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Final Messages and the Scourge of Denial


The Human Need to Leave Testimony

An outstanding feature of this short poem is its non-completion. The last line, “Tell him that I” leaves the message that Eve wishes to convey to Cain unspoken. With Pagis’s knowledge of the Bible, it becomes clear that part of the inspiration to leave the message unsaid comes directly from Genesis chapter four, verse eight:

“Cain said to his brother Abel… and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.”

The Hebrew Bible appears as above, completely omitting the words spoken by Cain to Abel. Some English translations have inserted his unspoken words.

So it appears as if Pagis is mimicking Cain’s inability to express his negative emotions to his brother, just as he leaves Eve speechless, facing the magnitude of her approaching fate in a German cattle-car.

Pagis has subtly contracted time frames by using the present tense in a poem, which invokes two historical time frames, the biblical and the time of the Holocaust. He thus catapults the reader from his/her usual armchair comfort into the maelstrom of the action. We, the readers, are requested to pass on the unformulated message, clearly implying that we also have to bring it into being, to write it. It is a masterstroke of actively involving the generations after the Holocaust in the messages of the Holocaust by first and foremost having to formulate them. It seems that this exhortation from a survivor/poet reflects fears of survivors that Holocaust memory will dim with the passage of time, and this poem of Pagis is a means of safeguarding this memory so that perhaps chances of its repetition in history will be diminished.

Thus, through this poem, we, the subsequent generations, are constantly reformulating the message that the Eve of the poem or the mother in the Holocaust were unable to express, but according to Pagis, were intent on leaving us.

Pagis has presented us with an opportunity to react to the context of the train transports within the “final solution”, by suggesting the content of Eve’s unspoken message that he refrained from formulating. The ensuing discussion in the comments section should contribute to an appreciation of the complexities.

Holocaust Denial

In Genesis, chapter four, verse nine, the reader of the Bible is struck by Cain’s unabashed denial of Abel’s murder. The words, so simple and so eloquent, and strangely so because of their negative content, have reverberated in man’s lexicon since their initial utterance:

“I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

When Pagis wrote the fifth line of his poem, ‘Cain, son of Adam,’ he was submitting to his readers everything negative that is associated with this name: the first murder, the brash denial thereof and the famous or infamous ‘Mark of Cain’. None of these are explicit in the poem. All of them are a clear and integral part of the biblical story and as such part of the recognized canon. Pagis is undoubtedly invoking them and in the case of the ‘denial’, a direct parallel is being drawn to the modern version of Holocaust Denial in this and the preceding century.

It is known to what an extent the resurgence of antisemitism and accompanying Holocaust Denial were an intense problem for survivors after the war and this poem contains its own reference to the phenomenon.

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Poetry and the Holocaust

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