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A Close Reading of the Poem and Its Biblical Connection


In the following 3 steps, we will present seven themes from a close reading of the poem and the verses from Genesis.

The Use of the First Biblical Family as a Prototype for Human Relations to Come

Dan Pagis was a child of nine when war broke out and barely two years older when he was thrust onto a transport with his grandparents from their home in Romania en route to a labor camp. Thirty years later, the poet/survivor Pagis opts to portray the horrors of his situation by placing Eve and Abel into the freightcar and not himself and his grandparents. His own biological mother died when he was a child of four, some five years before the outbreak of the war and shortly before this tragedy his father had left to set up a home in Palestine for the family. We know from his wife Ada Pagis, who later wrote a biography about her late husband, was unable to get him to talk, even to her, about his experiences either in the train en route or in the subsequent reality of camp life. Thus, after the hiatus of 25 years, it appears that Cain and Abel and Adam and Eve will represent for Pagis the family fabric that he never enjoyed as a child and these four figures will take on the various ominous meanings dealt with below.

Jealousy and Murder as a Constant Factor within Man

If jealousy was a main factor in Cain’s murder of Abel, the multiple murder of the twentieth century stands on its own without pinpointing the exact contribution of this human emotion in the case of the Nazis. One of the central extrapolations to be made from the poem is the uninterrupted history of murder that marks man’s history from its early beginnings to the modern age. Pagis’s choice of the first universal family from the Book of Genesis to portray the evil instinct of man and to link it to the mass murder of ensuing centuries down to the Holocaust turns his poem into a distilled and poignant statement about the nature of man. It is a pessimistic message with no frills and no reprieve. Even the unfinished message would seem to evoke the somber colors of impending doom. The train networks across Europe transported millions of Jews to their deaths, among them Pagis’s grandparents.

The last line of the poem is left unfinished, enabling the poem to be read cyclically, ad infinitum. The effect created is of the trains running non-stop to accomplish their task of murdering Jews. This idea can be applied metaphorically to indicate the smooth continuum of repeated murder in the history of man, as mentioned above.

The Place of Mothers in the two Tragedies

Pagis has placed the mother of the victim and the murderer at the center of the poem. In the biblical story, Eve is not at the heart of the events. Pagis has chosen to present all the pathos of the first murder through the eyes and experience of the bereaved mother and thereby to highlight the place of women in the Holocaust. This emphasis of the poet on feminine suffering in the biblical and Holocaust settings precedes historical research on the role of women in the Holocaust by more than a decade. The academic investigation of the role of women in this tragedy started in the second half of the eighties and Pagis published this poem in 1970.

Pagis, it appears, felt deeply in his poetic soul the need to address the plight of mothers and women in the Holocaust, long before academe picked up the cudgels. As we mentioned before, his own mother had died in 1934 when he was only four years old and he was brought up by his grandparents until the outbreak of war. From this lack in his own life, he places the biblical mother Eve at the center of the poem. However, when it comes to the crux of her message the reader is left imagining what she was planning to write. The word picture Pagis has given us is a tribute to the role of the mother in the total absence of a father. She is providing the human warmth to her younger son Abel as they speed to their fate in a German freightcar. The unwritten message at the end of the poem is an eloquent silence testifying to the unspeakability of Eve’s situation. But it also highlights her bravery in attempting to make contact or leave some form of testimony

These first three themes dwell on the fabric of family, the complexity of human emotions, and the role of mothers /women in history. Choose one theme or formulate a composite statement about how this/these issues impact on you vis-a-vis the Holocaust.

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Poetry and the Holocaust

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