Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Poems from the Death-Camps

There is the visible library as well as the invisible. Some names in this collection are frankly inevitable; no one brought up in English schools, who taught English in English schools, can be unaffected by Shakespeare or Shelley, by D.H. Lawrence or Wilfred Owen; just as no one brought up in a Jewish household, who spent his life inside the Jewish community, can be unaffected by the literature of the Bible, the great poems of the liturgy, the modern giants like Bialik and Amichai. 

These are the visible, but in these pages I am also seeking to honour, and especially to commemorate, the invisible - by commemorate I mean: to return them to memory if they have already been forgotten; to retain them in memory lest they be forgotten. Two such are Paul Celan and Nelly Sachs, both in very different ways survivors of, and spokespeople for, the generation whom the Nazis attempted to exterminate.

Celan was born in 1920, in what is now Chernovitsky in the Ukraine but was then Cernauti in the Romanian Bukovina, and who knows may well be in Russia by the time you read this. His real name was Anczel, though Germans, having failed to obliterate him and chosen instead to claim him as one of their greatest modern poets, despite his not being German, despite their having sent him to a labour camp and his parents to a Vernichtungstelle for the crime of being Jewish, Germans prefer to write his name as Antschel.

No one kneads us again of earth and clay
no one incants our dust
No one

Blessed art thou, No-one
For thy sake we
will bloom.

We were, we are, we shall remain
a Nothing,
the Nothing -, the
No-one's Rose

The difference between Celan and, say, Samuel Beckett (I am an enormous admirer of Beckett as a writer, so please read this criticism in that context), is that Beckett sat in bourgeois comfort in Paris, a theoretical member of the French Resistance, though there is no evidence that he actually did anything except feel angry, wonder about his cricket skills, and postulate a theoretical despair which is purely about Art and Metaphysics. His "No-one" is a cerebral idea, an intellectual conceit, a paradigm for explaining existentialist reality, an extension of Homer's Odysseus into the contemporary Cyclopian wilderness. Celan's "No-one", on the other hand, is the very real absence of no longer real people; his "bloom" is not an essay on the labyrinthine writings of his friend James Joyce, but a poppy-rose, like the ones that Europeans wear on their lapels on Remembrance Sunday, but in his case growing wild in the dust of Auschwitz. Beckett could never have committed suicide, as Celan did in 1970, because his literary posture, however metaphorically apt, was still essentially a happy one.

Just think:
the peatbog soldier of Masada
teaches himself homeland,
all thorn in wire.

Just think:
the eyeless ones without form
lead you free through the turmoil, you
strengthen and

Just think: your
own hand
once held
this piece
of inhabitable earth
that was
agonied back
up into life.

Just think:
this came towards me
name-alert, hand-alert
from the unburiable.

Such richness of imagery; though the figures of speech may not be immediately meaningful to every-reader. "The peatbog soldier of Masada", for example, refers to a song written for a cabaret at Börgermoor camp in north-west Germany in August 1933, sixteen prisoners with spades singing it as they marched; the song was banned after just two performances, but later smuggled out, recorded in his own arrangement by Hans Eisler, eventually reaching Paul Robeson, who made it famous in English (and in German as well, in the version in my link on his name). Masada, between 70 and 73 CE, was the three-year siege and eventual mass-suicide of the last Jewish Zealots, the Resistance army against the Roman occupiers, which effectively brought Jewish hegemony in the Jewish homeland to an end for the next eighteen hundred and seventy-five years.

The hand and the name are even more ancient Jewish symbols, the strong hand with which YHVH brought Moses and the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, the name that cannot be pronounced and so is called Elohim, or YHVH, or Adonai, or simply "Ha Shem - The Name". The hand and the name are very modern Jewish symbols too, the hand being in Hebrew Yad (יד), the name Shem (שם), and the two together, Yad va Shem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.


We are near, Lord,
near and tangible.

Clutched already, Lord,
clawed into one another, as
though each of our bodies were
your body, Lord.

Pray, Lord,
pray to us,
we are near.

Warped, we went there,
went there, to bend over
trough and crater.

We went to the watering-place, Lord.

It was blood, it was
what you had shed, Lord.

It shone.

It cast your image in our eyes, Lord.
Eyes and mouth are so open and blank, Lord.

We have drunk, Lord
The blood and the image in the blood, Lord.

Pray, Lord.
We are near.

In "Tenebrae" Celan achieves a level of compassion that even Wilfred Owen cannot have envisaged in the mere mustard-gas of World War One. But no more compassion than in the work of Nelly Sachs, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966, shared with another of the great modern Jewish writers, Shlomo Agnon. German by birth, rendered literally dumb by the psychological trauma she experienced in Nazi Germany, she managed to flee with her aged mother to Sweden as late as 1940, and remained there until her death. The photograph I have of her (below), receiving her prize from the king, shows a frail but elegant lady of a certain age, with carefully coiffured grey hair and a necklace of what could very well have been teardrops; no longer the stunning beauty that she was in her younger years, but still such dignity, such warmth, such humanity. 

Who reads her poems now? Let alone performs her plays, which she called her "scenic poetry". I own a small anthology, containing "Burning Sand of Sinai", "Hasidim Dance", the terrifying, tenebrous "O The Chimneys" and "O Night of the Crying Children"; and this, in a translation by Harry Zohn:


We, the rescued.
Out of whose hollow bones
Death was already carving its flutes,
Across whose sinews Death was already moving its bow -
The mourning of our bodies still resounds
With their maimed music,
We, the rescued,
Still see the nooses twisted for our necks
Hanging in the blue air.
The hourglasses are sill filling with our dripping blood.
We, the rescued,
Are still gnawed at by the worms of fear.
Our stars are buried in the dust.

We, the rescued,
Beg of you:
Show us our sun slowly,
Lead us from star to star step by step.
Gently let us learn to live again.
Otherwise, the song of a bird,
The filling of a pail at the well,
Could tear open again badly sealed pain
And flush us away.
We beg of you:
Do not show us a barking dog as yet.
It could be, it just could be
That we shall disintegrate into dust,
Turn into dust before your eyes.
For what keeps our substance together?
We have become devoid of breath
Since our souls fled to Him in the dark of night,
Long before they rescued our bodies.
We, the rescued,
Press your hands,
Recognise your eyes -
But what keeps us together is only the parting;
The parting in the dust
Is what connects us with you.

Written in German, in spite of everything, because it was the only language for poetry she had. She died in 1970, the same year as Paul Celan.

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