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The Poetry of Bearing Witness

“To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”
—Theodor Adorno

The Jewish poet since biblical times cannot remain silent. I am a Jewish poet.

For these past 30 years, I have searched for a way to bear witness, a role Elie Wiesel himself urges upon us. In his 2003 Days of Remembrance address at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), he asked, “Who will bear witness for the witness?” — reminding us of the question posed by poet Paul Celan. A few years earlier in 2001, Elie Wiesel spoke these words:

“How does one mourn for six million people who died? How many candles does one light? How many prayers does one recite? Do we know how to remember the victims, their solitude, their helplessness? They left us without a trace, and we are their trace.”

Elie Wiesel gives permission to speak up and to speak for those who cannot speak.

Finally I came upon a possibility. One of my areas of special poetic interest is ekphrastic poetry, a form which takes its inspiration from pictorial and other artwork. Many years ago, I had been privileged to experience “The Precious Legacy” exhibit then touring the United States. It was a selection of artifacts from the remarkable collection of the Jewish Museum in Prague. As it happens Prague is very close to home, my ancestral home, actually. My paternal grandfather came to America from Riga, Latvia in 1886.

The exhibition, which toured from 1983 to 1986, gave those who saw it a look at a small part of an extraordinary collection of Judaica. The Museum’s treasures exist due to an ironic twist of fate. From 1942 to 1945, the Nazis confiscated Jewish possessions of artistic and historical value throughout Bohemia and Moravia (the Czech Republic), and whilst Jews of these lands were being deported to captivity and death, these artifacts were shipped to Prague. The Nazis’ intention was to establish a “museum to an extinct race” that would justify to the world the “final solution to the Jewish question.” Prague was spared from wartime destruction, as was the collection of Judaica that by war’s end filled more than 50 warehouses throughout the city.

People visit the Yad Vashem museum to commemorate International Holocaust day in Jerusalem. Image by Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images..

These artifacts were silent witnesses from the time. I could give them a voice, and in this way let them speak for themselves through me — a bold but plausible mission.

I contacted Jakub Hauser, the curator of the vast photographic collection of the Jewish Museum, and presented my idea. I asked if the museum would grant permission for me to select and use a number of archival photographs from the collection for a series of poetic statements about them, as well as a selection of extant art and writing of children and adult prisoners, principally of the ghetto-camp at Terezin. The museum agreed.

The intent of the work in progress is to explicate and illustrate the indomitable spirit for good juxtaposed by the inevitable potential for evil — what in Hebrew is called yetzer hatov/yetzer hara, “good inclination”/”evil inclination.”

I chose Terezin as the focus of the work, as the camp has become associated with the spiritual resistance of the Shoah. Thirty-three thousand perished at Terezin. In all, some 140,000 Jews were transferred to Terezin, of which nearly 90,000 were ultimately sent to points further east and to almost certain death. Fifteen thousand children passed through Terezin. Approximately 90 percent of these children perished in death camps.

Children bring candles to at a Jewish cemetery at the former Terezin Nazi concentration camp during the ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Image by Michal Cizek/Agence France-Presse / Getty Images..

“Still the story had to be told. In spite of all risks, all possible misunderstandings.”
—Elie Wiesel, “Entre Deux Soleils”

On a Sunday — April 9, 2000 to be exact — a windy day with almost a record low and light snow falling in the early morning, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum held a special day-long program devoted to poetry of the Holocaust. The keynote was delivered by the Nobel laureate and poet Czeslaw Milosz. A Catholic turned atheist returned to Catholicism, he was a member of the resistance in Warsaw during World War II. Eighty-nine at the time, Milosz died four years later in 2004. In an interview after his presentation, Milosz stated that the only credible poetic response to the Holocaust is in writing about anything and everything else, perhaps to assert in this way hope in the promise that there can be life after death in a collective sense.

So what of those who dare to “speak” of it?

While there are countless poems, there is hardly a work tackling the why and the what of the genre per se. Can there be and should there be Holocaust poetry? Seven lion and lioness literary luminaries joined the fray in a series of seven articles in the Michigan Quarterly Review.

Joy Ladin contends that there isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a corpus of poetry of and about the Holocaust, only allowing for the attempt of individual poems. Seeming to agree in a sense with Adorno’s admonition, Ladin maintains it is, prima facie, impossible to do justice to the experience of the Holocaust — that trying to turn the tragedy into an aesthetic piece of poetry is a travesty, that the experience is inexpressible.

Sandra Gilbert counters:

“It’s the poet’s task — often the poet’s excruciatingly painful task — to testify to pain and grief with all the skill and inspiration he or she can muster.”

Wendy Steiner puts it this way:

“The atrocity of the Holocaust lay in part in its elimination of the personal in favor of universals and generalizations… It seems a terrible irony to argue that a Holocaust poem cannot be good if it expresses just a single human sensibility.”

Susan Gubar, whose book Poetry after Auschwitz: Remembering What One Never Knew on poetry and the Holocaust really started the fracas, makes the case:

“Poetry has a privileged place because it enables its creators and readers to experience… on the one hand, the realization that it cannot be comprehended in its full horror and, on the other hand, the urgency of attempting to comprehend.”

But it is Alicia Ostriker who most strongly challenges Ladin’s polemic:

“Writing is what poets do about trauma. We try to come to grips with what threatens to make us crazy, by surrounding it with language.”

And the coup de grace:

“It has always seemed to me that to fall silent in the aftermath of the Holocaust is to surrender to it. How can one write poetry after Auschwitz? How can one not?”

Quoting Dmitri Shostakovich, she writes, “People knew about Babi Yar before Yevtushenko’s poem, but they were silent. Art destroys silence.”

A photograph of the entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp taken by Chris Schwarz, from the exhibition "Traces of Memory." Copyright: Galicia Jewish Museum, reprinted with permission. Image by Chris Schwarz/Galicia Jewish Museum..

So I will continue with my project. I am encouraged by the words of Victor Frankl, psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor, who, in 1946, wrote Man’s Search for Meaning:

“Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”

Leopold Zunz, a German Reform rabbi and writer who is considered the founder of Judaic Studies, wrote in 1855:

“If there are ranks in suffering, Israel takes precedence of all the nations; if the duration of sorrows and the patience with which they are borne ennoble, the Jews can challenge the aristocracy of every land; if a literature is called rich in the possession of a few classic tragedies — what shall we say to a National Tragedy lasting for fifteen hundred years, in which the poets and the actors were also the heroes?”

It is highly unlikely that those who choose to write of and about the Holocaust do so to be considered as heroes. More likely, the purpose is to strike one more match to keep the flame of memory and truth ignited.

From my work in progress, New Voices From Salvaged Words: An Anthology of Contemporary Holocaust Poetry and Essays, I offer “Terezin: Trilogy of Names”:

Photo from the archive, Jewish Museum in Prague, used with permission.

The Walk to Terezin

The first transport was in November of 1941 but only as far as Bauschovitz
because the Nazis did not hasten the trip til June one of 1943
after a rail extension direct to Terezin was done.
So those receiving their notice, a bland sinister writing
matter-of-factly stating
that in a very few days from the date on the document
they would be leaving their homes—
they were to restrict their belongings
to a total weighing no more than 110 pounds,
they were to report to a certain location
to be taken by train to the nearest station and then
they must walk the remaining distance over a mile and a half,
no matter the weather, rain or snow or freezing cold,
their new destination must be reached without delay.
This human chain of misery is seen on the dreary day depicted,
surely bedraggled, worn, frazzled
each has summoned from courage or sheer fear the fortitude to walk
on to the place of infamy that lies ahead of them
as the onlookers stare; where are they?
Inside those cozy bungalows which line the vacant sidewalk,
no denizens of this town
whose name will become synonymous with despair
will dare come out from hiding,
so the faces of these houses will stand
as the witnesses to terror:
the windows as eyes open wide the doors as mouths aghast,
the smoke stacks affecting a Sieg Heil salute
while across the street the trees stand bare,
raising their branches plaintively toward heaven
appealing for those walking by in gloom.
Who endured this walk only to meet their doom?
We cannot know for certain.
Here are names from lists of prisoners: Greta Auerbach, Arnold Beer,
Kamil Cukermandel, Emil Drenger, Berta Engelmann, Benedikt
Fischer, Theresa Gans, Max Hahn, Samuel Jelinek, Arnostka
Karpelesova, Arnost Lasch, Josef Mayer, Alice Necasova, Else
Olivenova, Wilhelm Pollak, Amalie Reichmann, Siegfried Schreiber,
Jacob Teller, Nathan Ultmann, Adelheid Vogelova, Louise Weiner,
Gustav Ziegler—May they rest in peace, and may the human race be forgiven.

Names taken from the Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names, of those who perished in Terezin, 1942 or after, Yad Vashem.

Photo from the archive, Jewish Museum in Prague, used with permission.

The Train to Terezin

June 1, 1943 — There is no mystery,
It is as clear as the clear day
shown. They, the perpetrators
stand about in wait
for their prey.
A guard stands far away
in the distance seen
high upon the building’s roof.
If only he were a witness,
a savior, a chronicler of
evil, what might have been?
Body parts, an arm,
a hand, show out the
open transit camp train windows
yet attached no doubt to
their owners for the time
being until the time comes
and the time will come for
dismembering at Auschwitz and Treblinka.
Who is on the train destined for their demise?
Who knows for sure, here are names from lists of inmates:
Simche Ackermann, Minna Bildstein, Esther Cohen,
Judith Deutsch, Emil Efran, Moses Falkenstein,
Erna Goldschmidt, Gustav Hahn, Franz Jablonsky,
Emil Kahn, Anna Lachmann, Jakob Marcus,
Richard Neumann, Rosa Oppenheimer, Henriette Pessel,
Mendel Rosenbaum, Georg Sass, Klara Thormann,
Isaak Veit, Rosy Wartenberg, Henriette Zamory
May they rest in peace,
and may the human race be forgiven.

Names taken from the Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names, of those who perished in Terezin, 1943 or after, Yad Vashem.

Photo from the archive, Jewish Museum in Prague, used with permission.

The Suitcase to Terezin

Josef Ernst is the name on the suitcase.
What can we know from a suitcase?
285 is the number the Nazis assigned to him
for purposes of his transport to Terezin that

day on the train identified as AAw,
and so from lists that were kept
we know he was taken away on the
3rd of August, 1942 from

Horomeritz a quaint Prague village the name
of which appears on the suitcase, his captors
being meticulous about the details of such things
as this and from such records we know Josef Ernst

born 24 June 1900 was liberated from Terezin,
he survived the Holocaust this we know, he had
a life after Terezin and surely now he rests in peace,
we can but hope that he forgave the human race.

Name and information from database of Terezin Initiative Institute entries for Shoah victims and survivors.

“Terezin: Trilogy Of Names” was originally published in China Grove Literary Journal. Quoted matter from Michigan Quarterly Review used with permission.

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