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," "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.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Happy Birthday, Anne Frank


Anne Frank's birthday is June 12. She would have been 85 years old if the Nazis had not killed her.

I first read her diary for a class in high school. I don't remember which class or which teacher or how old I was or what I was obsessing about, but I remember her book, the silence I felt as I read it, and I remember how slowly I read it because I didn't want the book and her life to end.

There weren't a lot of books about the Holocaust available to me back then in the early 60s. This book was the first, and it taught me something profound about that experience. The suffering and death of even a single person can touch and change a person.

Here's a link to one of the best website's about her: the Anne Frank page at the US Holocaust Memorial. Just click on the words US Holocaust Memorial.

The site includes interviews with those who knew Anne Frank, information about her diary, weblinks, and the shared thoughts of many people who have read Anne's diary and been touched by her and her story.

You might also want to take a look at a youtube done by the poet Lois P. Jones. It collects a series of photos of Anne and her family. Click here.

Feel free also to leave a note here about Anne Frank.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Remembering D-Day: 70th Anniversary


Today, June 6, is the anniversary of the Allied invasion of Europe.  It's a day that means a lot to me.  

My parents were two of the 15 million or so people who were swept up by the Nazis and taken to Germany to be slave laborers.  My mom  spent more than two years in forced labor camps, and my dad spent four years in Buchenwald Concentration Camp.  

Like almost every other Pole living in Europe at that time, they both lost family in the war.  My mom's mom, sister and infant niece were killed by the Germans when they came to her village.  Later, two of her aunts died with their husbands in Auschwitz.  

After the war both my parents lived in refugee camps for six years before they were allowed to come to the US.  My sister and I were born in those refugee camps.  June 6, 1944 was the day that long process of liberation for all of us began.

I've written a lot about my parents and their experiences, and here are two poems from my book Lightning and Ashes about those experiences.  The first poem is about what the war taught my mother; the second is about the spring day in 1945 when the Americans liberated my dad and the camp he was in:



What the War Taught Her 


My mother learned that sex is bad,
Men are worthless, it is always cold
And there is never enough to eat.

She learned that if you are stupid
With your hands you will not survive
The winter even if you survive the fall.

She learned that only the young survive
The camps.  The old are left in piles
Like worthless paper, and babies
Are scarce like chickens and bread.

She learned that the world is a broken place
Where no birds sing, and even angels
Cannot bear the sorrows God gives them.

She learned that you don't pray
Your enemies will not torment you. 
You only pray that they will not kill you.


In the Spring the War Ended

For a long time the war was not in the camps.
My father worked in the fields and listened
to the wind moving the grain, or a guard 
shouting a command far off, or a man dying.

But in the fall, my father heard the rumbling 
whisper of American planes, so high, like 
angels, cutting through the sky, a thunder 
even God in Heaven would have to listen to.

At last, one day he knew the war was there.
In the door of the barracks stood a soldier, 
an American, short like a boy and frightened, 
and my father marveled at the miracle of his youth 

and took his hands and embraced him and told him 
he loved him and his mother and father,
and he would pray for all his children 
and even forgive him the sin of taking so long.

_______________________________

The boy soldier in the liberation poem is in part modeled after Michael Calendrillo, my wife's uncle.  He was one of the first American soldiers to help liberate a camp.  His testimony about what he saw in the camps was filmed for a documentary called Nightmare's End: The Liberation of the Camps.  You can see a youtube of him talking about what he saw in that camp by clicking here.  

Here's a link to a presentation I gave at St. Francis College about my parents and their experiences in World War II: Just click here.

My daughter Lillian sent me the following link to color photos from before and after D-Day from Life Magazine. The photos are amazing, and a large part of that amazement comes from the color. The color gives me a shock, a good one--it takes away the distance, makes the photos and the people and places in them immediate in a profound way. 

Here's the link: Life.