A profile of poet Julius Balbin

The apartment of Doctor Julius Balbin on the Upper West Side of Manhattan is filled with books.
Looking at their titles, one can comprehend the life of poet Julius Balbin, year after year.
Julian, Tuvim and Boleslaw Prust in Polish (Julius' native tongue); Shalom Aleichem in Yiddish (his mother's tongue); poetry and novels in Russian, French, German, Italian and Spanish, and books in Esperanto - the international language invented by a Polish Jew, Doctor Lazar Zamenhof.
Of all the languages, Esperanto is especially close to Julius' heart, and though he's fluent in many languages (he's Professor of English at Essex Community College in Newark, New Jersey), Julius speaks from his heart in Esperanto. When I ask him why he chooses Esperanto above all other languages in the world, he answers, reciting from one of his poem from his book, Strangled Cries:
"Why do I write poems in Esperanto...
A language wrought by a man, empty of world prestige,
Which conquered neither a land nor a people?
I do persist in expressing in this language
The song of my heartbeat.
For even if the edge
Of its sword is not sharp enough to rule the world
It is incomparable as the medium: euphonious,
Designed by a genius, and so flexible as to open
And perhaps conquer human hearts."
Julius Balbin strongly believes in the poetic power of Esperanto. This poem, along with many others, was published in 1981 as a chapbook by Cross-Cultural Communications, Merrick, New York. The original Esperanto text is accompanied by an English translation by Charlz Rizutto of New York City.
Charlz and Julius became friends, united by their comon passion which cannot be divided even by the frontiers of language. Strangled Cries is one ofa series of chapbooks featuring bilingual texts.
In a recent interview in his Manhattan apartment, Julius Balbin, survivor of four concentration camps, three in Poland and one in Austria, speaks out about art, love, passion and the instinct ti survive. Balbin survived Mauthausen, Plaszow, Wieliczka and Linz.
"I am fond of New York City", he says, looking out of his West End Avenue window, "and do you know why? Because it does not belong to any one ethnic group or nationality. There are so many people from so many different lands in Manhattan that it reminds me of a new Noah's arc sent by humankind into the future."
"I don't know why," he says "that Henry Hudson thought he was mistaken when he found the Hudson River - thought he was so far from India and Japan, which he was looking for - because in my mind, this broad river runs through time and begins someplace near my native Cracow, in Poland."
Julius always returns to his youth, to his Poland where "even the stones speak Yiddish." Poland where almost all the Jews were exterminated by the Nazis and the rest were forced to leave.
In his early years Julius lived under the spell of linguist and Jewish thinker Lazar Zamenhof (1859-1917) who finally gave up the Zionist idea (he was one of the first Zionists in Poland) for a utopian dream - the idea of Esperanto, a language that would transform all the peoples of the world into one big family.
Nobody could believe that the Holocaust was looming on the horizon.
When Adolf Hitler took over, Julius was a student at the Jagellonian University of Cracow where he had taken up many courses in English and Romance languages. Esperanto was the voice of his heart, though, and he'd been writing poetry since the age of fourteen.
In 1937, in Warsaw, the native city where Zamenhof published his first book on (and in) Esperanto in 1887, the Esperanto Congress was convened. During the same time, Hitler blamed the language as "the creation of Jews who sought to rule the world, forcing the world to speak one language, invented by a Jew," Stalin coined a name for Esperanto - "the language of the spies and Zionists."
During 1937-1947, thousands of Esperantists, in the Europe of Hitler and in the USSR under Stalin, perished in concentration camps.
"And were these mostly Jews?" I ask him.
"Yes," he answers, "but only some. Two dictators, each waging war against the other, were unanimous in their hate of the 'Jewish idea of Zamenhof.' Hitler's Gestapo, invading the Baltic Republics occupied by the Soviets, used the lists left by the KGB and used these lists to persecute Esperantists."
"But why," Balbin says, "are we speaking so much about the Esperantists? There were just thousands of them. Can you compare this with 6 millions Jews? But the answer is that that you can, and it is because we Jews are humanistic. We believe in thevalue of any human life."
"For me," he says, "the death of Zamenhof's family and Janusz Korczak in Hitler's camps means more than hundreds of tombs of unknown people.
"As a poet," he says, "I see faces and look into their minds..."
On Julius' arm is the number 88834. I recite his poem and I finally comprehend why he so hates numbers.
"Long before the invention of the computer
I was a mere number
tattoed upon my arm
and humanity's conscience.
It is possible the latter in science,
and technology's unimpeded and triumphant progress,
will eventually be disinvented."
Many years ago, he, a man with a number and a personality was lowered to the level of unnamed beast, to a mere number. It all began in Poland where Jews were viewed as "dirty kikes" and where mocking cartoons and derogatory songs about Jews, beatings and pogroms prepared Poland to adopt on its own soil most of the concentration camps.
"If you really want to be accurate," he says, "I was not really born in Poland. In 1917 my native Cracow belonged to Austria-Hungary."
"Interesting," Balbin says, "that both Hitler and I were born in the same country. We were compatriots."
"During the First World War," he says, "my father was a captain in the Austrian army. He met the Nazis decorated with all of his orders, in his officer's uniform. He was even more dazzling than was the father of my girlfriend, Hanna Bahner, who was the well-known president of the Union of Jews-Combatants."
"What can I tell you?" Balbin asks. "When God is to punish somebody he first deprives them of his mind. Now for the Nazis, as before for Polish anti-Semites, we were just 'kikes'."
"Two months after Hitler invaded Poland, all the Jews were ordered to wear the Yellow Star. After that we were driven out of the Cracow Ghetto and sent to concentration camps, most of us were sent to the infamous Auschwitz."
Suddenly Julis falls into silence. After World War II, the survivors were so astounded by their bitter experiences, by the terrible abyss where human conscience could fall, that they kept their mouths sealed. Only many years after events, they realized: people must remember the Holocaust if they do not want it to be repeated.
What does he see out of his window? May by not New York City but Mauthausen, his second camp. He often lives in the past.
"Sinking striped rags
hang from cavernous bodies
cursed by birth or chance
while they cry in silence
smothered by the sniggering sun..."
The rest oft the world knows it was a living hell, but it lives somewhere outside his memory, remote like the moon. Poet Julius Balbin is pregnant with the hell. He speaks out for the dead, who are buried in his mind.
"Tonight the silence of my room
weighs on my chest.
As I shudder, the silence of my room
enshrouded tortured millions
the womb of the aborted world.
The silence of my room
is the coffin of my martyred mother."
Her name was Beila (Balbina - in Polish), and Julius loved his mother more than anybody else in the world. But what can be compared with the love for one's mother?
It happened in the fall of 1942. The radio announced that the Jews of the Cracow Ghetto had to be ready for exportation. The night before, Julius was sitting in the basement, embracing his mother. They went out onto the street, grasping each other, but the whips of policemen separated them. All of the Jews got into two columns. One of the two wolud be marching to the gas chamber. No one knew which column that would be. Julius wanted his mother to outlive him. But fate made another decision.
Approaching the gas chamber, Beila realized that her column was the one going "on gas". She smiled and waved her hand. Julius was not able to hear her mother's voice but he understood - she had given him her blessing.
"Did you want to share her destiny?" I ask Balbin.
"Only the first days after her death," he says. "I knew that after I died, the memory of her would vanish from this world. I had an ardent desire to survive. I changed my name to Balbin - for my mother Beila to be remembered."
One night I slept in Julius' apartment. When I was about to turn of the lights, he told me, "Leave some light for my mother." There was a screen with a sculpted portrayal of Beila by his bed. A small lamp illuminates it day and night.
"Do not ask me,"he says, "how I survived. I had a lot of luck, as if it had been given to me by my mother. I was not a kind of hero, no. But I never bertayed my friends. I fell in love and the passion enabled me to live."
A love in the concentration camp: was it possible?
The silence of my room
is pregnant with the sound
Of your voice

that rings with the screams

of the day we parted.

Her name was Hanna Bachner. Two youngsters, Julius and Hanna, were fond of each other. But in the camp they lived divided by the wire. He in the male part, she in the female part.
Julius worked as an aide to the dentist (this dentist was his father) and was given extra food. When night fell, Julius would jump over the wire fence under the guards' bullets to his fiancee, with some bread in his hands. They ate and made love, knowing that each of these encounters could be the last. But they were ready to pay with their lives for those heavenly moments.
Hanna was shot to death by a Nazi, together with her mother. From that day on, two more people were buried in Julius' heart. Julius has been faithful to his fiancee until even now - he had never been married.
"They call us survivors," he says. "It is true about me. I sought to survive. I was not a hero."
"Do you remember any heroes in the concentration camps?" I ask him.
"Some of them," he responds. "I remember how two Russian Jews escaped. They were caught and executed in the presence of all of us inmates. In their last moment, they shouted: "We will overcome! Long live our fatherland!"
"What did you do in the camp? What did you daily tasks consist of?" I ask him, the former inmate of four camps.
"We robbed a Jewish cemetery," he answers. "Yes, the German knew how to humiliate us. We dug out the gravestones to build slum houses for the inmates. That way we robbed the deceased to help the living corpses." He laughs. "However, every day more and more of us joined the dead."
"Every morning," he continues, "on the 'appelplatz' (the call-over place), a wolf in human appearance, German officer Amon Gott, would shoot to death ten of us at random, just for fun." He pauses and looks out of the window... "Don't ask me," he says, "why I got a happy lot."
Balbin was luckier than most, though. His last camp was not in Poland butin Austria. If he would have lived to be set free by the Soviets, he could have been sent to Siberia (as many of the Jews were. The KGB acused the survivors of collaborating with the Nazis to keep alive.)
On May 5. 1945, the camp in Linz was liberated by the American Army. After the Americans saw what was done to the prisoners they asked, "What do you want first?"And the answer came. "To avenge ourselves on our torturers."
And they were given handguns and knives.
At that time, Julius was a living corpse. For many months, he recovered in an American hospital. After the Communists took over in Poland, he realized that this country was not good at all for Jews and he tried to go to America. But emigration there was restricted.
Life for ex-patriots has never been easy. For survivors, though, it's immensely harder. He lived in Austria where German is spoken and felt like a ghost among the living. He felt as though he was in an even larger concentration camp.
In 1951, Balbin was granted an American entrance visa. He came to New York City on board a navy boat. There was a storm on the sea and the city looked like a huge ship waiting for its lifeboat. Among the rescued, from the Old World, was Professor Julius Balbin.
He had gotten his Ph.d. from Vienna University and was eager to teach English in America.
"The metropolitan area," he comments, "is a real Babylon. There is a real need for one common language so the people will not be as confused as thebuilders of the Babylontower were. In America, it is English, but to the world,it is Zamenhof's Esperanto."
Julius Balbin, Professor of English at Essex College in Newark, New Jersey, is a sciencist and a dreamer. For four years he served as a president of the New York Esperanto Society, lectured on the topic - the one language for the world in the U.N. - and visited many Esperantists' meetings abroad. However,his life has never been easy.
He reminds me one of the heroes of Saul Bellow novels. Like Mr. Sammler, survivor, of the novel Mr.Sammler's Planet, he hates the subway. With its darkness anddim lights, the subway looks like the salt mines of Wieliczka in Poland where Julius worked in Hitler's time. And the crowded subway cars remind him of the trains transporting Jews to Auschwitz. Maybe this is the reasonJulius prefers walking everywhere.
"I do not blame the subways," he says, "I blame the people who are indifferent to whatever it is - graffiti or crime. These kind of people never care when or where somebody is killed." "Bruno Yasensky, a Jewish writer who perished in the Gulag said, "Do not be afraid of your enemies - they would kill you; do not be scared by the false friends - they could just betray you; but stayaway from people who do not care: their silent consent approves of all the crime on earth."
"Rocks fell and tombs opened when
The King of Jews was crowned with thorns
and crusified the martyr
as followers screamed in horror.
But the earth remained calm,
almost indifferent
to six million Jews dying a martyr's death
at the hands of the new Teutons
with deaf and dump mankind,
a silent accomplice."
Julius Balbin does not complain; he accuses humankind of the Holocaust. He is the poetic voice of "those martyrs whose sole memories are mournful woes exhaled from the throats of those saved."
For them to be remembered, Balbin lectured on the Holocaust at the City University of New York. He translated into Esperanto Yevtushenko's "Babi Yar" and was awarded an international prize for the translation.
Every summer he goes to the Esperanto Congress, every year in another country, where he talks on the Holocaust, and from there goes around the world. This voyage included his 'haj' to Israel where his sister lives.
"Israel is our world-be asylum,"he says. "If the country had existed many decades ago, the catastrophe of the six million would never have happened."
I ask him, "Do you think that something similar could happen in the future?"
Julius kept silent. "Why do you ask me?" he says. "Ask yourself. Look: Jews are the high priority target on every crime list. We are killed every day all around the world and even in our own Jewish state."
"Listen to the Arab radios or to the debates in the United Nations," he says, "So many countries would like to transform Israel into a new concentration camp."
Julius Balbin sits up very straight in his chair, as if for emphasis. "Mr. Churchill would say 'The only conclusion that humankind drew from history is that it drew no conclusion at all.' If he was right, we cannot be optimistic."
"However," Balbin says, "I try to believe in the future. I cannot imagine that the world is doomed and that people have no future at all."

By Alexander Kharkovsky

Alexandr Kharkovsky is a journalist livingin New Jersey.


Spite al tiom da homoj ofte demandantaj:
"Kial vi verkadas poemojn en Esperanto?
En ghi ja nek naskighis ech unu popolkanto,
Nek brilas ghi per facetoj diamantaj.

Lingvo artefarita, sen ia mondprestigho,
Konkerinta neniun landon, neniun genton -
kiel do ghi kapablas esprimi sentimenton?"
Spite tiujn dubantojn pri ghia kulturigho,

daurigas mi persiste eldiri en chi lingvo
miajn plej intimajn sentojn. Char ech se la klingo
de ghia glav' ne akras sufiche por mondregno,

ghi pompas kiel esprimil': belsona, fleksebla,
montranta la strukturon de l' genia desegno -
do l' homajn korojn konkeri neniel tro febla.

In spite of all those asking
Why do you write poems in Esperanto?
A tongue without the brilliance of an uncut diamond
In which not even one folksong was sung.

A language wrought by a man, empty of world prestige,
Which conquered neither a land nor a people,
How could it express a single sentiment?"
In spite of all those deaf to its melody

I do persist in expressing in this language
The song of my heartbeat. For even if the edge
Of its sword is not sharp enough to rule the world

It is incomparable as the medium: euphonious,
Designed by a genius, and so flexible as to open
And perhaps conquer human hearts.



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