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The Poem “Shema”

Only one year after his liberation, in 1946, Primo Levi wrote the following poem entitled “Shema” (the Hebrew word for “Listen”):

In the context of the historical background of the stages and difficulties of liberation, we proceed to the first poem in this lesson which deals with one survivor’s take on the burden of liberation. Although the word ‘burden’ sounds illogical in the context of liberation – an oxymoron – from all the available evidence, memoirs, diaries and poetry, the burdens of liberation were numerous and for some, overpowering. So now, to Primo Levi and the poem he called Shema, written just 12 months after his liberation from Auschwitz.

Levi was born in Turin, Italy in 1919. Before the Second World War he became an industrial chemist. In late 1943 he was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where he survived due to his “usefulness” to the Nazis as a chemist, amongst other factors. His most famous prose work is “If This is a Man” (sometimes published as “Survival in Auschwitz”), in which he wrote about his experiences in Auschwitz. Levi was haunted by his Holocaust experiences during his life and fell to his death in 1987.

The Poem “Shema”

As mentioned, only one year after his liberation, in 1946, he wrote the following poem entitled “Shema” (the Hebrew word for “Listen”):

 

Shema

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 labors 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.

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Poetry and the Holocaust

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