The Poetry of Bearing Witness

Wednesday, April 15, 2015 - 5:58pm

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.

(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.

(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.

(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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Howard Richard Debs

is a poet, writer, photographer, sometime artist, musician, and singer-songwriter. He received a University of Colorado Poetry Prize at age 19. After spending the past 50 years in the field of communications, he resumed his literary pursuits, and his work appears or is forthcoming in The Germ, Calliope, Big River Poetry Review, Jewish Currents, Poetica Magazine, Misfitmagazine, Star 82 Review, The Review Review, Belle Reve Literary Journal, Verse-Virtual, Dialogual, Sediments Literary-Arts Journal, Piecemeal Review, Remarkable Doorways Literary Magazine, Indiana Voice Journal, Blue Bonnet Review, China Grove and Eclectica Magazine. His forthcoming book, co-edited with Matthew E. Silverman, is New Voices from Salvaged Words: An Anthology of Contemporary Holocaust Poetry and Essays. For more of his writing visit his blog Communicators & Communications. Born and bred in Chicago, Howard now lives in sunny South Florida with his wife of 49 years Sheila, where they spend considerable time spoiling their four grandchildren.

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A powerful message in the accompanying essay. We must never forget. For those who are willing to face the horror of this history and write to spread the truth for those who endured this unfathomable evil we should all give thanks. It takes a special human to do so.

I was born in 1942. Given how young I would have been at the time of the Holocaust, I can understand that I would not have learned about, or have been able to comprehend its horrors, especially since I grew up in a part of Central California and in a small town where there were few if any residents of Jewish descent. However, one would think that something of the magnitude of the Holocaust would be spoken of at home or elsewhere, but I don't recall such conversations.
A number of my friends and classmates were Armenian, as this part of California was home to many Armenian Americans whose parents and grandparents who had fled the genocide of Armenians during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in what is now modern Turkey. Right now whether or not what happened to the Armenians at the outset of the 20th c. qualifies for being labeled as 'genocide' is once again a major political and religious issue. I trust our nation and its president will do the right thing and label this historic tragedy for what it was. That said, however, I am saddened that I knew nothing of this horrible displacement of an ethnic group because, most likely, our history books did not speak of it and my Armenian friends and their families did not speak of it when I was in their home or presence.
My classmates and friends also included individuals of Japanese heritage. I relished their gentility, and the warm welcome I always received when in the presence of their parents or grandparents. As was the case with my Armenian friends and their families, my connections to them did not mean that I learned anything about the disgraceful internment of people of Japanese descent following the attacks on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. declaration of war against Japan.
In 1962, while a sophomore in college, I took a semester off so I could participate in an archaeology and Bible history study experience in the Middle East. In 1962, when we were involved in the archaeology season of digging at Tel Dothan, and when we on a rotational basis were studying at the Near East School of Archaeology on the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem, we were in Jordan. Today that part of the Middle East is claimed by Israel and labeled the "Occupied West Bank." I deeply appreciated the hospitality shown to our group by both Christian and Muslim Palestinians (although I don't think we called them that in '62). As a devout Christian I must admit I was mostly consumed by efforts to help understand and reclaim the biblical history of the region, and less concerned about other matters. Following the end of the study and archaeology adventure I crossed through the one-way Mandelbaum Gate and spent a week in Israel. It was difficult to comprehend that at that time the State of Israel would have been only 14 years old. I was still mostly interested in getting to the Galilee so I could be in places where Jesus had grown up and began his ministry.
Fast forward to January of 1992. I am back in the Middle East, but this time, though 49 years of age, I am in my first year of seminary. I have studied Hebrew, and I subsequently took an Old Testament course I am part of a two-week Jan term travel and study experience. Now most all of the territory that had been part of Jordan in 1962 is claimed by Israel. No more one-way gate between Israel and Jordan - at least not in Jerusalem - and many other things had changed since I was there in 1962.
Mostly, however, I too have changed and that became clearly evident on a Sunday afternoon tour of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. I spent much of my time in the children's museum where there were life-sized photos of Jewish young people whose lives ended in concentration camps.
A section of the museum was dedicated to young people who had lived in Poland. I stood for a while before the portrait of a boy who had been born the same day I was in 1942. Given that he was an ashenazi rather than a sephardic Jew by descent, he was fair-skinned and had blond hair like me.
Yet it struck me to the very core that he had died because of his ethnicity, and I was still living because of mine.
I am not proud to say that it took this form of coming face to pictured-face for the complete emotional impact of the Holocaust to reach all the way into the core of my being. No more Christian/Jew thoughts as to how we believed differently. No more that was then, now is now, sense of separation.
I trust and pray that others will not need as dynamic and immediate an experience to have great empathy for all who are targeted and treated as victims, whether or not to the point of death.
This is my hope and prayer.

Holocaust – Day of Remembrance

They rounded us up one day in the rain
Herded us into a cattle-car train
We were just Jews, it was simple and plain
The pain – we must always remember

When the train stopped there were so many dead
Ushered into two groups, tears were all shed
Weak ones culled out and away they were led
That said – we must always remember

None of this ever has made any sense
Staying alive in good health our defense
We'd spend every day praying out by the fence
Consequence – we must always remember

At night we would gather and in silence we pray
Pray that we make it through one more day
What tomorrow would bring – no one could say
Today – we must always remember

Each morning we’d line up; they’d walk down the rows
Deciding who lives; deciding who goes
Each morning we’d pray that we weren’t one of those
God knows – we must always remember

And the stench in the camp from the ovens by noon
Reminded us all of our impending doom
Relief from this hell-hole could not come too soon
Repugn – we must always remember

There were thousands of us left back in the damp
In our bunks, in the ovens, or the cattle-car ramps
And surviving this ordeal left its own stamps
The camps – we must always remember

So each year we gather on Remembrance Day
To honor the loved ones who have passed away
And the horrible price that they had to pay
We pray – we will always remember

Repugn – to oppose or refute or resist

Mu great uncle, Adolf Aussenberg, was one of the artists sent to Terezin. My grandmother rarely spoke about what happened to him- bearing witness was too painful for her. So I am grateful for the poets who stand in the darkness to cry out and lament whe others fall silent. Thank you for this piece.

I am glad that the author is writing these poems, and honored that essay recalls my long review essay on Holocaust poetry and the aesthetic and moral problems it poses. I am however dismayed that my essay is portrayed as opposing the writing of poems about the Holocaust. My second book, The Book of Anna, is written in the voice of a fictional Holocaust survivor, so I clearly am not opposed to writing these poems (though some of the respondents inexplicably read it that way). Rather, my essay explores the difficulties of writing poems about the Holocaust and the ways in which different poets respond to those difficulties.

my daughter shared this post with me. i am deeply touched by the words written here and the knowledge that men [and women and children] like my uncle Adolf Aussenberg continue to be remembered. Dolfi was an artist who witnessed to the horror of the Shoah through his drawings while interned at Terezin. his stark and beautiful drawings of transports,old sick men, nurses and ordinary people trying to survive in Terezin bear witness to what happened to so many innocent individuals. He did not survive the war dying somewhere in the camps. my family bears witness to his life and extraordinary talent and to the sadness of his untimely death. i also am aware that in bearing witness to one genocide we also bear witness to others past and present. thank you for your poetry...i looked for his name finding it in the names of others who shared his fate.

A poignant and revealing look at an atrocious moment in human suffering. Your writings, and your intrinsic self-pain illuminate the witness for many of us far too young to fathom the magnitude of those moments. Kudos from afar..