Irena Klepfisz's "Bashert"

Resource Kit by
Agi Legutko

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Introduction

Irena Klepfisz (born 1941) is a leading poet, feminist, lesbian activist, writer, editor, translator, and a pioneer in the rediscovery of Yiddish women writers. She has published several books of poetry and prose, including A Few Words in the Mother Tongue: Poems Selected and New (1971–1990) (1990). She was born in the Warsaw Ghetto, and survived the war hidden in a Catholic orphanage and then, once her mother came to get her, passing as Aryans in the Polish countryside. Her father was a Bundist who was killed in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943. She immigrated to Sweden in 1946 and to the United States in 1949, where she grew up in a closely-knit, Yiddish-speaking Bundist Holocaust survivor community in the Bronx, New York.

Klepfisz received a PhD in English from the University of Chicago and did postdoctoral studies in Yiddish at YIVO's Max Weinreich Center for Advanced Jewish Studies. She also became active within the feminist and lesbian movements. She began to incorporate Yiddish in her English-language poetry, inspired by the bilingual poetry of Gloria Anzaldúa. She taught Jewish women’s writing at Barnard College for several decades, as well as teaching at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, and in Yiddish cultural programs. She has published several books of poetry and prose, including A Few Words in the Mother Tongue: Poems Selected and New (1971–1990) (1990).

Klepfisz’s poem Bashert (a Yiddish word for inevitable, or predestined) deals with the totality of Holocaust loss and the torment of its aftermath. Bashert explores the incomprehensibility of the khurbn – the Yiddish term for the Holocaust – and the role that a combination of chance and will played in one’s death or survival. It reflects on the impact of history on the individual, and the challenges of embracing ancestral heritage. The poem is concerned with the baffling randomness, or seeming predestination, of not only the Holocaust, but the human condition in general.

Bashert first appeared in the lesbian journal Sinister Wisdom (1982) and in Klepfisz’s second volume of poetry, Keeper of Accounts (1982). The poem begins with two introductory sections, dedicated “to those who died,” and “to those who survived.” These dedications have since been a staple feature of Holocaust commemorations, and in particular, commemorations of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (April 19, 1943). Bashert has also been incorporated into memorial services for AIDS victims, as well as excerpted in Passover Haggadahs. Today, Bashert remains an iconic commemorative poem about the incomprehensibility of loss and survival, as well as a transformative text for individual and collective wrestling with historical legacies.

 

Cover image: Irena Klepfisz