The Diaries of Lea Goldberg

Translated from the Hebrew by Tsipi Keller.


Sunday June 20

Customs office in Brindisi. My sickness vanished completely. My anxiety is gone. I’m sitting here, waiting for the Cit[1] agent. People milling about. I’ll have to stay in Brindisi till evening. A small town. But I don’t believe there’s a place on earth that has no attraction whatsoever. After all, this is a foreign country.

Yesterday, on the ship, a human tragedy. An illegal immigrant who had been deported from the Land attempted suicide on the stairs, trying to cut the arteries in his throat with scissors. In the nightmare of sickness and fainting, this incident blended into the general stupor, leaving no residue.   

How indifferent we are to one another. They saved a man from death, and khalas.[2] Nothing more to add.

With no connection to this, an idea came to me (even before I learned about the incident) for a novel or a play.

In a café in the middle of the street. Cobblestones. Everyone walking slowly. Feathers atop the heads of horses. Children sell newspapers, sunglasses, and other dispensable items. The people here don’t have a distinct look. Like shapeless Tel Avivians. Sailboats in the port, not very attractive. A small boat as if on the Rhine. A boy carrying a bottle of Chianti. He sits on the steps. Waiting. Or resting. Sailors, as if from an operetta. Young. Their outfits don’t suit them. They resemble girls in a Purim festival. Only one automobile during all this time. Hot, but a pleasant breeze. Large notices of some ministry. Various acronyms I can’t decipher. Very many children. Their indigence evident.  Not a whiff of Europe in Brindisi. I know nothing about it.

Children in a carriage, hitched to a hapless pony. Like a small scrawny horse. The carriage is nice and bright.

Where’s that Cit agent? May the devil take him!

A first costume. And so many feathers on the wide-brimmed hat. God! Indeed, Purim. Children carrying a large flag. They’re barefooted and beautiful.

A pointless day in Brindisi. A terrible fatigue. Pain in my gut, and I fear that I’ll be sick throughout the trip. I’m now sitting in a restaurant. I can’t taste the flavor of the food. And constant pain. It’s now one o’clock, and I have to stay here till six-thirty. Terrible isolation.

Policemen eat here and, if I’m not mistaken—the port’s prostitutes. Hatless, their faces painted, they engage men in conversation. I have to sit here for another hour. Noise in the ears now, just like before a fainting spell. Maybe I should have gone to Paris. Or here—but not alone, and with more money. I have a feeling that tomorrow I won’t be able to enjoy Naples at all. Such a headache!—on top of everything. It’s good that writing is still possible. I can’t manage one coherent thought. Tel Aviv and all those left behind seem very remote for some reason. Even this minute.

Shrieks from the radio. A picture of a ship on the wall. And a picture of the king and Il Duce.

If I don’t get sick, it may still be possible to change my mood. But what if I do get sick? I have to travel by train all night. I’ll get to Naples at six in the morning. Indeed, I’m a lucky one! If at least I could write poems to make use of this empty time. But poems do not sit well with a stomachache. I don’t even feel I’m abroad. Stupefaction and nothing more. And fear of tomorrow. Nothing is appealing. Was it worthwhile to expend so much effort and energy on the trip? My head is spinning. One single thought: Endure! Those seated around me observe the tourist who writes. A tired, suspicious figure. She writes from right to left. Once upon a time her name was Lea Goldberg, and the children in the Land knew the name. And the adults, too. The people here sit at their tables for hours on end; apparently, they have no pressing matters. Like me. Tonight I’ll probably buy a second-class ticket, even though it’s a huge difference in price for me. But I’m physically unable to travel in less than comfortable conditions. I almost miss the ship. On the whole, if not for that incident on the ship, everything would have been different. It would have been possible to even enjoy Brindisi.

I don’t want to sleep. Actually, I’m embarrassed that it has turned out this way, even though it isn’t entirely my doing. But, I can imagine my state upon returning home if the trip continues like this. I’ll probably have to travel somewhere to recuperate. And accumulate more debt. What’s the point, for God’s sake? Or is it too early to despair? Everything is брезуется.[3] It’s difficult to remain hopeful, considering the state of my health and strength at the moment. If my first stop had been Rome, everything could have been different.

By the way, this day will cost me, for sure, and a lot of money, too. How helpless and inexperienced I am! Like an infant. The torments of tourism, heaven forbid.

Many bearded men. Strange!

But, this was not the end of it. Later, lonely hours in a hotel facing a tavern, horrendous shouting from every direction, sailors. Very agreeable in the wonderful hotel (the room, incidentally, is not bad and quire clean). I received a lovely proposition from the Cit agent to sleep with him until the train to Naples arrives! That’s all I need. I sent him away, and now I can’t be sure he’ll come here with my luggage and facilitate my travel. Of course, if he doesn’t, tomorrow morning there will be a terrific scandal at the Cit office. Still, I feel bad about a day and an evening spent in this place, and this, too, doesn’t inspire encouraging hopes. Well, we’ll see.

And יאכנע דוואָשע פאָרט קיין אמעריקע.[4] Or something in that vein. What jolly adventures!

And again the same day:

My dastardly agent, it seems, is not so dastardly after all. He didn’t charge me even one cent for his trouble, but did offer me his love once again. And when I declined it, he wasn’t offended, only saddened. Such fiery hearts under the skies of Italy!

I walked along the port. I encountered peasants. Such poverty, rags. Children, barely clad, play on the shore, shouting. In general, there’s a lot of shouting here. Mules hitched to small carts of two huge wheels. 

The classic beddings drying on clotheslines. Ramshackle homes down the mountain.

And the espresso in Italy, I find, is bitterer than death. 

I asked for French or British newspapers. Of course, they offer Candide or Gringoire.[5] I took Candide. It may be interesting to read it once in a lifetime—we’ll see.

June 21

Naples. Museum of ancient art (Greece and Rome), the room of the Amazons, the Persian hall, Fontana del Gigante.

Yesterdayan overnight train ride. Facing me, an Italian officer. We endeavored to converse in French. He was more fluent than me, and we managed to chat. Extremely gracious, like most Italians. Incidentally: aside from him, also a well-to-do Kleinbürger[6] from Tel Aviv. A very sympathetic man, but appallingly ignorant. Right now he’s my only acquaintance here and I hold onto him as onto a broken reed, since there’s no one else.

The Brindisi-Naples route—a fairytale. So many trees and vineyards, and small churches, and a child pulling on the bell of a church or monastery. The pointed roofs of the homes. I slept through the night and all at once awoke to the light of dawn as we emerged from the tunnel. The tunnels along the way bring to mind a child’s game: shut your eyes for a moment and then—surprise! There are always surprises. The day here began with monetary concerns. I ended up in an expensive hotel and I fear that because of my inaptitude to economize, I’d be left with no money in the middle of the trip. And what would I do if this happens? I’m not in great shape, either. Every afternoon I experience hours of despair and a terrible sense of isolation. I imagine that I’ll go crazy or die and no one will know. I coax myself with every possible means, but in vain—my nerves don’t obey. Only when I go out, the horizon clears somewhat. Maybe I’ll get some rest tonight, have a goodnight sleep, and I’ll feel better. My stomach, too, bothers me, and I hardly eat. Also, I don’t know where to eat. In Rome, if I make contact with the Milano family, maybe everything will turn out all right.

This morning at the museum. Ancient art—Roman and Greek. Animal statues, especially wonderful those of dogs. The rest isn’t exhilarating or astonishing. I don’t know why Raphael’s purity of line doesn’t “thrill” me, and the Roman Greek harmony leaves me cold. Two Nike statues—possibly copies. Excellent the swan of colored marble, and then an entire floor dedicated to Pompeii. Frescoes, ceramics, a floor plan—astonishing. And the jewels, so opulent and fine. Such exquisite craftsmanship. Even the straining mesh is a work of art. I’ll see Pompeii itself tomorrow.

Later, the Pinacotheca. A very delightful meeting—Pieter Bruegel’s “The Blind Leading the Blind.” Different from the reproductions. No similarity at all, and much more terrifying. Only few painters had ever managed to convey so much expression in a painting. And Titian. The portraits of Bonifacio Bembo, Danaë, and more. Magdalena’s tear [Penitent Magdalene]. And above all: a Madonna by Raphael, “Madonna and Child.” It’s beyond human—such purity, such piety. So vibrant. The blond hair dark at the nape. I kept going back to her. For me she is as radiant as the Sistine Chapel.

A painting by El Greco—very good.

In the afternoon (after the bout of despair) an automobile ride (with the Tel Avivian denizen who knows hunting and Freemasonry, but has never heard of Pompeii) to Solfatara, the volcano. The beautiful road, the silence in the automobile, and the islands, Ischia, Capri. Mount Vesuvius in the distance. And then the craters, the lava, the stalactites. Very interesting. Even without any knowledge of mineralogy, I was very excited. But I won’t go to see Vesuvius—it would be too much. I’m sorry I’ll also have to skip Capri. My thriftiness won’t allow me this pleasure. Or maybe I’ll go out there tomorrow at noon.

The morning after tomorrow I’m leaving for Rome after all. And to think—so much happiness in one day. When and where is it possible to achieve such a thing? And I’ll remind myself of this tomorrow between two and four-thirty in the afternoon because I have to admit that no future hurdle or drawback during my trip will outweigh a day like today. If only for Raphael’s Madonna. 

I like the city. Parks, a few interesting buildings, and it’s pleasant to finally see a tramway again and ride on it. And the wide piazzas, and the narrow streets, their balconies nearly touching. And the small boats upon the very still blue sea. And right now I don’t mind it at all that I’m alone.

Incidentally, today at the Museo Nazionale I heard the sound of Hebrew. I approached and talked to them. A fairly young couple, on their way back to the Land, and very curious to know the political events taking place there (and I don’t really know what’s actually happening now). Still, they evaded me. They’re two. Too bad. They made a good impression.

It’s spacious here—in the lobby, writing. It’s so cozy and pleasant to sit here, there’s no desire to move. And yet, I’ll have to go upstairs, to my room, and write a letter to mother and to Dinah. Or maybe I can try and buy writing paper here and add the addresses upstairs? Good idea. Ah well, there’ll be yet another “debit!”

June 22

Naples. Tuesday.

Today, at last, a feeling of absolute pleasure. No physical or mental pain. I’ve rested and I’m well.

This morning, travel to Pompeii. Met new people in the automobile. A very sympathetic couple from Hungary. They spoke German. He has heard that there’s a new city in the world but couldn’t recall its name. I reminded him: Tel Aviv. Indeed, Tel Aviv. And a Spanish fellow, born in San Sebastian and living in Mexico. Leaves a pleasant impression. We spoke English. He warned me not to let them make a Catholic of me in Rome. Rather informed regarding the politics in the Land of Israel. He didn’t reveal his political views.

The road was beautiful, possibly like most of the roads here. A Capuchin monastery on the mountain. We went into a crafts workshop where they make coral jewelry and amulets. They had nice things. Everywhere, the Italians try to engage the tourist in commerce, but I’m a bad customer.

In Pompeii they offer chairs as transport, like a rickshaw. “We’re in China or Japan,” the Spaniard says to me. We decline offers of umbrellas, rickshaws, postcards, etc., and enter the ruins. It’s a good thing I went to the museum yesterday—excellent introduction. Still, it’s odd that Pompeii doesn’t astound me. Possibly because I have yet to take it all in. But what’s surprising and marvelous is the way people knew how to live. Our guide was a bit rushed. We saw the streets, the temples, the interior of homes, the garden of the House of the Vettii with its fourteen fountains—inspiring envy. Also wonderful: the exercise room, the beautiful dining room, and the Pompeian red which is very pleasing to the eye. Most impressive of all—the amphitheater. The sky above and the action on stage—it’s very easy to imagine how they sat here and watched a tragedy by Aeschylus on the eve of destruction.

After Pompeii I sat in a café “Hotel di Zeus.” Like me, everyone in our group was tired of sightseeing. The young Hungarian woman examined the many items she’d bought, like an infant her toys. 

Afterward, they continued to Vesuvius and I went back to Naples. By the way, I had joined their automobile totally by mistake. I was supposed to travel by bus, but it’s good that it turned out as it did. I would have known no one on the bus. I had lunch in my dairy restaurant, where they already know me and try to communicate with me in various tongues.

In the afternoon I rested two hours then went to the aquarium. I follow exactly, if by chance, the itinerary of “Imaginary Journey.”[7] Again the aquarium, again the park and children playing. I enjoyed the aquarium very much. Interesting that fish have explicit expressive faces: there’s intelligence, stupidity, cruelty, malevolence, kindness. The more one looks at them, the more one finds character. They resemble Gogol’s monsters. There’s something of the nightmarish about them. But marvelous. The guard explained a few things to me—in half Italian half French—and I nodded my head in response. He told me the names of fish I’d never heard of before. He also pointed out fish in motion, and sea scorpions in pursuit of prey. Again I regret my meager knowledge of nature. And yet, it was very interesting.

In the park I watched the children. Here, too, the mothers sit on folding chairs. One of them was weaving a basket. I felt uneasy watching her for such a long time as she worked, but it was interesting. A baby-girl came near to befriend me, but then her mother approached and disrupted this mute friendship….

Later I went back to the hotel. My Kleinbürger is traveling to Rome. He says he’ll stay there only for a day or two if the purchase of a super-fine guitar will require an entire day. Then he’ll quickly travel to Vienna where they speak his language. Poor fellow! I found him sitting here, all set to leave, in the company of a girl who knows a little Hebrew. She’s from Ostia and is quite sympathetic. We spoke German. She’s considering moving to the Land. She took my address and gave me her name. I promised to be of help when she arrives. After she left, I went to a nearby café and drank tea with milk. Violins were playing, and it was pleasant to sit and watch the mountains, the sea, the passersby. Beautiful women sat at the nearby tables. Very elegant. Neapolitans? In any case, Italian. Most of them not very dark. But their faces, God Almighty! If I were a man, I’d certainly be tempted to chase after every one of them….

And I can’t forget Raphael’s Madonna. Now I keenly understand why Dostoevsky said “красота спасает мир,”[8] referring precisely to Raphael. This is beauty beyond beauty. The lifting of the spirit to the topmost sphere. I ask every person I encounter if they’ve seen it, and they respond with a peculiar vagueness—”I think so.” How is it possible not to see, not to remember such a thing? It’s as if it were actually spelled out: “красота спасает мир.”  If only people had eyes!

I’m beginning to adjust to the Neapolitan comfort. I feel very good in the hotel “with all the amenities.” In Rome I’ll have to economize. We’ll see how it works out!

Wednesday June 23

The last hours in Naples. It’s odd—I’m experiencing some kind of travel anxiety, uncertainty: I don’t know how I’ll find my hotel in Rome without having an exact address. Such things bother me. I’m so inexperienced traveling alone! It’s good that I’ll be staying in Rome for five days. Ostensibly, five days of rest. When I travel again and with more money everything will be simpler. Will I ever get to do it?

Rome. The Coliseum. Forum Traiani. The Capitoline. The Basilica Ara coeli. St. Peter’s Basilica (the head spins from all the colonnades). The general view of the city. The bridges across the Tiber.

A feeling of desolation. All my acquaintances have left. In the evening, rest.

Thursday June 24

St. Peter’s Basilica—Pietà! The Vatican. The Museum. The Library. The Sistine Chapel. The Borgia apartments. The Pinacotheca. Carlo Crivelli. Leonardo. A. Girolamo. Giuseppe Ribera. Raphael. Goblins and paintings. The Vatican Gardens.

Encountered a group from the Land. Following a guide like idiots. They invited me to join them. I declined.

Friday June 25

In the morning, on the way to Piazza del Popolo, I chanced upon Piazza di Spagna, and the church Trinità dei Monti. From there to Piazza del Popolo. Shops selling antiques and reproductions. In the piazza, an Egyptian obelisk, covered in hieroglyphics. Too bad that I can no longer decipher a thing. The Propileum. The Villa Borghese Park. Broad lanes. A lot of shade. Children at play. Fountains, as everywhere in Rome. A very young Italian man who speaks French accompanied me to the museum. He wished to meet with me again. In spite of my isolation and loneliness here—I declined. The Borghese Gallery, again Ribera, Correggio, an entire room of Titian. Raphael—the famous head, and more. And yet, it doesn’t add much to what I saw yesterday at the Pinacotheca. And yes, Lucas Cranach, a very good painting. The most powerful general impression—how well they all painted, the Renaissance painters, including even the most mediocre among them. Meisterschaft, indeed! And yes, Andrea del Sarto whose work I recognize from afar with no fear of error.   

Afternoon (two o’clock) in my room I’ve been reading Hoffmann. It’s good. Afterward I went again to the Capitoline. Indeed, I did see it yesterday upon arrival. The museum was closed. I continued downward toward the Forum. Seen from outside, the Palatine is enormous! Odd. I’ve resisted this history, but when you stand down below, facing these huge columns, it’s impressive. Very much so! Then I went to Michelangelo’s “Moses,” and again the clear feeling—this is the quintessence here. The quintessence is Michelangelo. And only now do I understand Rilke: “Nur Gott bleibt über ihm.”[9] 

There has never been such a spirit in the history of humankind. I’m afraid to say it—not even Dostoevsky! And yet, I’ve experienced a sinking feeling of isolation today. It scares me. And it certainly harms me.          

I wrote poems yesterday. Three all at once, and not bad at all.

Saturday June 26

A wonderful day in Rome. In the morning, nearly absentmindedly, I went to the Capitoline Museum. And I believed that ancient art had no power over me—so untrue! I think that I’ve never been as happy—when looking at art—as I was today when I stood before the Greek statues. And not necessarily the famous ones, but the sleeping Eros; and the assortment of torsos of gods, so very human; the gazelle (possibly Artemis’s—fragment of a woman’s leg); thefauns;and even the ancient ceramics transported me to some wondrous and exalted world I’d never experienced before. From above—the Pinacotheca doesn’t evoke much. Rubens. They’re especially proud of Guido Reni. Let Goethe have him!—I can’t stand this sweetness of St. Sebastian after Ribera’s divine beauty of suffering. The park also is beautiful. On the whole, the parks here are a subject apart.

Afternoon. Travel with Cit to Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore (again Guido Reni and Gian Lorenzo Bernini). Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano—the steps leading to the chapel. The wonderful Michelangelo ceiling, and Bernini again. Not as opulent as St. Peter’s, but just as exquisite. 

And the Catacombs. Only the Christian ones, to my regret. But very interesting. It is strange how marginal details prove important at times. The hands in candlelight were amazingly beautiful. I was with a group of Germans, and the feeling that they were all Nazis stopped me from initiating a conversation with them. But an older man traveling with his daughter—Viennese, judging from his accent—made a very pleasant impression. He reminded me of Dr Deneke.[10] And a beautiful girl of about seventeen, studying history in Parma—”herrlich herrlich!”[11]—she said, enchanted with the Swastika symbol on the Catacombs, but the guide, apparently not a Hitler devotee, explained with emphatic rectitude that the symbol belongs to all peoples, and is to be found everywhere in antiquity, except Australia. Da haben sieś mein Fräulein.[12] Still, it is a pity that German is my European language.

But a day like today—a very precious gift. The mountains of Albania (or Dalmatia) from afar. And meadows. And in the churches women with white kerchiefs on their heads and clad in black.       

Sunday June 27   

This morning at our hotel, three teachers and school children. Boys and girls. They came to Rome, I don’t know from where, to see the “Gardino Zolologico,”[13] as one of the children called it. They make a good and jolly impression. The rapport between them and the teachers seemed especially friendly. The teachers ate at one table, the children at another, maybe indeed to allow them total freedom. Naturally, the girls did not sit with the boys at the same table. Only two pairs of the older students sat together. The children did carry on a bit, but on the whole were very well-behaved. There’s only one unpleasant characteristic here—the way they dress the children in Rome. The mothers are so elegant, and have such good taste, and yet the children—no style, no grace. And the earrings in the girls’ ears—repulsive.

Later, a trip with Cit to Tivoli. First, Hadrian’s Villa. Ruins. Very interesting, but doesn’t stir my historical heart. Here and there dates of Hebrew history. The Ten Martyrs, apparently. But the view from the villa—enchanting. Later, lunch at Tivoli, the garden of an old hotel (important visitors noted on the walls, among them: Maria Alexandrovna![14]). My fellow-travelers—Germans, of course. A man and a woman. Both from Berlin. I promptly announce that I’m from the Land of Israel. The only response: It must be very hot there, beautiful and interesting. They both hope to travel one day to the Middle East. My being Jewish is evident to them but it doesn’t bother them. Interesting—is the Aryan clause annulled abroad, or is it that, after all, not every private person is responsible for what’s taking place in their country? The woman and I agreed to go to the cinema. She’s a wealthy Bürgersfrau. In general, I don’t have much luck with people I meet when traveling.

Waterfalls. Villa d’Este. I would have liked to stay there, and work. Our guide, an elderly German of seventy-one, remarkably genial, different from all the other guides we’ve had so far, said: Here, all you need is a good cook and a library! Yes, I would have agreed to sit there for two or three weeks with a lot of paper and ink. Incidentally, it must be awful to be a tour guide in Rome. Such poverty! We went past Mussolini’s villa. The old man said with irony: He lives here and pays not a penny. I live in much reduced splendor and pay 370 lire a month. I think that here only a man his age can afford to talk like this. In general, when I notice someone without the Fascist insignia, I instantly assume he must be a foreigner.

Tomorrow, my last day in Rome.

Lea Goldberg (1911-1970) was born in Königsberg, East Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia), and began writing Russian and Hebrew verse as a schoolgirl in Kovno, Lithuania. She studied philology at Friedrich Wilhelm University (now Humboldt University, Berlin) and completed her PhD in Semitic Languages at Bonn University, before immigrating to Palestine in 1935. Poet, novelist, playwright, translator, scholar, and critic, Goldberg published nine books of poetry, three novels, a collection of short stories, three plays, ten non-fiction books, numerous children’s books stories and poems), as well as literary translations from the Russian, German, Italian, and English. The eighteenth edition of her Collected Poems (three volumes) was published in 2011. In 1955, she helped establish the Department of Comparative Literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which she headed until her death. Goldberg was awarded many literary prizes, including the Israel Prize for Literature in 1970 (posthumously), and her work has been published in fourteen languages, including Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Russian, and Spanish.

Novelist and translator and the author of thirteen books, Tsipi Keller is the recipient of several literary awards, including National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellowships, New York Foundation for the Arts Fiction Grants, and an Armand G. Erpf Translation Award from Columbia University. Her translations have appeared in literary journals and anthologies in the U.S. and Europe, as well as in The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization (Yale University Press, 2012). Her most recent translation collection, Years I Walked at Your Side, a volume of selected poems byHebrew poet Mordechai Geldman, was published by SUNY Press in 2018.

[1] Name of travel agency.

[2] Hebrew slang, borrowed from the Arabic, meaning “done” “finished.”

[3] Russian: hazy.

[4] Yiddish: “And Yachne Davsha [a gossipy vulgar woman] travels to America.”

[5] Popular weeklies.

[6] German: petit-bourgeois.

[7] Letters from an Imaginary Journey—Goldberg’s epistolary novel (1937). 

[8] Russian: “Beauty will save the world.”

[9] German: “Only God remains above him.” Alludes to Rilke’s line about Michelangelo after seeing his unfinished Pièta in the Duomo in Florence: “Only God remains far above this man’s will.”

[10] Father of Ilsabe, a fellow-student and friend of Goldberg’s when she studied in Berlin.

[11] German: “Wonderful, wonderful.”

[12] German: “So there, my young lady.”

[13] Gardino Zoologico, the zoo.

[14] Maria Alexandrovna (1824–1880). Empress consort of Alexander II of Russia.

Published on June 11, 2019.


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