Translated by Kristina Aurylaitė
Lea Goldberg, whose family hails from Lithuania, is one of the best-known Jewish poets in the world, but quite paradoxically, she is little known in her first homeland. Her poetry, written in Hebrew, has not been translated into Lithuanian, whereas Lithuania left a deep imprint on the poet’s life and work as well as her personality. Goldberg’s poetry is laden with carefully thought images of Lithuania, both straightforward and metaphorical.
In 1911, the Goldberg family, residents of Kaunas, were visiting Königsberg when their daughter Lea was born. At the beginning of World War I, alongside thousands other Lithuanian Jews, they were exiled into Russia because the Russian government suspected the Jews of loyalty towards the German army. Lea Goldberg’s early childhood was spent in the town of Balashov, Saratov Oblast district. In 1918, the family was given permission to return. However, only Lea and her mother Tsila settled in their old home on Kęstučio street in Kaunas. On their way back to Lithuania, Lea’s father Avraham was arrested by Bolsheviks; Avraham was tortured, which led him to an emotional breakdown and mental illness. Avraham was hospitalized in Kaunas, but never returned to the family. His daughter Lea felt the effects of this trauma throughout her entire life.
In 1919, initiated by several like-minded Zionist families, including the Goldbergs’ friends, the Jewish School in Kaunas, with Russian as the language of instruction, was transformed into a Hebrew school. That is where Lea started her schooling.
Her classmate and closest friend Mina Landau remembers Lea as pensive and dreamy, quite different from other children; she spoke only Russian, “like an aristocrat,” quoted Russian poets, and composed her own poems in Russian. She did not know Yiddish at all – not even a single Jewish letter – and at first had to endure numerous taunts from other children, raised in a different environment.
However, this was soon to change. Young Lea Goldberg’s life got quickly pervaded with love for the Hebrew and Lithuanian languages, for Kaunas and Lithuania. Later, she always indicated Kaunas, not Königsberg as her place of birth. Lea Goldberg’s poetry was first published in Hebrew periodicals when she was fifteen.
From 1927, Goldberg attended the Hebrew lyceum with Moses Schwabe as the principal. During her last school years, alongside her ever stronger poetic voice, her academic interests for language studies and text analysis were also becoming more and more apparent. In 1928, the biweekly journal Netivot (Hebrew for “Paths”) and then a small anthology Lietuvių liaudies kūryba (Lithuanian Folk Art) published a selection of Lithuanian folk songs, translated into Hebrew by Lea Goldberg. She signed the translations by the pen-name of Lea Meshorer – Poet Lea. The anthology was compiled by her teacher Moses Yardeni Zakheim, who wrote in the introduction that a historical meeting is taking place in Lithuania’s Hebrew schools – a meeting between the two oldest languages, Lithuanian and Hebrew.
Lea Goldberg entered Vytautas Magnus University, where she studied German and Russian philology and Semitic studies: during the interwar years, the University had its own Department of Semitology, with linguist Chaim Nachman Shapiro as its head. Later Lea Goldberg continued her studies of Semitology and philosophy in Berlin and Bonn. At that time, she already wrote letters to her friends in Kaunas in Hebrew. When she was 22, Lea Goldberg defended her doctoral dissertation on the Samaritan translation of the Bible at the University of Bonn. From a girl who was once very distant from Jewish culture, she quickly transformed into a serious poet, translator, and academic.
After she returned to Kaunas, Lea Godlberg became an active member of Petach (Hebrew for “Threshold”), a group of Hebrew poets. According to Chamutal Bar Yosef, researcher of Goldberg’s work, Goldberg’s was one of the first few women’s voices in Hebrew literature, which traditionally was an exclusively masculine cultural domain. By that time, she had already abandoned her pen-name as the name Lea Goldber was already well known. She also maintained an active relationship with Jewish modernist writers in Palestine.
In 1935, Lea and her mother left Lithuania for Palestine. She began her new life in another country as a teacher, but also quickly entered the Palestinian literary scene by publishing her first book of poetry Smoke Rings in the same year.
Lea Goldberg’s writing was diverse and abundant: she wrote poetry, prose, and books for children, literary and theatre criticism, literary analysis, and translated literary texts from almost a dozen languages. She also illustrated a few of her books herself. Several generations of Israeli children have fallen in love with her books. In 1970, Lea Goldberg was posthumously awarded the Israel Prize, the most prestigious award in the country.
In 1952, Lea Goldberg established the Department of General and Comparative Literature at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, which she, by then a professor, chaired until her death in 1970. It is an interesting fact that the Head of the Department of Classical Philology was the former principal of Lea Goldberg’s lyceum in Kaunas, Professor Moses Schwabe, who also served as the Rector of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem from 1950 to 1952. A former teacher and a pupil became colleagues. Even after Lea Goldberg had become accustomed to her new life in Israel, Lithuania never disappeared from her thoughts and memories. This is evident not only in her autobiographical book And He Is the Light (1946), which focuses on Lithuania, but also dozens of her poems, which at first sight do not seem to be devoted to Lithuania at all. This is evident in such images as “a distant homeland, clad in snow,” “the country of my love – a naked beauty, a queen without her palace,” and in landscapes full of bright rivers and forests, rain, rustling fallen leaves, and windmills. There is no direct commentary on the Holocaust in Lea Goldberg’s restrained writing. However, a nostalgic and melancholic chord is strong in the cycle of poems “Of My Old Home,” written in 1944:
Of my old home what remains is
A deep desire in my memory.
Lea Goldberg’s poem “Pine,” now a popular song, is performed every year on Israel’s Independence Day. Contemporary singers and listeners hardly ever think that the lines of the song do not really depict Israel, but refer to Lea Goldberg’s first homeland, Lithuania. At the end of the poem, she verbalizes the feeling which accompanied her during her entire life:
Perhaps only migrating birds know -
suspended between earth and sky -
the heartache of two homelands.
With you I was transplanted twice,
with you, pine trees, I grew -
roots in two disparate landscapes.
1. Translation of the poem: Rachel Tzvia Back From: Collected Poems [Yalkut Shirim] Publ.: Iachdav/Writers Association, edited by Tuvia Rivner 1970. The link is here.
Dr. Lara Lempertienė – Head of the Judaica Division of the Documentary Heritage Research Department of the National Library of Lithuania.
Lea Goldberg, whose family hails from Lithuania, is one of the best-known Jewish poets in the world, but quite paradoxically, she is little known in her first homeland.