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The International School for Holocaust Studies

Five Poems by Dan Pagis (1930-1986)

Teacher’s Guide

Grades: 11 - 12
Duration: 1 - 1.5 hours


Didactive Objectives

The suggestion to use poetry in order to engage students in the historical study of the Holocaust is based on the belief that a personal statement, as most Holocaust poetry is, will effectively trigger initial interest in the subject. Poems allow a personal inside view in contrast to the more distanced historian’s account. The human dimension, which is often the focus in poetry will more easily generate attention. The prism of attention that will emerge from the poem can then be directed in a widening arc to the historical factors connected to the poem.

Dan Pagis, an Israeli writer, was born in Bukovina, Romania in 1930. His early years were spent in a Nazi concentration camp in the Ukraine, formerly in Romania, from where he escaped. He immigrated to pre-state Israel in 1946 and taught medieval Hebrew literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He became one of the most vibrant voices in modern Israeli poetry. His references to the Holocaust are sometimes oblique, filtered through his use of biblical or mystical images. He died in 1986.

Five poems of Dan Pagis are presented in this selection, focusing on various aspects of the Holocaust. The five poems do not form a composite picture of the Holocaust. They are rather like different colored stones in an intricate mosaic that depict, in a very personal way, different angles of his postwar reflections. They are not interlinked or interdependent although of course common points of reference between some of them can be developed for deeper study. Recurring motifs appearing in the poems will be dealt with at the conclusion of this unit.

These poems are presented separately. A teacher may choose to work with any number of the poems, or with all of them. Teachers who use two or more of the poems presented can then avail themselves of the suggestions appearing under Recurring Motifs at the end of the unit.

The Poems

By: Dan Pagis

No no: they definitely were
human beings: uniforms, boots.
How to explain? They were created
in the image.

I was a shade.
A different creator made me.

And he in his mercy left nothing of me that would die.
And I fled to him, rose weightless, blue,
forgiving – I would even say: apologizing –
smoke to omnipotent smoke
without image or likeness.

  1. This is a poem of protest in which Pagis vents his pen against God’s inversion of justice with the perpetrators – who remain human while the victims are reduced to smoke.
  2. The tone of the poem which is heavy with irony and anger adds to the element of protest. (lines 1/2, 6, 7)
    1. The poem is built on two central negations, one stated and one inferred.
    2. The stated negation is the poet himself who represents the victims.
    3. “And I fled to him….smoke to omnipotent smoke”
    4. The negation of God is inferred from the line:
      “ A different creator made me”
  3. Consider the title of the poem. Testimony is given in a court of law.
    1. Who is on trial?
    2. What is the nature of the accusation?
    3. Who is the witness?
    4. Who could fit the role of judge?

(The possibility of different answers to these questions offers a basis for interesting discussion amongst the pupils)

The Roll Call

By: Dan Pagis

He stands, stamps a little in his boots,
rubs his hands. He’s cold in the morning breeze:
a diligent angel, who has worked hard for his promotions.
Suddenly he thinks he’s made a mistake: all eyes,
he counts again in the open notebook
all the bodies waiting for him in the square,
camp within camp: only I
am not there, am not there, am a mistake,
turn off my eyes, quickly, erase my shadow.
I shall not want. The sum will be in order
without me: here for eternity.

  1. This is a poem of contrasts with Pagis presenting two main images:
    1. The image of the German officer.
    2. The image of the author as a number in the roll-call.
  2. The first image is presented as a hard-working, serious and responsible presence and the reader is led to understand from the location, the ‘camp within camp’ – the only direct reference to a Holocaust context - that he/she is reading about a German army officer in the Second World War.
  3. The second image is the self-image of the poet as a victim of the German camp system. Pagis presents this image in the negative in more than five phrases.
  4. The stark contrast of the two images invites an examination of the tone of the poem and the use of irony evident in the two descriptions.
  5. According to many survivor accounts, the two daily roll calls in the camps were painful parts of the daily routine with S.S. officers exploiting the moment for inflicting additional mental and physical abuses on the prisoners. Weather extremes are often mentioned as part of the extended suffering at these roll calls.
Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway-Car

By: Dan Pagis

here in this carload
I am eve
with abel my son
if you see my other son
cain son of man
tell him I

  1. In a very concise, concentrated poem of six short lines, Pagis succeeds in conveying much of the pain and terror of the Holocaust. The framework of the poem is the first universal family on earth and the heart of the poem is the request of the mother to convey a message to her one son that is left unformulated.
  2. At least four themes emerge from the short lines of the poem; the case of the first murder in the history of mankind, the need to leave testimony, the place and role of mothers in the two tragedies of the first family and the Holocaust, and the Holocaust itself.
  3. Pagis only touches tangentially on Cain’s murder of his brother Abel in the Book of Genesis and likewise, the context of the Holocaust appears only obliquely in the title. These ‘light’ touches serve to magnify the potential of the themes so elusively hinted at in the short poem.
  4. Pagis also creates a linear connection of man’s evil potential from the first murder to the multiple murder of the Holocaust by linking the biblical story of Cain and Abel to the Holocaust through the title of the poem, which is in fact the only place where the Holocaust is alluded to.
  5. This short poem invites understanding the Holocaust in its wider human aspects and placing it in a more universal context.
  6. Another treatment of this poem can be found on the Yad Vashem website in a separate unit called Seven Poems, Seven Paintings. This unit uses original artwork inspired by each poem to enable pupils to employ additional approaches for studying the Holocaust.
  7. Since the poem ends with an incomplete sentence, it could be read repeatedly from the end back to the beginning with discussion on the poet’s intentions. One possibility is for the pupils to complete the message they imagine Eve would have liked to pass on with an ensuing presentation of the pupils’ ideas.
Instructions for Crossing the Border

By: Dan Pagis

Imaginary man, go. Here is your passport.
You are not allowed to remember.
You have to match the description:
your eyes are already blue.
Don’t escape with the sparks
inside the smokestack:
you are a man, you sit in the train.
Sit comfortably.
You’ve got a decent coat now,
a repaired body, a new name
ready in your throat.
Go. You are not allowed to forget.

  1. The historical context in which this poem should be located is an attempted escape by train by a person forced to live with a false identity. The “instructions” are being given to a man who is being smuggled across borders.
  2. The poem generates tension as it progresses with a string of ‘instructions’ issued to the ‘imaginary man’. These instructions can be listed to point out the practical difficulties of fleeing a Nazi fate.
  3. The tension is highlighted by the contrast achieved in the two diametrically opposed instructions in the second line:
    “You are not allowed to remember.” and in the last line:
    “You are not allowed to forget.”
    Remembering and not forgetting is a central tenet in the biblical tradition. It highlights the historical need for enunciating identity and this poem veers toward the opposite pole of renouncing identity and forgetting the past.
  4. Finally, a creeping doubt filters in about Pagis’s meaning in using the phrase for the addressee, ‘imaginary man’. Is the ‘imaginary man’ of the poem a real man who is in fact being primed for escape by taking on an ‘imagined’ identity? Or does the ‘imaginary man’ represent the near impossibility of escaping the Nazi web?
  5. An additional possibility is that Pagis is projecting forward to the peculiar fate of survivors of the Holocaust who in some senses were new ‘constructs’, or a continuation of the ‘imaginary man’ of the poem who had to forge a whole new life after the destruction of their personal worlds.
Draft of a Reparations Agreement

By: Dan Pagis

All right, gentlemen who cry blue murder as always,
Nagging miracle makers,
Everything will be returned to its place,
paragraph after paragraph.
The scream back into the throat.
The gold teeth back to the gums.
The terror.
The smoke back to the tin chimney and further on and inside
back to the hollow of the bones,
and already you will be covered with skin and sinews and you
will live,
look, you will have your lives back,
sit in the living room, read the evening paper.
Here you are. Nothing is too late.
As to the yellow star: immediately
it will be torn from your chest
and will emigrate
to the sky.

  1. This poem was written after the historical reparations agreement was signed by Israel and Germany.
  2. The poem conveys the pain of survival that many survivors experienced in the aftermath of the Holocaust. This is evident from the title of the poem with its implication of making good and the graphic literality of Holocaust violence in the body of the poem. In other words, nothing could undo the physical violation that had been perpetrated.
  3. A tone of condescension is sounded in the speaker’s mode of addressing the victims who are presented as clamoring for redress. Pagis thus presents a post-Holocaust reality as mimicking the forces at play during the Holocaust.
  4. The domestic bliss seemingly achieved when the victims are described back in their living rooms (last six lines) is interrupted again with further ‘violence’ when Pagis describes the removal of the Yellow Star by being ‘torn from your chest’. The lives of survivors were constantly punctuated, as was Pagis’, with difficult memories and however they repaired their lives, they were always engaged in navigating between these memories and their new lives after the war.[2]
  5. The dry-bones prophecy of the biblical prophet Ezekiel that is echoed in the body of the poem provides the negation of the very idea of reparations in the modern chronicle, just as the Babylonian Exile which Ezekiel is describing is not ‘corrected’ by a return to life of the victims or a return to Israel of a majority of the exiles.
Recurring Motifs

If a teacher teaches several of the poems, motifs and locations that Pagis repeatedly uses could be noted as an additional strategy for understanding the survivor/poet and of course the historical connections evoked in the different poems. Below are a number of elements that recur in this selection of poems:

  • The constant use of self-negation
  • The location used in three poems is a camp/lager
  • The location used in two poems is a train
  • Pagis’s poetry is marked repeatedly by a disruption of chronological time or the historical narrative. This element is present in each poem of this selection. The idea of frozen time which leads to lack of closure for Pagis can be discussed.

[1] Poems are available in various editions. Those presented here are originally featured in Hilda Schiff (Ed.), Holocaust Poetry, St. Martin's Griffin, New York 1995.
[2] For more on this subject, see Simon Wiesenthal’s “The Sunflower”, available in several editions.
Every effort has been made to trace the copyright holders, but this has not been possible in all cases. If notified, Yad Vashem will rectify any omissions at the earliest opportunity.
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