Nov 152011

by Yelena Dubrovina

Each work of art whether it is a painting, a novel or just a poem absorbs part of the universe and represents creator’s spiritual outlook on the world around him. A profound poetry may be born out of the outmost inward sufferings that may occur due to some outward events. Tragedy, common to all mankind, such as war, revolution, repressions, lost of motherland and etc., often defines a tragedy of a certain individual.

The Russian revolution and the following after it repressions heaved overboard the whole generation of Russian artistic intelligentsia. At the end of 1920 and the beginning of 1930, center of the Russian cultural life moved from St. Petersburg to Paris. A new Russian poetical movement called “Parisian Note” began to form.

“Tragedy is the essence of every creative process. The perception of any tragedy is based on circumstances when it turns into a seed and from this seed grows the whole generation of new poets, so called “Parisian Note,”” wrote a Russian poet and literary critic, Yuri Terapiano.

This young generation had their own vision of the world, the result of their dramatic experience of being separated from their motherland. Many writers and poets of the diverse nationalities, who belonged to the generation of Russian intellectuals, perished during the WWII in German concentration camps, or disappeared in Germany or in Poland without a trace. Death of many Russian poets was as tragic as their life. Many of them met their death heroically. For example, a daughter of the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, Ariadna, a poetess, had been captured by the Nazis and murdered at the Belgium border, when risking her own life, she tried to save lives of Jewish children. Boris Vilde (Boris Dikoi), German by birth, led the Russian group of the French Resistance. He was eventually captured and shot to death in the prison yard. According to his executioners, he died as a real hero. Mother Maria, a nun, and also a poetess, went to the gas chamber instead of a young Ukrainian girl in order to save her live.

A human tragedy in a foreign land, life as a constant struggle for survival, intensified their perception of the world, their relations with one another and an interaction between a man and his creative process. Isolation, solitude, poverty, grief of being away from their habitual environment, made a poet take a profound look inward, analyze his disposition in the world. Now on, monologues with themselves often dominated in their poetry. Yuri Mandelshtam considered being such a poet, the poet of the “inward monologue.”

By some tragic coincidence, the most famous Russian poet, Osip Mandelshtam, vanished in one of a Soviet labor camps (GULAG) without a trace when Yuri Mandelshtam, who happened to be his cousin, also died, but in a German concentration camp. The name of Osip Mandelshtam is well-known all over Russia. The name of Yuri Mandelshtam is undeservedly forgotten.

Yuri Mandelshtam was born in Moscow on October 8, 1908 to a Jewish family. In 1920, he managed to escape the country after the post-revolutionary terror and settled in Paris. He was educated in Sorbonne and was the “man of letters.” He spoke fluently French, English and Russian. Still being in the gymnasium, he could read classical literature in its original languages. “He had a fantastic memory, profound erudition, an impeccable literary taste, and he had an incredible talent as a literary critic.” These are the words of his close friend, Yuri Terapiano.

Yuri Mandelshtam had a sharp mind, with a strong-willed nature. He perceived the world with a deep power of his character that often overrode his poetic images.

Oh, what a night and what a quietude!
Over the sleeping capital, the moon
Is shining with a joy to the prelude.
A star has twinkled, far away at noon,
With green and blue and pinkish flame.
And you and I, — alone in the frame
Of silence of the quiet myth.
We listen to a song of universe. In disbelieve,
Doomed to a perfect endless bliss,
As if there is no war, no grief.

His poetry is close to mystical symbolism when some enigmatic images grow from the music of his verses. We can see in his poetry a “multicolored world,” the spectrum of colors. He expressed his feelings of despair and sufferings with the help of these multicolored images. The blue star became a symbol of his poetry: “Your star – not better than the Blue one – shined with its golden ray for you.”

In November of 1938, his wife, Ludmila (Miki) Stravinsky, dies of tuberculosis. She was only twenty-nine years old. Miki was the oldest daughter of the Russian composer, Igor Stravinsky. Her terminal illness caused her to be confined in a sanitarium in the Haute Savoie, in Switzerland, but Yuri Mandelshtam was short of money to be near his dying wife. As Stravinsky recalled, her husband was “financially unable to stay with her.” After his death, Yuri Mandelshtam’s daughter, Kitty, became an orphan.

Soon after his wife passed away, a new theme began to appear in his poems – it was a theme of death, death of his beloved. His poetry was imbued with the deep piercing sense of loss, enveloped in some tragic sounds of the Brahms’ music, philosophical comprehension of love, life and death and, most of all, his profound personal grief.

There is no end to joy and even sorrow,
When life and death have always us to follow.
Let death so stubbornly erase
The features of her lovely face.

Love will be calling us to stay alive
With memory so simple, so eternal.
When union just of two of us is just a gift
That’s shining from above within the light of grief.

His inner emotional reservation and his ability to look into the gist of the surrounding events, his philosophical comprehension of life, happiness and love were the essence of his poetry.

The happiness is not in worldly slime,
But even if to heaven we will fly,
We won’t forget the previous emotion,
A simple sadness, primitive devotion.

And do we have to look up to the sky,
Accepting death from any loud thunder,
When life is still so beautiful and shy,
The life that won’t require any wonder.

Any literary period has its specific creative style. Poets of the “Parisian Note” were close to the poets of the pre-revolutionary “Silver Age” movement in Russia. And although Yuri Mandelshtam’s creative process was formed in France, he was still close in his way of expression to this literary movement that influenced his writings. There were the same tragic motives, deep spirituality, predominance of the inner in-depth analysis of the outer events, almost mystical premonition of death and a strong will to live. Here are some verses from his poem written in the concentration camp shortly before his death and dedicated to his wife.

And if one day I would return to you,
As animal, escaping persecution,
Without any word or any resolution,
I’ll put my head into your burning palm.

And then, if it exists, a tearless embrace,
You’ll understand it when we meet again,
You’ll understand it looking at my face,
Where executioner had left his ugly seal.

During the war, his poetical voice became even more powerful. His devotion to God helped him to stay strong in the havoc of war and personal tragedy.

The war! The airplanes and their flights!
They loaded with deathly freights.
The bloody freights are carried by the oceans,
On every crest of wave in the disastrous motions.

The border, the unshakable, was trampled down
By endless soles of their dirty boots. And there,
In their hands, the capital has drowned.
But God with us! But God is everywhere!

Neither war nor its cruelty the poet feared the most, but solitude, inconsolable grief that the war brought along with its destructions. He feared to see that dark nailed windows, where its future victims were hiding behind. He feared that tragic silence before the burst of sorrow.

Not by the wailing of the evening siren,
Not by the fire, sword or even lead,
Not by the thunder, or the growing wrath,
Not by the threat of my forthcoming death –

Not by the dark and gloomy days of war,
You may defeat me by another means, not more
Than by a creeping flesh and humble cry
Of those lonely, unhappy souls doomed to die.

And by a flap of solder’s overcoats,
By nailed windows in haste,
The rare sounds of the steps
In silence, on the nightly roads.

The victory of death over life deeply troubled the poet. Yuri Mandelshtam was only thirty-five years old when the hand of the executioner ended his young life. On March 10th, 1942, he was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Drancy, the internment concentration camp in Paris, created especially for the French Jews, who were later deported to the extermination camps. Several times he was transported from one camp to another, until, finally, in July of 1943, he was sent to Poland, where he died on October 18, 1943 in a gas chamber. Although the real detailed circumstances of his death and the last days of his life are still unknown, his poetry found its tiny place in the hearts of the young generation of poetry lovers, as well as in the history of Russian literature. His deeply talented verses, memory of his inspired poetical and human deed will remain forever.

During his lifetime, Yuri Mandelshtam published three books of poetry, the fourth one came out after his death in 1950. He often published his literary and philosophical essays in French and Russian periodicals. His untimely death left a deep scar in the hearts of his friends. He died as tragically as he lived, but his poetry still touches the hearts of many, allowing us to understand the drama of the whole generation, lost and forgotten in the foreign land.


Poetry of Yuri Mandelshtam translated by Yelena Dubrovina

  One Response to “Victory of Death Over Life Yuri Mandelshttam (1908—1943)”

  1. Beautifully written! Bravo!