Friday, August 29, 2014

Poems from Blood to Remember--"I Remember Coming into Warsaw, a Child"



We're beginning a new occasional posting of poems from Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust (ed. Charles Fishman).  The second edition came out in 2007 and contains the work of 240 poets.

The first poem in this series is by Helen Degen Cohen, a poet who survived the Holocaust and came to the US as a Displaced Person.  


I remember coming into Warsaw, a child


out of a sheer, sunlit countryside, 
where sometimes a goat made the only sound in 
all the universe, and a car engine would certainly 
tear the wing of an angel. Entering burnt Warsaw 
and the Sound of the World, how strange, how lonely 
the separate notes of Everything, lost in a smell of 
spent shots still smoking, a ghost of bombs, a silence 
of so many voices, the ruined city singing not only 
a post-war song but an Everything hymn of dogs wailing, 
a car, a horse, a droning plane, a slow, distant 
demolition, hammers like rain, the hum, the hum, 
bells and levers and voices leveled and absorbed 
into the infinite hum in which the ruins 
sat empty and low like well-behaved children,
the ruins, their holes, like eyes, secretly open,
passing on either side, as we entered Warsaw, an air 
of lost worlds in a smoky sweet light ghosting
and willing their sounding and resounding remains

______________________________________

Helen Degen Cohen’s (Halina Degenfisz’s) awards include a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) fellowship in poetry, First Prize in British Stand Magazine's fiction competition, and three Illinois Arts Council Literary awards.

Once an Artist-in-Education and instructor for Roosevelt University, she co-edits Rhino Magazine and coordinates its Poetry Forum workshop. Widely published in periodicals, she was twice "featured poet" in The Spoon River Poetry Review, and her work has been the subject of essays such as "Rootlessness and Alienation in the Poetry of Helen Degen Cohen" (Shofar) and "This Dark Poland" (Something of My Very Own to Say, Columbia University, Press).

In 2009 she had two poetry collections published—Habry and On A Good Day One Discovers Another Poet—as well as an excerpt from her novel, The Edge of the Field (in Where We Find Ourselves—SUNY). A new chapbook, Neruda Nights, is available from Finishing Line Press.

______________________________________

A review of Helen Degen Cohen's Habry, a collection of poems on the Holocaust, appeared several years ago in Writing the Holocaust.  To go to the review, click here.  


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

MARKED: POEMS OF THE HOLOCAUST by Stephen Herz



Marked: Poems of the Holocaust by Stephen Herz is probably one of the best poetic introductions to the Holocaust. In language that is clear and resonant, Herz tells us what we need to know in images and lines that we will not soon forget.

Here are two poems from the collection ("Morgen Früh" and "Whatever You Can Carry") and several stanzas from "Shot," followed by an interview with Mr. Herz regarding Marked, its genesis and intentions.   


POEMS 


Morgen Früh

Do you know how one says never
in camp slang? Morgen früh:
tomorrow morning.
          —Primo Levi

Will you wake on a plank of wood
with six others,
wash your face in your morning coffee,
and go to work in the mud?
Tomorrow morning.

Will you go to the latrine when
they tell you,
or be shot at roll call
because you did it in your pants?
Tomorrow morning.

Tomorrow morning
the boils and pus and lice
will be gone,
the blue tattoo will fade from your wrist,
the green dye will fade from your eyes,
the sweet singed smell
will fade from your nostrils.

Tomorrow morning
they’ll give you back your ovaries,
give you back your children,
give you back your old wool coat
with the yellow star,
and you’ll give them back
the paper cement bag
stuffed under your dress.

Tomorrow morning
you’ll run a comb
through your long black hair,
tie it with a bright red ribbon,
and someone will smile and say:
Good morning, Lena.

Tomorrow morning
there’ll be no more ashes
to fill the swamp
to dump in the river
to fertilize the fields. No more ashes
to spread on the paths like gravel
under the boots of the SS.

Tomorrow morning.
Tomorrow morning.
Morgen früh.


Whatever You Can Carry

Twenty-nine storerooms were burned before the liberation of Auschwitz.
In the six that remained they discovered 348,820 men’s suits, 836,255
women’s coats, more than seven tons of human hair and even 13,964
carpets.
              Michael Berenbaum: The World Must Know

“You will work in the factory, work in
the fields, you will be resettled in the East,
bring whatever you can carry.”

So our dresses, shirts, suits, underwear,
bedsheets, featherbeds, pillows, tablecloths,
towels, we carried.

We carried our hairbrushes, handbrushes,
toothbrushes, shoe daubers, scissors, mirrors,
safety razors. Forks, spoons, knives,

pots, saucepans, tea strainers, potato
peelers, can openers we carried. We carried
umbrellas, sunglasses, soap, toothpaste,

shoe polish. We carried our photographs.
We carried milk powder, talc,
baby food.

We carried our sewing machines. We carried
rugs, medical instruments,
the baby’s pram.

Jewelry we carried,
sewn in our shoes, sewn in our corsets,
hidden in our bodies.

We carried loaves of bread, bottles of wine,
schnapps, cocoa, chocolate, jars of marmalade,
cans of fish. Wigs, prayer shawls, tiny

Torahs, skullcaps, phylacteries we carried.
Warm winter coats in the heat of summer
we carried. On our coats, our suits,

our dresses, we carried our yellow stars.
On our baggage in bold letters, our addresses,
our names we carried.

We carried our lives.


Shot (excerpt)

shot in the synagogue
shot up against the wall in the headlights
of the truck
shot in the farmyard by the dung heap
shot in the hospital, the maternity ward
shot in the city, the town, the shtetl
shot in their houses, in the streets,
in the market square
shot in the cemetery
shot in the warehouse after machine-gun muzzles
were pushed through holes in the walls
shot in the roundups trying to escape
shot in bed
shot in their cribs
shot in the air, the baby thrown over its
mother’s head
shot because they stole a potato
shot because they were betrayed for a kilo of sugar
shot because they weren’t wearing the yellow star
shot because they were wearing the yellow star

shot by the Einsatzgruppen
shot by the Reserve Battalion of the German
Order Police
shot by the Gestapo Firing Squad
shot by the Waffen SS and the Higher SS
shot by the Hiwis-Ukrainian, Latvian, and
Lithuanian volunteers
shot by the Hungarian Fascist Nyilas,
the Arrow Cross
shot by the Polish police and Polish partisans
shot by the Croatian Ustasa
shot by the Romanian army, police, gendarmerie,
border guard, civilians, and
the Iron Guard
shot by the Wehrmacht
shot by old men in the German Home Guard
shot by young boys in the Hitler Youth
shot in Aktion after Aktion as if it was
“more or less our daily bread”
shot in the search-and-destroy mission, the
Jew Hunt
shot in the “harvest festival,” the Erntefest
shot in order to make the northern Lublin district
judenrein

shot in Zhitomir, Poniatowa, Józefów, Trawniki
shot in Lomazy, Parczew, Bialystok, Kharkov
shot in Bialowieza, Luków, Riga, Poltava
shot in Międzyrzec, Khorol, Kremenstshug
shot in Slutsk, Bobruisk, Mogilev, Vinnitsa
shot in Odessa, Lvov, Kolmyja, Minsk, Rovno
shot in Majdanek and Brest-Litovsk
shot in Neu Sandau and Tarnopol and Rohatin
shot in Dnepropetrovsk
shot in Kovno, Pinsk, Berdichev, Tarnów
shot in Kamenets-Podolski
shot in Krakow, Szczebrzeszyn, Siauliai
shot in Stolin, Kielce, Lutsk, Serokomla
shot in Drogobych, Luga, Delatyn
shot in the Warsaw Ghetto
shot in the ravine of Babi Yar
shot in Bilgoraj, Nadvornaya, Stanislawów
shot in David Grodek, Janów Podlesia
shot near Zamosc


INTERVIEW WITH STEPHEN HERZ

WTH: Can you tell our readers what first moved you to write about the Holocaust?

SH: Many years ago after reading Anne Frank's poignant  diary I was tormented by her life and deathand I realized I was born the same year as Anne1929. And I recall thinking "What was I doing knocking around high school with a big black H on my chest that said Football, while Anne was wearing a yellow star that said Jood and was forced into hiding and deported to Auschwitz and to her death in Bergen-Belsen. So I decided to write a poem on what would have been Anne's sixty-fifth birthdayJune 12, 1994. It was called You Were Fifteen That Day. The poem ended with the lines:
                                       
You were fifteen that day
And I, a Jew born in America in 1929,
the same year you were born, Anne
am in my sixty-eighth year.

I was elated when the poem was published. Around the same time, I started working towards my Master's degree in English and joined a poetry writing class. One of our first assignments was to write a poem on Thanksgiving. So, remembering as a kid hearing Hitler shouting on the Philco and my grandfather showing me pictures of the Nazi Swastika flying from the windows of his former home in Oppenheim, Germany, and saying "I'll never go back, that Hitler's worse than the Kaiser . . ." So I decided to put that into my Thanksgiving poem and to show my family in conversation at the Thanksgiving dinner table in 1938, a few weeks after the pogrom in Germany and Austria called Kristallnachtthe night of the broken glasswhich was considered the start of what we now call the Holocaust or Shoah. I called my poem Thanksgiving, 1938. Here's my grandfather's voice in the poem:
                       
"What do you think about the synagogues
burning? All those synagogues, all those
Torahs, all that glass breaking in the stores.
Next thing they'll be burning Jews.

I wrote my brother: 'Ludwig, get out of
Oppenheim, get out of Germany,
before soon you won't anymore be able.'
So, what do you think? asks my grandfather.
                                           
"It'll pass, I think it'll pass,
it usually does," says my father.
"Do you think you can pass me some dark,
and some white?" I ask.

A short time after I got my degree, I made a trip to Poland with a couple of my college professors. We went through all the major killing centersBelzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobiborit was mind-boggling. On returning, I continued researching everything I could about the Holocaust, spent several weeks at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC, and also became a sort of ersatz member of the Child Holocaust Survivors of Connecticut. Even though I felt sort of strange not being a survivor, they welcomed me with open arms. I found a survivor who was telling her story to mostly schoolsshe asked me to join her and read some of my poemsI did, and it worked out swellI became sort of her Greek (or Jewish) chorus, interspersing my poems with her poignant story of survivalher name is Anita Schorr, and I wrote a poem about herit's called MARKEDwhich also became the title of my latest book of Holocaust poems. Here's the first stanza:
                   
at nine
you wore the yellow star,
the Star of David
that marked you Jew,
marked you for Auschwitz
where you lost your name
for a number
71569

WTH: Has how you write about the Holocaust changed since you began writing these poems?
  
SH: I'm not sure it's changed, I would say it's grown, matured, as I became more aware of the magnitude of this bloody slaughter. I started out with a small chapbook of Holocaust poems, then another chapbook, then a full volume, and now an even more extensive 4th collection.

WTH: What struck us immediately was how many of the poems seem like found poems. The first poem in the book of course is titled "Found Poem," but many of the poems that follow also appear to be "found," given that they are based on statements made by Adolph Hitler, German soldiers, and survivors. Can you talk about your process of transforming existing materials into poems?

SH: I've been doing thiswriting these poems for so long nowI don't even think about using found material on the Holocaust if it helps to give some meaning to the unfolding history of this dark bloody timebut maybe a few of my readers' responses might answer this question better than I can:
                 
"I admire your cleverness with words, lists, names . . . your focus on detail, your sense of history, makes this material importantly new . . . it feels like history distilled."
                
"You have brought many new dimensions to a worked over subjectreworking Reich orders, excerpting quotes from Nazi propaganda of the time, and basically anchoring everything you write in the bitter reality of history is a brilliant stroke. Most Holocaust reflections are personal and not communal as is yours. Most do not gather up the shards of glass from Kristallnacht and surround their art with them. You do, and because of this, and because of the voice that you adopt as a sincere and horrified student of all the horrors, your poems stand out as a collection that is actually designed to make the reader never forget."

WTH: Please tell us about your decision to apparently remove yourself from so many of the poems.
       
SH: Sorry, I really can't answer this questionI wasn't conscious that I was removing myself from my poems. Take, for example, a poem I wrote on looking at a picture of children on the eve of their deportation from Westerbork in Holland. Here are some of the final stanzas from that poem:

And then it hits you that this
Westerbork is the same place where

Anne Frank and her family would
leave in the last transport

for Auschwitz, leave only months
after the children in this picture

were deported. Was there a similar
picture somewhere of Anne Frank?

Look: in the back row, that chubby
boy in the sailor suit is pulling
               
his mouth apart, hamming it up:
a class clown just like you were
               
back in 1944, the year this picture
was taken, the year you graduated
       
from Ravinia Grammar School,
the year you remember thinking

Hitler and Goering were some kind of
comedy act, like Abbot and Costello.

WTH: For us, one of the remarkable things about your book is that it is not only a book of poetry, it is also a historical document, even a history perhaps. We can see teachers using it as the initial text in a course on the Holocaust itself or on Holocaust literature. Was this your intention?

SH: Thanks, you're right on here. A short time after I got my degree, I made a trip to Poland with a couple of my college professors. We went through all the major killing centersBelzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobiborit was mind-boggling. On returning, I continued researching everything I could about the Holocaust, spent several weeks at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC, and also became a sort of ersatz member of the Child Holocaust Survivors of Connecticut. Even though I felt sort of strange not being a survivor, they welcomed me with open arms. I found a survivor who was telling her story to mostly schoolsshe asked me to join her and read some of my poemsI did, and it worked out swellI became sort of her Greek (or Jewish) chorus, interspersing my poems with her poignant story of survivalher name is Anita Schorr, and I wrote a poem about herit's called MARKEDwhich also became the title of my latest book of Holocaust poems. Here's the first stanza:
                   
at nine
you wore the yellow star,
the Star of David
that marked you Jew,
marked you for Auschwitz
where you lost your name
for a number
71569

WTH: Has how you write about the Holocaust changed since you began writing these poems?
  
SH: I'm not sure it's changed, I would say it's grown, matured, as I became more aware of the magnitude of this bloody slaughter. I started out with a small chapbook of Holocaust poems, then another chapbook, then a full volume, and now an even more extensive 4th collection.

WTH: And a related question: Whom do you see as the audience for your book?

SH: Hmm, I haven't thought about thatI guess I would say everyone and everybody, with a special emphasis on making these poems available to the younger generation.

WTH: Can you tell us about the writers who have influenced you, especially in regard to your use of poetry as history, and history as poetry?

SH: I was asked a similar question not too long ago that appeared in a book called Poets Bookshelf II: Contemporary Poets on Books That Shaped Their Art.  Here's what I said:

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
Allen Ginsberg  Howl (also "Kaddish")
Mary Oliver,  New and Selected Poems
Gary Snyder, Turtle Island
Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz
Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl
Art Spiegelman, Maus
Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust

Looking up at my bookshelf at shelf after shelf of books on the Holocaust, I find it hard to make a listbut I suppose if I were to pick just one, it would be Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz, which is for me a remarkable, moving and memorable prose poem.

But how can I leave out William Carlos Williams, Richard Hugo, Donald Hall, Philip Levine, Yusef Komunyakaa, Gerald Stern, Mark Doty, Thomas Lux, Galway Kinnel, Pablo Neruda, Yehuda Amichai, Stanley Kunitz, Hayden Carruth. etc, etc.?

WTH: Besides visiting the camps and killing centers and interviewing survivors (and even a former Nazi boy soldier) . . . before immersing yourself in the extensive literature and history and poetry of the Shoah, is there anything else that you can think of that influenced you as you wrote your poems?

SH: Yes, one thing I still keep going back to again and again, and that's Claude Lanzmann's powerful 9½ hour documentary film Shoah. Instead of all those pictures of piles of bodies and historical footage, what Lanzmann gave me (or, I should say gives us) is a profound, moving, and insightful look into the mind-set of so many of the killers, victims, and even the bystandersand he does so by visiting the crime scenes.

WTH: You have two very very long, one might call List Poems, "Shot" and "The Shooting Never Stops." Each line in these poems starts with the word "Shot." What can you tell us about these poems?

SH: Well, first of all I would like to quote a few eye-opening words by the writer David Denby who recently said: "Roughly as many Jews were killed by bullets as gas in the Holocaust, a fact not widely known to this day."

So, there's nothing much to tell youbut I can, I hope, show you in these long poems some of the many many shots from the killers. Here's a small example:
          
shot in bed
shot in their cribs
shot in the air, the baby thrown over its
       mother's head
shot because they stole a potato
shot because they were betrayed for a kilo of sugar
shot because they weren't wearing the yellow star
shot because they were wearing the yellow star

I would also like to mention how these "Shot" poems have made an indelible impression on several classes of students in the Middle Schoolsfor example, kids would stand in a long long line, each with a big sign in bold letters that said SHOTthen each of them would take a turn and read a line from the Shot poem and flip their sign down

shot after their eyes were gouged out because they
       refused to undress
            
(shot sign is flipped down)

shot after being driven into the grave and made to
       lie down on top of those who had been       
       shot before them"
           
(shot sign is flipped down)

And so, on and on down the long line of students being, one might say, felled by the shots. 

It was very startling and moving, to say the least.

__________________________________________

Stephen Herz's poems have been widely published. He's a winner of the New England Poet's Daniel Varoujan Prize. This collection—Marked—is the culmination of two chapbooks, a volume of poems—Whatever You Can Carry—and many new poems that cover the years of this dark, bloody time of death and destruction and evil we call the Holocaust or Shoah. Several schools and universities have adopted Herz's poems as part of their Holocaust studies curricula. Mr. Herz lives in Westport, CT and New York City.

Marked is available from Amazon and New York Quarterly Books.