Henri (Chaim) Keniger
( Warsaw 1917 - Paris 1993)
Keniger, born in Warsaw, survived the War in the USSR, where he was sent to a labour camp near Archangelsk. There his first poems were written. At war's end he returned briefly to Poland, then escaped to Sweden, travelled to Israel - and settled in Paris, achieving success as the owner of a small hotel.
He travelled extensively and liked to write poetry then.
We thank his sons Israel, Paul and Roland Keniger for permission to present ten poems, five with French translations, from Henri Keniger's second book of poetry, published in Paris in 1990: In Sheytekh fun Tsayt), the poetry of his mature years, between the ages of 67 and 73y.
Prior to the dedication to his wife and sons comes the following black box dedication:
In memory of my father who met an untimely death and my mother, brothers and sister who died in Treblinka; my uncle, Ephraim-Eliezer Bialy-Lew, who died in the Ghetto; and in memory of those who died in German concentration camps of the following miraculously saved families: Sara Bukh-Yazuvinska, Marysia and Wladek Rubin, Gedalye Bialy-Lew, Abraham Yazvinski, and Shpatsnkop.
The same dedication opened his first book of poems, Fun fir zaytn, (Paris 1984); and in his foreword to this earlier volume Yitzhok Niborski pointed out Keniger's undertaking:
bavayzn dem veg fun vey
in opgehaktn vort.
Almost every poem is 20 lines or less. Many are half that length, and express a single idea or experience.
This earlier book spans all the years from war's end to 1984. Poems are dated and situated - Melbourne 1973 for example. We find Venice, Singapore, Warsaw, Haifa.
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Keniger's later poems, presented here, are more relaxed and reflective, but retain the compact form. Self-reflective processing of his wartime losses has not ceased. Unshakeable sadness is acknowledged.
Nevertheless our selection opens with two joyful poems. The second is a tender love poem for his wife.
Our third poem, Di Yerishe, reflects on the residue from the War that remains a part of him. "This my children will inherit". In Varshe he describes a recent nightmare of his native city.
In ritem fun lebns-shpil shows a deep interest in psychology, as does der droysn shrekt. The brief poem der kern is more philosophical.
He looks back over his life in In mayne vegn and in the sad reflective poem, written in Melbourne as an elderly 59 year old, In di faldn fun vint.
Keniger had first attended Cheder and then a Polish language school. In our final poem Men ruft, is it God that has let him down?
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Footnote: How the Yiddish veltele works:
Henri Keniger visited Melbourne several times because of family here; and his relative Henry Buch attends our reading group. But that is not how Keniger found his place here. Last year entirely by chance I stayed at the Hotel Marignan in the Latin Quarter, still owned by the Keniger family. This is a hotel where mostly English is spoken, but there are Polish-speaking staff as well. As soon as Henri's son Roland heard of my interest in Yiddish poetry he came to speak Yiddish with me, and presented me with his father's two books. In fact Henry Buch was staying with Roland and his wife Sharon at the time - and I now learned for the first time of their connection.
It turned out that through the nineteen sixties to eighties, many Yiddish writers stayed here, including Abraham Sutzkever, Binem Heller, Kerler, Osherowitch and Yitzhok Luden.
Back in Melbourne I found Keniger's books in the Kadimah Library. I read both of them, and decided to make a selection for this site. Roland and Sharon Keniger (his wife) have made a donation to YiddishPoetry.org, which is gratefully acknowledged.
Andrew Firestone, 2011.