. And, yes, this created real sorrow. We defended ourselves as well as we could. Funny thing, the common name we were called was Isaac—the way Muslims are called Ali or Mohammed. They’d call out, Isaac, go back to Palestine, leave our home, go to your place. They threw stones at us and shouted, Go to Palestine. Then in Palestine we were told to leave Palestine—history juxtaposed can be very ironic. But I do remember in 1933 when the Nazis came into power the anti-Semitism had been religiously based. Then it became political and economic. Before that the two hadn’t merged—there was a kind of horrible limbo—but you could feel what was happening. I remember my parents telling me to keep away from the military parades, not to become mesmerized by the music and marching. I was also told—Würzburg was a very Catholic town—to keep away from the Catholic processions on certain feast days. All Saints’ Day, I remember in particular. The processions were very somber, very German in a way, with students, priests and nuns carrying banners and holy icons and figures. Once—I was nine or ten—I was watching a Catholic procession because I liked its colorfulness and pageantry. Since I was Orthodox I was wearing a yarmulke. Suddenly, someone hit me in the face and shouted, 'You dirty little Jew, take your skullcap off!' >>>

Memorial Day for the War Dead

Yehuda Amichai  (1924-2000)

Memorial day for the war dead.  Add now
the grief of all your losses to their grief,
even of a woman that has left you.  Mix
sorrow with sorrow, like time-saving history,
which stacks holiday and sacrifice and mourning
on one day for easy, convenient memory.

Oh, sweet world soaked, like bread,
in sweet milk for the terrible toothless God.
“Behind all this some great happiness is hiding.”
No use to weep inside and to scream outside.
Behind all this perhaps some great happiness is hiding.

Memorial day.  Bitter salt is dressed up
as a little girl with flowers.
The streets are cordoned off with ropes,
for the marching together of the living and the dead.
Children with a grief not their own march slowly,
like stepping over broken glass.

The flautist's mouth will stay like that for many days.
A dead soldier swims above little heads
with the swimming movements of the dead,
with the ancient error the dead have
about the place of the living water.

A flag loses contact with reality and flies off.
A shopwindow is decorated with
dresses of beautiful women, in blue and white.
And everything in three languages:
Hebrew, Arabic, and Death.

A great and royal animal is dying
all through the night under the jasmine
tree with a constant stare at the world.

A man whose son died in the war walks in the street
like a woman with a dead embryo in her womb.
“Behind all this some great happiness is hiding.”

From Amen by Yehuda Amichai, published by Harper & Row. Copyright © 1977 Yehuda Amichai.

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
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"After You've Gone"
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in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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