Jewish War Poet Finally Getting His Due
It was the slain generation of warrior-poets who, more than any others, captured the brutality and inhumanity of the First World War and cemented in the English imagination a perception of that conflict as pointless and futile.
As wave after wave of men were sent to their deaths at the Somme and comrades drowned in the mud at Passchendaele, English poetry from the front abandoned themes of patriotism, glory and valour for the pain and misery of trench warfare. Verse became soaked in blood as nearly 900,000 British troops fell in the fields of France and Belgium. “But the old man who not so, but slew his own,” Wilfred Owen wrote in his twisted retelling of the binding of Isaac, “and half the seed of Europe, one by one.”
The Great War’s centennial has brought about a re-examination not only of the war itself but how it is remembered, what is emphasised and what is forgotten. In that spirit, the Jewish East End Celebration Society — whose aim is to raise awareness of the history and culture of London’s Jewish East End — is fundraising to erect a statue of the war poet Isaac Rosenberg at Torrington Square in Bloomsbury. To be unveiled on April 1, 2018 – the hundredth anniversary of his passing – it would make Rosenberg the only Jewish literary figure other than Benjamin Disraeli to be afforded a monument.
In the canon of First World War poetry, the work of Isaac Rosenberg is sadly overlooked. And yet his life and verse are in many ways more compelling than most. John Sutherland, writing in The Times, notes that Rosenberg was a noteworthy counterbalance to the stereotypical war poets of England’s elite officer class. In contrast, Rosenberg came from a working-class immigrant family, born in Bristol in November 1890 of Lithuanian Jews who fled persecution and pogroms.
After moving to the East End of London at a tender age, Rosenberg exhibited a talent for art and the English language in school but his education was cut short at 14 due to financial constraints, after which he became an engraver’s apprentice. At 17, he took up artistic evening classes at Birkbeck College, and was in 1911 accepted into the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art. His first volume of poetry was published the following year.
“Everything’s Undercover, Everything’s Hidden”: LGBTQ Life on Europe’s Frontier
On Dec. 14, 2012, Kosovo 2.0 magazine was due to launch its fourth issue, themed around sex and including LGBTQ voices. The organizers had planned an entire day of screenings, readings, and debates, with a party in the evening. Although the magazine wasn’t widely known, this was going to be Kosovo 2.0’s highest-profile event. It received a lot of promotion through Facebook and a viral video campaign.
But just before 7 p.m., a group of men—some armed with baseball bats, some shouting “Allahu akbar”—charged into the party venue and smashed up the place. One of the magazine’s staffers was injured. The police restored order, and the event continued, but around 10:30 p.m., the event had to be canceled when a hundred men gathered outside the building shouting slogans like, “Out of Kosovo,” “Out With the Faggots,” and “There’s No Space for you Here.” Attendees’ safety simply couldn’t be guaranteed.
In attempting to shift the discussion of sex and gender into the public sphere, Kosovo 2.0 demonstrated something about what life is like for LGBTQ people in the states on the European Union’s frontier. In conversations with LGBTQ activists, allies, and citizens in Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina, I found that, by and large, LGBTQ people live in the closet and out of sight in societies where homophobic and transphobic sentiment is broad and deep and statutes on discrimination and hate crimes are poorly enforced.
The Yugoslav wars scarred the land and the peoples of this region. Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina remain postwar societies under international supervision where people’s identities are defined by their ethnicity or religion, in opposition to other ethnicities and religions. Whether Bosniak or Croat, Serb or Albanian, these ethno-religious identities “look at homosexuality as something that comes from the West,” rather than something that is common or native to the former Yugoslavia, Vladana Vasić, program coordinator at the Sarajevo Open Center told me.
Kosovar and Bosnian societies are also patriarchal and oriented around the family, and, as Vlora Krasniqi, executive director of the Center for Social Emancipation (known as QESh), explained, “everything a person does affects the family as a whole.” Economic problems—the unemployment rate in both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo is around 45 percent—compound this problem, since young LGBTQ people are forced by circumstance to live with their parents and maintain a compromised existence.