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Analyzing “The Cheerful Pessimists”

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From the title of the poem to the last line, the writing is suffused with a false bravado that underlines a feeling of helplessness prevalent in the ghetto.

We know that the young Avraham was active in a small literary group that met in the ghetto and that he had very clear ideas of how the group should be run and how the writers and artists could be encouraged to face down the difficult circumstances and channel their creative energies. The very existence of groups like this in the harsh reality of the ghetto should be seen as an impressive expression of fortitude and ‘cultural resistance’ to unrelenting cruelty.

The poem might have this circle in mind but its relevance might also be simply directed at the younger people in the ghetto.

The first thing that engages the reader’s attention is the oxymoron in the title of the poem. The screaming contradiction of “cheerful pessimists” plunges the reader directly into the whirlpool of ‘hoping against hope’ in the relentless downward spiral of the ghetto.

The tone of the poem belies the difficulties of life in the ghetto. The bellicose, coarse attempt at bravura is clearly hollow of content or true hope. The very marked emphasis on the young people in the ghetto and the unspoken sadness at the loss of youth heightens the discomfort of the reader when he/she contemplates the young age of the poet, Avraham Cytryn. An overriding negativity pervades the fabric of the lines to the point where it reads almost as a eulogy to all that is lost and will be lost…the inevitability of an approaching end.

It should be noted that in both poems presented here, there is no mention at all of the German oppressor. The presence of the suffering and the sorrow, the pain and the dangers, the hungry and the thirsty, the weeping and the longing – all words taken from the two poems – in the absence of any mention of the perpetrator responsible for all this, certainly provides food for thought as to the minds of the two young poets, Abramek and Avraham.

I would like to conclude with a few lines of prose written by Avraham Cytryn in the ghetto under the title, “The War”. It is a short piece from which I have taken the first few lines and the last few lines. The contrast between the two quotes stemming from the same pen embodies the depth of the tragedy at the loss of these young people and what they could have achieved.

The War

‘The ghetto sleeps, cramped in the leaden sleep of the miserable. The nighttime hours are usually the sweetest, because they tear the Jews away from the sorrow and sadness of the reality. But the truth is that even as they lie under their warm blankets, sleeping and snoring, in their dreams they see pictures of horror and catastrophe. The hell of the daily dramas seeps into their nightmares, turning into horrific scenes…’

And now in contrast, his concluding words:

‘A new era will spring from the vestiges of the monstrous hydra, progress will flourish, and there will be no more horror. Humanity lives, humanity creates. From the ruins, a new era will flower and from it will spring culture and progress, beauty and sublimity.’

These words strike me with wonder at the ability of a young person to so frame a positive message from within the harshness of their existence in the Łódź ghetto One would hope that the prayer expressed in the concluding lines be ascendant over the ‘nighttime’ realities described in the first quote.

What is beyond any doubt is the fact that both Abramek Koplowicz and Avraham Cytryn had a wonderful gift with the pen that was not permitted to develop beyond their initial budding.

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Poetry and the Holocaust

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