Debora Vogel

Editor’s Note: To celebrate the launch this month of Anastasiya Lyubas’s Blooming Spaces: The Collected Poetry, Prose, Critical Writing, and Letters of Debora Vogel, Consequence Forum commissioned new translations of Vogel’s writing about war which we proudly publish as “Fragments.”

A Fragment
(Gentlemen in Bowler Hats)

At the end of March, spring comes unnoticed: as if it has been waiting for a while. It arrives with the baggage of greenery, light as a sigh. The greenery hides the pristine blue of midday in an unexpected way; it comes with an inherent anticipation of life.

On all the streets in the world gray uniforms march at the same time. They are of two different kinds.

The ones in the foreground represent, as it were, the greatest certainty and magnitude in life. They belong to people to whom a single role has been allotted. This role is to demonstrate the enduring way of the world where certitude is purchased with the coveted red metal and pale silver and where gold defines the fate of things.

In the background—still hazy and covered with tiny drops of leaves and certainty of the foregrounded uniforms—figures are being sketched out: decidedly different, they are waiting for their turn. These figures in military uniforms, gray like life and tin, bend under a suppressed longing, “the yearning of raw materials that wish to play their part in history.” They are heavy from waiting and glassy grayness.

It is the end of March, a warm spring.

The world is getting ready for war.

The ministers of foreign affairs of both countries wait for one another at the train stations. They are not in their official top hats, instead, they are wearing ordinary elliptical black stiff bowler hats.[1]

And all the telegraphic agencies, reporters, and newspaper correspondents emphasize in every way this seemingly inconsequential fact.

“A bowler hat,” the newspapers write, “introduces a cordial and an unofficial tone into the greeting.” There must be some truth to the statement, because the men in bowler hats give repeated assurances that one should not expect much from these visits, that they serve informal and purely informational purposes….

Such an important detail and in no way accidental—these common bowler hats instead of the formal top hats.

Meanwhile, armored ships with soldiers, tanks and ammunition are leaving Naples for Africa.

Mussolini has had no intention of missing out on the six months of the dry season in Africa which is about to commence in October.

Time is of essence: one needs to act quickly before the next season’s rainy days arrive in order to be in a position to declare political gains for Italy soon.

Debora Vogel, “a montazh kapitl.” In Zikh 18 (1937), no. 33, p. 90-91. The subtitle is found in the following manuscript: Debora Vogel, “fun der serie: pasirungen banale (a montazsh-kapitl)” (From the series “Banal happenings” (A montage chapter)”. Ms in YIVO Archives, New York: RG 108, Box 64, F. 63.5; 5 pages. Debora Vogel explains the etymology of the Polish name for “bowler hats” in the following sentence which has not been translated: “these hats are called ‘meloniki’ because they are similar to the pot-bellied and elliptical melons.”

~

A Fragment

Ammunition is converted into life.

And Europe behaves like a disgruntled and tormented person in those ill-fated moments when everything seems thwarted and could have been otherwise.

In these moments, passion engulfs us to account for life in terms of other possibilities. Never mind that in the course of such calculation one is assailed by sadness, a regular companion of lost things.

Such abnormal anguish has now overwhelmed Europe:

On April 3rd, 1935 the dailies published a table prepared by the Institute for Economic Research. “Statistics you should pay attention to” reads the headline of the short article.

It appears from this table that during the previous year the export of military goods increased from 224 million guilder in 1933 to 251 million in 1934. This means that the export of ammunition rose by twenty percent at the same time as the global trade shrank by four percent.

The second column of numbers in the table speaks its own language. From this column, it follows that in 1935 Europe will need twice as much ammunition as in the great year of war—1913.

At this point, the pathological passion for recalculation mentioned above gets expressed again. The amount of 30 million guilder by which the war industry needs to expand in 1935 is much higher than the sum of the annual import to Europe of raw materials, semi-finished products, and goods which are able to give life itself.

This much can be said for the newspaper report.

Life’s commentary on it is as follows: an insipid and expressionless mood befalls us at the sight of large arsenals and ammunition warehouses. We find ourselves in a similar mood after catching a glimpse of the large kitchen floors scrubbed with yellow lye with a strong odor.

Debora Vogel, “Fragment,” In zikh 18 (1937), no. 36, p. 181.

~

Military Parade
(A Montage Chapter)

These events happen at the end of the expressionless Lyczakowska street where it becomes a circular Bernardynski square on one of the last days in February 1937.

It is one of the first spring days. Women sport clothes in bright colors, light as porcelain. The first sadness runs over the body—the sadness is elastic despite the fact that the trees are still black and withered. Memories intermingle with the fear of a squandered life and everything is self-evident.

Out of the clear and delicate blue, out of the very heart of the first spring blue, soldiers and tanks emerge. They are self-evident, like everything that happens on that day.

The tank-houses approach, flat like meadows. The leather of helmets and coats is like iron, smooth and shiny, free from whimsical wrinkles. People dressed in leather coats and helmets are the same—without the slightest quirk.

Through the gray sidewalks and their dusty square tiles, you can sense how the soft slow grass and shiny pink worms are crushed and lumped together with dirt.

Suddenly and quite pointlessly a bizarre blue atmosphere rises above the sidewalks. It is ludicrous and sad at the same time, like a thin and helpless smile of the gentleman in a bright coat which is premeditated for the lady in elastic blue who speaks about the first drawn-out sadness.

“….The army is our pride

The army is the essence of people’s life.

That’s why all citizens cherish the army

All revere the army…”

(This is the sound of a fragment from the government manifesto shouted three times a day through all megaphones. It is shouted once again the next day and printed three times over in all newspapers and on five million billboards hung all over Poland or some other country.)

That same day, it rains in the evening. Everything is washed away with the rain’s grayness. Then a flashy white and red billboard appears with a smiling face of a soldier and a caption announcing “Military Newsreel” in Pan cinema.

A mechanical ballet dances on the screen—the ballet of grayness compressed into figures and surfaces. The grayness is without any hint of dusk, without any drop of subtlety and melancholy. It is infinite and lifeless like the cold North Sea in autumnal fog.

The high and tragic pathos of the navy-blue mountains—cut out from the purple paper of the sky—is projected from the screen. As is the pathos of the nights with dark skies.

“…Men’s destiny is to die under the tank…

….Women’s purpose is to give life…”

The delicate complexion of children’s cheeks is soft like velvet and cool like the fragrant flowers. Men’s life climbs along the sad, hard, and stiff lines. It is ready to be grated by the iron teeth of the tanks. Blind women who carry inside themselves sad and stiff men pass by the tanks. Everything is forever the same.

Late at night, a newspaper page lies open in a room. A red headline reads, “Europe in flames.” A banal statement.

“…The cost of tin rose and the price of lead increased as well…Zinc can be replaced by the artificially manufactured metal…”

One of the first spring days passes. It is tender and elastic and full of foreboding and anticipation. You await banal things like the fresh greenery which suddenly and unexpectedly floods the sidewalks. You also anticipate the gray porcelain of the sidewalks being warmed up by the light of the lanterns aglow with the dim yellow honey-like light (the light in Claude Lorrain’s paintings).

Trees and bodies prepare “for life.” As if nothing else were as important as this strange thing called “life.”

Debora Vogel, “militer-parad (a montazsh-kapitl),” In Zikh 19 (1938), 47, p. 154

By Anastasiya Lyubas

We often talk about facts and fictions these days—whether in the context of the sound public discourse versus harmful lies and the manipulations of information for political gains, or in the context of scientific evidence versus conspiracy theories surrounding the global pandemic. We have also grown accustomed to the language of numbers and statistics–data– which proliferates in the daily, weekly, and monthly epidemiological summaries, stock market trends, and the death rates of civilians and the military in armed conflicts in Armenia, Ukraine, Syria, Somali, and all over the world. Statistics and numbers are neither simple and dry calculations, nor dispassionate and neutral recounting of facts. They assign meaning to narratives and help tell the stories of universal suffering and personal tragedies. They can serve educational purposes and allow for expressions of feelings and affects when it comes to societal upheavals, economic shifts, and developments in international diplomacy.

Debora Vogel (1900-1942), the author of the three short texts we are publishing here, was interested in the relationship between facts and fiction and the power of literary narrative in the world replete with propaganda, pretense, indifference, and violence. In her prose, Vogel illuminated the hypocrisy of international diplomacy, the ruthless mechanisms of the world economy, and the brutal machinery of the impending war.

She published three short texts which she called “fragments” or “montage chapters” in the literary journal of the Yiddish high modernist movement of Introspectivism in New York. They appeared in print in 1937 and 1938, a couple years before the Second World War erupted in Poland and shortly thereafter engulfed the European continent. The Polish-Jewish writer herself perished with her family during the Holocaust. Vogel’s pacifist texts managed to see the light of day on the other side of the Atlantic even as the author herself no longer had the opportunity to publish in Poland given the worrisome pre-war climate, the Nazi invasion and the Shoah which soon followed. She perceived her writing as the only avenue of resistance to the inevitable demise of the way of life and civilization as she knew it.

Debora Vogel planned to publish a collection of pacifist poems on which she was at work during the last years of her life and which, as she explained to her friend Aaron Glantz-Leyeles, a Yiddish poet in New York, “the editors were afraid to publish in Poland. “[1] In a world that turned upside down, the pacifist tone of creative work was a dangerous one. In a letter to A. Glantz-Leyeles, Debora Vogel cited a couple examples of her poems, “Potato Blossoms in 1939” and “ Mountains in 1939,” which she called “tragic pacifist poems with strange and somewhat cheerful titles.”[2] Even though the poems did not survive, and Vogel’s poetry collection was never published, you can appreciate the power of Vogel’s word by reading her prose which cuts right to the heart of truth about the anguish of human condition in Europe in the turbulent 1930s and in many parts of the world today.

In her first narrative piece “A Fragment (Gentlemen in Bowler Hats),” Debora Vogel employs the montage technique to recount the events of the Second Italo-Ethiopian War (1935-1936). Vogel’s literary montage has an intermedial quality: much like the filmic technique of juxtaposition of the stills pioneered by Sergei Eisenstein and others, Vogel’s montage cuts narrative scenes. The cutting and layering allow truth to emerge, the truth which might not be readily apparent in individual pieces but only in their combination. The simultaneity of temporal planes—the cyclicity of natural time, the change of seasons and their recurrence, and the time of history and its unrepeatable and irreversible events, frames this fragment. Anticipation of the new beginnings in early spring and ruthless exploitation of the season without rain for execution of the military operations in Ethiopia (Abyssinia) both appear in the text. Neither one is presented as more important than the other one in the hierarchy of events or happenings. However, the two scenes with natural occurrences stand at a stark contrast: spring “comes unnoticed” while the “dry season” which begins on the African continent in October is instrumentalized for the imperialist ambitions of the fascist Italian regime.

Natural time clashes with the time of history. “Time is of essence,” as Debora Vogel writes, and the facts are well known. Following Mussolini’s order, the Italians invaded Ethiopia on October 3, 1935. Debora Vogel does not fictionalize the facts but rather presents them at the limit shared between poetry and history. Her elegiac descriptions of the ships full of arms and munitions departing from Naples to Ethiopia introduce sharp outlines to the barbaric events in an armed conflict which paved the way for the World War II. The crumbling of institutions that sustained a civil world order, and the failure of the European states to resist the rise of fascism through diplomacy is depicted in an image of the politicians in bowler hats exchanging greetings and niceties to ostensibly uphold peace at the same time as the military ships are dispatched to wage war.

While Vogel’s first piece juxtaposes one image with another, her second prose montage places images and numbers side by side — creating an ornament out of the statistical evidence for the militarization of the European interwar economy and the affects, or moods which emerge from witnessing these structural shifts. Sadness and anguish accompany cold and “objective” calculation, as does boredom, that “insipid and expressionless mood.” A statistical table with its own language of numbers is placed into a newspaper report with its “sensationalist” headline; the piece of journalism based on the economic research is in turn encapsulated into what Vogel calls “life’s commentary” on it. This commentary provides an expression of the military economy in terms of the domestic economy. An everyday image of the hardwood floors scrubbed by servants which Debora Vogel frequently uses in her poetry, or rather the mood this creates, overtakes the image of the military arsenals and ammunition warehouses. Through this narrative gesture, what is arguably an image of power is banalized, made mundane, underscoring the ubiquitous presence of the signs of the coming war.

Debora Vogel’s final piece demonstrates synesthesia par excellence. The visual assault of the tanks which arrive in the city and will soon crush the lives of the soldiers sent to war is linked by way of association to the tanks crushing worms and grass on their way. This image is combined with the aural experience of the pro-war state propaganda which is broadcast with bravado from the megaphones and which also appears in print media and on posters throughout the city. Despite the patriotic pomposity of the message, the effect it creates is that of the constant hum of fatalistic doom enhanced by the mythic quality of the “blind” pregnant women passing by the tanks and soldiers in helmets and military uniforms. The military newsreel in the cinema shows the “mechanical ballet” of figures and surfaces (presumably war action) only in passing and foregrounds the tragic nature and the pathos of the natural landscape where the war is waged. And finally, the newsprint silently communicates the state of the financial markets and fluctuations of the prices of materials used in the military industrial complex.

In the time of informational technologies, social media, the rise of artificial intelligence and digital warfare, the time of “insights” generated from “data” and also the time when the line between facts and fictions is often blurred, what can one learn from the connections between facts and fiction in Vogel’s literary creations?

Debora Vogel’s texts exemplify what the Viennese social scientist, philosopher, and political economist Otto Neurath called the individual’s dependence upon the broad connections between technology, economy, and politics. Neurath was convinced of the value of statistics, the science of facts which he championed for what he believed was its power to educate the masses about their contemporary society and to impact social change. Combined with visual representation, numbers could communicate in a way that would be as effective as the language of modern media, film and advertisements.

Working on the limit shared between the factual and the literary, Debora Vogel revealed the truth behind the facts. Her texts demonstrate that there are no unambiguous or “documentary” facts. Selection and juxtaposition of facts often in itself already passes judgment. Through her art, she showed that facts are a product of interpretation. Facts are, therefore, not far from fiction. However, the interpretation of facts matters, and fictions can be dangerous. Only certain visualization of the societal facts and their connections through images serve humanity.

Through her compelling appraisal of the power of the literary word, Debora Vogel reminds us that, in the 1930is and today, in order to get closer to the truth of the human condition one needs not only factual data but also imagination.

~

Footnotes

[1] See Debora Vogel’s letter to Aaron Glantz-Leyeles, May 23, 1939, Leyeles Collection, RG 556, Box 4, Folder 5, Archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York. See the English translation of the letter in Blooming Spaces: The Collected Poetry, Prose, Critical Writing, and Letters of Debora Vogel (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2020), p.336.

[2] See Debora Vogel’s letter to Aaron Glantz-Leyeles, July 23, 1939, Leyeles Collection, RG 556, Box 4, Folder 5, Archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York. See the English translation of the letter in Blooming Spaces: The Collected Poetry, Prose, Critical Writing, and Letters of Debora Vogel (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2020), p.337.

Debora Vogel (Author) / Anastasiya Lyubas (Translator)

Debora (1900-1942) was a Polish-Jewish writer, philosopher, art critic, and translator. She was a “wandering star” of Polish and Yiddish Modernisms in Eastern Europe and North America, her writing suggesting comparisons to Gertrude Stein’s in its striking originality. Born in Lviv, she was educated in Vienna and Kraków, and travelled extensively in Paris, Berlin and Stockholm, which is reflected in her work. A friend of Bruno Schulz, she was an extraordinary figure crossing physical, aesthetic, national, linguistic, and cultural borders. Given her engagement with visual arts and avant-garde movements, her highly experimental texts challenged every notion of writing in Yiddish in her own lifetime. Her poems from Day Figures (1930) provide examples of Cubist-Constructivist experimentation in a language that is at once lyrical and philosophical. Aaron Glanz-Leyeles, an Introspectivist poet, called Day Figures “the ultimate modern book…proving that Lviv is very close to New York.”

Anastasiya holds a Ph.D. (2018) and an MA (2014) in Comparative Literature from Binghamton University, as well as an MA (2011) in Linguistics and a BA (2010) in English Language and Literature from Lviv National University in the Ukraine. Her doctoral dissertation, “Language and Plasticity in Debora Vogel’s Modernist Poetics,” was supported by the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities.

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