Writing poetry helps me process the unspeakable evils of the Holocaust

A Kafkaesque, morbid language of dreams and nightmares can reveal the nocturnal universe of the Nazi killing machine... and preserve memories of our kin
Barbed wire fence against a dark sky. (Getty Images via JTA)
Barbed wire fence against a dark sky. (Getty Images via JTA)

JTA — Not long after the gruesome reality of the Holocaust burst onto the world’s consciousness, the philosopher and social theorist Theodor Adorno famously observed in 1949 that writing poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric — “nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch.”

Less well known, but equally insightful, was Adorno’s subsequent conclusion, expressed in a 1966 radio address in Germany, that Auschwitz itself constituted nothing less than a “relapse into barbarism.”

Adorno understood that the Shoah’s calculated, systematic savagery was an absolute deviation from the fundamental norms of civilization and civilized behavior. To be valid, anything written or said about the Holocaust, whether in poetry or prose, must first and foremost encapsulate and reflect its barbaric essence. Aesthetic sensitivities and considerations must yield to the undeniable absolute evil that sparked and perpetrated the genocide of European Jewry, requiring us to absorb and try to come to terms with the unprecedented, the unfathomable and, above all, the inexplicable.

Perhaps the most cogent context for this inexorable immersion into the unknown was given by my late teacher and mentor Elie Wiesel, who explained in his essay, “A Plea for the Dead,” that “Auschwitz signifies not only the failure of 2,000 years of Christian civilization, but also the defeat of the intellect that wants to find a Meaning — with a capital M — in history. What Auschwitz embodied had none.”

And yet, despite all these flashing yellow lights, I, the son of two survivors of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, who was born three years after the end of World War II, in the displaced persons camp of Bergen-Belsen, long ago turned to expressing myself in poetry.

Over the decades I have tried to give voice to the dead in my poems, to comfort ghosts, and to provide a memorial to the millions who have none. A collection of these writings, “Poems Born in Bergen-Belsen,” is being published this month by Kelsay Books to coincide with Yom Hashoah, the Jewish day of remembrance for Holocaust victims, on April 8, and the anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen on April 15, 1945.

For me, conceptualizing my poems is often simultaneously a refuge and an escape. An escape from the realm of conventional human experience into a parallel internal reality. And a refuge where amorphous phantasmagoric thoughts and images emerge sufficiently from their nebulous twilight to allow me to express them, however inadequately, in words.

We need poems, songs, and parables. We need a Kafkaesque, morbid language of dreams and nightmares to be able to penetrate the nocturnal universe of Auschwitz and Birkenau, of Treblinka, Majdanek, and Bergen-Belsen, of Belzec, Chelmno, Sobibor, and Terezin, of the Warsaw Ghetto, Transnistria and Babyn Yar.

A sparse inscription on a Birkenau barrack wall forces us to identify with its author without knowing anything else about him: ​“Andreas Rapaport – lived sixteen years.” Aware that he was about to die, a Jewish teenager tried to leave a sign, a memory of his existence on earth. Without pathos, without self-pity, Andreas Rapaport was the author of his own eulogy, his own Kaddish: Andreas Rapaport – lived sixteen years. Andreas Rapaport – abandoned, alone, afraid.

Andreas Rapaport – hungry, in pain. Andreas Rapaport – gas-filled lungs. Andreas Rapaport – incinerated, black smoke, ashes.

In “Under Your White Stars,” Avraham Sutzkever, the Yiddish poet of the Vilna Ghetto, wrote, “Stretch out to me Your white hand. My words are tears that want to rest in Your hand.” It is the beginning of a monologue addressed to God that never turns into a dialogue because there is no response. Against a “murderous calm” that permeated the precarious existence of the ghetto’s inhabitants, the narrator writes: “I run higher, over rooftops, and I search: Where are You? Where?”

The poems written by Sutzkever and other poets in the ghettos and even in the Nazi death and concentration camps were their way of refusing to become dehumanized, of defying their oppressors, and remaining sane in a world gone mad.

Upon arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau on the night of August 3-4, 1943, a little boy named Benjamin was separated from his mother and sent directly into a gas chamber with his father and grandparents.

Benjamin was my half-brother. Even though my mother rarely spoke about him, I know that she thought of him every day of her life. Since her death in 1997, Benjamin has continued to exist within me. I see his face in my mind, try to imagine his voice, his fear as the gas chamber doors slammed shut, his final tears.

If I were to forget him, he would disappear.

And I write about him so that my grandchildren, and their children and grandchildren in turn, will remember Benjamin as well. My poems are my legacy to them.

Barbed wire fence against a dark sky (Getty Images)
About the Author
Adjunct professor of law at Cornell Law School and lecturer-in-law at Columbia Law School.
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