POETRY OF THE HOLOCAUST - AN ANTHOLOGY. Edited and introduced by Jean Boase-Beier and Marian de Vooght.
Arc Publications www.arcpublications.co.uk
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This multilingual anthology evokes a landscape of breathtaking horror, inhabited by ghosts. A world of wolves howling as an angel carries off the sun, and dead spirits stream like smoke through empty air. Spring is blind. Hills shake with awful laughter. Clocks dare not strike the hour. In a trilingual land, silence is the fourth language - the silence that rips wounds open.
The moon reveals the shadow of a drowned boy. Pine trees blink their eyelashes in a forest full of cries. A woman begs a passerby for stars. A dead soul kisses a bud at his own grave, and asks a mourner to do the same, so that the virtual caress can be exchanged. A poet vows to return as a yellow star, to remind the world of Auschwitz.
The poems, mainly shown in their original language with English translation, are often heightened by the mixing of the cataclysmic with the mundane. A prisoner stumbling forward on a death march, nostalgically recalls the annual making of plum jam. A bus conductor punches a hole in the conscience of his passengers.
And there are trains. So many trains, crammed with Jews. Roma, homosexuals, political prisoners, the handicapped, the mentally ill.
Jerzy Ogórek z Będzina, an 11 year old Jewish boy in the Krakow ghetto, imagines travelling on one such train, asking "where is it going?" And he gives himself the answer – Auschwitz. An anonymous Romani poet writing in German in the camp's Gypsy lager begs to be allowed to remain asleep and to dream, so that no one will know of his suffering – there is "no more fire, no joy, no laughter."
In an imaginary postcard, Mircea Lacatus, a Romani poet from Transylvania, gives a satirical view of prisoner life in Romanian. He notes that the food is good, though sparse, and the guards don't beat the interned when they fall down.
Abraham Sutzkever, from Lithuania, expresses the anguish of the parents of a newborn, a splinter of sunset. The birth contravened the laws of the Vilnius ghetto, and the baby was discovered and murdered by the Nazis.
Irena Bobowska, a member of the Polish Resistance, a wheelchair user jailed for editing an underground newspaper, tells how memories of music transform her desolate prison surroundings into a sunfilled garden.
Responding to a series of photographs taken in Brussels, 1943, Hugo Claus wrote the Dutch poem EVERY SUMMER REBECCA LIVED AMONG US. Rebecca, the Gypsy, with her oiled hair, skilfully reading palms, was unable to predict her own future. Terechtgesteld. Executed.
András Mezei, Hungarian survivor of the Holocaust, has written a painfully vivid scene of a Hungarian Jew, who, about to be shot, recognises a neighbour in the firing squad, and yells out, "Gustav! Aim straight between the eyes!"
In a mystical piece, Lithuanian Matilda Olkinaité, shot by collaborators in 1941, writes, "death bade me sing my final hymn, and death bade me dance my final dance,"
Yukiko Sugihara, wife of the wartime Japanese consul in Kaunus, Lithuania, describes her husband tossing and turning at night. He was desperately trying to figure out how to acquire more transit visas for refugees who were hoping to escape from Europe via Japan.
DANCING GYPSY by Stanislav Smelyansky, is an ironically charming short verse in which a Gypsy invites a soldier to put away his gun and watch him dance, The Russian poem is in complete contrast to Smelyansky's GUILTY, a vicious accusation of the world at large, in which he roars, "you blame Hess, I blame you!"
Many poems describe the emptiness of days bereft of friends and family, the anguish of surviving alone with memories.
Romanian Paul Celan, who later drowned himself in the Seine, mourns for the mother who was shot before her hair could turn white and whose heart was torn by lead. The Dutch Chawwa Wijnberg is shown album photographs of murdered relations , the nervous smoke from her mother's cigarette evoking other smoke.
SILENCE is Rita Gabbai-Simantov's heartbreaking Ladino lament for a lost Saloniki neighbourhood of Sephardic Jews. Ida Gerhardt, a Dutch poet who saw her Jewish friends being taken away, never to return, sums up the guilt of the innocent. About to lay flowers at Anne Frank's statue in Utrecht, she imagines the statue coming to life, rejecting the floral tribute. Ed Hoornik,also writing in Dutch, was arrested for publishing illegal literature, and expresses his lifelong trauma as "the survivor, the dead one who didn't die, the dog howling at the moon."
In IT COULD BE, Rajzel Zychlinski dramatically expresses her shock when she believes she sees Dr. Mengele in a Tel Aviv cafe. the awful hallucination awakening dreadful gasfilled memories.
In a powerful short poem, Ceija Stojka , the well known Romani Austrian painter and writer, writes "auschwitz is my overcoat, bergen-belsen my dress and ravensbruck my vest. what is there to fear?" Another Romani poet, Hungarian József Choli Daróczi, says that God the Gypsy was orphaned at the gate of the Gypsy camp, and as a Gypsy, failed to find a manger and a roof. He observes, as do others in this collection, that God was powerless to save His people.
Mariella Mehr, famous Swiss Yenish author, was one of the victims of the Kinder der Landstrasse project, which decreed that Yenish children should be forcibly removed from their Swiss Yenish Traveller families. Her poem has a folkloric feel, in which dead children are covered with almond blossom, and wild herbs and mint are placed on the forehead of a corpse. The poem has a stark epilogue. To all Roma, Sinti and Yenish, for all Jewish women and men, for yesterday's murdered and for those of tomorrow..
Philomena Franz is a Sinti Auschwitz survivor, whose bleak piece in German, WHEN I WAS A CHILD, describes how in her youth, she saw stones as flowers, but scarred by her memories, now sees flowers as stones.
It seems sacrilegious to criticize such a moving, important work, but it maybe could have done with a bit more editing. On three occasions, the word Gypsy is written with a lower case "g", a serious oversight in a volume of such sensitivity. The introduction states that the Nazis intended to exterminate whole communities and whole languages, such as Yiddish, Ladino, and Romani. Therefore some examples of the Romani language would have been welcome. The compilers admit they lacked the relevant knowledge to source such poems, but an online search of Romani Organisations would have put them in touch with gifted poets fluent in English and Romani, who could have suggested suitable texts.
Hopefully, a second edition of this Anthology will address this.
There is, however, much to praise in this book. In the words of the Italian Nelo Risi, the poets in this anthology speak for the silenced millions. This wide-ranging collection of poems is a heart wrenching tragic testimony to the traumatic suffering of those who died in the Holocaust, and to the spirit of those who survived.
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