The Poetry of the Holocaust
In 1949, Theodor Adorno, a leading German critic whose faith in
humanity had been irrevocably shaken by the Holocaust, made the
following declaration: "After Auschwitz it is barbaric to write
poetry" (Lang, 179). Although Adorno later acknowledged that
"perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured
man has to scream", his initial reaction to the concept of
Holocaust poetry reflected the viewpoint of many of his contemporaries.
The very nature of poetry, its lyrical beauty and underlying rhythms,
was seen by many as "an obscene contradiction" to the
horrors of the Holocaust (Schiff, xxi). People such as Adorno worried
that attempting to condense the incomprehensible suffering of the
Holocaust into a few lines of poetry would "violate the inner
incoherence of the event, casting it into a mold too pleasing or
too formal" (Langer, 555). Adorno and his supporters initially
considered silence the only appropriate response to the tragedy
of the Holocaust, insisting that: "Speechlessness alone could
reflect integrity...to seek to portray reality with inadequate words
would betray that reality and the voiceless dead at its core"
(Schiff, xxi). However, in spite of Adorno's grave admonition, an
overwhelming volume of Holocaust poetry has been written since the
late 1940s. Despite the inadequacy of language at conveying the
enormity of the Holocaust, despite the "helplessness of the
mind before an evil that cannot be imagined" (Lang, 182), the
experience of the Holocaust creates an irrepressible urge to bear
witness. Although it is readily acknowledged that poetry fails to
do justice to the sheer evil of the Holocaust, it is equally clear
that "to remain silent would surely only compound the evil"
Still, the question remains: Why have so many of those who have
been directly or indirectly influenced by the Holocaust felt the
need to express their experiences and reactions through poetry?
As Adorno implies, poetry does indeed have its limitations. Holocaust
writer Primo Levi agrees, stating: "We became aware that our
language lacks words to express this offense, the demolition of
man" (Lang, 186). However, as Heyen asserts, poetry also provides
"a vessel to hold within its form, at least for a little while,
whirling thought and feelings...about the Holocaust" (Lang,
123) Nobel-prize winning poet Nelly Sachs was once asked why she
wrote about the Holocaust, and she gave this insightful response:
"The dreadful experiences that brought me to the very edge
of death and eclipse have been my instructors. If I had not been
able to write, I would not have survived...my metaphors are my wounds"
(Langer, 557). Sachs' sentiment is repeated time and again by other
prominent poets of the Holocaust. Although these writers recognize
poetry's ineffectiveness in the face of atrocity, their impulse
to bear witness, to relieve the burden of memory, and to reconcile
the horrors of the Holocaust with hope for humanity continues to
result in moving poetry.
Poetry differs from more conventional genres of Holocaust literature,
such as the memoir and other narrative forms of testimony, in that
it is primarily concerned with expressing emotion. Humanity's collective
inability to process the evil of the Holocaust accounts for the
popularity of the memoir, "a kind of writing in which the author
has no obligation to do anything but, in accurate and sober terms,
tell what he experienced and witnessed" (Lang, 182). However,
while historical writing and authenticated documents have provided
the world with factual information about the Holocaust, any attempt
to rationally address these facts inevitably fails. As anthologist
Hilda Schiff states: "We can certainly comprehend and feel
aghast at the ghoulish facts presented by the historian. But as
individuals ourselves we can reach out imaginatively only towards
the experience of other individuals. This is where imaginative writing
scores over historical writing...in letting the reader into a representative
situation, experience, or historical period, it is supreme"
(Schiff, xiv). The creative medium of poetry sheds new light on
the Holocaust by providing a unique perspective that is altogether
different from that of historical accounts and even from other genres
of Holocaust literature. Poetic responses to the Holocaust are intensely
personal and inherently human, fleshing out the bare facts provided
by historical accounts. The two types of writing complement one
another by offering a glimpse of both the objective and subjective
existence of the Holocaust.
Since the Holocaust has been thoroughly documented in both objective
historical accounts and the prose of survivors, some may wonder
what poetry can contribute to our modern perception of the Holocaust.
What can we learn from the poetry of the Holocaust? Holocaust poetry
represents a challenge to both writer and reader. The writer must
struggle with the limitations of language, and the reader must "develop
a sense of the idiom required to encompass atrocity" (Langer,
558). Since the evil of the Holocaust looms larger than our minds
are capable of comprehending, poetry becomes essential in "distilling
the complex anguish of the event into a few perfectly finished lines
or pages" (Langer, 8). In a world far removed from the horrors
of the Holocaust it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to
acquire an accurate sense of that desolate epoch of history. Poetry
helps by breathing life into factual information and adding vivid
color to the black and white landscape of historical accounts. As
Heyen says of the Holocaust: "We may be able to quantify it,
but its sources and meanings and losses glimmer in black light"
(Lang, 127). Poetry illuminates that "black light" by
preserving the Holocaust image by image. Individual poems allow
us to absorb the Holocaust in bearable increments. Although each
poem provides only a fragmented view of this bleak period, the collective
poetry of the Holocaust creates a rich tapestry of pain and renewal.
As Langer concludes: "Our vision of [the Holocaust] may never
be complete, but the composite portrait offered by poetry does much
to rescue it from obscurity and to light up its dreadful features
with the deciphering rays of language" (Langer, 3).
For nearly five decades, many people whose lives have been darkened
by the shadow of the Holocaust have been communicating their reactions
and experiences through poetry. The Holocaust has remained a prevalent
theme in modern poetry because it continues to exert a powerful
influence over both survivors and non-participants. While there
are many outstanding poets of the Holocaust, four particularly talented
poets are featured in this section: Nelly Sachs, Primo Levi, Abraham
Sutzkever, and Paul Celan. While each of these widely acclaimed
poets is Jewish, the ties that bind each individual to the Holocaust
vary greatly. The following biographies provide insight into the
experiences which have shaped each poet's reflections on the Holocaust.
Biography: Nelly Sachs
Nelly Sachs was a highly acclaimed Jewish poet. She was born in
Berlin in 1891, and began writing at the age of seventeen. In May
1940, Sachs and her mother emigrated to Sweden to escape the escalating
persecution of Jews in Germany. Sachs first began writing poetry
about the horrors of the Holocaust during World War II, and continued
to do so for the remnant of her life. Her volumes of poetry include
In the Dwellings of Death, Eclipse of the Stars, Death Still Celebrates
Life, and Glowing Enigmas. Sachs' personal experience with the Holocaust
illustrates its profound influence on a wide variety of poets, many
of whom did not actively witness or participate in the Holocaust.
In Sachs' case, she emigrated from Germany in 1940 and thus did
not share the experiences of some of her contemporaries. However,
although she was geographically distant from the death camps when
she began writing her poetry, she empathized with the suffering
of her people and "sought to speak for those who could not
speak for themselves" (Schiff, 217). Sachs poetry reflects
a struggle to reconcile the horrors of the Holocaust with her hope
for the future. According to one anthology: "Unwilling to allow
despair to sabotage hope but too honest to let hope supplant despair,
Sachs hovers between an ancient tradition of suffering and the modern
legacy of atrocity" (Langer, 557). Her poetic attempts to come
to terms with the Holocaust were rewarded by the Nobel Prize for
Literature in 1966.
Biography: Primo Levi
Primo Levi was a respected Jewish-Italian poet and writer. Born
in Turin in 1919, he worked as an industrial chemist before the
outbreak of war. In 1943, Levi was arrested and deported to Auschwitz.
His most famous work, If This is a Man, Survival in Auschwitz, was
virtually ignored upon its publication in 1947 but has since come
to be considered a classic of Holocaust Literature. His poems are
gathered together in the volume Collected Poems, published in 1988.
Levi also wrote The Drowned and the Saved, which was published posthumously
after his suicide in 1987. Levi's poetry reflects his life-long
struggle with his guilt and shame. Although these feelings had no
rational source, Levi was tormented by the fact that he had survived
while so many other Jews had perished. As anthologist Langer says,
"One of the dismal ironies of the event we call the Holocaust
is that it left a far greater legacy of guilt among the surviving
victims than it did among those responsible for their ordeal"
Biography: Paul Celan
Paul Ancel, more widely known as Paul Celan, is possibly the most
famous poet of the Holocaust. Born in Czernowitz, the Bukovina region
of Romania in 1920, Celan was raised in a Jewish household where
he became fluent in several languages, including German, Yiddish,
Hebrew, and Romanian. In June, 1942, Jews from the Czernowitz ghetto,
including Celan's parents, were shot by the SS. Celan escaped deportation
by hiding with friends, but was later discovered and placed in a
German forced labor camp for nearly two years before later fleeing
to the Soviet army. After the war, Celan settled in Paris and became
a lecturer in German literature. His experience in the German labor
camp, combined with the traumatic death of his parents, left lasting
scars on Celan's psyche that revealed themselves through his tragic
poetry. Like Primo Levi, the lingering effects of the Holocaust
eventually drove Celan to take his own life. At age forty-nine,
Celan drowned himself in the Seine River in 1970, ending a literary
career that produced much powerful poetry, including the widely
celebrated collection Der Sand aus den Urnen (Sand from Urns).
Biography: Abraham Sutzkever
Abraham Sutzkever is a Yiddish poet and editor who remains one of
the most distinguished poets of the Holocaust. He was born in 1913
in the city of Smorogon, near Vilna, in what is today Lithuania.
At a young age he joined a group of artists and poets called "Young
Vilna" and had his first book of poems published in Warsaw.
However, the Holocaust forever altered the direction of his career.
In 1941, Vilna was occupied by the Germans when they invaded Russia.
Over 10,000 Jews were shot and buried in mass graves, and the remaining
20,000 Jews of Vilna were forced into two small ghettos. Sutzkever
remained devoted to his medium of expression by becoming active
in the Vilna Ghetto Underground, which supported literature and
drama in the ghetto. In September 1941, he was taken to be shot,
but "in a charade similar to an experience of Dostoevsky's,
Sutzkever was reprieved without warning when the Lithuanians deliberately
fired over his head and returned him to the ghetto" (Langer,
561). Several months later, his wife gave birth to a baby boy who
was subsequently poisoned by the Germans. During these years, Sutzkever
condensed all the anguish of the ghetto into his vivid poetry. He
later joined the United Partisan Organization, a Jewish resistance
group, and in 1943 was rescued by the Soviet army. He and his wife
settled in Palestine, where Sutzkever founded the Yiddish literary
quarterly The Golden Chain. He continues to reflect on the Holocaust
in his poetry, and his work has been collected in The First Night
in the Ghetto and Burnt Pearls: Ghetto Poems. As Langer writes,
"Sutzkever has been too honest to dismiss the legacy he inherited
from the Vilna ghetto" (Langer, 562).
Lang, Berel. Writing and the Holocaust. New York: Holmes
& Meier Publishers, 1988.
Langer, Lawrence. Art from the Ashes: A Holocaust Anthology.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Schiff, Hilda. Holocaust Poetry. New York: St. Martins
Sicher, Efraim. Breaking Crystal: Writing and Memory after Auschwitz.
Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1998.