Jan/Feb 2014 Nonfiction

Vindicating Holocaust Poetry

by Howard Richard Debs

Image courtesy of British Library Photostream

Image courtesy of British Library Photostream

The enormity of the Shoah often propelled poets in two diametrically opposed directions: on the one hand, toward ellipses, fragmentation, in short poems that exhibit their inadequacy by shutting down with a sort of premature closure; on the other, toward verbosity in long poems that register futility by reiterating an exhausted failure to achieve closure.* —From the abstract, "The Long and the Short of Holocaust Verse," by Susan Gubar, in New Literary History, Summer 2004.

The Shoah (from biblical Hebrew), or more exactly Ha-Shoah, is another name for the Holocaust. In 1983 I penned a chapbook of poetry entitled The Clarion Call: a folio of poems for the American Jew, in which appears in a section titled "Rebuild" a poem called "There Is No Ending," The poem consists of just two stanzas, the last of which reads: "In the back of the house/of study, seated all alone/charred and pointing a bony/ finger on the Mishna, swaying/ and reciting..."

Now I understand, my retreat of choice was the ellipsis. But I am getting ahead of myself.

In 1949 Theodor Adorno, the German sociologist and philosopher declared in an essay titled "Cultural Criticism and Society" in his work Prisms: "To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." In her book Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, Yaffa Eliach wrote about the noted Polish poet Tadeusz Rozewicz. To paraphrase, she stated that Rozewicz may have spoken for post-Holocaust generations to come when he wrote that he fashioned his poems "out of a remnant of words, salvaged words..." Nonetheless the Jewish poet since biblical times cannot remain silent.

I am a Jewish poet.

I have searched for literally these past 30 years 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, he asks, "Who will bear witness for the witness?" reminding us of the question posed by poet Paul Celan, considered to be one of the most singular of those who have written poetry about the Shoah. In the address given for this same occasion in 2001 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."

So Wiesel gives permission to speak up and to speak for those who cannot speak. But I am not Nelly Sachs, who in her book of poetry O The Chimneys stated the case as only a survivor of the Shoah can. I finally 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. I had many years before been privileged to experience "The Precious Legacy" exhibit then touring the United States, a selection of artifacts from the remarkable collection of the Jewish Museum in Prague. As it happens Prague is very close to home, actually my ancestral home. My paternal grandfather came to America from Riga, Latvia in 1886.

The exhibition, which toured from 1983 to1986, 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 intent of the Nazis being 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 fifty warehouses throughout the city.

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. So I contacted Jakub Hauser, the curator of the vast photographic collection of the Museum in the Czech Republic, and presented my idea. I asked if the Museum would grant permission for me to select and use a number of vintage 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 (literally and figuratively) 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. Terezin has been chosen as the focus of the work for its having generated much creative effort based on its unique position within the Nazi camp system for which it 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 almost certain death. Fifteen thousand children passed through Terezin. Approximately 90 percent of these children perished in death camps. This information comes largely from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). In 2013 the USHMM commemorated its 20 years of existence with a momentous national tour of just four selected cities, including Boca Raton, Florida, in which event I participated. The credos chosen for the commemoration—"Never Again, What You Do Matters," "Never Again Begins With Me," and "20 Years, The Power Of Truth"—resonate back through the generations.

It was in fact 1965 when Wiesel wrote Entre deux soleils (much of his work was first written in French)—One Generation After, a collection of stories and autobiographical fragments. He wrote: "Still the story had to be told. In spite of all risks, all possible misunderstandings." The risks and misunderstandings are legion. Recently, Jakub Hauser asked if I knew of the work of the French philosopher and art historian Georges Didi-Huberman. Of one and a half million surviving photographs related to Nazi concentration camps, only four depict the actual process of mass killing perpetrated at the gas chambers. In his work Images in Spite of All, Didi-Huberman pursues these images and their import, and his doing so has been harshly labeled as grotesque voyeurism.

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 USHMM held a special day-long program in its Museum Theater entitled "Speech and Silence" devoted exclusively to poetry of the Holocaust. The keynote, including readings from his work, was delivered by poet Czeslaw Milosz, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature and the National Medal of Arts. Milosz, 89 at the time, a Catholic turned atheist returned to Catholicism, who was a member of the resistance in Warsaw during World War II (but was not a participant in the Warsaw Uprising as he was outside the city proper) died four years after this event in 2004 and is honored at Israel's Yad Vashem memorial to the Holocaust as one of the "Righteous among the Nations." Thankfully, true to its mission, the Museum has an audio recording preserving the proceedings. In an interview after his presentation, Milosz stated essentially that the only credible poetic response to the Holocaust is through writing about anything and everything else, perhaps to assert in this way a hope of promise that there can be life after death in a collective sense.

So what of those who dare to "speak" of it?

In the Spring 2006 (vol.45) issue of the Michigan Quarterly Review there is housed a series of seven articles* constituting a virtual symposium on the subject, precipitated by then Jay now Joy Ladin, the first openly transgendered literature professor at the Orthodox Stern College for Women at Yeshiva University. Ladin is joined by, or rather faces the rejoinder of, six lion and lioness literary luminaries including poet Alicia Ostriker and the person who quite literally wrote the book—surprisingly so far the only book—to cover the matter, Susan Gubar, that book being Poetry after Auschwitz: Remembering What One Never Knew, published in 2003. The only other related work giving a meaningful nod to poetry is By Words Alone: The Holocaust in Literature by Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi published in 1982 which encompasses the broader topic of creative literature evolving from the Holocaust. While there are countless poems, and one very important anthology, Holocaust Poetry, compiled by Hilda Schiff, there is hardly a work tackling the why and the what of the genre per se. In other words, can there be and should there be Holocaust Poetry?

Before stating Ladin's provoking premise, it is to be noted that in the book entitled Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, the author (Ladin) thought it apt to compare her situation to that of being trapped in her "own private concentration camp."

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 wants to maintain that 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.

Except for Marjorie Perloff who thinks that the importance of any poem is never "based on subject matter as such," the others have their say. Sandra Gilbert: "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: "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." Berel Lang calls into question "how important poetry of any sort—including Holocaust poetry—is: what difference does it make?"

Susan Gubar, whose book on poetry and the Holocaust really is the impetus for Ladin's demurer, makes the case that "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 fully rails against 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?" She quotes Dmitri Shostakovich: "'People knew about Babi Yar before Yevtushenko's poem, but they were silent. Art destroys silence.'"

So I will continue with my project—in the face of and because of those written about in books such as Denying The Holocaust; The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory by Deborah Lipstadt (1993). I am encouraged by the words of Victor Frankl, psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor who in 1946 wrote Man's Search for Meaning, which at the time of his death in 1997 had sold over 10 million copies and had been translated into 24 languages: "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."

I cannot leave out the other side of Susan Gubar's "coin" regarding writing poetry about the Shoah. If my poem "There Is No Ending" is an example of a meager truncated piece, then Charles Reznikoff's Holocaust must be considered the essential illustration of exalted excess. Reznikoff and his work are not known to many but should be. Born in the Jewish neighborhood of Brownsville, in Brooklyn, the son of Russian immigrant garment workers who came to America seeking refuge from the czarist pogroms of the 1880s, according to the Jewish Virtual Library article about him, "Reznikoff is one of the most important Jewish poets of the 20th century."

Holocaust, all 94 pages of it, was published in 1975, and was his final work. Following a heart seizure he died at St. Vincent's hospital in Manhattan just before dawn on January 22, 1976. The work uses actual testimony (Reznikoff had a law degree) extracted from 26 volumes of transcriptions from the court proceedings of the Eichmann and Nuremberg trials. Holocaust is a found poetry tour de force and what has been characterized as poetic documentary. An excerpt does not suffice, but here in homage to the work this last stanza from the section called "Entertainment":

On Sundays there was no work and Jews would be placed in a row:
each had a bottle on his head
and the S. S. men amused themselves by shooting at the bottles.
If a bottle was hit,
the man lived;
but if the bullet landed below,
well, the man had it.

Leopold Zunz was a German Reform rabbi and writer, the founder of what has been termed "Jewish Studies" or "Judaic Studies," the critical investigation of Jewish literature, hymnology and ritual. Zunz 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?" (Die Synagogale Poesie des Mittelalters)

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



Gubar, Susan. "The Long and the Short of Holocaust Verse." New Literary History 35:3 (2004), 443. © 2004 by New Literary History, The University of Virginia. Reprinted with permission of Johns Hopkins University Press.

* Quoted with permission.


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