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Commemoration and Poetry

Jackie Metzger

The memory of the Holocaust has been invaluably enriched by poets who have provided us with a window into a period that is very difficult to comprehend. Numerous Holocaust-related anthologies have been published in many languages in recent years, and these are 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 can say it more succinctly. When a poem works, a truth has been stated. That truth is the poet’s own experience and the well-springs of personal experience found in so many poems definitely provide an important access route into the Holocaust. As such, they are unarguably part and parcel of the commemoration of the period.

  1. Theodore Adorno, “Cultural Criticism and Society”, trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber, Prisms 34 (1949).
  2. Theodore Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E.B. Ashton (New York: Seabury, 1973), p. 362.
  3. Sidra Dekoven Ezrahi, ed., By Words Alone: The Holocaust in Literature (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 53. 
  4. Holocaust Poetry, Hilda Schiff. (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1995), p. xiv.
  5. Schiff, p. 43.
  6. Schiff, p. 39.
  7. Schiff, p. 190.
  8. Schiff, p. 205.
  9. Schiff, p. 5.
  10. Schiff, pp. 62-63.
  11. Schiff, p. 124.
  12. Amir Eshel, “Eternal Present: Poetic Figuration and Cultural Memory in the Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, Dan Pagis and Tuvia Rubner”, Jewish Social Studies, 7:1, 2000: 150. 

What is Holocaust Poetry?

In an essay written only four years after the war Theodor Adorno came out with his famous statement that “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”1. Adorno (1903 –1969) was a German sociologist and philosopher known for his critical theories of society.

However, with the passage of time, Adorno qualified his original statement with 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.”2

This shift in his thinking naturally dovetails with the main idea presented in this article, that poetry is an invaluable part of commemoration, especially after Auschwitz. However, it is worth taking note of Adorno’s fear of the possibility of Holocaust poetry - while presenting the harsh realities of human suffering – becoming a pleasurable experience. The following quote presents his core thinking on this point:

"[A]rtistic representation of the naked bodily pain of those who have been knocked down by rifle-butts contains the potential… to squeeze out pleasure…. Through aesthetic principles or stylization… it is transfigured and stripped of some of its horror and with this, injustice is already done to the victims.”3

While we must be wary of Adorno’s pleasure principle, the possibilities of using Holocaust poetry to describe indescribable situations are unlimited.

Poetry Allows for Empathy and Emotion

One of the vexing 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 statement 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.

Unlike historical writing or even memoirs, the beauty and sadness that the poet can harness makes poetry a form of emotional expression, and as such, makes poetry, like art, an excellent medium for describing the horrors of the Holocaust.

One of the difficulties in writing about the Holocaust is that the reader is unable to identify with great masses of people. We can certainly comprehend and feel aghast at the ghoullish facts presented by the historian. But as individuals ourselves we can reach out imaginatively only towards the experience of other individuals…. [T]his is where imaginative writing scores over historical writing. Its proximity to the feel of events or situations brings us as close as it is possible to get….And as in all tragedy, one particular figure, one specific situation, can represent the many. Literature may have a number of other functions too, but in letting the reader into a representative situation, experience or historical period, it is supreme.4

In this article we have chosen to present a selection of poems by recognized poets and writers: Dan Pagis, Paul Celan, Primo Levi, Hayim Gouri, Jerzy Ficowski and Lily Brett. Many of these poets were survivors of the Holocaust. The poems we describe below deal with the following themes:

  • empathy with the survivor’s experience;
  • the relationship of the survivor to God;
  • the use of poetry as commemoration;
  • “My Bother’s Keeper”
  • the difficulty in coping with survival.

We believe that these are just a few of the subjects that highlight the emotional experience that poetry captures so well, and that historical writing is at a loss to address. Following each poem is a brief discussion that introduces each of these complex subjects.

Empathy with the survivor’s experience

Dan Pagis was a Hebrew writer, born in Bukovina in 1930. He was a boy of nine when the war broke out and two years later in 1941, he traveled with his grandparents on a German train into his Holocaust experience, spending part of his childhood in a concentration camp in Transnistria from which he escaped. His grandfather died in the forced labor camp in which they were incarcerated whilst he and his grandmother survived. Pagis settled in Israel in 1946 and taught medieval Hebrew literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

He was unable to talk about his experiences on the train or in the camp, even with his wife Ada Pagis, as she relates in her biography of her late husband written some years after his death in 1986. In fact, twenty-five years would have to pass before Pagis wrote and published his first poems on his Holocaust experiences. He became one of the most vibrant voices in modern Israeli poetry. His references to the Holocaust are sometimes oblique and filtered through his use of biblical or mystical images. He died in 1986.

Pagis’s poem called Testimony, confronts 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 order - eleven lines of his poem - Pagis succeeds in turning the identities upside-down.

“No no: they were 
human beings: uniforms, boots
I was a shade.
A different creator made me.”5

The reader will likely ‘feel’ the pain of the victim and better understand the dichotomy between the perpetrators and the victims: though they inhabit the same universe, though they are all human beings, they are alien to each other – they were “made” by a different creator.

Paul Celan, another survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, wrote some of the most powerful verse describing his experiences as a victim. Celan was born in Czernowitz, Bukovina in 1920. In 1942 Celan saw his parents deported to Auschwitz. He survived the Shoah in other camps but never recovered from his ordeal, and in 1970 committed suicide. Celan’s highly acclaimed work is powerful, highly original, often ambiguous and deeply tragic.

For example, two separate word-pictures he creates in his poem, “Death Fugue” are worth examining for their effect. The poem opens with the following:

“Black milk of daybreak we drink it at sundown
we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night
we drink and we drink it….”6

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.

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”:

…He calls out more sweetly play death death is a master from
he calls out more darkly now stroke your strings then as
smoke you will rise into air….

…death is a master fom Germany his eyes are blue
he strikes you with leaden bullets his aim is true….

…he plays with the serpents and daydreams death is a master from Germany….

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.

Adorno’s fears, as described in the Introduction, are reflected to a degree in the dark beauty found in this poem. In fact, Celan was accused of beautifying the multiple deaths of the Holocaust with this poem and for a while, the reading of the poem was banned in Germany. An additional Celan poem is found below.

The relationship of the survivor to God

An emotional and thorny subject, which cannot be expressed in historical writing and must, by its nature, be expressed in a more personal, artistic form, is the relationship of the Jews who experienced the Holocaust to God.

A poem by Paul Celan that deals with this subject is called Psalm:


No one moulds us again out of earth and clay,
no one conjures our dust.
No one.

Praised be your name, no one.
For your sake 
we shall flower.

A nothing
we were, are, shall
remain, flowering:
the nothing-, the 
no one’s rose.

With our pistil soul-bright,
with our stamen heaven-ravaged,
our corolla red
with the crimson word which we sang
over, O over
the thorn.7

This poem was published in the last decade of Celan’s life when his poetry was becoming sparer and harder to penetrate. However the themes of the relative places of God and humankind and the relationship between them are clearly discernable.

The title of the poem creates a further tension with the negations of God and humankind in the body of the poem. Psalms are normally paeans of praise. The opposite effect is created here. The negatives in the poem are paralleled in the last verse, which describes the rose and yet it concludes not with its beauty but with its exterior armor, “the thorn.”

The poem Testimony, by Dan Pagis, discussed above, also deals with the survivor’s relationship with God. The central portion of the poem excerpted above presents the theological problem: when Pagis writes, “a different creator made me”, it is clear that there cannot be two creators. Thus, the conclusion must be that Pagis has a serious issue with God. In the last stanza of the poem Pagis describes the narrator as “smoke”, joining his creator who, in turn, is described as “omnipotent smoke”:

“And he in his mercy left nothing of me that would die.
And I fled to him…
smoke to omnipotent smoke….”

The tension created here poses a serious question mark concerning the issue of faith after the Holocaust – of course, this is an issue too layered and complex to be treated in full in this article.

Poetry as commemoration

Poems can carry the message of the importance of commemoration, and the issue of what the survivors pass on to future generations.

A poem that deals with this issue is called Shema. The poem was written by Primo Levi. Levi was a Jewish-Italian poet and writer, and was born in Turin in 1919. Before the Second World War he was an industrial chemist. In 1943 he was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where he survived due to his “usefulness” to the Nazis as a chemist. His most famous prose work is “If This is a Man” in which he wrote about his experiences in Auschwitz. Haunted by his Holocaust experiences, he died in 1987 in an incident that many believe was suicide.


You who live secure
In your warm houses
Who return at evening to find
Hot food and friendly faces:

Consider whether this is a man,
Who labours in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.
Consider whether this is a woman,
Without hair or name
With no more strength to remember
Eyes empty and womb cold
As a frog in winter.

Consider that this has been:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts
When you are in your house, when you walk on your way,
When you go to bed, when you rise.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house crumble,
Disease render you powerless,
Your offspring avert their faces from you.8

The format of the poem has three sections with a description of the Holocaust wedged between the comfort of a post-war home scene in the first verse and the severe admonition of the last verse.

The last verse invokes a part of the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy (lines 3-6) and hence the title of the poem, Shema, which is also the first word of the prayer (translates as “listen”). Levi’s paraphrase of these four lines from the prayer is the background for his powerful admonition and warning to future generations to educate their children in the lessons to be learned from the Holocaust. To see the prayer format in English and in Hebrew, click here

The extremity of the threat in the concluding three lines written within a year of the poet’s liberation from Auschwitz-Birkenau, is some measure of the powerful emotions at play here - perhaps an expression of the survivor/poet’s need to transform his terrible experiences into something positive for future generations. 

Through the device of addressing the poem directly to the reader, Levi is creating a direct channel for conveyance of his experience in the Holocaust to future generations, thus assuring a continued commemoration of the event. The warning delivered by Levi at the end of the poem adds a very urgent and personal dimension to his need for memory.

Hayim Gouri’s poem, Heritage, also deals with commemoration, among other subjects. Gouri, a Hebrew poet, was born in Israel in 1923. He served in the Palmach, Haganah and Israeli Defense Forces, and after the Second World War was sent to Europe where he visited Displaced Persons’ Camps. His poetry covers a broad range of subjects, some intensely personal, reflecting his experiences during the Second World War and the Israeli War of Independence.


The ram came last of all. And Abraham
did not know that it came to answer the
boy's question- first of his strength
when his day was on the wane.
The old man raised his head.
Seeing that it was no dream and that the angel
stood there - the knife slipped from his hand.

The boy, released from his bonds,
saw his father's back.

Isaac, as the story goes, was not
sacrificed. He lived for many years,
saw what pleasure had to offer
until his eyesight dimmed.

But he bequeathed that hour to his offspring.
They are born with a knife in their hearts.9

This poem invokes the story of the sacrifice of Isaac from the Bible, Genesis, Chapter 22.

The crux of the poem is arrived at in its last two lines. The question it raises for discussion is the legacy or “heritage” handed down from this story to future generations. Are the offspring of Isaac encumbered forever with the scar of a perpetual wound (the knife) and/or is there a change in this perception in the Jewish world of today?

Any discussion could focus on the essence of Jewish identity in the present century after two millennia of Jewish history marked and scarred by the repeated pogroms and culminating in the Holocaust. The establishment of Israel in 1948 will naturally carry weight in the ensuing discussion.

A parallel discussion can be generated on the universal application of the “Heritage” or the ‘perpetual wound’ (the knife) in terms of genocides around the world since the end of the Second World War.
An additional theme pulsing through the poem is that of parental guilt in relationship to their children. This can be linked to the lines:

“The boy, released from his bonds,
saw his father’s back.”

The theme of guilt can be connected to accounts of Holocaust survivors who as parents, were powerless to protect their children.
The theme of parental guilt as seen in the line, “saw his father’s back” could be expanded to the ‘back’ or ‘silence’ of the surrounding bystanders who by allowing events to unfold were complicit in the tragedy of the Holocaust.

My Brother’s Keeper

The following example of the interaction between an individual and his community is the often-told story of Janusz Korczak from Warsaw. Born Henryk Goldszmit in 1878, he found his true vocation in education after he had qualified as a medical doctor. Before the war, he ran two orphanages in Warsaw but when the Warsaw ghetto was enclosed in November, 1940, he was forced into the ghetto with his Jewish orphanage together with the rest of Warsaw Jewry.

For two years, he tried to maintain a level of security and material comfort for his orphan wards as best as conditions allowed and, together with his small staff, he certainly remained as a visible and tangible anchor for the children in his trust. 
However, just as all of the Jews in the ghetto were doomed, so did the 5th of August, 1942 arrive. The date is the name of the poem written by Jerzy Ficowski in honor of Korczak who, on that date, received the German order to lead his orphans to a German deportation train. They died in the gas chambers of Treblinka on arrival.

The crucial relationship between leaders and their communities is powerfully reflected in the Korczak story since it is generally understood that with his standing in Warsaw and the circle of contacts he had outside of the ghetto, Korczak could have saved himself. His decision to stay with the children until the end speaks for itself. It remains as a shining example of Jewish leadership in trying times.

We present the first and last verses of Ficowski’s tribute in the poem entitled, “5.8.1942 In Memory of Janusz Korczak”:

What did the Old Doctor do
In the cattle wagon
bound for Treblinka on the fifth of August
over the few hours of the bloodstream
over the dirty river of time

I do not know

did he lie to them for instance
in small
numbing doses
groom the sweaty little heads
for the scurrying lice of fear

I don’t know

Suddenly the Old Doctor saw
The children had grown 
as old as he was
older and older
that was how fast they had to go grey as ash10

Even from these chosen verses, the reader is transported into the reality of these German transports through the eyes of the gentle authority of Korczak and the doom awaiting him and his wards. The absence of hope is compounded by the the poet’s use of questions to which he gives no answers because he has no answers. Adorno would have appreciated this poem as a literary example of conveying the inevitability of doom and death without creating the slightest ray of light or hope. There is no “stripping” of horror and no “injustice” is done to the victims.

The difficulty of coping with survival

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, she writes about the difficulties of survivors coping with their freedom and the inevitable trauma encountered by their children. The last lines of this poem quoted below are a powerful poetic presentation of these difficulties.

"my mother’s friend
patted my cheeks
and curled my curls

and hurled herself 
from the top
of a bank"11

Another poem by Dan Pagis that expresses the horror of the Holocaust and empathy with the experience of the Jews who survived is called Yuhasin (Hebrew for “geneology”). The irony of the title is that the poem really deals with the tragedy that was visited upon so many families during the period of the Holocaust as families were broken apart and lost.

The tragedy was so great that not only were whole families wiped out but many survivors felt threatened after the event by a loss of their own identity, as Pagis captures in the concluding lines of the poem.

My father runs to me and says:…
….A memorial was erected for us.
I run to myself and see: There I lie
As usual, my face to the wall, and write
With chalk on the white wall
All their names, so I will not forget
My own.12

These lines from a survivor of the Holocaust are a literary reflection of the traumatic loss of family members and the effect on the poet/narrator. The irony achieved by writing family names “with chalk on a white wall…so I will not forget my own” is multiplied by an impractical manner of commemoration – using chalk – and the stated purpose of retrieving his own identity. Loss piled on loss explains the poet’s mode of lying, “as usual, my face to the wall”, as if to hide from the gaze of the world.


If poetry is to be judged by categories such as authenticity and integrity, Pagis, Brett, Celan and others create a tone and feeling that enable us 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 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.