Skip main navigation

Concluding Assignment – What is Holocaust Poetry?


Returning to Adorno, the famous Jewish-German sociologist, who with the passage of time, 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.” (Negative Dialectics, p. 362).

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 Holocaust and in the aftermath.

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 representation 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 directly connected to the Holocaust have used the unique vocabulary that emanated from the period to denote radical human behaviour, as seen in the poem “Daddy” written by the poet Sylvia Plath. An American poet who lived in England, Plath used words and phrases and names from the context of the Holocaust, like “Auschwitz”, “Belsen” and “Nazi”, to inform a powerful poem depicting her difficult personal relationship with her German speaking father. Without entering into the criticism levelled against this ‘borrowed’ use of Holocaust imagery, it remains clear that 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”, written by the Holocaust survivor, Dan Pagis, readers 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 reader will likely “feel” the pain of the victim and better understand the relationship between the perpetrators and the victims. We will deal with this poem in greater depth in lesson three.

In contrast, Lily Brett, born to Jewish 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. Paul Celan, who survived the Nazi camps wrote some of the most powerful verse describing his experiences as a victim. Celan’s poems can fruitfully serve as a trigger for generating readers’ interest. For example, let’s take two separate word-pictures he creates in his poem “Death Fugue” (Hilda Schiff [Ed.], Holocaust Poetry, St. Martin’s Griffin, New York 1995, p.39) 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 preceded 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.

Concluding Assignment

From the article, presented here and in the two previous steps, and the poem of Różewicz which we presented in step 1.11, add in the comments section below a few points which resonate with you where a poem has helped illuminate for you some aspects of this past history.

This article is from the free online

Poetry and the Holocaust

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now