Rivka Basman Ben-Hayim
Rivka Basman Ben-Hayim was born in Wilkomir (Ukmerge), Lithuania to Yekhezkel and Tsipora (née Heyman). As a child, she and her classmates read and delighted in the poems and stories of the Yiddish woman writer Kadya Molodowsky.
During World War II she spent two years in the Vilna ghetto before being sent to Kaiserwald (Riga) concentration camp. While in the camp, she and two others decided that each would do something every day to lift the spirits of the women in the camp: each day, one sang a song, one danced, and one recited a poem she had composed that day. Rivka Basman, then a young teenager, composed and recited a poem every day (see her poem “Remembrance”). When the camp was liquidated, she rolled her copy of these poems under her tongue and so managed to rescue them. She says of them now that they are “not sublimated enough” to be considered good poetry. She plans to leave them to Yad Vashem, where they will serve as a historical document.
Rivka’s mother died in 1930. Her father (b. 1897) was murdered by the Germans in Klooge, a camp in northern Estonia, shortly before the Allied victory. Her only sibling, Aharon (Arele), was murdered by the Germans when he was eight years old.
After the war she spent two years in Belgrade (1945–1947), where she married “Mula” Shmuel Ben-Hayim and helped him run the Belgrade Berihah (Heb. “flight”) stations for moving Jews out of Eastern Europe towards their illegal immigration to Palestine. At one point Mula even took on her name, Basman, to protect himself from detection.
Upon arrival in Israel in 1947 they became members of Kibbutz Ha-Ma’pil. Mula, who had joined the Haganah, became an active soldier in the War of Independence.
After the war Rivka studied at Seminar Ha-Kibbutzim in Tel Aviv, from which she received a teaching diploma. She taught children on Kibbutz Ha-Ma’pil, where she lived for sixteen years. At the same time she published poetry and was a member of the Yiddish poets’ group, Yung Yisroel.
From 1963 to 1965, when her husband was Israel’s cultural attaché to the Soviet Union, she taught the children of the diplomatic corps in Moscow. At the same time she furthered clandestine contacts between Soviet Yiddish writers and the outside world. She also studied English literature at Columbia University.
Basman Ben-Hayim has published nine books of poetry: Toybn baym brunem (Doves at the Well, 1959), Bleter fun vegn (Leaves of the Paths, 1967), Likhtike shteyner (Radiant Stones, 1972), Tseshotene kreln (Beads in Shadow, 1982), Onrirn di tsayt (To Touch Time, 1988), Di shtilkayt brent (The Silence Burns, 1992), Di erd gedenkt (The Earth Remembers, 1998), Di draytsnte sho (The Thirteenth Hour, 2000) and Af a strune fun regn (On a Strand of Rain, 2002). She composed her first book of poems while she was still a member of Kibbutz Ha-Ma’pil; the rest, after she had left the kibbutz. Her husband designed and illustrated every one of her books. After his death, Basman added his family name to hers.
Basman Ben-Hayim is a singularly non-ideological poet. She elected to live in Israel after the Holocaust and from her poetry it is clear that she feels rooted in Israel. But the political movements and social trends of her second home are absent from her poetry.
Her poems, rarely more than one full page each, have meter and are rhymed. Her innovative use of language often involves juxtaposing ordinary elements of language in extraordinary ways, e.g., Di shtilkayt brent. References to Biblical figures and homiletic Jewish stories can be found scattered throughout her poetry, but these serve as metaphorical tools, not as themes.
Basman Ben-Hayim’s poetry is elegiac and lyrical. The elements of nature, trees and flowers, the sea and rain figure prominently in her poems. Reference to the outside world is oblique and must be teased out of the poems. While none of her poetry is directly about the Holocaust, nearly all of it is indirectly about it, the lingering pain and the sense of loss. And yet there is in her poetry a sense of calm and comfort: the calm to be found in identifying with the natural world, and the comfort to be found in friendship and in love.
While she has been the subject of much critical attention in the Yiddish world and much of her poetry has been translated into Hebrew, very little of her work has been translated into English. Kathryn Hellerstein published a translation of one of her poems in Hadassah Magazine (August/September, 2000, 34–35), two poems of hers were translated by Zelda Kahan Newman for Midstream (Summer 2002, 46–47) and five other poems translated by Zelda Kahan Newman appeared in the on-line journal the Mendele Review, (vol.7, no. 2, Feb. 25, 2003).
Basman Ben-Hayim has won many prizes: The Arie Shamri prize in 1980; the Fichman prize in 1983, the Itzik Manger prize in 1984, the prize awarded by the chairman of the World Zionist Federation in 1989, the David Hofstein prize, 1992, The Beit Sholem Aleichem (Polack) prize in 1994, the Leib Malakh prize (awarded by Beit Leivick) in 1995, the Mendele prize of the city of Tel Aviv-Jaffa in 1997 and the Chaim Zhitlowsky prize in 1998.
Basman Ben-Hayim lives in Herzliyyah Pituah. She continues to write poetry and is active in the Union of Yiddish Writers located in Tel Aviv.