Mykola Platonovich Bazhan (1904-1983) was one of the greatest Ukrainian poets of the twentieth century. He cemented his literary reputation in the 1920’s as a leading figure in what came to be called Ukraine’s “Executed Renaissance.” A young Jewish – American writer and poetry translator whose family has Ukrainian roots relays his principled quest of unearthing the history of Bazhan’s great Babyn Yar poem. In the west Bazhan’s life and literary work lack the recognition that they deserve, yet they are existentially important as a paragon Jewish-Ukrainian relations.
The year 1983 was the first year of my life and it was also Mykola Bazhan’s last. That year marked the end of a lifelong quest by this extraordinary man to battle the inhumanity of the Soviet regime that he detested and the last chance that he could have to speak up for those who could not speak up for themselves. Central to this mission were Bazhan’s untiring attempts to commemorate the unfathomable events that occurred 75 years ago last month: the massacre of Ukrainian Jews at Kiev’s Babyn Yar, then a bucolic suburb of the city, that inaugurated the killing of a total of 100,000 people there.
Directly after the communist revolution, the young Mykola Bazhan was associated with avant-garde groups influenced by futurism, constructivism, and expressionism and wrote screenplays while also editing the journal Kino (Cinema). His early book Budivli (Buildings, 1929) is an outstanding example of the most muscular verse of that period. It is syntactically complex, employs unexpected archaisms and highly original imagery, and demonstrates the strongest sentiments. It also explores the links between the present and the past, especially the Baroque or Medieval periods — which was also a distinctive feature of all Bazhan’s later writings.
In the 1920’s Bazhan maintained close contacts with a number of Jewish writers, most notably with Leonid Pervomaisky. During the Stalinist period, he was, like Pervomaisky and other prominent literary figures, required to write denunciations of Jewish religious practices; we see such a denunciation in his poem “Getto v Umani” (Uman Ghetto, 1929). And yet the poem is ambiguous: It appears to be directed against religious fanaticism, but it also recognizes the power of faith.
During the Second World War he was one of the many writers tasked with developing a patriotic literature in Ukrainian, something that the Soviet authorities demanded as part of the war effort. The idea was to produce a literature that tapped into national history, encouraging the struggle against oppressors and lamenting the victims of aggression. Bazhan produced the verse drama “Oleksa Dovbush” (1940-46), which described the legendary titular outlaw’s struggle against the authorities. Bazhan demonstrated Dovbush’s personal contacts with Jews and the solidarity between Jews and Ukrainians at large in 18th century Ukrainian/Polis borderlands.
This new brand of patriotic literature was not allowed to particularize the suffering of any group, especially with depictions of the war’s victims, as Stalin had decreed that “the dead should not be divided.” Accordingly, specific mentions of the Jewish Holocaust, and of crimes committed specifically against Jews were omitted or downplayed. For this very reason Bazhan’s poem “Yar,” which is devoted to the Babyn Yar massacre and was published in the collection V dni viiny (In Days of War, 1945), does not specifically mention the killing of over 33,000 Jews on 29-30 September 1941. Instead, it mentions the figure of 100,000, the total of Jews and non-Jews murdered. As the censors no doubt required, the poem ends with a call for vengeance and the killing of German soldiers.
In later years Bazhan became a mentor to a number of younger writers, including Moisei Fishbein, another prominent Ukrainian Jewish poet. In 1968 he produced another great poem, “Debora: Z knyhy Umanskykh spohadiv” (“Deborah: From the Book of Uman Memories,” 1968). It tells the story of a young woman from Uman, an acquaintance of the poet, who is raped during the revolutionary upheaval of 1918-20, and is later killed in Babyn Yar in 1941. The poem is a moving requiem for murdered Jews and the lost civilization of Uman, a town Bazhan knew well, in which Jews and Ukrainians had lived side by side and influenced one another for generations. (Ed: This poem will appear for the first time in English in this issue of The Odessa Review, translated and introduced by the scholar Myroslav Shakndrij).
Perhaps it is no surprise that my deep interest in the poem was rooted in my own family history. My family lost many parts of itself over the last hundred years. My mother’s family lived in the shtehtl of Felshtin (also known as Hvardiyske), some 80 miles outside of Chernovtsy. Those Jews who survived the pogrom of 1919 were practically wiped off the map along with the town by the Nazis on the eve of Yom Kippur 75 years ago, the same night that the killing at Babyn Yar had begun. The circumstances of my birth availed me of my native Russian and of memories of a Soviet childhood in Moscow with some fragmentary knowledge of Judaism prior to the emigration of my family to the United States a quarter century ago, but Yiddish and Ukrainian, these were taken from us.
From the moment that I first discovered the poem, I knew that an academic background would not be enough and that I would need to find the human connection between history and the living essence of the poetry. So, I made my first call to Kyiv. It was my first time hearing the sonorous Ukrainian language spoken in real life, as I explained in Russian to very patient, bemused and unsuspecting interlocutors that I was calling from New York City about a Mykola Bazhan poem written in the 1940’s. Those were very powerful conversations and my correspondence with many of the people that I first met then continues to this very day. They described to me a different man from the one whom I had imagined from my reading between the lines, but still not the one who is presented to the world by Soviet historians. I spoke with his friends, colleagues and also Bazhan’s grandson. Every time the name was heard and my intent was (eventually) made clear, a sigh of relief and tones of pride and vindication became as tangible as they could ever be over a phone line. Ukrainians understood the importance of Bazhan’s work and I was repeatedly praised for what I was doing and what I intended to do.
Some of the most poignant conversations were held with Natalia V. Kostenko, who spoke with a great deal of personal and intellectual authority. She described a powerful, humble man, “woundable but internally free.” We spoke of his identity and how he suffered a death by a thousand cuts at the hands of the Soviet Regime, as well as about how much Bazhan despised anti-Semitism. When we got to the subject of Babyn Yar and the poem, it became harder to speak and we agreed that we were dealing with themes of humanity and insane sorrow and pain. The man Natalia knew was driven by the former and did what he could to convey the latter.
From the first moment that I first saw Bazhan’s poem, I wanted to share it with the English speaking world. Yet all my arduous historical digging and research yielded the revelation that I was not the first person with this impulse.
I was in fact the second.
From Marta Tarnawsky’s “Ukrainian Literature In English,1966–1979, An Annotated Bibliography” I learned that a certain individual, with the improbable name of Peter Tempest, had published a translation of Bazhan’s poem in an obscure journal called the “Ukrainian Canadian” in 1977. With the help of Marta’s son Maxim Tarnawsky, I was able to acquire this rare translation in an edition of the original magazine.
My search led me to Peter’s son, Dr. Richard Tempest, a professor of Russian at the University of Illinois, who revealed more details about his enigmatic father. Peter Tempest was born in 1924 in the northern English town of Bradford, Peter Tempest served with the Royal Air Force during World War II and followed his father, a wealthy industrialist, into the British Communist party. After graduating from the University of Oxford, he joined the staff of the party newspaper, The Daily Worker. He also developed an interest in literary translation, with a focus on contemporary Bulgarian and Soviet poets. In 1961 Tempest traveled to Moscow where he served as The Daily Worker’s correspondent. In the 1970’s and 1980’s he was employed by the semi-official news agency APN and taught English literature at Moscow State University, while continuing his work as a translator. A published poet himself, Tempest always strove to retain the meter and rhyme pattern of the original when rendering it into English.
I brought Bazhan to Richard as well as his father’s role in helping light break through the iron curtain. This project has been one of returning a man back to his people. Richard was taken aback by the original text as well as his father’s work in the late 1970s to translate it to the world at large. His father had been to Kyiv to report on the fact that a monument to Babyn Yar would in fact be built by the Soviet regime at the site of the atrocities, even with the caveat of its famous rendering of Jews as minor victims. His family was acquainted with the infamous Soviet poet Yevtushenko, who had written the most widely known Soviet work on Babyn Yar, but Richard’s father never spoke of any of it. Richard Tempest told me, “I had not been aware that he had translated Bazhan’s poem, but I immediately recognized my father’s unique poetic diction. And as his son, I was moved that he had contributed to the commemoration of that terrible tragedy.”
In our correspondence Richard also told me that while he had never seen this translation, he knew that his father had created English versions of Ukrainian language poems via their Russian translations and literal transliterations (the so called “podstrochniki”) and that he was sure that his father did not speak any Ukrainian. I had hoped that the translation from 1972 was a direct one from Ukrainian and that now once it had been unearthed and returned to the family of the translator it could be presented to the English speaking world as a representation of Bazhan’s legacy. But in all good faith towards the work and toward Tempest himself that could not be done. The translation itself is dated, contains critical typos and was not produced by a person who spoke the language in which the poem had been written. I knew that I had to press onward.
I began looking for help. I was looking for someone with the necessary skill set to translate the poem and/or revise the work of Peter Tempest, someone who actually knew the Ukrainian language and did not just intuit it the way that Russian speakers do based on the sonic and grammatical similarities. This was the only way that I could perceive the poem and I alone could not take on the job of putting it faithfully into English. In the wake of my concerted efforts, several translations from a pair of prominent Slavists were written and each was very different in tone and sensibility. Each had its’ own virtues. For myself, I continue to maintain a deeply held ideal that one only truly feels the richness of a work in another language when one sees the different ways that it can be interpreted by those who speak that language. Bazhan’s life was so rich and nuanced and so censored that his literary and political rediscovery merits as many lenses as the eye can accommodate. The two translations (several others are either complete or in process of completion at the time of this publication) are important representations of the original intent and feel of the poem. The first foregrounds the horror of its imagery in stark, minimalist lines and the second modernizes the poem for an Anglophone audience, adopting a looser rhythm.
This work, Bazhan’s reflection on Babin Yar, is not unique even if it is exceptional. Other important poems and works were written about Babyn Yar in the 1940’s and my research indicates that much has yet to be discovered. We still have many literary rediscoveries to make. But we must not forget those who compel us to remember, let us restore Bazhan’s place at the proverbial fathers’ feast, and place his name back in our collective registry of the righteous.
The living memory of the Holocaust is ebbing away as the last witnesses enter the twilight of their years and I take no pride in discovering this work and helping to bring it back into the world on the eve of the 75th anniversary of the fiery pit where it was written. To this day I wish I had never come across it. If anything I would have had my family bring it to me, as they had so much other literature cataloguing what must never be forgiven and excised from collective consciousness. We often see heard the Hebrew phrase “don’t forget don’t forgive” and two years ago I found it written in Ukrainian by a man who walked on the ashes, and did all he could do to sound the call to all of mankind. He was the one who brought reporters from the New York Times, Newsweek and Moscow Daily Worker to the site, wrote a poem which he knew might see only the fading light of day. It is my conviction that words context for future generations. Here are Bazhan’s words in tandem with the actions described above from the fall of 1943:
“There, on the outskirts, the most nightmarish ravine of
our planet was gaping through the rows of charred human
bodies mixed with yellow sand – that was Babyn Yar….
At the time we knew of neither Auschwitz, nor Treblinka,
nor Dachau, nor Buchenwald. And one of the foreign
reporters who I brought to Babyn Yar in the first days
after the liberation of Kyiv, uttered, trembling and suffocating”
He too did not seek the call to carry out this act of duty and obligation.
I also maintain a belief Bulgakov’s famous conceit that great manuscripts do not burn. Bazhan and I shared only a brief moment of time in the world, my first breath and his last, but I draw sustenance from it. Bazhan saw inhumanity and wrote about that which burnt his lungs, filled his eyes with tears and impelled another act of righteousness. The lesson of both his work and his life was that inhumanity must be fought with the knowledge of what came before us, the recognition of what is in front of us, and the readiness to answer the call of justice should it ever come.
Lev Fridman is a practicing Speech-Language Pathologist in New York City, he has a B.A in Comparative Literature and Russian Language and Literature from Queens College. He was one of the authors of “New Translations” volume of Osip Mandelstam’s poems compiled by the Ugly Duckling Presse.