The Inevitable Void in Irena Klepfisz’s “Bashert”

It is not until its final stanza that Irena Klepfisz’s “Bashert” loosens its grip, lets out a silent sigh, and offers the reader a momentary reprieve from the furor of uninterrupted memories that preceded. The length of the pause is short, would be imperceptible if not for the visual of emptiness between words: the void left behind by a twentieth century lived “almost equidistant from two continents” and so, lived as witness to ever-present violence (196). [1] Interrupting its own rhythm, its accumulated electricity, the poem makes material the emptiness from which it emerged, the void it continues to inhabit.

“Gone    they say   forever,” we read, noting the distance between “gone” and “forever,” noting the absence of a referent for the verb, until that forever is over, and the poet’s ancestors reawaken in her, “in the sight / of strangers    or someone suddenly grown alien.” The space between words replicates the distance of the other’s sudden withdrawal caused by recognition of the poet’s identity, and slows the pace of reading to make that space tangible. It is a vast distance, spanning from the poet’s early years in occupied Poland, that “emptiness where no one can be trusted” and where she teeters dangerously on the line between death and life, to the “American hollowness,” where she finds herself as a student in Chicago, or a teacher in Brooklyn, observing the socioeconomic and racial disparities of a nation enamored with its own myths of freedom. Finding herself between these two places, two temporalities, two voids, the poet feels shapeless, as if her body is losing definition at the cellular level, flesh and bone dissolving into the “water between two vast land masses that will never touch.” She yearns to become this salt water, and like the silent interval between words in the poem’s final stanza, “establish the connection” between continents, between past and present.

Because “Bashert” relies on juxtaposition, the poem does not relegate the Holocaust to the past, to memory transformed into a cold, solid monument to be inaugurated by heads of state. Instead, memory in “Bashert” is as fluid as salt water, its meaning renegotiated in the present according to a multidirectional logic spacious enough for different memories to coexist. [2] Thus, walking the Chicago streets at night, the poet thinks of the “nature of literary movements” that eludes her in her studies, of the “strange void” she transverses in that city, but also of intruding memories of “another time, another place” and of “Elza who is dead.” If the poem’s initial juxtaposition, enacted by two columns of dedications—to those who died, and to those who survived—contrasts death not with life, but with survival, where does this place Elza? It seems that she confronts us with a “fact which stubbornly resists classification.” To speak that fact, the poem coils onto itself, struggles with the incomprehensible, then breaks into exclamation: “nothing that happened to her afterwards mattered. All that agonized effort. All that caring. None of that mattered!

The unbelievable “afterwards” is suspended in the void between the American present and the Polish past, where the latter mingles with the former, where it seems that nothing mattered: not the loss of her parents, not the years of denying her Jewishness, not the effort to integrate into a new life. In the end, Elza could not be saved. “Is it inevitable?” the poem asks. Maybe her fate had been written somewhere, accounted for by the invisible forces that create the asymmetrical equilibrium of our world. Even as it questions the premise, the poem lulls us into a belief that, yes, there are times when we experience history as a cruel progression toward this inevitable, which perhaps “cannot be escaped or transcended.” And so, the fate assigned to Elza in 1944, the fate she had survived through the “cold, calculated cunning of an adult”—None of that mattered!— catches up with her twenty years later.

“Bashert,” after all, is a Yiddish word that Klepfisz defines as “predestination, inevitability, a sense of finality, hopelessness, inexplicability.” [3] The dedications that open the poem places the question of predestination in the context of concentration camps. “These words are dedicated to those who died,” reads the heading to the first set of dedications, a verse that repeats in each following stanza, until the dedication changes into a refrain for those who lived: “These words are dedicated to those who survived,” it sings. Chance, fate, or luck may explain why some survived and others did not—like those who were saved because “they knew someone who knew someone else who could / help them and bumped into them on a corner of a Thursday / afternoon,” or those who died because “a card was lost and a number was skipped.” But what to make of those who took risks, played it safe, refused to give up, asked too much, when these actions could earned them dedications in either column? [4] Was the outcome inevitable, would their fate have remained unchanged, “all that agonized effort” notwithstanding?

To attempt an answer, I want to return to the poem’s final section, where the idea of the inevitable is dissected. Having had enough of denying her identity, Klepfisz casts off the present and her present self with it, and “like rage, like pride, like acceptance, like the refusal to deny” declares: “I have become a keeper of accounts.” While Elza “cannot help” but read accounts of the war, seeking in them acts of everyday resistance, proof that something of the human survived even in the camps, the poet accounts for more distant pasts. With delicate, sharp and scrupulous precision she calls “upon the ancient myths” to deconstruct a long history of Jewish oppression, survival, and resistance in Europe, demonstrating that, if the Holocaust was inevitable or predestined, it was made so by design.

Abandoning almost all punctuation, the poem accounts for the poet’s ancestors, traversing between them through the present absence of the negative space that gives the poem its shape. They are all there: the “inhuman usurpers and dusty pawnbrokers,” the “men of stone,” and the “old, heartless, dried up merchants,” the “laundresses, midwives, floor washers and street cleaners,” those women left begging “for the daughter run off to the revolution,” left begging for life, yet refusing premature mourning (“to sit shiva and say kaddishfor a living child), refusing the pull of the inevitable. The poem also accounts for their enforced quarantine within the “precisely prescribed limits of every European town,” ordered by “magistrates that drew the boundaries of their lives and declared them diseased.” The inevitable, we conclude, is a product of history.

In Klepfisz’s account of her own survival, she recites the prayers taught to her by Polish nuns, so she can seem “like any Polish child” in the countryside where she hides with her mother, and where “learning to use memory” she prays not only for the two of them, but also for her father, murdered in the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Klepfisz has written beautifully about her father, her search for him in the labyrinths of memory, in the streets of Warsaw. In “Bashert,” however, it is her mother who figures prominently, struggling for their survival and battling illness, hunger, isolation and grief. The poem lingers on her fear of being separated from her daughter, of being discovered in her deception, an embodied terror that she “tastes in her mouth,” before swallowing it so that the void does not engulf her instead. It is important to remember that her mother’s struggle has already challenged fate, and not attribute their survival solely to the chance encounter with the “strange woman with wild red hair,” her father’s teacher, a family friend, “Another Jew,” whose help allows them to “bridge the gap towards life.” By foregrounding the mother’s efforts to survive, the poem is deliberate in framing her not as a passive victim, but as active participant in the account of her life.

If history demands obedience from its victims, “Bashert” refuses the “projected melancholy and political inaction” [5] affixed to victimhood, that which makes it safe to consume, the favorite subject of sentimentalists. [6] Instead, in its concluding stanza, the poem repeats, with the added interruption of the negative space’s pause, the moment when the poet claims her identity. Like her “despised ancestors,” cast aside to the “grimy shtetl streets,” the poet asserts: “I have become a keeper of accounts.” The verse is repeated three times before turning, in its fourth and final iteration, to the present tense: “Yes. It is true.    I am a keeper of accounts.” The shift in tense changes the meaning: subjected to becoming, the subject now is. We find her in the “distance between two sounds,” [7] the brief interval between the “true” and the “I.” Against the flattening of memory, against imposed divisions, against the drive for “the emptiness to be filled up, for the filling-up that can never replace, that can only take over,” the poet chooses the interstice and its silence. [8]


[1] Irena Klepfisz. “Bashert.” A Few Words in the Mother Tongue: Poems Selected and New (1971-1990). Eighth Mountain Press, 1990. pp. 183-200. The poem was first published in 1982 in Klepfisz’s collection Keeper of Accounts, and in Sinister Wisdom, issue 21.

[2] Michael Rothberg. Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization. Stanford University Press, 2009.

[3] Gary Pacernick, “Irena Klepfisz.” Meaning and Memory: Interviews with Fourteen Jewish Poets. Ohio State University Press, 2001, pp. 244-254.

[4] Klepfisz says in an interview with Gary Pacernick: “I’m hoping that by the time they finish “those who survived,” they realize that the cause and effect is nonexistent” (243).

[5] Robert Meister. After Evil: A Politics of Human Rights.New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. 226.

[6] James Baldwin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” Notes of a Native Son. Beacon Press, 2012. 14.

[7] Irena Klepfisz. “Fradel Schtok.” A Few Words in the Mother Tongue: Poems Selected and New (1971-1990). Eighth Mountain Press, 1990. 228.

[8] Klepfisz explores the role of silence in her writing and activism in the essay: “The 2087th Question or When Silence Is the Only Answer.” In geveb, January 2020: https://ingeveb.org/blog/the-2087th-question-or-when-silence-is-the-only-answer

Genta Nishku lives in New York and was raised in Tirana. Her writing has been published in various journals, and is forthcoming in the Kenyon Review, Bennington Review, and Washington Square Review. She is completing a PhD in Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan. Find her at gentanishku.com.