An Exercise Book with a Black Cover – Poetry and the Holocaust
This is Itamar Yaos-Kest’s story written in Israel fifty years after his experiences. It reverberates with much emotion on relationships within the family and the surrounding environs.
After the Germans invaded in March 1944, late in the history of the Second World War and the Holocaust with all the attendant suffering metered out to European Jewry specifically and Europe in general, the Kest family was evicted from their home and transported to the concentration camp in Germany, Bergen Belsen. So Peter Kest began his childhood Holocaust trauma as a boy of ten years old. As stated above, and against all probability, both parents and the two children survived more than six months in the camp. On scraps of paper his parents procured for him, he began writing his first poems as a ten-year-old in a German concentration camp. Itamar Yaos-Kest lives in Tel-Aviv, father and grandfather, with a large oeuvre of poetry written over the years.
The following personal story he wrote as an introduction to a belated publication of his childhood poetry in 2006, all in Hebrew translation from the original Hungarian. It is a tantalizing story of mixed emotions of the adult to the turbulent beginnings of a budding poet germinating in the pits of ‘inhuman human’ behavior.
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Poetry and the Holocaust
An Exercise Book with a Black Cover
A lined exercise book with a black cover containing short poems in rhyme, written in the blurred handwriting of a child […] clearly indicating a soul in torment.
When did I first receive this black-covered exercise book? – I have thought about this quite a bit recently; that is, since I made peace with these poems I wrote as a child and which appear in the exercise book and on the yellowing and crumpled pages attached to the book. And then suddenly I had a flashback.
A few days after liberation from the Germans, the liberators transferred us – a group of refugees locked in train-cars who were making their way from Bergen-Belsen to the unknown, and who had just been on the verge of being exterminated – to a resort town called Hillersleben which had belonged to the administrative staff of Hitler and from which the German staff had been expelled. This was the work of the liberating American forces. […] [In the apartment allocated to our family,] my father saw an exercise book, some pencils and an inkwell. In great excitement he turned to me with: “This is for you Peter, take these things for yourself. […] Copy all the poems you wrote in the camp into it.”
I hadn’t enjoyed the feel of regular writing paper and good pencils and pens of the school type for a long time. I nearly forgot what they felt like.
The poems had been scribbled on torn pieces of packing paper. My parents got them from other prisoners in our hut and the neighboring hut for the price of a portion of bread in order that I could fill my time between roll calls. […]
Copying the poems wasn’t a simple matter for me. I felt myself resisting the poems which I did not like since they reminded me of such a bad time. And yet, I did copy them, even with some excitement […] – some of them about hunger and fear and deprivation, and others about lighthearted subjects from days gone by, but all written in an attempt to counter the awfulness of our surroundings in the hut. I noticed tears in my mother’s eyes, tears of happiness that her son looked like a pupil again in a small school. This was before she heard that her parents had been murdered by a unit of S.S. soldiers in Austria. She was devastated by this news which erased any vestige of joy in her life for years after. The atmosphere in the house was clouded for this whole span of time.
Towards the autumn of 1945, we returned to the city of Sarvash in Hungary. A short time after we arrived back Father asked me: “Why don’t you write a long poem describing the whole terrible ordeal of our deportation from beginning to end?” I shrugged my shoulders since I had no desire to recall all the suffering. We had arrived home and even father was attempting to regain his equilibrium in the new Socialist regime in Hungary.
I eventually decided to listen to my father and his suggestion to write about our deportation in a long, rhyming poem.
This event happened close to our return, in the winter of 1945. In fact, the first lines of this long poem I wrote when we were still in Hillersleben in the expectation of returning to Hungary. But the effort involved in reconstructing the atmosphere of our deportation paralyzed me and I stopped writing.
However, back in Sarvash it was different. My new friends in the state school where my parents registered me, asked me, “Where were you during the whole of last year?” And I wasn’t sure whether the question came from thinly-veiled antagonism or blatant enjoyment at my recent suffering. But I again felt the waves of antisemitism enveloping me just like before the deportation and it seemed as if nothing had changed here.
My connection with my black-covered exercise book
I wanted nothing to do with it for many years. Even when we immigrated to Israel in 1951, I totally ignored its existence and never even thought of asking what had happened to it. I did continue writing poems but the subject matter was divorced from my Holocaust experiences, even after I started writing my poems in Hebrew. I needed very much to be just like my classmates in the Tchernichovsky High School in Netanya. And when my teachers called me ‘a kid from the Holocaust’ (with good intentions) I objected strenuously, explaining to them that my time spent in Bergen Belsen was a private matter only. Like some kind of ‘accident’ in my childhood.
Only in 1959 did the cracks in my stonewalling begin to appear. I was already married, busy publishing poems in most of the literary circles in Israel with one small publication of my work in print.
And then the following occurred. I was reading and translating a novel from Hungarian to Hebrew. The book told the story of a doctor and his family and their deportation into the German camp system from a town in Hungary. Since my own family story was so similar I began to experience acute emotional turmoil and my attempts to distance myself from Holocaust proved impossible. A deep crack suddenly pierced my personal armor and within weeks I had written and completed a cycle of poems entitled, “ORDEAL BY FIRE” –“The Bergen-Belsen Episodes”. Their publication aroused a strong interest in the media at the time (1962) and some of the poems were included in the High School literature syllabus.
Despite these developments, I was still driven by a need to escape my past, even after writing these poems which were an engagement with my experiences albeit obliquely nuanced. It was only as a result of my wife’s pressure – a native born Israeli – that I agreed to add the sub-title, The Bergen –Belsen Episodes, an unmistakable pointer to the content of the poems.
After the poems appeared, my mother asked me if I was interested in taking back my black-covered exercise book with my childhood poems from the camp period. I was astounded by the question. I had not an inkling that she had been guarding this book all this time. I rejected her offer because it would have been as if I was permitting a rejected world entrance into my new home. And so it happened that I entered on another long period of removing the world of the Holocaust from my immediate environs. Only my mother continued to live the difficult past day in and day out. Once when she was asked about the necessity of an official Day of Holocaust Remembrance, she answered that she was in dire need of one day WITHOUT Holocaust Remembrance.
Today I know that this process of pendulum swings, engaging with and distancing from the Holocaust, is typical for children-survivors of the period. I think that it was only with my mother’s passing that this vacillating ended. All my mother’s belongings went over to my sister when she died and this included my black-covered exercise book. My sister asked me if I wanted my poems back and my stand was the same as before – I said no. I was very happy with the clause in my mother’s will which gave Yad Vashem everything in her possession that was connected to the Holocaust, including the jar of ashes which contained the bullets that killed her parents and had stood in her room all these years – the jar that clouded my early years after the Holocaust.
And then, in 1983, while I was editing a new selection of my poems, I suddenly felt a need to translate from Hungarian to Hebrew one or two of my childhood poems that had been in cold storage for so long at my sister’s. I wanted to add them at the end of the new selection in a separate section entitled “A Document”. I needed to establish a clear separation between my literary output and the natural testimony of a small child.
And thus, the exercise book finally returned to its owner. But am I the real owner? – I asked myself from time to time. The language of my writing has changed and even my name is different from the name of the boy I was.
And, in fact, what is left in me of the child Peter Kest, who scribbled line after line on torn scraps of paper in the semi-darkness in order to beat the oblivion of passing time as the lice were biting into his flesh and the epidemic of typhus was threatening all around?
My fingers turn the yellowing pages of the exercise book very slowly – in fact, it is well kept in a small glass case at Yad Vashem in an exhibition called “No Child’s Play.” And I know that everything I have written over more than the last fifty years all leads back to the black-covered exercise book which my mother guarded with her life, and in which the poem “Hunger” appears as a symbol of all the poems I have written since the winter of 1944.
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Poetry and the Holocaust
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