“Who Says I’ve Lost Her?”: Andrey Klyonov’s “Berlin Is Burning”

Portrait of Andrey Klyenov (1950)
by Telesforas Kulakauskas

It started a decade ago, maybe earlier. Taking walks around my neighborhood I’d notice two or three ownerless Russian books lying face up on a strip of grass, sometimes an entire cardboard box of them under a tree. The children and grandchildren of the older generation of Russian immigrants, who are steadily passing away, are hard-pressed to find better resting places for their parents’ and grandparents’ collections. The émigré library, founded in 1997, is struggling to survive, and even local thrift shops are no longer accepting Russian titles as donations. I don’t blame the shops — there aren’t any takers, so the books eventually end up in the recycling bin anyway.

With all those sad facts in mind, I always stop to sort through the discards on the side of the road, hoping to rescue something special before a sprinkler reduces it to mulch. One time I even pulled a volume from a box under active aquatic assault; its neighbors, entirely soaked through, had managed to shield it. The book is a collection of poems by Andrey Klyonov, titled Revelation and published in New York in 1984.

Klyonov was born in Minsk, Belarus, in 1920, to a Jewish family; his real name was Aron Kupershtok. He published his first poem at the age of 15, and his first collection, My Friends, five years later, in 1940. Like so many talented poets of his generation, he studied at Moscow’s Gorky Literary Institute — and, like so many of them, volunteered for the front soon after the Soviet Union was invaded. Some of these poets survived, but many others perished; the finest monument to their legacy in English is Maria Bloshteyn’s extraordinary anthology Russia Is Burning: Poems of the Great Patriotic War.

Klyonov entered the army as a private and rose to the rank of senior lieutenant. While fighting near his native Minsk, he learned that his family had been murdered in the city’s ghetto. The poem below, written in Germany in 1945, is one of dozens in which Klyonov mourns his parents and other victims of the Shoah. This unhealing wound, at once personal and world-historical, is at the center of two full cycles in Revelation, “Jewish Requiem” and “The Book of War,” but it haunts the entire collection. Nowhere is the pain more evident than in “Berlin Is Burning,” which calls to mind Anna Semyonovna’s letter to her son in Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate.

Returning from the war, Klyonov found a place in Moscow’s literary establishment as a poet and translator, but he couldn’t reconcile himself to the regime’s antisemitism. He won the right to immigrate to Israel in 1973 and officially reclaimed his family’s name — Kupershtok. In 1979, he resettled in New York, where he continued to write until his death in 2004.

The flyleaf of my rescued copy of Revelation bears an inscription by the poet, from 1984: “To […], with sincere respect, kind wishes, and a request, if possible, to help me distribute a few copies of this book.” Decades later, in a roundabout way, the recipient honored Klyonov’s request.

Berlin Is Burning

Berlin is burning …
And I dream of home …
White fluff, grey ashes whirl about me …
“Open up, mama …”
I’ve been gone so long.
It’s on a hill, our home,
beyond a bridge …
Who says it’s burnt?
No, no,
it’s fine, it’s fine —
same as I left it …

“Mama, don’t cry.
Calm down, mama, calm down …”
Who says I’ve lost her?
She’s alive, alive …
Behind the house,
cranberries grow,
the Neman flows
against the sky — and I
am still that boy with clear brown eyes …
And you are still the same …
Berlin — who gives a damn?
There’s no Berlin!

Down in a hollow, underneath a bush,
a warbler sleeps.
I bring her crumbs …
“Mama, come sit, please come.
No, I won’t leave you —
I’m back for good, I’m home …”
Outside the window,
flames grow wider, wilder —
a deepening dawn.

Hooves clatter, echo
on the concrete slabs …
I want so badly to go home —
there is no home.
I want to see you —
but they’ve killed you.


Берлин горит

Берлин горит …
Мне снится отчий дом …
Кружится белый пух и серый пепел…
— Открой мне, мама … —
Я давно там не был.
Стоит наш дом
На горке, за мостом …
Кто говорит, что он сгорел?
Он цел!
Он цел, он цел,
Знакомый, тот же самый …

— Не надо, мама.
Успокойся, мама … —
Кто говорит, что я осиротел?
Жива! Жива!
За домом у калин
Струится Неман вровень с небесами.
Я тот же мальчик с чистыми глазами,
И ты все та …
К чему же тут Берлин?
Берлина нет!

В ложбинке за кустом
Ночует славка,
Я принес ей крошек …
— Сядь рядом, мама.
Я тебя не брошу,
Я навсегда вернулся в отчий дом … —
Пожар в окне все шире,
Как рассвет.

На гулких плитках
Цокают копыта …
Мне хочется домой,
А дома нет.
Мне хочется к тебе —
А ты убита.


9 thoughts on ““Who Says I’ve Lost Her?”: Andrey Klyonov’s “Berlin Is Burning”

  1. Gosh. The tale of all those abandoned books is enough to give me the heebie-jeebies. Add that to a powerful poem like that, and I shall be falling to bits. Thank you for rescuing that volume, and sharing the poem with us, Boris. x

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This poem really gutted me. Thank you for rescuing the books and for writing about this author. the more I read about the silencing of the Holocaust in the USSR, the better I understand the Jewish exodus in the 1970s.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This meditation on a dead poet should not be lost. The fine translation of the poem should help preserve it. Are such things to be forgotten? I hope not.

    Liked by 1 person

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