Charles Reznikoff: During the Second World War

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On August 31, 1894, Charles Reznikoff was born in Brooklyn, New York. His parents, Russian Jewish immigrants, had fled the pogroms that followed the assassination of Alexander II, and during Reznikoff's childhood many of his relatives joined the family in the United States. Reznikoff was a precocious student, graduating from grammar school when he was eleven, three years ahead of his class. At the age of sixteen, he went to study journalism at the University of Missouri, but he abandoned this endeavor after a year to pursue a degree in law, which he earned from New York University in 1915. He was admitted to the Bar of the State of New York in 1916, but he practiced law only briefly, "because I wanted to use whatever mental energy I had for my writing."

Reznikoff's first book of poetry, Rhythms, was privately published in 1918. He took a series of writing and editing jobs to support himself, working on the editorial staffs of the American Law Book Company and, beginning in 1955, the Jewish Frontier. In 1930, Reznikoff married Marie Syrkin, who later became a distinguished professor at Brandeis University. Throughout the 1930s, Reznikoff gained recognition as one of the principal proponents of Objectivism, along with Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, and Carl Rakosi. The group of poets established the Objectivist Press, which published three of Reznikoff's books. His work enjoyed little commercial success, however, and much of it continued to be self-published.

The most comprehensive edition of Reznikoff's work is Poems 1918-1975: The Complete Poems of Charles Reznikoff (Black Sparrow Press, 1989). His other books of poetry include Holocaust (1975) andTestimony (1965), which are his most celebrated works, as well as Going To and Fro and Walking Up and Down (1941), Jerusalem the Golden (1934), Poems (1920), and Rhythms (1918). He also published several prose works and a number of plays. After his death, a novel entitled The Manner Music was discovered by his patron, John Martin, and published posthumously in 1976, with an introduction by Robert Creeley.

Apart from his foray in the south and a year spent as a Hollywood screenwriter in the 1930s, Reznikoff was a lifelong resident of New York City. He died on January 22, 1976.



“[During the Second World War . . .]”

During the Second World War, I was going home one night

along a street I seldom used. All the stores were closed

except one—a small fruit store.

An old Italian was inside to wait on customers.

As I was paying him I saw that he was sad.

“You are sad,” I said. “What is troubling you?”

“Yes,” he said, “I am sad.” Then he added

in the same monotone, not looking at me:

“My son left for the front today and I’ll never see him again.”

“Don’t say that!” I said. “Of course, you will!”

“No,” he answered. “I’ll never see him again.” 


Afterwards, when the war was over,

I found myself once more in that street 

and again it was late at night, dark and lonely;

and again I saw the old man alone in the store.

I bought some apples and looked closely at him:

his thin wrinkled face was grim

but not particularly sad. “How about your son?” I said.

“Did he come back from the war?” “Yes,” he answered.

“He was not wounded?” “No. He is all right.”

“That’s fine,” I said. “Fine!”

He took the bag of apples from my hands and groping inside

took out one that had begun to rot

and put in a good one instead.

“He came back at Christmas,” he added.

“How wonderful! That was wonderful!”

“Yes,” he said gently, “it was wonderful.”

He took the bag of apples from my hands again

and took out one of the smaller apples and put in a large one.


Charles Reznikoff, “[During the Second World War . . .]” from The Poems of Charles Reznikoff, 1918-1975. Copyright © 2005 by the Estate of Charles Reznikoff.