Thursday, November 19, 2009

Will Continue to Support Holocaust Denial?

Charles Fishman sent the following article by Randall Bytwerk, Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at Calvin College, regarding the promotion of books denying the Holocaust at the site:

If one goes to and searches for books promoting Holocaust denial, most of them have 5-star reviews at the top. How has that happened? Amazon ranks reviews by how "helpful" or "unhelpful" customers rate them. Take Arthur Butz's The Hoax of the Twentieth Century. There are a total of 49 customer reviews. 17 are 5-star. 25 are 1-star. However, the top review (5-star) has been rated as helpful by 83 of 110 customers. One of the better 1-star reviews has 61 helpful ratings out of 105 total ratings, with the result that it is way down on the list. The consequence is that unsuspecting customers, seeing all those 5-star reviews at the top, may be inclined to think the book must be good.

What to do? First, one must be an amazon customer. If you are, there are two things to consider.

First, it would be good to have some strong reviews of the various Holocaust denial books. Quite a few of the 1-star reviews are filled with invective, which is not persuasive to many readers. Amazon allows one to post reviews under one's real name if one wishes, but since that opens one up to various unpleasant consequences, one can also use a different name.

Second, and easier, one can rate existing reviews as "helpful" or "unhelpful." That option is available at the end of each customer review. Most readers of this list will know the names to look for, but here is my list of leading "Revisionist" authors: Arthur Butz, Thomas Dalton, Germar Rudolf, Veronica Clark (a relative newcomer), and Carlo Mottogno. Others will probably suggest additions to this list.

I'd also appreciate help with a related book: Michael Ford's self-published translation of Mein Kampf. I don't think Ford himself is a neo-Nazi (although the promotional material for his book on amazon states: "decide for yourself if he was a mad-man or a genius," and it's clear that he doesn't think Hitler was a mad-man). Ford's translation is pretty bad (his previous books include how to avoid being scammed on eBay and how to find a job if you are a felon). However, some neo-Nazis have jumped to his defense, and have been going after me with some energy (look at the comments on reviews if you are curious). "Helpful" ratings of my review would be appreciated.

A hundred or so "unhelpful" ratings will drive most of these books into the amazon cellar.


Professor Bytwerk is currently working on a website exploring Nazi Propoganda.


If you're interested in finding out what you can do, drop Writing the Holocaust a note c/o of jzguzlowski (at) (substitute @ for "at").

Thursday, July 16, 2009

An Interview with Dr. Karen Shawn, co-editor of PRISM

By Charles Fishman

I first became aware of Karen Shawn and PRISM: An Interdisciplinary Journal for Holocaust Educators when I read a notice about her new journal on the Association of Holocaust Organizations list in June 2008. I sent Dr. Shawn an email to see if she might be interested in adding me to the journal’s editorial board, which did not appear to include a poetry editor. She replied immediately and I was soon appointed to that position for the journal. In the 13 months Karen Shawn and I have been debating the virtues of one poem or another, I have always found her to be among the wisest and most fair-minded of editors . . . and also among the most persistent. She has watched over her new journal with the careful attention of a beekeeper or a cultivator of rare orchids. Consequently, the slow-to-arrive first issue — scheduled for release in September — should prove to be aesthetically, as well as intellectually, engaging: a vital new affirmation of the importance of Holocaust Education in a world that seems to have lost its ethical compass.

About two months ago, I decided to interview Dr. Shawn. I thought it would be helpful to followers of this blog to know something about her background and her reasons for bringing a new scholarly journal into the world.

CF: You are co-creator and co-editor of Prism. Can you tell us a little about the other editor?

KS: My co-editor is Dr. Jeffrey Glanz, Professor of Education at Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration. He holds the Raine and Stanley Silverstein Chair in Professional Ethics and Values and is a specialist in the fields of curriculum and instruction and educational leadership.

CF: How do you and Jeffrey divide your responsibilities as editors of the journal?

KS: Dr. Glanz is the APA guru and the business person, as well as a reader, reviewer, and manuscript editor. Except in the case of poetry, I’m the person who makes contact with authors and reads and edits initial submissions; I edit the final manuscript, suggest the art and literature to be used and secure permissions; and I recommend the timetable for completing this work and organizing it. Together, Jeffrey and I read everything, edit everything, and plan the themes, design, layout, and publication dates.

CF: Is this sharing of obligations something each of you finds satisfying?

KS: We are happiest when we are working together!

CF: Was it you or Jeffrey who gave the journal its name?

KS: We thought of it more or less together; we were both searching for just the right word to crystallize and illustrate our pedagogical vision of offering readers a variety of viewpoints on the same theme or topic, and the word "prism," we felt, captured our concept beautifully and best.

CF: I realize that PRISM is a journal that has been designed to foster Holocaust education, but will it also have a political or religious dimension?

KS: No. Authors may, of course, choose to examine how the Holocaust is taught in Catholic vs. Jewish schools or discuss survivors’ religious beliefs after the Shoah; someone may analyze the American response to the Holocaust. That is the way politics and religion will be expressed.

CF: What is your background in Holocaust scholarship and teaching and what drew you to this field?

KS: I have been learning and teaching about this subject for 25 years, here and in Israel, where I studied at Yad Vashem, Beit Lohame HaGeta’ot (the Ghetto Fighters’ Museum), and Hebrew University. I taught the pedagogy of the Holocaust in the Yad Vashem Summer Study Fellowship Program for Educators from Abroad for 10 years and served as educational consultant to the American Friends of the Ghetto Fighters Museum for another decade. Survivors and the subject itself drew me, captured me, and continue to engage me on a daily basis.

CF: What were your goals in co-creating PRISM?

KS: One goal was to offer materials that allow and encourage a differentiated approach to Holocaust education; hence the poetry, art, and story amid the history and pedagogy. Another was to offer educators methods and materials that may help them identify and teach essential truths about this subject and examine, through a variety of lenses, its complex nature. Finally, we wanted to inspire and to reinforce the good work already being done in so many quarters of the educational community worldwide.

CF: Now that the editing of Issue #1 has been completed and Issue #2 is also in an advanced stage of development, are you confident that the journal will help you achieve those goals?

KS: We are, but of course we will be eager to hear readers’ responses.

CF: What changes or additions may be needed?

KS: We will probably need to include a “Letters” section.

CF: Please comment on the focus of the debut issue and on the thematic content of future issues that are currently planned.

KS: The debut issue, which is just about to go to press, examines the complex theme of trauma and resilience in children during the Shoah. We have expanded it to include what is called “secondary trauma,” that which occurs in those who are exposed over time to the trauma of others — people such as first responders, rape crisis counselors, and those who teach and learn about the Shoah for extended periods. Themes for future issues include the role of the bystander during the Shoah, the family unit during and after the Shoah, and heroism during the Shoah.

CF: What role do you see for poetry and other literary genres in this academic journal?

KS: Poetry will play a major role, as will art and story; these genres will allow teachers who are not historians to find a comfortable, fruitful, and legitimate way in to teaching the subject, a way that hopefully will lead to the necessary historical contextualization that other essays in our journal will help provide.

CF: Will the visual arts also have a distinctive presence in this journal?

KS: The premier issue includes color portraits of children painted during the Holocaust; art by a child of survivors; and examples of modern art as a reflection of the pervasive influence of the Holocaust on creative work done in its shadow.

CF: When do you expect the first few numbers of the journal to appear?

KS: We are planning publication for September 2009, April 2010, and January 2011; after that, we will see!

CF: Will PRISM have a web presence?

KS: Eventually!

CF: Can those interested in writing for the journal submit work for consideration?

KS: Writers should query first and include a brief bio.

CF: Is there anything you would like to add?

KS: Your work as our journal’s poetry editor has added to its power and its value, and we appreciate all that you contribute!

CF: Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings about this exciting new journal — and thanks, too, for the personal vote of confidence!


Karen Shawn, Ph.D., is a former English teacher, director of Holocaust education, and middle school assistant principal. She is Visiting Associate Professor of Jewish Education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration of Yeshiva University and Senior Fellow of Azrieli’s Institute–School Partnership.

With Dr. Jeffrey Glanz, she is co-editor of Azrieli’s publication PRISM: An Interdisciplinary Journal for Holocaust Educators. Dr. Shawn taught for 10 years at the Yad Vashem Summer Institute for Educators from Abroad and at the same time served as educational consultant for the American Friends of the Ghetto Fighters’ Museum. The founder of the Holocaust Educators’ Consortium, an international, interreligious Community of Practice, she has written extensively on Holocaust education.

Her most recent edited volumes are an anthology of Holocaust narratives and an accompanying teacher’s guide, The Call of Memory: Learning about the Holocaust Through Narrative (Ben Yehuda Press, 2008).

The mailing address for PRISM: An Interdisciplinary Journal for Holocaust Educators is Karen Shawn, Ph.D. / Azrieli Graduate School / 500 W. 185th St – BH 326 / NY, NY 10033. To subscribe to PRISM, or to query re submissions, send an email message to Dr. Shawn, or Dr. Glanz,


Information about Prism is available at the website of the International Association of Genocide Scholars.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Helen Degen Cohen's Habry

I first read Helen Degen Cohen's poems about her experiences and her parents' experiences during and after the Holocaust in the early 90s. At the time, I was writing about my parents and their experiences in the slave labor camps in Germany, and I found in Helen's poetry a voice that seemed to understand and speak of a world with a depth and complexity and compassion that I wished I could echo.

Helen wrote about her experiences as a child during the war. She was in the Lida Ghetto in Belorus, then in hiding with her parents in the town's little prison (where her father, a barber and jack-of-all-trades, created a flood only he could fix, in order to show the Gestapo how indispensable he was). Later, separated from her parents, she was in hiding again in a cabin surrounded by the farm fields she grew to love and the flowers that grew alongside them. The flowers were like habry, cornflowers. While she was in hiding, her parents were with the partisns in the resistance, as described in the new movie Defiance.

Her story and the way she told it touched me. I still can't relate what happened to her when she became separated from her parents and her mother gave her a tin cup without tears coming into my voice. I searched out her writing in little magazines like Spoon River Poetry Review and The Wire and anthologies like Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust and Concert at Chopin's House: A Collection of Polish-American Writing.

Her fiction and essays blew me away, but I found myself especially drawn to the voice in her poems. I re-read them and thought about them and wrote a scholarly article about them.

When I heard that Helen was finally gathering these poems together and publishing them along with more recent poems about her experiences, I looked forward to her book more than I can remember looking forward to any other book of poems.

That book Habry was everything I had hoped it to be.

Here is one of my favorite poems from Helen's new collection:

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 book Habry is available from Puddin'head Press and Amazon.

I've also posted a blog about her earlier book On a Good Day One Discovers a Poet at the blog Writing the Polish Diaspora.

Helen's memoir about returning to Warsaw to find the Polish woman who helped save her appears at The Scream on Line along with a number of her poems and a short story based on her childhood experiences, "The Edge of the Field."

Monday, June 1, 2009

Jehanne Dubrow's The Hardship Post

Jehanne Dubrow’s The Hardship Post (winner of the Three Candles Press 1st Book Award) is not afraid to ask hard, necessary questions about identity and memory, grief, and art as they relate to the Holocaust.

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In these poems, she questions, for example, whether she has a right to talk about the past, the Holocaust. And if she does, what gives her that right, and then how should she talk about the Holocaust? What kind of language should she use to embody what she feels? And is there even such a language? And what should she say to those who feel she doesn’t have the right to talk about the Holocaust? And what should she say to those who feel that whether or not she has that right is really unimportant because the Holocaust is not important?

Dubrow’s answers are shaped into verse that is constantly moving with thought and feeling at the intersection of her own and her family’s past. She speaks of her birth, her travels to Africa and Eastern Europe, her life as a diplomat’s daughter, but always with the sense that her life is a life in exile, separated from the unspeakable that touched her family and millions of others despite her best efforts to understand what happened.

She speaks of, writes about, these lives with a care, imagination, and thoughtfulness that finally convince us of the depth of her closeness to and love for these lives.

We see this in so many of the poems but perhaps most fully in the following poem:

Zeno's Paradox of the Shtetl

It is the frozen world that I’ve approached
for thirty years but cannot reach—

to Poland in a sleigh,

imagining the silver runners sled across
the permafrost,

and halfway to Galicia again,
passing the wooden synagogues, the men

who wear black coats and fur-trimmed hats,
their wives and daughters fat

with goosedown layers,
mittens, scarves, babushkas covering black hair,

the women’s faces lined, opaque,
a pewter sheet of ice above a lake,

and halfway to a town that shivers by
the Vistula, the river’s luminosity

like fish scales scraped
away with knives, then halfway following the liquid shape

which water makes through land,
always the distances expanding,

a home so faraway it can’t be seized,
intangible as winter through the trees.


Jehanne Dubrow was born in Italy and grew up in Poland, Yugoslavia, Zaire, Belgium, Austria, and the United States. Her work has appeared in Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust (ed. Charles Adés Fishman), Poetry, The Hudson Review, New England Review, Barrow Street, Gulf Coast, Poetry Northwest, and others. She was the Editor's Choice at KRITYA, and a number of her poems are featured there.

She is also the author of a chapbook, The Promised Bride (Finishing Line Press 2007). A second poetry collection, From the Fever-World, won the Washington Writers' Publishing House Prize and will be published in 2009. A third collection, Stateside, will be released by Northwestern University Press in 2010.

She blogs at Notes from the Gefilte Review. Her website is at

The Hardship Post is available at three candles press and at Amazon.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Some Cautions on Writing Holocaust Poetry

In the decades since the publication of Charles Reznikoff’s groundbreaking and virtually egoless masterwork, Holocaust, the tendency for writers to place themselves at Auschwitz; to take on the mantle of victimhood or martyrdom --the special aura of the survivor -- has become more noticeable, and more disturbing. In that booklength sequence of poems that Rezikoff based on the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial records and on the records of the Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem, he never uses the personal pronoun “I” and remains invisible before the agonizing story he relates in twelve unsparing, and historically accurate, sections. There’s no confusion about who is speaking at any point in the text, and it is easy to see why: Reznikoff reports faithfully things that clearly shocked and angered and wounded him, but he invents nothing. He puts words in no one’s mouth -- certainly not on the lips of survivors or victims . . . and not on the tongues of their tormentors and killers. He knows the record itself -- which includes the testimony of survivors, the memoirs of the victims, and the meticulously documented and archived accounts of the perpetrators -- is sufficient to his task. His work as a poet, and as a human being, is to carefully select his material from the overwhelmingly dense and detailed historical record: to select and organize and illuminate by juxtaposing what needs to be understood in context.

How different Reznikoff’s humility seems when set against the hubris of those who would masquerade as survivors or invent dialogue for actual people who lived and died and, in some noteworthy instances, spoke and wrote as themselves. Here, I need to say that it is not the use of the first person itself that I object to -- in fact, I do believe a poet may use the personal “I” when writing poems about the Holocaust, if the poems are clearly and accurately framed. My objections and cautions have more to do with motivation and intention. What, for example, is gained when W. D. Snodgrass, in his Führer Bunker, speaks through the mask of Hitler or his mistress, Eva Braun, or through mentally deranged caricatures of Martin Bormann and Magda Goebbels? Does it honor the dead or present us with a rich new vision of historical truth? Is this merely another entertainment? or is it something more problematic and unsettling? Can we escape the conclusion that what this poet offers us, out of the entire colossal record of the Shoah, is a rather strange and unsettling orchestration of unreal voices and a text marked by dubious sympathies? Doesn’t the simplest, least sophisticated, verse written by a survivor give us what Snodgrass does not? I refer, of course, to our hunger for authentic voice; for events faithfully remembered, not whimsically imagined; for poetry that stands as witness to the world we have inherited, the world that has shaped us and that shapes us still.

I don’t mean to single-out Snodgrass, much of whose work I admire, for there are more dangerous missteps and more calculated presumptions than his. What, for instance, should I have thought, in 1983 or ‘84, while I was editing the Texas Tech edition of Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust, when one widely published poet sent me a group of poems in which she presented herself as a survivor who had suffered grotesquely at the hands of concentration camp guards and other Nazis? Although I was certain she was not a survivor who had experienced such terrors, should I have overcome my revulsion and applauded her for her courage? or should I have questioned her about this need to pass herself off as something she was not and should feel blessed not to be? I rejected her poems because I believed then (as I still do) that they occupy a space in which truth is virtually indistinguishable from fantasy, so that the real and the verifiable is trivialized and devalued. Since then, I have received too many poems by writers who were not near the camps during the Holocaust, much less inside them -- but who, nonetheless, have succumbed to the temptation to speak as survivors or victims -- to believe that the first-person voice in that unsettling packet of poems I received in the early 80s was an aberration. Sadly, in the past quarter century, the inclination to impersonate the living and the dead, to bear false witness, of one kind or another, has burgeoned rather than withered.

In her 1986 collection, Your Native Land, Your Life, Adrienne Rich appears to reflect on the increasing use such “techniques” and “strategies” in contemporary literature. In the long poem, “Source,” dedicated to Helen Smelser, she states: “I have resisted this for years, writing to you as if you could hear me. It’s been different with my father: he and I always had a kind of rhetoric going with each other, a battle between us, it didn’t matter if one of us was alive or dead. But, you, I’ve had a sense of protecting your existence, not using it merely as a theme for poetry or tragic musings; letting you dwell in the minds of those who have reason to miss you, in your way, or their way, not mine. The living, writers especially, are terrible projectionists. I hate the way they use the dead.”

I like Rich’s use of the word “projectionists,” for isn’t the constructed “I” in the sort of poem I’ve been objecting to an “I” that announces the writer’s need for personal connection with the Holocaust -- that projects that need onto invented characters or onto actual people whose true inner voice the writer could not have known and, in most instances, doesn’t really care to know? I read this as a kind of literary charade, in which the writer seeks to create the illusion of proximity to, and intimacy with, the Holocaust -- to generate what might pass for a sense of permission to write these things . . . permission and authority. And isn’t it true that most of these efforts fail, in part, because they are prompted by the need to gain a measure of control over the enormity of the Holocaust and because the authors have miscalculated the importance of context and consequence in writing about this darkest of subjects? It is ironic, I think, that -- in the worst instances -- poems like those I have been discussing constitute a kind of literary necrophilia that leads writers to devour the dead, instead of revivifying them or honoring their memory.

An especially troubling example of this kind can be seen in the early published version of C. K. Williams’ poem, “A Day for Anne Frank,” in which Williams imagined a scenario for the final days of the famous diarist whose life ended in Belsen. Williams described Anne’s last day, in which -- as he envisioned it -- she was raped and murdered by an SS guard. The poem was powerful, a tour de force . . . but it recorded for posterity a conclusion to Anne’s life that, put as gently as possible, is simply untrue. Williams, in crossing the boundary between what can be known and what cannot, between what can be imagined and what should be written and published, managed to both muddy the waters of history and to set up his own poem for instant obsolescence, once the genuine facts of Anne’s death became known: she died of typhus in the final days of the war, a fact attested to by survivors who remembered her and were with her when she died. Although Williams revised the ending of his poem about Anne soon after I sent him my reasons for not accepting it for Blood to Remember, in that initial misrepresentation of a moment in history he was not yet privy to know, he had constructed a false picture of Anne’s fate, as if she were not an actual person who had died -- and lived.

Yet there are successful examples of the dramatic monologue in post-War American poetry. These include booklength sequences, such as Julie N. Heifetz’s Oral History and the Holocaust, with its narrative versions of videotaped survivor testimony; Barbara Helfgott Hyett’s In Evidence: Poems of the Liberation of Nazi Concentration Camps, her series of terse but affecting poems based on taped testimony of American GIs who helped to open the camps; and individual poems that come to the reader with a specific frame that underscores the intended separation between authorial voice and the voice of the subject. I include here, in particular, Edward Hirsch’s “Paul Celan: A Grave and Mysterious Sentence.” Especially when accompanied by the remarks he makes in Blood to Remember, Hirsch’s representation of Celan’s voice, as well as Celan’s concerns following the war -- including the fate of his language and his own survival -- is rooted in verifiable details of his subject’s life and is shaped by the poet’s passion to bear witness to the truth, however complex and ragged it may be.

I suggest that the desire to speak in the voices of real or imagined victims, survivors (often quite capable of speaking for themselves, once they choose to address their personal histories), or perpetrators (most of whom have remained silent, in the aftermath of their crimes) too often leads to misguided projects that delegitimize the voices of the living and rebury the voices of the dead. This seems to me a perverse and, at times, obscene outgrowth of the postmodern inclination to relativize and neutralize all things by making all subjects available and, if possible, interchangeable and equal in value. For too many American poets, this murky picture of the actual presents them with no incontestable reason to hold back from imagining the “unimaginable,” to resist speaking as Hitler or revealing a possible, yet false, death for Anne Frank. In a world in which the Holocaust itself has repeatedly been called into question -- in which those who have our ear can deny the reality that hundreds of thousands of still living survivors experienced and remember, that General Eisenhower and thousands of American GIs under his command stood shocked and silent before -- in such a world, in which a literary fraud can pass as a stand-in for the real, as if the real wasn’t actual, wrenching, haunting, or persuasive enough, it seems essential that we honor the genuine article, authentic voice. In the writing of Holocaust poetry, the dramatic monologue is rarely the appropriate vehicle to carry this burden.

Charles Adés Fishman
April 2009


Books and Articles Referred to:

Fishman, Charles. Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust (Texas Tech University Press, 1991).

Fishman, Charles Adés. Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust. Rev. Second Ed. (Time Being Books, 2007).

Heifetz, Julie N. Oral History and the Holocaust Pergamon Press, 1985).

Hirsch, Edward. “Paul Celan: A Grave and Mysterious Sentence,” in Wild Gratitude (Alfred A. Knopf, 1986).

Hyett, Barbara Helfgott. In Evidence: Poems on the Liberation of Nazi Concencentration Camps (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986).

Reznikoff, Charles. Holocaust (Black Sparrow Press, 1975).

Rich, Adrienne. Section XXII, from “Sources,” in Your Native Land, Your Life (W.W. Norton, 1986).

Snodgrass, W. D. The Führer Bunker: The Complete Cycle (BOA Editions, 1995).

Williams, C. K. “A Day for Anne Frank,” in A Day for Anne Frank (Houghton Mifflin,1968).

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Permeability of Memory -- A Book of Poems by Helen Eisen

Recently, I read a book of poems about the Holocaust and the years in the DP camps by Helen Eisen called The Permeability of Memory. The book drew me in because Helen does something that I find myself unable to do.

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I've written a lot about my father and mother and their experiences in the concentration camps but I've seldom been able to write about my own memories of my experiences in the refugee camps, the DP camps, after the war. Part of this, I'm sure is my inability to remember much about those times. I was born in 1948 and left the camps in 1951 to come to America with my parents. Another part of this, however, I think, is my sense that my story -- as opposed to the story of my parents and the people of their generation -- is nothing. I find it almost impossible to think of my parents' experiences within the context of my experiences. I can't think about that connection. When I write, I write about them. I seldom appear in my poems. Sometimes, I feel that I don't know how to talk about myself in relationship to my parents.

Helen Eisen, however, has somehow found a way of connecting herself to her past and her parents in ways I can't, and I admire her writing and her gift for doing this.

I asked her a couple questions about memory and about the title of her work The Permeability of Memory.

Here's what I wrote to her:

The Permeability of Memory? Can you please explain the title? Memory is something that really interests me. I write a lot about my parents and I know that my memories of their past don't always line up with their memories of their past or my sister's memories of the past. In fact, I wrote a poem about the distance between my mom's memories and mine. It's called "My Mother Reads My Poem 'Cattle Train to Magdeburg.'" In addition, my mother didn't want to share her memories for a long time, while my dad was always interested in doing so.

Here's Helen Eisen's response to my questions:

I also find memory fascinating, what it is, how it works, how it's transmitted. I meant the title to talk to that-- how memories are passed on, the movement of memory over time and distance. I think it is lovely that you use the word "distance" when you say in your email, "I wrote a poem about the distance between my mother's memories and mine." At different times I've been asked, "When did you first learn about the Holocaust?" (By the way, we never used the term. We just called it the war. It's like if a relative were standing in your kitchen dressed in an old bathrobe and you say, "Mr. Buckleboren, what would you like for breakfast today? I do hope we can appropriately accommodate you.") The thing is I don't remember when I learned about the war, it's like I always knew about it, which of course at some level I did. Its effects, if not the actual verbalized memories, were transmitted by my parents and the other survivors that used to visit our apartment, but seemed to live with us. Their visits were never just visits. And with them came all the memories, like butter spread on rye and radishes in the cottage cheese. Everyone disagreed about the wheres and whens, and there was a lot of (to me bizarre) laughter. I'd stay very quiet and listen, trying to make sense of it all. I have memories of hiding under the kitchen table, but I don't believe I really did because it was a small table. But I think I imagined this memory because I knew if they became aware of me in the room they'd shoo me out, so how would I have stayed in the room if I wasn't hiding?

To return to my explanation: I learned about the war through the memories of my parents, which they relayed verbally and non-verbally. (Father much more verbal and very, very confusing). Memories live (and die) in the body. I think the non-verbal transmission was more potent, more constant/consistent, more direct, more exact--even if I can't translate this exactness. All mothers sigh, no mother sighs like my mother. She is holding me as a baby, and when she let them other women in the DP camp held me. What passed through them to the children, in my case, to me? I'm sure the particular tensing of their muscles, their breath, their scent, all their vital, non-verbal, sub-vocal, innate and learned vocabularies left some kind of imprint.

Mostly knowledge of the war--my memories of the war--came through the body of my mother. I think memories live in the body, and die, change, devolve, grow, dependent like anything else on relative conditions and context. Who is listening? What's the temperature when I'm talking? How well do I remember this recipe when I'm starving? When I'm full?

From the body of my mother to my body. I see it as a kind of osmosis--the permeability of the membranes between us, and the membranes between memories within her. What she's closed off, what she's let through. How far through? What's the resistance to letting me see them, letting me in, how much of it because she wants to keep me out, how much because she wants me to see because she is alone there, but doesn't want to want me to be there.

Osmotic passage occurs from the more dense to the less dense. From my mother's milk, I drew my breath, and she filled me.

Here's one of the poems from Helen Eisen's Permeability of Memory:


Was starving
Was starving
After the war
Was another war
My mother my mother
Was starving
After the war
She stuffed food into me
Because she was starving
After the war during
Which she was starving
She stuffed food into me
Because she was starving
I can see her pushing the food into my mouth
I cannot feel I cannot feel the food pushing into the mouth
I can see my mother
For the food she put into me
To feed herself
My mother pushed food into me
To feel herself
While she was starving all of the life pushed
To feed herself
To feel herself
I can't feel the food
Or taste
What my mother fed me
She took
The food away
From herself
I can see her starving
To feed me
Greasy lamb from her fingers
Here taste
Of her saliva
On my tongue
My mother
I loved her
I fed her


Helen Eisen's The Permeabilty of Memory is published by Cherry Pie Press. You can read more about the book by clicking here.