It’s strange how poetry has always been connected to the tragedy. Although this is not an obvious analogy given that the meaning of poetry is the use of distinctive rhythm and form to convey thoughts and ideas. In this article, we will attempt to explain the link between a traumatic incident, namely “The Shoah,” and three poems written around the time period in order to provide insight into the workings of the human spirit when rights are abused and suffering occurs.
To comprehend the anguish synonymous with poetry and individuals, it is essential to first gain an understanding of the horrific tragedy that afflicted a portion of the world. “The Shoah”, more commonly referred to as The Holocaust, was a genocide that occurred during World War II, in which the headman Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany and his allies, systematically executed some six million European Jews, which accounts to about two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe. These killings happened with directions from the highest leadership of the Nazi Party, throughout German-occupied Europe and Germany. The Jewish people were considered as “undesirable” part of the society by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party causing them to execute them majorly during the years 1941-1945. It was gruesome, horrendous, and condemnable.
To understand the atrocities committed on these masses, it is important to assess what is the universally accepted definition of right and wrong. The milestone document that accentuates this standard is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It is drafted by representatives of different cultural and legal backgrounds from all regions of the world. This document came into being by proclamation during the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948 as a standard of accomplishment for all people and nations. The goal of this declaration was to protect the fundamental human rights of all people, irrespective or their nation, caste, creed, religion and race. It is a document that is translated to over 500 languages, which is a big feat in itself.
Let’s start to analyze the author Irena Klepfitz (1941-unknown) and her heart-wrenching poem Bashert. Born to Jewish parents in Warsaw, Klepfitz, Irena was only an infant during the great Warsaw Uprising. Her father was killed in an air attack and mother and children escaped the ghetto, and were safeguarded by peasants. This goes to show that she had seen nothing but tragedy during her childhood and adolescence. After the war was over, Irena and her mother immigrated to Sweden, and then the United States, where Klepfitz studied in New York public schools and Workmen’s Circle Yiddish schools. She studied undergraduate degree in City College of New York and got her doctorate from University of Chicago. She was also active in feminist and lesbian movements, a proof of which was evidenced in the feminist-lesbian movement called Conditions. She narrates her story of survival through Holocaust in her poem “Bashert” which is the Yiddish word for “inevitable” or “predestined”.
Klepfitz (Forsche, 391), bifurcated the poems into two parts – Words dedicated to those who died and words dedicated to those who survived. The words dedicated to those who died speaks about the trials and tribulations faced by the martyrs of The Shoah. The struggle through their emotions are brought to light by the poem because they alone when they were already afraid to be alone. They felt like they had no love and no faith. Everybody around them refused to save them, even the ones who knew for a fact that the atrocities committed by the Nazis were utterly despicable and wrong. Even though they were refused help and basic facilities to live, they tried to go the long mile on their own with sickness, ill health, and diseases. It was evident that their bodies could not endure these diseases and they were rotting with each passing day. They had no connections to the outside world because people refused to connect with them for the fear of the wrath of the Nazis. Amongst them were some loners who liked to be loners. However, these loners gathered the courage to go out in the real world and befriend people who were drawn to them. Clearly, they had taken too much risk and they refused to give up. They wanted their share of life in the world and their right to live the way they wanted to. They were simply punished to death for having such a basic desire. Some of the Jews died because somebody else lost their card (the ones who were next in line for execution). Their execution was simply fast forwarded, when in reality, a few extra minutes or days could have saved their lives by giving them opportunity to escape.
It was no news that the Jews were literally treated as cowherd or animals, being made to work way too much. They were given no proper food, a place to rest and clean, nor time to rest. They were being overworked way more than their body could endure. They worked and worked like no man’s business, forgetting that their bodies are eventually going to stop functioning. They fell to their death beds with the axes they were cutting with, or the logs of wood they were lifting at the time. Some of them died because somebody else was late or someone else arrived late to the execution. They died because they were asked to wait by someone and they simply couldn’t wait any longer. These words honor the martyrs because death is a punishment as it is a lost opportunity to live. Death is a reward for those who were overworked and tortured, who cried to let them die. Death is an eternal rage because the air is polluted by the stench of Nazi wrongdoing; a wrongdoing etched in stone that nature has not forgotten.
The words dedicated to those who survived talks about the lucky few who escaped death because they knew how to cut corners, befriend people, take risks, compromised their principles. They survived because they were bold and refused to give up. They were angry with every inch in their body and they wanted to avenge their executers by escaping their own death.
Primo Michele Levi (Forsche, 377) was an Italian Jewish chemist, writer, and most importantly a Holocaust survivor. Levi (1919-1987) has written several books, novels, collections of short stories, essays, and poems. His time as a prisoner in the Auschwitz concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland made his write poems and books about the story of his survival. His poem Voices reads into the true meaning of the voices of the people on whom genocide was committed by Nazis. He narrates that some of the voices of the Jews are muted forever due to the atrocious acts committed on them. They no longer have the strength to speak because even if they intend to express, they were punished for that. Some of them gather the courage to attempt to say something in muffled voices, and if you pay attention, you hear something. Some of them speak something, but they are not understood because they have lost the ability to make sense anymore because they were tortured to such as extent. Their psychological condition had deteriorated and diminished to an extent that their existence is altered in a disturbing way. On the contrary, Levi refers to his own voice as something that managed to spit poison, or cut like a knife. He, having survived the appalling facility, used his own voice for survival. He used his voice to mask what he intended to say, he duped his executioners. Because he knew that the place he was going to is empty and silent, and the feat of survival was more important than anything in this world, he chose to escape by being deaf to all the humiliation and atrocities of his masters. He knew in his heart that he was all alone and that he was his own savior.
In another poem by Levi – Shema(Forsche, 375), he uses powerful words to hail upon all those people in the world who have not known any tragedy in the world. They have lived comfortably in their warm and secure houses, with every comfort that can be offered to them. As a man who survived The Holocaust, he narrates the sad plight of the unfortunate Jews who were made to labor in the mud and have known no peace. They had no access to satisfy their hunger and fought for every morsel. This is heart-wrenching – They died just because there was a yes or a no from their atrocious masters. They were rendered powerless because of their situation. Women, who were made to give up on their hair, forgot what their name was; they had no more strength left in them to remember anything. Their eyes were empty because of all that they had endured and witnessed. He calls upon each such parent that has only given comfort to their children. He coerces them to narrate the stories of all such victims, lest, his curse and the curse of the millions who have died in an unfortunate way destroy their complacent homes.
Poetry is a powerful tool to throw light upon the violating human acts that have occurred in pockets of the world. The poems are created from the solemn experiences and grief undergone by their patrons at the hands of the devilish people who failed to see them as humans. Poetry, through their powerful verses, makes the readers tremble at the words because they make them experience the emotions of these survivors as if it were happening to them. Some have survived the genocides and the rest of them have not. What did survive with certainly is the poems that they have written with hopelessness and tears in their eyes. It is through these poems that regulations such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) have come into existence.
Forsche, Carolyn and Klepfitz, Irena – Against Forgetting – Bashert.
Forsche, Carolyn and Levi, Primo – Against Forgetting – Voices
Forsche, Carolyn and Levi, Primo – Against Forgetting – Shema