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Saturday, 15 July 2017

tribute to Sam (Simcha) Simchovitch: James Deahl

            My friend and fellow writer Sam Simchovitch was buried this morning. He was the last People’s Poet of the Great Generation that included Acorn, Souster, Livesay, Layton, Purdy, etc.  Sam was 96. Here is his obituary (written by his daughter):

Simcha Simchovitch

SIMCHA, his Hebrew name, which connotes joy and celebration, was such a remarkable, optimistic survivor — that even at the age of 96 — still too young, and too soon, Daddy!

His eloquent, often haunting, commemoration of victims of the Holocaust, were also songs of hope; prayers for tolerance and redemption. Recognition for his writing and scholarship in Yiddish, extended well beyond borders of language or religion. He was an honoured guest of the Polish government who invited him to lead ceremonies in his home town of Otvotsk, and put a translation of Stepchild on the Vistula on its high school curriculum.

Irving Layton, once his English teacher, praised an early poem “Sanctifying God’s Name”, saying it should be recited in synagogues. Elie Weisel wrote an introduction to Stepchild on the Vistula; as did James Deahl, to another collection of poetry. Raymond Souster, born the same day, in the same year, was a valued friend, with whom he explored what it means to be a poet of the people, whichever people.

Most remarkable? Despite everything, he was never marked by bitterness.


He will be keenly missed by his immediate family — his daughters, Itta, and Miriam, his son-in-law, Vince, and his beloved grandson, Michael. By his extended family. And, by the larger Jewish community in Toronto, who knew him from his many years as librarian and curator of the Museum of Judaica at Beth Tzedec Synagogue, and through his unstinting efforts to preserve the Yiddish language.

Donations can be made to the Simcha and Freda Simchovitch Fund for Yiddish Education and Culture care of the Jewish Foundation of Greater Toronto — 4600 Bathurst St, Toronto ON M2R 3V2. Phone: 416-631-5703.

Date of birth: January 15, 1921 —  Date of death: July 12, 2017, age 96

            And here is his bio note:

Sam Simchovitch was born in Otwock, Poland in 1921. During World War II, he lived in the USSR, then returned to Poland, and emigrated to Canada in 1949. He received a B.A. in Humanities from Woodsworth College, University of Toronto, and a Master's in Hebrew Literature from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. Until his retirement in 1988 he was librarian and curator of the Beth Tzedec Museum in Toronto.


Harry and Florence Topper Award for Creative Yiddish Writing, Book Committee, Toronto Jewish Congress, 1990.

Dr. Hirsh and Deborah Rosenfield Award for Yiddish Literature, I.J. Segal Culture Foundation, 1991.

Izzy and Betty Kirshenbaum Award for Creative Writing in Poetry, Book Committee, Jewish Federation of Greater Toronto, 1992.

Izzy and Betty Kirshenbaum Award for Excellence in Yiddish Writing, Book Committee, Jewish Federation of Greater Toronto, 1993.

Izzy and Betty Kirshenbaum Award for Original Translation. Jewish Community Centre, Toronto, 1995.

Harry and Florence Topper/Milton Shier Prize for original Translation from Yiddish, 1997.

Izzy and Betty Kirschenbaum Foundation Prize in Yiddish, 1998.

Zhitlowski Award for Writers of High Quality, given by the Yiddish Culture Association (YIKUF), New York, 1998.

Izzy and Betty Kirschenbaum Foundation Prize for Yiddish Translation in The Remnant (Mosaic Press, 1999), Jewish Book Award, Toronto, 2000.

Izzy and Betty Kirshenbaum Foundation Award for Yiddish Translation of The Song That Never Died, 2002.

Selected Publications:

Thus a Youth Perished (Yiddish). (Writers' Committee, 1950).

In Hour of Prayer (Yiddish). (Canadian Jewish Congress, 1958).

Solomon Maimon: His Personality and Attitude Towards Judaism (Hebrew). (Machberot Lesifrut, 1971).

Sorrow and Consolation: Collected Poems (Yiddish). (Adler Publishing, 1989).

Selected Poems, ed. by James Deahl (Mosaic Press, 1990).

Blendiker Harbst (Luminous Autumn): Yiddish Poems. (Book Fund, 1990).

Stepchild on the Vistula (Yiddish novel). (Privately published, 1992; English translation by Lugus Publications, 1994).

A Song Will Remain. Poems. (Lugus Publications, 1996).

Funken in Zhar (Sparks in Embers). Yiddish Poems. (Book Fund, 1997).

The Remnant, Poems (Mosaic Press, 1999).

The Song That Never Died: The Poetry of Mordecai Gebertig (Mosaic Press, 2001).

Out of the Abyss, Collected Poems (S. Simchovitch Book Fund, Toronto, 2003)

After the Blood Inundation, Yiddish Essays (Book Fund, 2004).

Selected Anthologies

Rocks and Rhythm, An Anthology of Contemporary Canadian Verse, ed. by Lenny Everson (Ontario Poetry Society, 2003).

We Are Tops (Ontario Poetry Society), volume 4, Nos. 1, 2.

            I thought that all People’s Poets would like to know. A sad day for Canadian poets.

            . . . James  (Deahl)

                                                       ~    ~    ~    ~

The Blood-Red Tanager
         for Simcha Simchovitch

Spring came yesterday, and today

trilliums cover Ontario’s wetlands,

too numerous to count, like stars

spread across a clear January sky.

I sit reading Harvey Shapiro’s This World

and think of Sam Simchovitch.

Harvey was the better poet, but Sam

is the better Jew. When the end of days

arrives, which matters?

During World War II, Harvey flew

over Germany, a tail gunner on a B-17,

got a Distinguished Flying Cross.

After he fled his Polish shtetl,

Sam made boots in Spassk

for the Red Army, got an education,

the sole member of his large family —

almost the sole member of his entire shtetl —

to survive the Holocaust.

Now at ninety-two he writes poetry,

lives in Toronto, bears witness.

My house was built on old marshland,

the soil most until August.

Silver maples predominate,

and just now a scarlet tanager

comes to hop branch to branch,

an uncommon bird in this part of Canada.

He has flown many miles to breed,

perhaps in this very tree.

Czesław Miłosz was born

a decade before Sam. “Tragedy needs

a proper framing,” he tells us.

This the Nazis would provide.

It was Miłosz pointed out

that to French geographers

la Pologue est un pays

marécageux où habitent les Juifs.

Many Jews, survivors like Sam,

have come to Canada, but not

to these marshy places far from cities;

we have no tragedy to match Poland.

Today, trilliums, Jack-in-the-pulpits

bloom, tanagers flit, their searing red

blazing among green leaves. I think

of Sam writing Yiddish poems,

greeting each day with prayer

here where no vengeful God

has sanctified His name

with our blood.

James Deahl

                                                    ~   ~   ~   ~

Simcha (Sam) Simchovitch, 6 poems

Sanctifying God’s Name

I will bless You, Cruel One,

for the gassings, for the shootings;

as it is written, “A man should thank

for his misfortunes as for fortune.”

It was You who sent forth the heartless,

strengthened their murderous arms,

as the sages say, “A man does not

move his finger here on earth

without the knowledge of Heaven.”

Blessed art Thou, Vengeful Master,

who commanded us to sanctify Your name

by all the weird deaths and agonies

at the hands of the wicked, Amen!

Raymond Souster

The lustre of common words,

the splendour of ordinary people

radiates from your poems.

Your verse breathes compassion

for every creature on earth.

Poet of everyday life,

daytime at banker’s desk,

evening in darkened tavern,

tuning in to the music

of workingmen’s talk.

Downtown, in rush hour,

when stone-and-glass structures

disgorge the city’s multitudes,

you alone distinguish

among the throngs

the drunk Indian lad, muttering

his unheard complaint

or the tall Slav inveighing

against this wasteland of a city.

Raymond Souster, master

of keen and simple verse

that hallow every hour

of our mundane existence.

Warsaw Ghetto

Swollen bodies clutch the ground,

hungry eyes pierce the silent sky;

a street musician conjures sad tunes

of a ghetto lullaby.

Barefoot children wrapped in rags

Sing with voices, clear and thin,

the swan song of the Warsaw ghetto

on cold and grimy pavements.


Downtown streets of the metropolis

amid business rush replete

with unemployed, drifters, welfare bums;

in polluted parks and squares,

on benches, sprawled on the grass,

in the sun they warm their bodies.

Comes evening, daytime clatter

subsides amid cooler breezes,

the streets begin to sound and glitter

with neon-lights, the beat of jazz.

From basements, rooming-houses, attics

creatures crawl to partake

the unholy spectacle:

Pimps and hard-drug pushers,

desperate addicts, old lechers,

runaways from the suburbia;

and, woe to mothers,

daughters in their teens,

awaiting sale-and-kicks

in nooks and doorways.

Daytime Whore

On the intersection

of the boulevard and avenue

she stands on guard, soliciting

the passing cars and truck drivers,

to eke out her meager livelihood;

a daytime whore.

Tired of hand-waving, marching

back and forth on the corner

in her gaudy red and blue attire,

she rests on the bench, beside,

with a painted smile,

fat legs and tits on display,

hair let down, enticing.

The sun from above warms,

the morning breeze is friendly,

not so the son-of-a-bitch drivers

who pass her by with mocking honks.

Never mind, she won’t budge;

sooner or later a guy will stop,

bargain for a while,

and speed away with her —

the princess.

Bahya Ibn Pakuda
         for James Deahl

At night, after daily chores,

I devote a quiet hour

to his Duties of the Heart.

In silence I hear

his clear, distilled voice

from yellow, faded pages

in medieval Hebrew,

an old Yiddish rendition


One by one,

arcane hates are opened

to purified life and love.

All fleeting pleasures melt

in the sun of eternity,

all evil rendered null and void —

a mirage, a mist

on eyes and human hearts.


1 comment:

Karen Shenfeld said...

Thank you so much, James, for this tribute blog to a magnificent poet (Kenneth Sherman had introduced me to Simchovitch's work some years ago.) I especially liked the poem you wrote for him, and the opportunity to reacquaint myself with a few of his poems.