Calves With Mournful Eyes


“On a waggon bound for market, there’s a calf with a mournful eye, high above him there’s a swallow, winging swiftly through the sky” – nice old Donovan-song. Some will still remember it. But not many probably know about it’s most tragic background. The original song (‘Dos Kelbl’ (‘The Calf’);) was written in 1942 by Jtschak Katsenelson, under the impression of his two 11 and 14 year old boys being herded off to Auschwitz. And if you find Donovan’s song a little too melancholic, wait till you hear Katsenelson’s bitter bereft father’s mourn – in his most beautiful ‘Jiddisch’. It would melt rocks to tears.

Jtschak Katsenelson (1886 – 1944), a Russian born author from Lodz (Poland) wrote poems, songs, books and plays – the latter being brought to stage in the Soviet Union as well as America. When Hitler’s army chose to invade Poland and he and his family were doomed to live through the hell of the Warsaw Ghetto, Katsenelson got in contact with the Jewish Resistence. Nevertheless – he couldn’t prevent his family being sent to the ovens.

“Stop complaining, said the farmer…”, at this point Katsenelson’s text is much more explicit than mellow-yellow Donovan: “Wer-ssche hejst dich sajn a kalb? Wolst gekent doch sajn a fojgl, wolst gekent doch sajn a schwalb” (Who told you a calf to be? You could as well have become a little bird, you could as well have become a swallow) the cruel farmer mocks his doomed passenger.

So why? Isn’t it all the calf’s, the victim’s, fault? The calf has deliberately chosen to wrap the wrong skin around him. Instead of letting himself being born a free and happy feathered bird, it has slipped into the leather of some slaughter cattle. What Katsenelson describes here is nothing less than the logic of racism: blaming the victim. It’s him, the victim, committing the sin of wearing the wrong skin – means: there is ‘wrong skin’ on earth and, yes, ‘right skin’. Katsenelson’s two boys and his wife committed the most deadly sin of all: being jews in Nazi Eastern Europe.

According to Amira Hass (‘Why Abd a-Samed became the 116th child killed in Gaza’); 253 Palestinian children have been killed from September 28, 2000 to June 2002. Many more since. And surely not many of those victims of Israeli army aggression have been buried with chocolate in their hands, like the poor little fellow from Jenin, Gideon Levy described in one of his pieces for Ha’aretz/ZNet. Most Palestinian ‘calves’ are doomed to live miserable, underfed, curfew-handicapped lives. Punished for simply being born on the wrong side of the ethnic divide, punished for ‘deliberately’ having chosen to slip into the wrong skin, punished in fact for being Palestinian, they live under the constant threat of being shot or harassed. Confined to overcrowded homes over long periods of curfew and beleaguerment, they’re not privileged enough to even attend school regularly. Traumatized and without any perspective for their future lives they can only envy their Jewish counterparts on the other side of the ethnic divide.

The little Jewish ‘swallows’, winged to play cheerfully in the open day by day, constantly having to eat – they are learning, they are dreaming, they are joyfully planning their lives.

“Calves are easily bound and slaughtered, never knowing the reason why”.

Having come under international pressure Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer announced to investigate into the role of the IDF in the deaths of “200 Palestinian children”. What a hypocritical ‘butcher’ he is – telling the world, no, it was never his intention to harm any of those nice little innocent Palestinian calves in order to make nice little roast veals out of them. No, it was all just coincidence, a mishappen slip of the big butcher’s knife: collateral damage – so sorry. But we will investigate into this.

“How the winds are laughing, they laugh with all their might. Laugh and laugh the whole day through and half a summer’s night”. The farmer who takes the little calf to the market is mean, the butcher is worse, but how detestable is that cynical laughing wind – non-helping-bystanders, just watching as cruel, pardonless injustice unfolds! How Katsenelson must have hated the outside world. Shrugging their shoulders, why, what with those silly jews letting themselves being herded off to the death camps like lambs to the slaughter. What concern are they to us? Close down the borders! Turn them away if they knock on your doors!

Jtschak Katsenelson never lived to find out his songs survived. He was killed in Auschwitz two years after the murder of his two sons and wife there.

But before the Germans finally caught him in 1944, he managed to put some of his work into a bottle that he buried under a tree.

The bottle was found and taken to Palestine – yes, to Palestine. There’s a mythological fairy-tale about a boy traveling to hell in order to steal the three golden hairs from the devil’s head.

He comes to a river resembling the river Acheron from Greek mythology. A Charon-type ferryman – mysteriously fettered to his ferry – takes him over to the other side, to the devil’s land. He offers the boy to take him back if he in return manages to find out from the devil why he has to be (innocently) fettered to his ferry and what he can do about it. The boy returns with the three golden devil’s hairs in his pocket and tells the ferryman: “Listen – all you have to do is put your ferry-pole in the hand of your next passenger. Then from now on this passenger will become the doomed ferryman and you’ll walk free” (a real devil’s trick indeed).

The ferryman follows the advice. He puts the pole into the hand of an evil king (well, that’s the fairy-tale part of it) and walks away from the devil’s ferry a free man.

Jewish children – thanks to God – are no longer calves – nowhere on earth. The victim’s skin has slipped off them but onto other innocent creatures. And as long as that damn international ‘wind’ won’t stop laughing and laughing and instead act up – finally! – the cruel logic of racism will prevail.

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