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The blank spot where my poem once hung in Yad Vashem

I wrote about seeing my grandmother in a photo through the eyes of a German WWI soldier -- some visitors saw it as a mirror

One day last fall I received a call from Yad Vashem explaining that they wanted to use a poem of mine to open an exhibit on photography and the Holocaust entitled “Flashes of Memory.” I was thrilled. I had just finished a collection of poems in Yiddish about my responsibility to the voices of my many family members who disappeared in the Holocaust and was deeply moved that my work would be incorporated in an exhibition of this magnitude at such an important institution.

“Flashes of Memory” presents photographs taken during the Holocaust by German and Jewish photographers, focusing on the circumstances of the photograph and the worldview of the photographer. Even though the poem the curators had selected was about a photograph of a woman in World War One, snapped by an apparently friendly soldier, the manner in which she looked into the camera and the way the soldier must have been embarrassed by her straightforward gaze made the poem seem utterly relevant to the exhibit.

My parents had grown up there, in Lida, during that war. The stories from my aunts about those days and the difference between the Polish, Russian and German armies were always fascinating, and have appeared in my writings for many years. In that period, the Germans always came off as the least inhumane. Nevertheless, because my parents fled the Nazis in the Second World War, I possess no photographs of grandparents, cousins, and aunts and uncles who did not manage to escape. So when I found a photograph of a woman on the street in Lida, shamelessly looking the photographer in the lens, I decided to “adopt” her. I called the poem Sepia because I knew it was ‘colored’ by its age and distance, and the reality of the situation I described was colored by my interpretation.

No matter how much we enlarge it,
That photograph snapped by a German soldier
Of my grandmother in Lida, 1916,
Remains perfectly clear. Her eyes
Register her cold measure
Of the soldier who could decide
To shoot her instead of her
Picture if that
Was his hobby
Instead of photography.

This is what war
Is like – I taste her fear
Even though I’m seeing her
Now from the eyes
Of the oppressor.
And I know the shame of both.

There are so many horrors we do not have access to. There are no photographs of the Polish pogroms in the year following the German occupation of Lida. We only know about life there during the Great War because of the photographs taken by German soldiers. And despite the multitude of revealing snapshots in Yad Vashem, we know so little of our past. One of my grandmothers disappeared into a pit outside of Lida and the other was melted into soap in Stutthof. Nothing remains. Evidence and interpretation of history is essential.

I was a little worried when the poem and the photograph covered the wall in Yad Vashem. Should my name be on it? I wondered. Is there exploitation in making art from the suffering of others? The photographer is anonymous, but I was taking credit for relating what I thought was going on in the picture. In the end I didn’t ask that the poem appear anonymously, and was in fact extremely proud of the paradox I was displaying in identifying with the photographer. As with every photograph, I was seeing the subject through his eyes, but I would not have been able to see her at all had he not photographed her.

More than eight months after the exhibit opened, I received another call from Yad Vashem. They regretted to inform me that after numerous objections, the poem was being removed from the wall. A few hours later I discovered that I was being vilified for comparing Israeli soldiers with Nazis. I was asked by the press for reactions, and in giving my explanation of the poem, was accused and blamed again.

Even though my first instinct was to apologize if some were offended by my words, particularly in such a place that should show only honor and respect for those millions senselessly lost, I soon realized that my apology was doing a disservice to the entire purpose of the exhibit. I am very proud of this poem. I am indeed extremely proud of all my work in aiding the research and understanding of the Holocaust, and I am certain that the censorship of my poem, however well meant, hid a greater evil. Those who saw strange political criticisms in Sepia, or, as I named it in Hebrew, The Gaze, were looking for a comparison that they feared in themselves. As Alexander Pope once noted, “All looks jaundiced to the jaundiced eye.”

This is a phenomenon about which I dare not be silent.

About the Author
Karen Alkalay-Gut, is professor emeritus of English poetry at Tel Aviv University. She is Chair of the Israel Association of Writers in English. Alalay-Gut has published well over thirty books of poetry and biography in English, as well as Hebrew, Italian and Spanish translations. Her latest book of poems,“Yerusha” (“Inheritance”), was written in Yiddish and Hebrew.
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