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The International School for Holocaust Studies

The Value of Holocaust Poetry in Education


This article will explore how poetry can be used by educators to teach and commemorate the Holocaust. The famous German sociologist, Theodor Adorno, who fled the Nazi regime for England in 1934, proclaimed shortly after the war that writing poetry after Auschwitz seemed barbaric. In his view, words in any artistic configuration were doomed to distort the harsh experiences of victims and survivors, constituting some kind of disfigurement of truth. He later modified his initial position with the passing of time. Adorno’s vision expressed his fear for the trivialization of the Holocaust. However, we have witnessed the first International Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27, 2006, instituted by decision of the United Nations. In addition, many memorials and museums about the Holocaust are now engaged in more worldwide educational efforts than could have been previously envisioned.

The memory of the Holocaust has also been invaluably enriched by poets providing us with a window into a period that for many students – and educators – is very difficult to comprehend. Numerous Holocaust-related anthologies have been published in many languages in recent years, and these poems can often be an excellent educational resource.

It has been said that what the historian achieves in a book, the poet presents in ten or twenty lines. Poetry can say more in less and certainly more succinctly. When a poem adheres, a truth has been stated. That truth is the poet’s own experience. Clearly, today’s pupils are not all enthusiastic to study poetry. However, poetry can often awaken empathy and strike a chord with young learners. In this edition of our newsletter, readers can find a complete lesson plan about a poem written six months before the outbreak of war by W.H. Auden, "Refugee Blues".

What is Holocaust Poetry?

With the passage of time, Adorno said the following:

"Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as the tortured have to scream... hence it may have been wrong to say that no poem could be written after Auschwitz.”

Holocaust poetry has provided us with a rich and varied tapestry portraying the period. We include in this body of poetry poems that were written before the outbreak of the war, during the war and in the aftermath of the war.

The wide gamut of themes ranges from discrimination against unwanted minority groups and the beginning of a refugee problem which would escalate during the war to mammoth proportions, to the persecution of targeted victims and the annihilation of human beings en masse. Yad Vashem’s interdisciplinary educational approach places an emphasis on the Holocaust as a man-made tragedy involving victims, perpetrators, and bystanders. All these elements have been addressed in poetry by many different poets. The question of generational represention is, of course, central. The victims include both survivors and those who wrote in the ghettos before their deaths. Poems written since the war include survivors and children of survivors, bystanders and children of bystanders, some of whom were born after the war, but were intensely affected by their parents experiences. Other poets not connected to the Holocaust have used the unique vocabulary that emanated from the period to denote radical evil, as seen in Sylvia Plath’s poem, "Daddy". Holocaust poetry knows no language, national or geographical barriers. The variety is vast and the possibilities of using it in educational settings are equally unlimited.

The Value of Holocaust Poetry in Education

One of the vexed points at the intersection of history and art is the question of the truth. We need not go back more than two thousand years to examine Aristotle’s claim that literature has a greater claim on the truth than the historical account. It should not be a question of art muting or obfuscating history. It is certainly not one or the other. It can be a deliberate choice to use the imaginative powers of the poet for nuancing and heightening the understanding and empathy of the learner.

Understanding what and empathizing with whom? If one teaches a poem called "Testimony",[1] written by a Holocaust survivor, Dan Pagis, pupils will confront the subject of personal identity in a context where its erasure was sought as an ideological imperative. The poem juxtaposes the identities of three protagonists; the perpetrators, the poet as a representative of the victims, and the creator. In short shrift, eleven lines of his poem, Pagis succeeds in turning the identities upside-down. The student will likely "feel" the pain of the victim and better understand the relationship between the perpetrators and the victims.

In contrast, Lily Brett, born to Holocaust survivors in Germany shortly after the war, focuses on her experiences growing up in the shadows of the Holocaust. In her poem "My Mother’s Friend",[2] she writes about the difficulties of survivors coping with their freedom and the inevitable trauma encountered by their children.

Paul Celan, another survivor of the Nazi concentration camps wrote some of the most powerful verse describing his experiences as a victim. In the same vein as the lesson plan on the Auden poem – referred to earlier and which appears in this e-newsletter – Celan’s poems can fruitfully serve as a trigger for generating pupils’ interest. For example, let's take two separate word-pictures he creates in his poem “Death Fugue” and examine the effect. The poem opens with the following:

“Black milk of dawn we drink it at dusk
we drink it at noon and at daybreak...”

This opening is repeated four times in the poem with only slight variations. The effect of despondency created from having/not having the life-giving milk which should nourish the victims at the various times of the day, is heavy and accumulative. The “black milk” description is powerful because of its own absolute negation achieved in just those two words and thus the pervasive starvation prevalent in the camps is made devastatingly real in so few words.

The second example illustrates Celan’s poetic touch in conveying the ultimate historical accusation: “...death is a master from Germany.”

This word-picture statement appears three times towards the end of the poem, each time in the middle of the line and preceeded with an antithetical word or context like “sweetly” or “dreams”. Celan builds up the general tension from the beginning of the poem and hands down this judgement near the end of the poem leaving sufficient time to create the desired effect of repetition.

If poetry is to be judged by categories such as authenticity, integrity, adequacy, relevance and function, Pagis, Brett, Celan and others create a tone and feeling that enable a reader to penetrate their world experience.

The critical approach sometimes heard that the extent of the atrocities of the period precludes the possibility of artistic presentation has, I hope, been laid aside. It is not a question of artistic imagination perverting history. The case we are presenting is simply that the recollections of people connected to the Holocaust which have been cast into poetry offer us not only another approach to the subject but have in fact provided us with a rich, personal, and authentic means of adding to our understanding.

[1] Available in several publications, including: Hilda Schiff (Ed.), Holocaust Poetry, St. Martin's Griffin, New York 1995.
[2] Available in several publications, including: Hilda Schiff (Ed.), Holocaust Poetry, St. Martin's Griffin, New York 1995.
[3] Ibid., p. 39.
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