You planted melodies in me, my mother and my father,
Melodies, forgotten hymns.
Here I listen to my distant lullaby,
Chanted from mother to daughter.
Here will sparkle in tears and laughter
“Lamentations” and Sabbath tunes.
It’s within me that your faraway voices teem.
My eyes I’ll close and I am with you
Above the darkness of the abyss.
These lines, written in Hebrew by Fania Bergstein, were magnificently translated by Sarah Honig, herself a remarkable literary artist. In 1944 when Fania put her inner melodies to paper, the “darkness of the abyss,” the Jewish catastrophe called the Holocaust, was already known to most of the Jews of Eretz Yisrael, Fania Bergstein included. Her fears that she will never again see her loved ones left behind in the abyss were, tragically, proven prophetic. These premonitions and the reality that had existed before reverberate through her rhymes. These rhymes were aimed at the children of Eretz Yisrael: many of them learned them by heart.
Fania Bergstein and her poems became a bridge between the new world of Eretz Yisrael and the old world of Eastern Europe she left behind and that soon sank into the abyss. In the words of Sarah Honig, “she’s important to understanding our Israeli identity, why we are here, what moves and motivates us. She was a living connection between a destroyed world and the new one being created.”
Born in 1908 in Szczuczyn, Poland, Fania Bergstein was educated in Hebrew and Russian. An active member of the Zionist youth movement He-Halutz Hatzair, Fania and her husband, Aharon Israeli, made aliyah in 1930 and settled in Kibbutz Gvat. Four years later she became mother to Gershon – a tall, fair-haired boy who inherited the artistic talent from his mother.
Fania Israeli published her first poem for children in 1932. During the next decade, besides translating foreign children’s books into Hebrew, she mainly wrote poetry and stories for children. Her book of children’s poetry Bo Elai Parpar Nechmad (Come to Me, Lovely Butterfly!) was an immediate success and considered a best-seller in Israel up to this day. With this book, which is now considered a children’s classic, she made a major contribution to the development of modern Hebrew children’s poetry.
On September 18, 1950 Fania Bergstein Israeli died after a prolonged illness, leaving behind a strapping remarkably handsome 16-year-old son who played the mandolin and composed music to many of his mother’s verses.
On June 5, 1967, the Six Day War broke out and Gershon Israeli, then a 33 year old father of three, rushed to volunteer for reserves duty. He didn’t wait for call-up orders. On the second day an Iraqi plane that penetrated Israeli airspace and tried to bombard Netanya set off a fiery blaze and devastation at Camp Amos where Gershon Israeli and his unit were stationed. Gershon and his valiant buddies were killed.
Gershon Israeli’s mandolin was silenced but neither his music nor his mother’s immortal melodies have vanished. They live on in the hearts of the growing Israeli youth.