THE POET WHO WROTE FIRST WITH PEN, THEN WITH SWORD
by Yitzhak Shamir
Not For Us The Saxaphone Sings:
The Poems of Yair Avraham Stern,
Those who revere his memory know a great deal about Yair Avraham Stern, who in the 1940s established the underground Lehi movement to fight against the British regime in Palestine. Yair - as his friends knew him - believed that only the expulsion of the British from the Land of Israel would enable the Jewish People to establish an independent Jewish state, and he foresaw that this goal could only be achieved by force. However, his admirers knew little about the "other" Yair: Yair the poet. In this fascinating and comprehensive volume, Dr. Yaira Ginossar describes the development, concerns and spiritual thrust of Yair the poet and man of letters. She examines the connection between the poet and the fighter thoroughly, and makes it clear that only by knowing and understanding Yair's poetry, is it possible to fully appreciate his character and worth.
"Yair" was initially the nom de plume of poet Avraham Stern, and only later became his underground nom de guerre. Having fought side by side with Yair, I see no conflict or contradiction between the two. To those of us who knew him, it was always clear that Yair's character was composed of these two elements, which together constituted his path and his spiritual and political persona.
In contemporary Jewish history, I know of only one man who was both a poet and a political leader: Yair Avraham Stern. King David was a leader, king, founder of a dynasty and a poet, but he lived in a completely different era. I do not think that it is possible or permissible to compare figures from contemporary history and figures from the days of the independent kingdom of Israel before we were exiled from our land. In this respect, when Yitzhak Navon called David Ben-Gurion "the greatest Jew of any generation," he was crossing too vast a historical plain.
Many of us were familiar with Yair's poem "Unknown Soldiers" before we knew him as a man and a leader. The poem was not only an anthem, it was an ideological statement. It was Yair's definition of his way of thinking and his way of life. It became a portrait of Lehi as it was in the years after Yair was murdered. The marvel is that he wrote "Unknown Soldiers" in 1932. In this poem, Yair envisions a highly secretive underground, the likes of which did not exist at or before the time the poem was written.
Yair the artist was blessed with far-reaching vision. When he read the poem "Unknown Soldiers" to a group of his friends, they were swept along by the force of what he saw. Shoshana Raziel, widow of David Raziel, says that this took place at a party to mark the completion of the lieutenants course for the Irgun.
Yaira Ginossar has perhaps interpreted the poem differently, but this is how we in the Lehi interpreted it: Anonymity ("the unknown soldier") is an existential necessity of the underground, but also entails the sacrifice of the individual, who must relinquish all glory, honor and reward. It demands the complete melding of the individual - the fighter - into the collective - the organization or the movement. This is the total identification of the man with the ideas that motivate him, free of any exhibitionism or arrogance.
We enlisted ("We all enlisted for our entire lives") not because we were drafted or on orders from some external authority. Total devotion to the goal is what enlisted us, and not, as is customary in armies, for a limited period; the commitment was for our whole lives. Only at the end of our lives are we released from the commitment to fight for our people and our homeland - "From the lines only death will release us.", The anthem of the underground was not dictated to the fighters by their commander; it was an expression of a commander who took all the same obligations upon himself, and encapsulates the concept of "after me" as it has been accepted in the Israel Defense Forces. It describes Yair's disciples, who arose after his death. Once, on an evening stroll through the streets of Tel Aviv, he told me that after the enemy murders him, many will rise to fight for his beliefs and principles.
Among the poems he left, there is one in particular that stands out, saying much about his character and spirit:
Yes I am a poet and fighter too!, Today I write with the pen tomorrow with the sword;, Today I'll write in ink - tomorrow I'll write in blood; Today on paper tomorrow on flesh; Heaven has blessed me with book and with sword, Inscribed with my fate: soldier and bard.
Sublime and splendid the poet's lay:, In black ash of burnt homes, in the white sword blade,, The gold of fiery flame and purple blood,, In the blue of stars the vision is woven of he, Who tomorrow fights for his liberty - on battle's eve, Throughout the camp the anthem rings.
Grim the final fight.
On the edge of the iron desert, under leaden skies!, Pain slashes the heart like the enemy's blade, The soldier falls dead hungering for freedom's bread, And bleeds the blood of the depths of blackest despair:, The kingdom of Ishmael is here in Zion!, , Hear my voice, First and Last!, Pitch golden skies over the wilderness of lead,, Tear the chains of slavery, wash the foe with blood,, And to those who hunger offer freedom's bread.
Place the royal crown on the blackened city's head,, Lord of Zion and Jerusalem!, The epigraph to the poem is from Samuel I xvi:18, "Cunning in music, and a mighty valiant man, and a man of war." This was Yair's burning desire: to be both a poet and a soldier. Did he succeed in this? He was certain that he was a warrior, but also very much wanted to be recognized as a poet. Poetry was not a secondary matter for him.
Both souls within him were equal in value. The poem aids the fighter; the fighter realizes the poem. There are those who call this "engaged poetry," when the poem and the fight complement one another.
Yair sometimes debated with himself about the conflicts between being a poet and being a warrior, between the glory that accrues to the poet (which is a worldly pleasure) and the way of the revolutionary that leads to death as an unknown soldier. He loved poetry, but nonetheless preferred being a fighter. He once said: "Is it not a thousand times better to be an unknown soldier?", In the underground, we loved his long poem "To Our Mothers." This is his only poem that deals with the Diaspora, the World War, and the relationship between the Diaspora and the Land of Israel. It expresses profound sadness for the parents left behind in the Diaspora by their sons, and an inkling of the approaching Holocaust. Yair expresses the failure of Zionism, which did not succeed in saving the masses. This was a poetry that we read out of deep pain. Although the war for freedom arrived quickly, was over quickly and liberated part of the Land of Israel in 1948, the masses we had left behind in order to fight for their freedom were no longer alive.
Yair, too, did not live to see the decisive stage of the War of Independence. He was no longer with us when the great day that he had prophesied arrived. To this day, we ask ourselves what Yair would have done had he lived to see it. We have no answer, only sadness and pain.
Between 1940 and 1942, Yair concentrated on organizing the Lehi. These were tragic years of disgraceful events resulting in unnecessary conflict with the Jewish public. An atmosphere of isolation and excommunication developed, and the British took advantage of this to assassinate Yair without the Jews of Palestine lifting a finger of protest. There were attempts to protect Yair's life both on the part of the Irgun and on the part of the Hagana, but he rejected these efforts because they involved the cessation of his political activity.
During those difficult days he did not lose self-control. Through the underground mail, he sent a letter to friends incarcerated at the Mizra camp. In this sad, though clear and forceful letter, he described the situation as the British police were closing in on him. Daily, comrades were taken prisoner only to be replaced by new ones who were young and inexperienced, and therefore he turned to us, the veterans, who were sitting "safe" in prison, and bade us to escape and come to his aid. He needed us, he wrote, and listed the names of the comrades whose escape he desired. My name was among them. I saw the letter as an order and a final will and testament which must be carried out at any price. From the moment I read the letter I began to plan the escape, but I knew that the preparations would take time.
A short time had passed when a Jewish corporal in the British police stopped me and excitedly told me that Yair had been arrested and killed. I was thunderstruck, and hurried to share the bleak news with my comrades. I also decided that I would carry on with preparations for the escape.
As I broke the dreadful news to comrades in the Mizra prison, I remember that I thought something which Yaira Ginossar has succeeded in expressing so well in her book: Yair was convinced that his death at the hands of the British would be the precondition for the victory of his way. Therefore, we - the few remaining Lehi activists - realized that only by crossing the border between everyday existence and sacrificing our lives in the struggle for freedom would we truly engage in the battle.
Yair, courageously confronting his expected fate, fully merged his identity with what the situation demanded. In his death, he made the struggle for freedom a concrete reality. This was a new kind of realism, a radical realism without which a true struggle for freedom cannot take place. Yitzhak Shamir is a former prime minister of Israel. This article is based on a speech he gave in honor of the book's publication.