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Benjamin (Wechsler) Fondane (Fundoianu)

1898, Jassy (Iași), Romania – 1944, Auschwitz-Birkenau Camp

Grégoire Michonze (Michonznic) (1902-1982)
Portrait of Benjamin Fondane
Paris, c.1943

Benjamin Fondane was already publishing his poems at the age of fourteen; later, he also translated Yiddish poetry and wrote a play. In 1919 he moved to Bucharest and began studying law at the University of Jassy; however, in 1922 he left his studies. That same year, in Bucharest, he founded an avant-garde theater named Insula. A year later he settled down in Paris, where he began to write in French under the pseudonym Fondane. During the 1930s he mainly wrote poetry, literary reviews, and essays on existential philosophy. In February 1940 he was drafted by the French Army and later taken captive by the Germans. In 1941 he was released due to poor health and returned to live with his wife and sister in Paris. After being denounced, he and his sister were arrested in March 1944 and were interned in the Drancy camp. Although it would have been possible for him to escape, he refused to leave his sister. In May 1944 they were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they were murdered.

Préface en prose

It is to you I speak, antipodal men,
I speak man to man,
with the little in me of man that remains,
with the scrap of voice left in my throat,
my blood lies upon the roads, let it not, let it
not cry out for vengeance!
The death-note is sounded, the beasts hunted down,
let me speak to you with these very words
that have been our share-
few intelligible ones remain.
A day will come, surely, of thirst appeased,
we will be beyond memory, death
will have finished the works of hate,
I will be a clump of nettles beneath your feet,
-ah, then, know that I had a face
like you. A mouth that prayed, like you.
When a bit of dust, or a dream,
entered my eye, this eye shed its drop of salt. And when
a cruel thorn raked my skin
the blood flowed red as your own!
Yes, exactly like you I was cruel, I
yearned for tenderness, for power,
for gold, for pleasure and pain.
Like you I was mean and anguished,
solid in peacetime, drunk in victory,
and staggering, haggard, in the hour of failure.
Yes, I was a man like other men,
nourished on bread, on dreams, on despair. Oh, yes,
I loved, I wept, I hated, I suffered,
I bought flowers and did not always
pay my rent. Sundays I went to the country
to cast for unreal fish under the eye of God,
I bathed in the river
that sang among the rushes and I ate fried potatoes
in the evening. And afterwards, I came back for bedtime
tired, my heart weary and full of loneliness,
full of pity for myself,
full of pity for man,
searching, searching vainly upon a woman's belly
for that impossible peace we lost
some time ago, in a great orchard where,
flowering, at the center,
is the tree of life.
Like you I read all the papers, all the bestsellers,
and I have understood nothing of the world
and I have understood nothing of man,
though it often happened that I affirmed
the contrary.
And when death, when death came, maybe
I pretended to know what it was, but now truly
I can tell you at this hour,
it has fully entered my astonished eyes,
astonished to understand so little-
have you understood more than I?
And yet, no!
I was not a man like you.
You were not born on the roads,
no one threw your little ones like blind kittens
into the sewer,
you did not wander from city to city
hunted by the police,
you did not know the disasters of daybreak,
the cattle cars
and the bitter sob of abasement,
accused of a wrong you did not do,
of a murder still without a cadaver,
changing your name and your face,
so as not to bear a jeered-at name,
a face that has served for all the world
as a spittoon.
A day will come, no doubt, when this poem
will find itself before your eyes. It asks
nothing! Forget it, forget it! It is nothing
but a scream, that cannot fit in a perfect
poem. Have I even time to finish it?
But when you trample on this bunch of nettles
that had been me, in another century,
in a history that you will have canceled,
remember only that I was innocent
and that, like all of you, mortals of this day,
I had, I too had a face marked
by rage, by pity and joy,
an ordinary human face!

"Préface en prose" (L’Exode), in: Le Mal des fantômes (Paris: Verdier, 2006) p. 151-153.
Translated from French by Michael Weingrad