Celebrated Yiddish poet Rivka Basman Ben-Haim died last week at the age of 98. She was the last living Yiddish poet of her generation.
She refused to call herself a “Holocaust survivor.” The person who entered the Nazi camps, she said, did not survive; she died. Instead, a different person emerged, one who forged a new life for herself. Rivka and others like her found comfort in their new families, in their new friendships, and in love.
She was born in Wilkomir, Lithuania, and her father and brother were killed by the Germans. She spent around two years in the Vilna Ghetto and was subsequently sent to the Kaiserwald concentration camp in Riga.
How did she start writing poetry?
She started writing poetry at the camp as a way of boosting her fellow inmates’ morale, and managed to smuggle some of her poems out in her mouth. After the war, Basman Ben-Haim lived in Belgrade for a couple of years, and it was there that she met and married Shmuel (Mula) Ben-Haim. Together they helped to smuggle Jews out of Europe and past the British naval blockade to Mandatory Palestine.
In 1947 Basman joined Kibbutz Hama’apil. She received her teaching diploma from the Teachers’ Seminary in Tel Aviv. She also studied literature while in New York at Columbia University.
While on the kibbutz she wrote and published her first volume of poetry, Toybn baym brunem (Doves at the Well), in 1959.
Her husband designed and illustrated every one of her books, as long as he lived. The couple had no children. After his death, Rivka continued to include his prints in her books, and she took on his name: Rivka Basman became Rivka Basman Ben-Haim.
Rivka received every prize known to the world of Yiddish writers. Her poems are lyrical and elegiac; they have meter and are rhymed. Rivka published 15 books, among them a Hebrew-Yiddish book written jointly with the Hebrew poet Roni Somekh. In 2016, a dual-language (Yiddish-English) book, titled The Thirteenth Hour, was published by MayApplePress.
Rivka’s last book, titled A Bliung in Ash (Blossoms in Ashes), was published in 2020. It contains poems and prose about the Holocaust, and it was the first time she allowed herself to speak (as directly as she could) about her experiences in the Holocaust. The Ben Yehuda Press will publish a dual language (Yiddish-English) edition of this book with the poet’s Yiddish poems alongside English translations of those poems.
Barry Davis contributed to this report.
The writer was the English translator of The Thirteenth Hour, and she maintains a blog on Rivka; its link is https://yiddishpoetry.commons.gc.edu/. There one can find recordings of the poet reciting her poetry, as well as English-language articles on the poet.