Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Holocaust's Uneasy Relationship With Literature

The following article appears in the Dec. 28, 2010 issue of The Atlantic Monthly:

Literature and the Holocaust have a complicated relationship. This isn't to say, of course, that the pairing isn't a fruitful one—the Holocaust has influenced, if not defined, nearly every Jewish writer since, from Saul Bellow to Jonathan Safran Foer, and many non-Jews besides, like W.G. Sebald and Jorge Semprun. Still, literature qua art—innately concerned with representation and appropriation—seemingly stands opposed to the immutability of the Holocaust and our oversized obligations to its memory. Good literature makes artistic demands, flexes and contorts narratives, resists limpid morality, compromises reality's details. Regarding the Holocaust, this seems unconscionable, even blasphemous. The horrors of Auschwitz and Buchenwald need no artistic amplification.

Since the genre emerged, this has been the defining stance of Holocaust literature—that a work's verisimilitude, or its truth-value, far outweighs its literary merit. The memoir, the first-person unembellished account, has long been considered the apotheosis of the form. Or even, according to some, the only acceptable form—confining Holocaust literature to documentation, and reflexively censuring everything else for crassly misrepresenting the unrepresentable.

Elie Wiesel—the personification of Holocaust remembrance—is the fiercest exponent of art's illegitimacy with respect to the Holocaust. "Then, [Auschwitz] defeated culture; later, it defeated art," he wrote. "The truth of Auschwitz remains hidden in its ashes." Theodore Adorno's famous dictum, that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric, has been frequently invoked to criticize any artistic appropriation of the Holocaust.

The apprehension is certainly understandable. The Holocaust is, 60-plus years later, still politicized, and suspect to questionable artistic ambitions and misleading emphases and glosses; the six million deserve unqualified deference, not just our idle respect. Apprehension, however, shouldn't precipitate repudiation; and Holocaust literature's potential shouldn't be understated (or denied), nor its definition misconstrued.

Too many critics, instead of assessing and parsing and criticizing (in the healthiest sense), treat Holocaust works as inviolable, beyond judgment or even approach. Such sacralization is a disservice, smothering the critical dialogue that great literature engenders. Ruth Franklin's new book, A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction, is therefore more than a towering work of criticism and insight—it's an invaluable corrective. Franklin, the in-house critic at The New Republic, seeks to reclaim Holocaust literature as just that—literature about and inspired by the Holocaust—and to reaffirm its significance.

The memoir's primacy over 'standard' literature is misguided for two overlapping reasons: first, the distinction between the two is deceivingly small; and second, their respective functions are aligned. Franklin devotes each chapter to a major Holocaust work (or body of works), from Night to Schindler's List, repeatedly demonstrating just how slippery and arbitrary the division between fact and fiction really is. Because the memoir as unfiltered actuality is a myth. Fickle and unreliable memories must be reconstructed and made coherent; a story's assembly, style, and characterization will inevitably compromise any strict retelling. Emphatically, this does not mean the work is less autobiographically or historically valid—only that it is never pure autobiography or history, and has to be understood and embraced thus. Truth isn't synonymous with historicity, and infidelity to the latter isn't necessarily betrayal of the former.

Even Wiesel's Night, when compared to his autobiography, All Rivers Run to the Sea, betrays some artistic license: Moshe the Beadle is, in fact, a composite character, and much of Wiesel's ordeal was excised and sharpened for Night's publication. (The original Yiddish manuscript was, Weisel himself reports, more than 800 pages long, about 700 pages longer than the finished product.) The Diary of Anne Frank was edited by Anne herself, then further edited (and censored) by her father, Otto. (Later, playwrights cut and reworked passages for a decidedly more universal and cheery flavor. Diary, in book and stage form, is for many the primary (or only) exposure to the Holocaust, and serves as a cautionary demonstration of art's role in shaping historical perspective.)

The line between novel and memoir, between story and history, is fine indeed. Franklin illustrates how many exemplary (though not necessarily renowned) Holocaust works dance between genres—and are no less valuable for it. In Piotr Rawicz's Blood From the Sky , the narrator (who may or may not be a survivor) patches together a semi-invented character's chaotic manuscript, with dates and names changed or omitted, all amid surrealist elements. W.G. Sebald blends facts and borrows histories and layers narration to produce his masterpieces. Jakob Littners Aufzeichnungen aus einem Erdloch is a book originally believed to be fiction and later discovered to be based on fact (its history is a dizzying stream of authorships, ghost-authorships, translations, and revisions, all superbly traced by Franklin); and despite its shifting context, it retains its value (albeit in various currencies).

Memoirs, even Holocaust memoirs, might be properly understood as, or at least overlapping with, literature. This is no downgrade. Literature is supplementary, not antithetical, to history: it allows, and in the best instances demands readers to universalize, empathize, to visualize and imagine, not merely to be informed. Testimony is critical, of course, as are scholarship and personal histories. The Holocaust is one of the most thoroughly documented events in history, and still entirely resists comprehension. The unadorned facts and uninflected history—pictures, texts, accounts—are almost unbearably distressing. Viewing images of stacked corpses or skimming meticulously organized lists of dead children or hearing of the unlimited fuel for the ovens, what soul doesn't collapse?

Literature, though, affects us in ways that even the most brutal history cannot. It vivifies and propels an event, however geographically and temporally and psychologically removed, towards the personal and immediate. If history teaches and (harshly) informs, then literature rouses and intimately disturbs. Literature is an emotional chronicle, a history of the intangible, a quest to impart sentiment, not information. Conveyance of the Holocaust is an impossible but necessary appeal to our imagination; and literature is the pathos to history's logos. Not merely learning about, but identifying with.

Memoirs are surely part of this legacy. Night's power isn't derived only from its harrowing story, but from its unflinching, deceptively plain delivery of that story, as well. Like other celebrated Holocaust works, it hits a perfect emotional pitch, if you will; notes of tragedy in agonizingly effective arrangement—an arrangement that's measured, appreciated, and felt with literary instruments. Knowing the history isn't enough: literature—and humanism in general—is, as Franklin points out, the spiritual retort to the Nazis' crazed and brutal program of dehumanization. It's more than memory that we must keep alive. Literature reminds us that significance isn't time-dependent, that empathy isn't delimited by proximity, that victims aren't statistics. For the role of Holocaust literature—the eternal role of literature, period—is to make it new again, to make it real, to make it felt.


This article available online at:

Copyright © 2010 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Ostatni Etap--The Last Stage: One of the first films about Auschwitz

The following article about Ostatni Etap, one of the first films about Auschwitz, was written by John Bertram and first appeared at his blog Venus Febriculosa:

I first learned about the existence of this relatively obscure (in the United States, anyway) film while perusing a gallery of vintage Polish film posters. My eye was immediately caught by one similar to the original cover for We Were in Auschwitz designed by Anatol Girs. Its designer, Tadeusz Trepkowski (1914-1954), a largely self-taught artist from Warsaw, was one of the original graphic designers commissioned after World War II by Film Polski and Central Wynajmu Filmow (state-run film producers and distributors) to design film posters. The film Ostatni Etap was a semi-autobiographical story about prison life in the women’s barracks at Auschwitz.

A member of the Polish resistance during the war, director and co-writer Wanda Jakubowska (1907-1998) was arrested in 1942 and spent six months in Warsaw’s Pawiak prison before being sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau where, she says, “the decision to make a film…originated when I crossed the camp’s gate.” A member of the camp resistance, she was moved to the Rajsko, an experimental agricultural station and one of more than 40 sub-camps, and in early 1945 was transferred to Ravensbruck where she was liberated by the Soviet Army. Once free, Jakubowska immediately began work on the script with another survivor Gerda Schneider, a German Communist, based exclusively on events witnessed by them and their fellow prisoners. By the end of the year they had produced a first draft and, returning to Auschwitz in the spring of 1946 where she had decided to film, she was shocked to find “daisies of monstrous proportions and exuberant, indescribable vegetation on the soil that was fertilized by blood and sweat.”

Filming at Auschwitz-Birkenau began in the spring of the following year. Actors, many of whom were originally interned at Auschwitz, lived in the former barracks and instead of costumes wore authentic striped prison uniforms. One actor noted that “the air was filled with a characteristic unpleasant smell that had a depressing effect on us.” As harrowing as the movie is, Jakubowska notes that “the camp’s reality was human skeletons, piles of dead bodies, lice, rats, and various disgusting diseases. On the screen this reality would certainly cause dread and repulsion. It was necessary to eliminate those elements which, although authentic and typical, were unbearable for the post-war viewer.”

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Released in Poland in March 1948 barely three years after Auschwitz was liberated, Ostatni etap was the second film produced by Film Polski and the first Polish film to get international distribution. Writing in The New York Times upon the occasion of the film’s U.S. release in March 1949, Bosley Crowther points out:

“ …the story itself is secondary…to the staggering accumulation of daily atrocities, seen in the pattern of the story through a pitilessly factual camera’s eye. From the opening shot in the death camp, showing the brutality of a guard to a pregnant girl, standing among a group of women in a dreary sea of mud, the film is a continuation of horrifying episodes which make up a modest realization of the inhumanity of the Nazi camps.

There is the episode, for instance, of the murder of the baby born to the suffering girl. There is the arrival of a trainload of Jewish prisoners who are brutally separated, some to be gassed. There are terrifying scenes of the inmates being driven and beaten in the prison yard while a band plays serenely cheerful music under the baton of an agonized girl. And there is one simply overwhelming sequence of little children being marched off to be killed, with a cut of their discarded toys piled up among the relics of all the dead. There are also recognitions of the frailties of the inmates themselves, revealed in vicious and deceitful stratagems and deeds.”

Interestingly, Wanda Jakubowska’s creative arc parallels that of Tadeusz Borowski’s: imprisoned at Pawiak, then Auschwitz, shortly thereafter producing an authentic, unflinching landmark work based upon harrowing experiences. However, whereas Borowski’s stories remain completely free of any trace of ideology, in Ostatni etap, Jakubowska’s Communist leanings are clear to the point that to some the propagandist nature of the film (at one point, for instance, Stalin’s name is reverently invoked) leave it irrevocably compromised. Still, it remains a valuable document for its powerful imagery that has served as template for numerous subsequent films on Auschwitz.

Special thanks to Polish film historian Professor J. Marek Haltof of Northern Michigan University whose book Polish National Cinema (New York/Oxford, 2002) and essay “The Monstrosity of Auschwitz in Wanda Jakubowska’s The Last Stage (1948)” provided indispensable background material for this post.

For more information, see Women in Polish Cinema, Chapter 8, Wanda Jakubowska: The Communist Fighter, by Ewa Mazierska.


To read more about women and what happens to them in war, please click to my post Women in War.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

New Tadeusz Borowski Collection

This October, Yale University Press will release a new collection of stories by Tadeusz Borowski (1922-1951). Here in Our Auschwitz and Other Stories, translated by Madeline Levine, offers “the first authoritative translation of Borowski’s prose fiction, including numerous stories that have never appeared in English before.”

Arrested and taken to Auschwitz in 1943, Borowski is one of the most important writers of the Holocaust. His book of stories, This Way For the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, is essential reading about what happened in Auschwitz.

The following poem by Borowski is taken from a site dedicated to his poetry. To read other poems click here.


I did not join the Home Army
I did not work for the Resistance.
I spent my nights studying
at the underground university.

My friends looked death in the face,
many were killed, as in any battle,
and I wrote about Liebert,
Staff, epithets and rhythm.

I did not smuggle goods to Warsaw,
I never went to trendy bars.
I wrote poems. Not for fame,
but because I had to. Trifles. Youth.

I was not a gold broker,
I didn't know the rates of exchange.
I had a girl. Long nights, my love ...
Where is she? Torture ...

That was my life ... poems, love,
without character, empty, pale.
Perhaps it would not have been wasted
if I'd killed just one single German.


By the way, there is a competition to design a cover for This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman. To read about it, click here.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Code Name: Zegota: Rescuing Jews in Occupied Poland, 1942-1945: The Most Dangerous Conspiracy

Irene Tomaszewski and Tecia Werbowski have recently published the American edition of their book about Polish attempts to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Code Name: Zegota: Rescuing Jews in Occupied Poland, 1942-1945: The Most Dangerous Conspiracy in Wartime Europe tells the story of the only secret organization in occupied Europe set up for the sole purpose of saving Jews. The first book on the subject in English, it details the danger and complexity behind Zegota rescue attempts, clarifying the relationship of the Germans, who had total control; the Poles, who were relegated to sub-human status and treated as slave labor; and the Jews, designated nonhuman and collectively condemned to death. Illuminating the moral dilemmas that arose as one life was pitted against another under the lawless apartheid conditions created by the Nazis, Code Name: Zegota explores the critical situation in occupied Poland and the personalities that responded to desperate conditions with a mix of courage and creativity. It profiles the key players and the network behind them and describes the sophisticated organization and its mode of operation. The cast of characters ranges from members of prewar Poland's cultural and political elite to Girl Guides and Boy Scouts, who worked as couriers. As this inspiring book shows, all of these brave souls risked torture, concentration camps, and death—and many paid the price.


The book is available from Greenwood Press and Amazon.

Irene Tomaszewski is one of the editors of Cosmopolitan Review.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Prism: Spring 2010

The latest issue of Prism (volume 1, issue 2) is now available. Earlier, Charles Fishman conducted an extensive interview with Dr. Karen Shawn of Yeshiva University regarding this journal devoted to Holocaust educators.

The recently-published issue of PRISM discusses the complex story of those who remained bystanders during the Holocaust. The short story “Prelude” by American author and child of Jewish Lithuanian immigrants, Albert Halper, serves as the literary centerpiece of the spring issue. Readers will find a wealth of essays, poetry, art, and archival photographs on this complex subject

Editors Karen Shawn and Jeffrey Glanz of Prism have generously offered to send complimentary copies of the journal to our readers. For a complimentary copy of Prism, please send your complete mailing address to

Friday, April 9, 2010

Years Later We Would Remember

Years Later We Would Remember is the forthcoming memoir and film from Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Martin Kent, who has made over 60 films, including a documentary on Oskar Schindler for A&E’s popular Biography series. Of the current work-in-progress, Schindler’s List author Thomas Keneally wrote: “I found it enlightening and engrossing.” Holocaust authority Dr. Michael Berenbaum said: “What results is a story of love and commitment amidst destruction, a glimpse into decency amidst death and devastation and of the price paid for love.”

Here is an excerpt from Years Later We Would Remember:

I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust. No grandparents. No aunts and uncles around. In their place — big black holes. While my parents tried to shield me from the details of the horrors they experienced in Poland during the 1930s and ‘40s, they couldn’t protect me from them. No one goes through something like that and leaves it behind. Misery, sorrow and pain are such clever hitchhikers.

Growing up in New York City during the ‘50s and ‘60s, my childhood outside my home was exciting, interesting, stimulating. But inside those four walls, I felt like I was living within a box – one that contained a giant jigsaw puzzle. Many of the pieces were not exactly missing; some were faded, or frayed, and hard to discern; others were locked away – on purpose. My mother Roza (her American name) had a great capacity for joy, but she could also quickly slip into a state of melancholy. My father Jack (also his American name) was remote, quiet, off at work all the time, and had little patience for the precocious, artistic, curious child I was. I had an older brother, Joseph, who found his own coping mechanism for our dysfunctional family. He was never home. We were four people living under the same roof. But we really weren’t a family. Our home was full of secrets. Full of walls. Full of feelings that were alternately repressed — or suddenly, explosively — released.

For most of my life, my parents’ story remained shrouded in mystery. It was something they just couldn’t bring themselves to talk about. At the age of nine, I was shocked to learn my father was Catholic. And yet, my mother was Jewish, and all the cousins we knew — all Holocaust survivors — were also Jewish. So not only was our refugee family different from most Americans, we were different from all our relatives. How did that happen? No explanations. Shhhhhh! Don’t ask questions. My mother and father were unknowable. So… if I couldn’t know my parents, how could I ever hope to truly know myself?

In 1963, when I was twelve years old, I got a glimpse into the mystery of my identity. After much talk and planning, my mother and I boarded an El Al jet and flew to Israel — to spend a summer with her surviving brother and sister, who’d emigrated to the Promised Land after surviving the ravages of Nazi-occupied Poland. We split our time between visits with her brother Jacob, who delivered baked goods in Tel Aviv, and her sister Clara, who ran a small farm with her husband Herman in Nahariya.

Two things struck me immediately about Israel: it felt like a frontier, a work in progress, lacking some of the conveniences we took for granted in America; and yet, everyone seemed happy. Really happy. Passionate. Excited. Hopeful. I never witnessed emotions like that before.

But the most incredible aspect of this experience was that at last, after feeling like an olive in a dish of cherries my whole life, I suddenly felt a sense of belonging. Not just with my aunt and uncle and their families — with whom I experienced an immediate bond of love — but with the whole country. Everywhere I went, I felt like I was with family. A taxi driver wasn’t just someone hired to take us from point A to point B. For a brief moment in time, he was a part of our journey. He wanted to know all about us. And he wanted to share things about himself as well. My big black holes of the Holocaust were now being bombarded with millions of sparks of light.

Until we left.

The first night away, I began to cry, and couldn’t help myself. When my mother asked me why I was suddenly so sad, I told her how much I missed my family in Israel. But my tears weren’t only for them. My mother had told me there were two other siblings — her older brothers Salo and Muno — resistance fighters murdered by the Nazis. I had never emotionally connected to them. They were just names. But now, having spent time with my mother’s surviving brother and sister, I suddenly felt the full weight of the loss of the two other brothers. My brave, beautiful uncles. How can you miss something you never had? You can’t. But somehow, I did. I missed Salo and Muno. I felt them. I loved them. I would never stop cherishing them.

The echoes of my summer in Israel never subsided. The door that had opened prompted me to become a person who would open as many doors as possible. I was fearless. I was determined to explore the world. To dig into the past. To uncover the motivations of people who shaped history. To just know things. I carved out a satisfying career as a journalist, an occasional university instructor and a documentary filmmaker (returning to Israel to make King David, and King Herod’s Lost City) — sharing my passions, telling other people’s stories.

Then in 1999, my life took an irrevocable turn. After the 1993 release of Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” based on Thomas Keneally’s 1982 book (originally entitled “Schindler’s Ark”), Hearst Entertainment hired me to write, produce and direct an A&E Biography of Oskar Schindler, the Nazi who saved over 1,200 Jews from certain death at the hands of his fellow Nazis. Was this by coincidence? Nothing happens by coincidence. This was my gateway to the dark days of the Holocaust. In the process of making this film, I interviewed survivors, Thomas Keneally, world-renowned Holocaust historian Dr. Michael Berenbaum, did all the necessary research and legwork, and looked at all the horrific film footage. When I told my mother about this project, she showed no surprise at all. “Oh, Oskar Schindler? Yes, I knew all about him. You remember my friend Sally Huppert? She was one of the people he saved.”

I considered the irony that one of the greatest stories of the 20th century had been right under my nose for all those years.

“Mom,” I said, “what other stories haven’t you told me about? Isn’t it finally time for you and dad to tell me what happened back in Poland?”

My mother took some time to consider what I had said, and the fact that I had been adequately inoculated by all my work on the Schindler documentary. One morning, she phoned me and said, “Ok, I’ve thought about it. I’m appointing you family historian.” We had had a historian in our family. The late Dr. Philip Friedman, widely considered the father of Holocaust history, was our cousin. Could I walk in his giant footsteps?

At long last my mother felt I was ready to face the demons and ghosts she and my father had tried to tamp down in that jigsaw box for a lifetime. They too had to face them. It was difficult for both of them to delve into their tragic past, but they did it, and they did it for me. Often with tears. Often with self-imposed interruptions, when the burden of memory threatened to crush them.

I spent a year interviewing my parents and doing background research. The story was revealed gradually. Like some sacred, mystical text, it required study, meditation and a pilgrimage. I felt compelled to make a trip to Poland, a place I’d never wanted to visit. I needed to experience total immersion in this process. But by this time, my mother was too frail to make the trip. Still, there was no turning back. I packed a video camera and embarked on a journey to spend nearly a month on the road with a stranger – a man I hardly knew — my father. I had to learn the true story of my parents’ survival and unravel the personas of the two people whom I’d sought to know and understand my whole life.

In Poland, as I walked on ground that held the blood and ashes of millions of murdered souls, I pointed my camera at my father and all the places he wanted to show me. I found out that over half a century ago, my father Olek (his Polish name), a brash Polish Catholic boy of 19, had met my mother Ziuta (as she was known back then), a terrified Jewish girl of 20, when she was on the run after she’d survived two Nazi massacres of 6,500 Jews in her village, some 400 kilometers away from his. The Nazis had murdered her two older brothers, Salo and Muno, shortly after they’d gotten my mother out of the Jewish ghetto.

One day, she walked into the tavern that my father and his father Antoni ran, asking for a job. She was hired on the spot. Olek took an immediate liking to her. A few months later, in a private moment, he confessed to Ziuta the feelings that had grown and overwhelmed him. He told her he’d fallen in love with her.

She was shocked. “Well, I have a shock for you,” she replied. “I’m Jewish.” My father considered the full weight of what she’d said. And then, as only a 19-year-old with stars in his eyes and love in his heart could respond, he said: “You’re Jewish? That’s great! Now I can prove my love for you. I can lay my life on the line.” And he did just that. For two and a half years, they were on the run, with the Nazis at their heels. With bravado, with cunning, he protected her every step of that perilous journey. Or did his love for my mother create an ever-expanding state of grace? One that produced miracle after miracle. In any case, this is why I’m here today. My brother Joseph, too, who was born during that time.

In the course of my research, interviews and journey to Poland, I finally got to know and truly appreciate the wonderful, albeit strange people who’d raised me and made me who I am. When I returned to the United States, I sent a detailed account of this story, along with supporting documentary evidence, to Yad Vashem in Israel. About a year and a half later, they came to a decision. On Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, 2003, in a packed ceremony at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles — before the Mayor, and diplomats from Poland and Israel — Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the center, bestowed my father with Israel’s highest honor, the Righteous Among the Nations award — the very same medal of heroism Oskar Schindler had received. The story had come full circle.

My mother passed away on the night of January 16, 2009, at the age of 87. My father and I were at her bedside, holding her hands, telling her how much she was loved. She’d led a full and incredible life. I know I was blessed to have her as a mother. But twice blessed to have had the opportunity to discover the truth and meaning of the life she and my father had led before I came into this world. They were together for 67 years.

As for my father and I — we are no longer strangers. I won’t sugarcoat this — we can still get under each other’s skin. But I see him with greater clarity now. I have more compassion for the man. Love doesn’t even begin to describe my feelings for him.

The ghosts and demons my parents tried to keep from me for nearly a lifetime are still there. But they’re no longer a gnawing mystery. I’ve shared a vodka with them. I’ve looked into their eyes. They no longer have power over me.

As difficult as my experiences were, I have no regrets about the doors I chose to open and enter. I hope our family story inspires others to open some new doors — to look inside, to fathom the mysteries of the heart, family, and discover stories never known. I hope it inspires tolerance of those who pray to a different deity, look different, or look at the world differently. And lastly, I hope it inspires unconditional love – not just romantic love, but the love of fellow human beings. We needed that so much back then. We certainly need it now.


About Martin Kent:

Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Martin Kent has made over 60 documentaries during his distinguished career. His work, seen by 100 million viewers, has been critically acclaimed and featured on NBC, ABC, PBS, A&E, History Channel, Discovery, TLC, Animal Planet, Fox Sports and VH1, among others. Mr. Kent’s most recent documentary is Oil Apocalypse, currently in rotation on the History Channel. He is in production on Years Later We Would Remember, a documentary focusing on love and heroism during the Holocaust. Mr. Kent was a founding production executive of the E! Channel. He began his career as a print journalist; his work appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times syndicate, and other noteworthy publications. From 1979-82 he was Editor of the Hollywood Reporter; his significant contributions to the improvement of that paper were reported in Time magazine. Mr. Kent holds a Masters Degree in Broadcast Communications from Stanford University and has taught and lectured at UCLA.

To view Martin’s work please visit:

To learn more about Martin, please visit: or

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Life Isn't Beautiful by Cynthia Ozick

Since starting Writing the Holocaust in April 2009, one of the questions that my co-editor Charles Fishman and I have been interested in examining is how the Holocaust is represented. As part of this discussion, Charles posted his essay "Some Cautions on Writing Holocaust Poetry" and discussed questions of representation with poet Louis Daniel Brodsky in both Part 1 and Part 2 of the interview we recently published here.

Recently in the March 15, 2010 edition of Newsweek, novelist and essayist Cynthia Ozick published a compelling article called "Life Isn't Beautiful" about how the Holocaust is depicted.

Here are the opening paragraphs of her essay. The remainder is available online at Newsweek:

Life Isn’t Beautiful
Not all Holocaust art is authentic. In fact, much of it is fraudulent.

By Cynthia Ozick | NEWSWEEK

Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway-Car

here in this carload
i am eve
with abel my son
if you see my older son
cain son of man
tell him that i

—Dan Pagis (from the Hebrew)

In "Commitment," his 1963 essay, the philosopher Theodor Adorno remarked that writing poetry in the deadly wake of Auschwitz would be "barbaric." Since then, "after the Holocaust, no poetry" has become a kind of overriding moral mantra, with "poetry" encompassing not writing alone but standing for art in general. Yet the making of art cannot be stopped by a powerful phrase, however renowned or revered: plays, novels, poems, songs, symphonies, films, paintings, sculptures, all stream from a source that will not be stilled. Imagination demands its rights: to impress, to move, to feel, to heighten, to interpret, to transmute.

And to lie.

Consider a handful of movies that profess to render the Holocaust. "Life Is Beautiful," a naive, well-intentioned, preposterous, painfully absurd, and ignorant lie. "Inglourious Basterds," a defamation, a canard—what Frederic Raphael, writing in Commentary, calls "doing the Jews a favor by showing that they, too, given the chance, coulda/woulda behaved like mindless monsters," even as he compares it to "Jew Süss," the notorious Goebbels film. "The Reader," like the novel it derives from, no better than Nazi porn, and drawn from the self-serving notion that the then most literate and cultivated nation in Europe may be exculpated from mass murder by the claim of illiteracy. As for Schindler's List, its most honest moment, after its parade of fake-looking victims, comes at the very close of the film, and in documentary mode, when the living survivors appear on screen.

So where can the truth be found? In Anne Frank's diary? Yes, but the diary, intended as a report, as a document, can tell only a partial and preliminary truth, since the remarkable child was writing in a shelter—precarious, threatened, and temporary; nevertheless a protected space. Anne Frank did not, could not, record the atrocity she endured while tormented by lice, clothed in a rag, and dying of typhus in Bergen-Belsen. For what we call "truth" we must go into the bottom-most interior of that hell. And as Primo Levi admonishes, only the dead went down to the Nazi hell's lowest rung....


The entire essay is available online at Newsweek. Please click here.

Ozick's most recent book is a collection of stories called Dictation: A Quartet.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

An Interview with Louis Daniel Brodsky: Part II

By Charles Fishman

This second part of my interview with Louis Daniel Brodsky continues with our discussion of his Holocaust poetry and explores our differing views regarding the writing of poetry on the Shoah. (To view the first part click here.)

CF: Please comment on your collaboration with William Heyen on the breakthrough book, Falling from Heaven. Did you or Bill initiate that project?

LDB: In 1990, feeling extraordinary respect for Bill Heyen's Holocaust poetry, I invited him to join me in blending our different heritages, religions, and voices in what I believed could be a very evocative and resonant book. In June 1991, Time Being Books published Falling from Heaven: Holocaust Poems of a Jew and a Gentile. Both of us contributed twenty-five of our strongest Holocaust poems, which we chose to alternate in five parts. Many of Bill's poems came from his book Erika: Poems of the Holocaust. All of mine were new, written after The Thorough Earth. As awful as the subject matter is, the book was very satisfying, and, in December 1992, Time Being Books released my book Gestapo Crows: Holocaust Poems. Then in May 1998, The Eleventh Lost Tribe: Poems of the Holocaust was also published by Time Being Books.

By that time, I'd been writing Holocaust poems with dizzying frequency. They simply wouldn't release me from their throes, give me any kind of peace at all, rather kept assaulting my sensibility, as though fearing that were they to stop, I might stop paying attention to them, composing them into life, out of death, nothingness. So, I persevered, shaping two new books, which I hoped would appear, in 2000 and 2001, respectively: Rabbi Auschwitz: Poems of the Shoah and The Swastika Clock: Holocaust Poems.

But a major event no one could have anticipated sidetracked my publication schedule. 9/11 threw everything I'd intended to do into disarray. It distracted my focus, compelled me to write five volumes of a book called Shadow War: A Poetic Chronicle of September 11 and Beyond, and it kept my focus distracted during the eight years of the George W. Bush administration, writing satirical and venomous political poems.

Despite this detour, in 2008, I completed my seventh Holocaust book, The Location of the Unknown: Shoah Poems, and, in 2009, Kampf: Poems of the Holocaust, both of which will likely remain unpublished for the next five or six years.

CF: So nearly a decade after the trauma of 9/11 and with “W” fading into the blur of memory, you decided to bring out the two collections on the Shoah you had expected to issue in 2000 and 2001: Rabbi Auschwitz, which came out last month, and The Swastika Clock, which Time Being Books will publish in 2011. What do you hope to accomplish by releasing such similar books so closely together?

LDB: Why will these two books come out so close together? Because they need to breathe, need their release, their freedom, from me, so that they can have their vehemently uncompromising, unforgetting, unforgiving voices made manifest. It makes no difference how close together they appear, since no matter when they're published — one, five, ten, twenty years apart — they'd still be close together, kin, brethren, tribe, in spirit, because they're part of the family of six million that, in perishing, will always live close, inextricably close. All that matters is that they achieve existence, be, and, in being, exterminate, eradicate, silence silence — the sooner the better. Too soon is decidedly not nearly soon enough, since silence is the ally of apathy, and apathy, smugness, indifference are the Satanic trinity of manifest evil, and evil is the be-all-and-end-all enemy of whatever's left after death abandons mankind to its own signature murderous rapaciousness.

CF: Falling from Heaven showed how much you admire William Heyen's poems on the Shoah. To what extent do you feel his 1977 book The Swastika Poems, and his subsequent books on this subject, Erika: Poems of the Holocaust (Vanguard, 1984 and later editions) and Shoah Train (Etruscan Press, 2003), have influenced your own work and the work of other poets? Is the title of one of your forthcoming booklength collections, The Swastika Clock, meant to acknowledge your debt to Heyen's work in The Swastika Poems?

LDB: I can't really speak for other poets, but I do know that he's had a strong presence in my mind. I don't feel I've borrowed anything specifically from Bill's work. His rhythms, meters, phraseology, his syntax and voice are altogether different from mine. Most significantly, he writes from what he reads, almost exclusively, it seems to me, not so much from his guts, blood, raw emotion, but from his exceedingly brilliant and highly honed intellect. Imagination isn't his starting point, though he has a splendid imagination; rather, he chooses to exercise restraint, so careful is he to keep his distance while going as close as he dares to what he sees as the sacredness of their bones, souls. My poetry is more of a lyrical and narrative variety, lyrical in the sense that I rely heavily on assonance, internal rhyming; narrative in the sense that I prefer to weave stories, shy away from purely imagistic and metaphorical evocations and distillations. Having said this, I believe that Bill's achievements, his creations, have had a strong effect on my desire to write Holocaust poems as honestly and powerfully and poignantly and plaintively as I possibly can. When I first read Erika, back in 1989, I had just finished working on The Thorough Earth, and I was so very exhilarated to find a fellow poet working so strenuously, so passionately, so compassionately in this vein. I remember writing a very effusive letter to Bill, telling him how moved I was by his book, how much I wanted to meet him.

As for the title of my 2011 book, The Swastika Clock, it in no way reflects any artistic indebtedness to Bill's precursor to Erika The Swastika Poems. As I've said, Bill's influence on me has everything to do with pure admiration, respect, awe, nothing at all to do with stylistic matters. Though kindred, our sensibilities are aesthetically and artistically far apart. To take this further, though I've read a reasonable amount of Holocaust literature, I can honestly say that there are no sources from which I've borrowed other than from my own reservoir of intuition and imagination.

CF: Which other writers have had an impact on the writing you have done in response to the Shoah?

LDB: I like the word "impact," as you use it. It seems much more effective to me than "influence," since my mind is open to being moved by something without being moved to emulate it stylistically.

There are specific books that have had an inexpressible but overarching impact on my emotions, so powerfully that they've moved me to the kind of tears that are located so deep in my psyche and the cells of my body that I've felt compelled to find my own words, to portray my agony.

I've already mentioned Jean-François Steiner's Treblinka and Thomas Kenneally's Schindler's Ark (published in this country as Schindler's List). Certainly, Elie Wiesel's little big book, Night, dismantled me, brought my heart to its knees. William Styron's Sophie's Choice is a book no one should overlook. Badenheim: 1939, by Ahron Appelfeld, bespelled me, with its mystical language and misty aura. Art Spiegelman's Maus I and II still turn me upside down every time I return to them. They're brilliant. Strangely, a rather sentimental book by Gerald Green, titled Holocaust, has called me back to its pages almost every other year, for the past two decades. Most recently, Bernhard Schlink's The Reader has reminded me, all over, how terribly beautiful the horrible things that happened in the Holocaust can be, if they're portrayed by a highly sensitive, intelligent, and compassionate writer. This book reinstills in me that original desire that drove me when I began to write Holocaust poems that can move the human heart to believe that its host just might transcend whatever is base in us.

Naturally, I've read myriad histories and memoirs about the Holocaust. Among those which stand out are Moments of Reprieve, The Drowned and the Saved, Survival in Auschwitz, and The Reawakening, all by Primo Levi; Man's Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl; The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War, by Martin Gilbert; Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII, by John Cornwell; IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America's Most Powerful Corporation, by Edwin Black; My German Question: Growing Up in Nazi Berlin, by Peter Gay; The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany, by William L. Shirer; The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941–1945, by David S. Wyman; and Łódź Ghetto: Inside a Community Under Siege, edited by Alan Adelson and Robert Lapides.

Interestingly, the great Holocaust poets have had far less of an impact on my writing, and I've certainly read the best of them — Radnóti, Sutzkever, Celan, Borowski, Sachs, Glatstein, and Klepfisz, among them. Possibly, this is because I wouldn't want to ever echo any other poet. Possibly, my own poetic voice is so strong that it doesn't allow me to be as receptive as I might otherwise be. Also, with regard to the foreign poets I just mentioned, it's because translations, no matter how excellent they are, always remind me that the real poetry remains in the mother tongue and necessarily must be read in that tongue. Of this, I speak with a degree of authority. Two of my Holocaust books, The Thorough Earth, translated by Jean Lambert as Le Terre Avide, and Falling from Heaven: Holocaust Poems of a Jew and a Gentile, translated by Rachel Ertel as Chassés du Paradis: Poèmes de l'Holocauste à Deux Voix, both published by Éditions Gallimard, in 1992 and 1997, respectively, seem, to me, to have lost much of their mellifluity, music, and assonance, in translation.

CF: Time Being Books has published other Holocaust-related collections, perhaps most notably the revised, second edition of my anthology, Blood To Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust (2007), but also William Heyen's Erika: Poems of the Holocaust; Harry James Cargas's Telling the Tale: A Tribute to Elie Wiesel on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday – Essays, Reflections, and Poems; Norbert Krapf's Blue-Eyed Grass: Poems of Germany; Judith Chalmers's Out of History's Junk Jar: Poems of a Mixed Inheritance; Micheal O'Siadhail's The Gossamer Wall: Poems in Witness to the Holocaust; and my own collection, Chopin's Piano. Do you consider your responsibility, as a publisher, to include publishing books about the Holocaust? And are you currently thinking of publishing any new collections or anthologies of poetry that focus on the Holocaust?

LDB: I'll always be receptive to new books of Holocaust poetry. They're too important a contribution to humanity to dismiss. It's unlikely that Time Being Books will do another anthology. The splendid one you edited, Blood to Remember, was an undertaking of immense complexity and difficulty, for our small press. Our mission would be best served by our continuing to focus on individual volumes of poetry.

CF: Aside from Micheal O'Siadhail's collection, are you familiar with poetry on the Shoah that has been written by poets who are not Americans? If so, which poets' work would you most encourage followers of this blog to read?

LDB: Only those I've already mentioned.

CF: Among those poets whose work you follow, and who are still writing about the Shoah, what in their work do you find most powerful and significant?

LDB: I really can't answer this, since I don't follow any contemporary Holocaust writers.

CF: There are many as yet untranslated poems by Holocaust survivors. Would you commission work on a book of translations of these almost-lost poems?

LDB: I think the idea of bringing such work into public recognition is, per se, a noble idea. But personally, as I've said, I don't really trust translations to accurately convey authorial intention. I'd be very leery of having Time Being Books publish such a work.

CF: Do you believe the time will come when writing poems about the Holocaust will no longer be necessary?

LDB: Inherent in your question, as I see it, is a hypothetical scenario in which mankind has recreated the prelapsarian Garden of Eden. Even if this were to come about, I believe we'd still find the writing of poems about the Holocaust necessary, indispensable, if for no other reason than to remind ourselves to be alert for the viper, crawling on his belly, poised to beguile us with visions of power, superiority, annihilation.

CF: You have recently written poems in which you speak from the point of view of a Holocaust survivor, but you are not a survivor of the ghettoes and camps. How do you justify taking this approach in some of your recent poems when actual camp survivors are still living among us?

LDB: Just to qualify your question, let me say that I've not just recently written Holocaust poems using characters I invent, imagine, transfigure. I've been employing this approach, with all of my poems, from the very outset, back in the late sixties.

Debate has long raged about who is qualified to tackle the delicate topic of the Holocaust. Is it only the victims, survivors, and their families? Is it historians and documentary-makers? Or should the net be cast wider, to include those poets, painters, sculptors, dancers, musicians who have no familial connection with the Holocaust or are too young to have any firsthand knowledge of it, and if so, is there a place for fictional works?

When I first began my collaborative efforts with Bill Heyen, for the 1991 volume Falling from Heaven, I started to understand the scope of this issue, when he sent this response to my draft-work typescript for the poem "Under the Circumstances," which I'd intended to include in that book but decided not to, for needing to mull over his reservations about the poem, especially the lines "Who would ever have believed / We'd condone, let alone encourage, / Our own issue soliciting on street corners / Where our elite once converged, / Become History's pimps, / Forcing our daughters and wives / To go down on their backs, hoist knees, / And make their fleshy temples / Accessible to anyone with pfennigs for bread?" Bill said, "Strong, strong, but worries me: this is one of those poems where we have to be careful, careful how we speak for the dead. I'm not sure about the 'resignation' here. If this were taken from some definite testimony, that would be one thing. But to invent a Jew who speaks in these terms?"

Subsequently, in my 1992 book Gestapo Crows: Holocaust Poems, I chose to include the poem as I'd originally written it.

Under the Circumstances, Warsaw Ghetto, 1942

Surviving in the ghetto
Has its occasional consolations,
Its brief reprieves,
But they're not always easy to detect
When the cock crows with a loon's hysteria,
The stork refuses to transport cargo,
And the cuckoo ululates its idiotic ritual
Every hour, dark and light,
Intimating the Gestapo's imminent knock at the door.

Although the insomnious waiting is torture,
Horror does exempt us
From tending to chores, maintaining decorum.
No one expends much energy anymore
Lamenting each recent surrender to death.
We've even suspended teaching, praying,
Meeting collectively to discuss events
We've absolutely no say-so in swaying.
Resignation is easier to sustain than faith.

More to the point, who would have ever believed
We'd condone, let alone encourage,
Our own women's soliciting on street corners
Where our patricians once convened
Or that we would become history's pimps,
Forcing our wives and daughters
To lie down on their backs, spread their legs,
And make the gates of their temples
Accessible to anyone with pfennigs for bread?

CF: I understand that you felt compelled to disregard Bill’s caution flag, but why? Do you have evidence that any Jewish men trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto encouraged their “wives and daughters” to prostitute themselves?

LDB: It's all a matter of drama, poetic drama. For me, the facts are always subservient to the verities of the heart, truths derived from the long procession of civilization's degrading travails and noble accomplishments. Given sufficient desperation, I know, intuitively, as well as from personal experience, that people can bring themselves to commit any kind of inappropriate act that may seem appropriate, at the time, to alleviate their distress. I have not relied on oral testimonies or memoirs, as "evidence," to tell me how people can, should, must, do act. I rely on my own gut instincts, in any given situation I create, any dramatic scene I set for the characters I place in the vast panoply of my Holocaust dramas. Given the looming presence of devastating starvation and horrific fear, a person can be driven to anything, even something as unsacred, profane, heinous, monstrous as offering up a beloved wife to prostitution, a helpless, innocent child to its own death, if, somehow, doing so might allow that person to perpetuate his/her own life. Desperation does terrible things to the psyche, puts demands on moral rectitude and physical propriety that one could, would never, in his/her right mind, consider. And this is why I could not, finally, accept Bill Heyen's reservation. The only "definite testimony," as Bill referred to a proper source for my dramatization, in "Under the Circumstances," was, is, that which I derived from my own heart, my guts, my pounding blood, my trembling soul, as I wrote that poem through, to its profoundly painful closure. I had no choice but to accede to the poem's requirements.

And during correspondence with you, Charles, over the last few years, I've again faced the critical relevance of my fictional works, when discussing your perspectives, documented in the essay "Some Cautions on Writing Holocaust Poetry," in which you note that "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" and you deride the "hubris of those who would masquerade as survivors or invent dialogue for actual people who lived and died."

Speaking of fictional first-person Holocaust poems, you write, "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 [W. D. Snodgrass] 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?"

Such poems, you say, "occupy a space in which truth is virtually indistinguishable from fantasy, so that the real and the verifiable is trivialized and devalued. . . . 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."

You go on to 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 . . . 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 [and] 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."

While I concur that inventing a deceptive account of Anne Frank's death seemingly serves no constructive purpose, and although I've rarely attempted to depict the thoughts or words of a real person ("Himmler at Auschwitz, 1942" being a rare exception), I take great umbrage with the notion that creating a composite character of a victim or survivor might somehow "trivialize" the experience of an actual victim or survivor.

In fact, I feel that placing such constraints upon one's own writing (or that of others) is tantamount to stifling the poet's voice altogether — censorship. I agree that survivors' testimonies are essential, whether in prose or verse, yet I know that allowing only those who experienced the camps to write about the experience will eventually shut out the rest of the world, forcing that piece of history to disappear, quietly, with the last survivor.

CF: As publisher of the revised, second edition of Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust, you know I agree that poets who are not survivors of the camps must feel free to write in response to the Holocaust. That’s why my anthology foregrounds the work of more than two hundred poets, most of whom were not in Auschwitz or the thousands of other camps the Nazis and their collaborators established as short- or long-term holding pens for their victims. I also understand that there are shades of difference in the way each poet responds to the Holocaust and accept that there is no single path that is the correct one. Still, I regret the lack of a frame in some of the Holocaust poems you write. An epigraph to a poem like “Under the Circumstances” or a brief preface to a booklength volume like Rabbi Auschwitz could easily, and succinctly, make clear that the stories you have been inventing for us are not verifiable slices of history but are passionate attempts to awaken your readers and to enlighten them regarding the fate of Jews before, during, and after, the Shoah.

But please continue. I sense that you have more to say about your unapologetic, even insistent, use of “imaginary” and “composite” characters and about what irks you in the statements of critics.

LDB: What I find particularly disconcerting are the three words I've encountered, time and again, in deliberations over writing first-person verse about the Holocaust: "irreverence," "marginalization," and "exploitation."

Countering the perception of "irreverence," I would argue that a carefully conceived character (whether wholly invented or a subtle composite), speaking within his or her own present-tense realm, might actually strike a more immediate chord with the reader, thus potentially eliciting a deeper response than a third-person narrator ever could. I stand firm in my belief that my fictional Holocaust pieces (first-, second-, and third-person alike), as well as my many nonfictional, non-character-driven pieces, have the same purpose: they're meant to awaken the audience to a wider awareness, promote respect for those who suffered the atrocities, and spark deeper contemplation and thoughtful dialogue on a subject already too far removed from the public at large.

Similarly, "marginalization" implies that opening the topic up, to a substantially broader range of writers, somehow undercuts the authenticity of victims' and survivors' gut-wrenching personal experiences. To me, the reverse applies: the more voices that bring the subject to palpable, visceral life, the longer it will remain in the spirits and souls of the audience. And to silence the pens and tongues of those who did not witness the atrocities face to face, permitting only actual victims and survivors to create the art that will pass to future generations, is to create a hallowed but inaccessible oeuvre that, through circumscription, risks extinction.

In addressing the issue of "exploitation," it is perhaps best to draw a parallel to the realm of Renaissance art. Imagine the legacy, had the Vatican insisted that only men of the cloth — indeed only Adam and Eve or, to inflexibly hew to this notion, only God Himself — not sculptors and painters, be allowed to depict holy scenes from the Bible, in the Sistine Chapel and other houses of worship. It is known that such artists were often fulfilling commissions or obliging patrons, yet their works speak to their passion and dedication and to the selflessness of their labors, and, after so many centuries, still speak to us. When such art is encouraged, not suppressed, it fulfills its purpose, extending beyond often-sterile, -static historical chronicles, to become an emotive force that pushes the reader to think, feel, and learn about the experience, learn about himself, herself, in the deepest recesses of sensibility, psyche, soul.

Nonfictional Holocaust poems are frequently a mere regurgitation of the poet's own reading — delineating the war's progression or reciting various statistics about the victims. Charles Reznikoff's Holocaust, for example, which many regard as a sort of Holy Grail of Shoah poetry, seems to miss the point entirely. I can't help but question whether this book is really art at all, when Reznikoff is nothing more than a skillful editor, who brings a journalist's and lawyer's trained mind to the task of dramatizing dry testimony. His material is derived, entirely, from two major sources: Trials of War Criminals Before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals Under Control Council Law No. 10 and Verbatim Record of the Trial and Appeal of Adolf Eichmann: In the District Court of Jerusalem, Criminal Case No. 40/61: The Attorney-General of the Government of Israel v. Adolf, the son of Adolf Karl Eichmann. Minutes of Session No. 1-121; In the Supreme Court of Israel, Criminal Appeal No. 336/61. Minutes of Session No. 1-7 and Judgment. His "art" is one of appropriation, appropriation that's been rigorously edited. In doing this, Reznikoff makes a point of actually removing figurative language, finally excising whatever life there might be in the material presented by witnesses for the prosecution and the defense.

My Holocaust poetry requires, demands emotion, imaginary connection with existence at the edge of the precipice. My art asks, of me, full creative immersion. What I hope to accomplish when an idea for a new Holocaust poem overtakes me is nothing short of shaping, fleshing out, a dominant character who will, in all respects, be believable, one who achieves verisimilitude and radiates a sense that he is three dimensional, exists in time and space, is real. What I mean by "real" is that he casts a shadow, persuades the reader that his hopes and sorrows, his actions and words, are genuine, palpable, that they lift off of the page and enter the here and now.

To do this, I have to enter into the character's psyche, move with him, become one with his troubles, fears, that which he suffers at the hands of whatever it is that fate has in mind, for him — death, escape, assimilation, suicide, death in life. And I always know when I'm succeeding at portraying my characters authentically, because they communicate with me, tell me so. Almost always, I so identify with these people who populate my Holocaust poems, be they in ghettoes, shtetls, concentration or death camps, that I actually find myself weeping, suffering their suffering. They become part of who I'm becoming. It's when I feel this way that I know I've succeeded.

I still remember that first day of June 1990, when I wrote a poem called "Grodsky the Cobbler."

I was driving through a section of St. Louis known as the Delmar Loop, an area that, during the twenties through the sixties, was predominantly Jewish. I imagined an old man in a decrepit shoe-repair shop, in that neighborhood. I was so taken by this ghost, that I parked on a side street and began scribbling ideas and images of the man, for the walls of a poem into which I could insert him, as though my poem were his shop. And I borrowed, from myself, this man's name, simply changing the first letter of my surname. The poem ended up in Gestapo Crows.

Grodsky the Cobbler

Near the Delmar Loop in St. Louis
(No one knows for sure
In which tenement he dwells),
There lives and dies daily
A Jewish cobbler,
Who bears just above his bony wrist
Greenish-blue Auschwitz numerals
Obscenely tattooed to his skin
Like an oozing cicatrix,
Shapes crazily misaligned
Like figures floating in alphabet soup.

By trade a shoe repairer,
Anachronous, obsolete,
He still waits — sometimes all day
Without one person in need of his services —
To ply his skills despite near blindness,
Enfeeblement. An octogenarian
Who has no business doing business,
He yet paces sidewalks and crosses streets
As if back in Bremerhaven
Instead of persisting in this American ghetto
Inhabited by blacks, college students, and the elderly,

Where thirty years earlier
The city's most esteemed "kikes" resided —
University professors, symphony musicians,
Bankers, merchants, attorneys, surgeons,
The cream of Midwestern Jewry,
Who, not to their collective face
But always behind their back, were reviled,
Their display windows cracked, cemeteries desecrated —
Spurned because of their learning,
Fenced off by their affluence,
And, finally, betrayed by their success.

Half a century later, lapsing from consciousness,
This ash of a man stoops over his bench,
Apron strings cinching his waist
To keep his pants from falling to his shoes,
Shoes he's mended so many times
Their original German leather no longer exists,
Nor do their soles remember the Vaterland's cobblestones,
Which wore them smooth as he fled,
His possessions possessed,
Shoes he maintains, nonetheless,
In case he needs to make another hasty escape.

Not long after this poem was first published, in the St. Louis Jewish Light, in 1991 (before it appeared in Gestapo Crows, a year later), a number of people approached me, saying that they'd read my poem about the shoe repairman whose shop is in the Loop and that they were astonished at how perfectly I'd captured him. They asked me how I knew him. When I told them I had no idea there was a cobbler in the Loop, they were even more amazed.

I've given more than a few poetry readings to audiences made up, almost exclusively, of camp survivors, and with few exceptions, they've greeted me, after my readings, tearfully, thanking me for sharing moving depictions of people they recognized, from their own histories. This kind of validation has encouraged me to continue developing character-driven Holocaust poems that I always hope will connect the reader to a time that's fast receding into the forgetfulness of history.

I hope to reach my audience on a much more direct and personal level, documenting not fact after fact, from some pat rubric or book or oral testimony, but universal truths, leaving the role of historian to Saul Friedlander and Martin Gilbert, and the role of social psychologist to Raul Hilberg and Lawrence L. Langer, while confirming William Faulkner's take, from The Town, that "poets are almost always wrong about facts. That's because they are not really interested in facts: only in truth."

I believe this idea is reflected in May Sarton's endorsement of Falling from Heaven: "Perhaps for the first time we see creation outside actual facts making its way through deep layers of the psyche as the Holocaust has done over the years." Of Gestapo Crows, Karl Shapiro writes, "Almost unbearably graphic — how can it be otherwise? — and yet imaginative, outraged and remarkably personal, these poems exemplify the contagion of the horror which more than any other series of events, mars the name of the Twentieth Century." Elie Wiesel echoes this sentiment when he writes, about Gestapo Crows: "One cannot but respond with deep emotion and affection to the anguish and pain one finds in your poems. Granted, words are often unable to express the ineffable; but isn't poetry the art of transcending words?" I truly believe that Elie wouldn't have said this if he'd sensed there was anything inauthentic or inappropriate about my poems, the slightest trace of exploitation that might shame or defile those who suffered the awful horrors of the Nazi scourge.

The biggest challenge, now, for me, is finding new ways of expressing the ineffable, by imagining the unimaginable. I tremble when I think that I might have to follow anyone's rules regarding what I can write about and how I should go about doing so. I am, in no way, defiling the privacy, the memory, or the sanctity — the humanity — of those who can no longer speak for themselves or those who survived but can't or won't speak for themselves. Without artists who develop the courage to "trespass" on "sacred ground," the history of the Holocaust would become nothing but stacks of shoes, piles of eyeglasses, photos of naked corpses in mass graves, rows of ovens and gas chambers, perimeters of electrified barbwire fences — a litany of clichés devoid of the palpitant heart.

CF: Thank you for this eloquent defense of your “invented” and “composite” characters and the very powerful poems they inhabit. Your arguments are strong ones, and I want to emphasize that, with rare exceptions, I applaud the poems your anger, your pain, your memory, and your potent imagination have driven you to write.


Louis Daniel Brodsky (b. 1941) has written sixty-four volumes of poetry, including the five-volume Shadow War: A Poetic Chronicle of September 11 and Beyond. You Can’t Go Back, Exactly won the Center for Great Lakes Culture's (Michigan State University) 2004 best book of poetry award. He has also authored fourteen volumes of fiction and coauthored eight books on William Faulkner.

The link for Time Being Books is Louis Daniel Brodsky’s website is

Monday, March 1, 2010

An Interview with Louis Daniel Brodsky: Part I

By Charles Fishman:

Louis Daniel Brodsky is the publisher of Time Being Books in St. Louis and a gifted and driven poet who produces volumes of his own poetry with astonishing regularity. I have read at least six collections of his poetry and recently tore through Rabbi Auschwitz, released earlier this month, and The Swastika Clock, which is scheduled for 2011 publication. Many of the poems in these two outstanding collections are marked by originality and power, and I have read them many times. I should also mention that “L.D.” brought out my 2006 collection, Chopin’s Piano, and the second (and extensively revised) edition of Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust (2007). It should be no secret, then, that I consider his work, both as a small press publisher and as a poet, exceptional and believe it merits our close attention. It was partly for this reason that I decided to conduct an interview with him, but it is also true that I wanted to learn why this amazingly productive literary man has written so many poems about the Holocaust and why he often uses wholly imagined and “composite characters,” as he calls them, when writing poems that relate to the Shoah.

The interview was conducted during January and February 2010. This is the first of two installments; the second will be posted later this month.

CF: Did you begin to write poetry because you wanted to express your feelings about living as a Jew in the aftermath of the Holocaust?

LDB: No. In fact, all through high school, back in the fifties, and beyond the mid-sixties, spanning my graduate-school years, when I began my writing career, I wasn't cognizant of the Holocaust. No one spoke of it, in my teenage years especially. It was as though the very word "Holocaust" was taboo, a stigma, a subject one didn't mention anymore than Orthodox Jews spoke the word "God." I had no training in Holocaust literature. There wasn't very much of it, back then. Since no one in my family was affected by the Holocaust, I didn't even have the secondhand perspective that heritage provides — stories handed down, whispered with lamentation. I was passionately interested in Spanish and English and American literature. In the month before I graduated Yale, in 1963, I wrote my first two poems and sensed, then, if inchoately, that I wanted to be a writer who would write about everything, spend the rest of my life composing poems that would connect me to the world beyond myself, worlds waiting to be, waiting for me to discover and expose them, breathe life into them. One such world would be Europe, Nazi Germany, 1933-1945.

CF: It’s a little surprising that you are not a Holocaust survivor or a relative of a survivor, yet you have probably written more poems about the Holocaust than any other American poet. In a recent email, you stated the following: "I've written, since 1967, 322 of them. Would that I had written not one. But such is not the terribly tormented truth." What is it that drives you to continue wrestling with the Shoah in your poetry?

LDB: What it is that drives me is a lingering self-consciousness that began in fifth grade, when my parents sent me to what was considered the finest private boys' school in the city, St. Louis Country Day School, whose enrollment was overwhelmingly white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant, a school that had an unwritten quota of 10 percent Jews, 5 percent Catholics, no blacks. I felt very excluded from social events, felt extremely uncomfortable attending chapel services, every morning, before class. I was required to sing hymns to Jesus Christ and listen to theological speakers. All of it reminded me that my fellow students went to church, every Sunday. Over the eight years I spent there, I always felt ostracized. I was never invited to the gentile parties and dances, couldn't take spring-break trips to Fort Lauderdale, because Jews were off limits there — another of those unwritten quotas. I always sensed that I was an outsider, a pariah, decidedly second-class, no matter my distinguished athletic and scholastic accomplishments.

One incident, in particular, from that time, yet lingers as a painful reminder of just how estranged I felt from Country Day's class of '59. During the final months of my senior year, I and three of my classmates learned that we'd been accepted into Yale's class of 1963. Having never been away from home, by myself, other than for my annual eight weeks at summer camp, I was extremely relieved when the four of us decided to sign up to room together. Toward the end of the summer, just weeks prior to our leaving for New Haven, I was casually informed, by one of the three, that a fourth classmate, whose wealthy father had bought him in to Yale, was going to room with them, instead. It was apparent to me that they wanted to maintain their WASP integrity. Suddenly, I found myself not only persona non grata but cast adrift. At that point, I was more terrified than angry. While flying to New York, then taking the train to New Haven, I'd never felt lonelier.

But something happened, then. My fear transformed into anger, anger to outrage, outrage to an overwhelming sense of purpose. I needed to punish those fellows, and the only way I had for doing so was to try to best them in athletics and scholastics, to which end I devoted myself, with almost maniacal focus. That year, I was first-string left fullback on the freshman soccer team and earned my numerals. Also, I stroked the freshman heavyweight crew. At season's end, I was given the Coach's Cup, for being the best oarsman, and, again, got my numerals. Two of those four classmates, on the other hand, who tried out for the freshman football team (they were outstanding players at Country Day — better than I, by far), ended up being cut. All four of them had very inferior grade-point averages, that year, but I made the dean's list, both semesters.

What I learned, that first year, was that the bigotry those four exhibited went far beyond them. Yale was nothing other than a more sophisticated extension of St. Louis Country Day School, an even more elitist confederation of entitled prep-school legacies and jocks. Because Yale was larger, less personal, the anti-Semitism didn't seem as noticeable, flagrant. Yet it was a given that I would never be tapped for Skull & Bones.

In hindsight, what I can so clearly see is that for my parents to be able to send their firstborn child, their oldest son, to two such prestigious schools was the overt sign that they had arrived, no matter that both schools were Protestant bastions of blue-blood, old-money, patrician society.

After all, my great-grandfather, Daniel Brodsky, had begun, in the late 1870s, hawking hand-me-downs, yet succeeded, by the end of his life, in acquiring some modest real estate, and seeing to it that my grandfather, my namesake, Louis Daniel, had enough wherewithal to start Nelson Trouser Co., a modest enterprise with a decidedly non-Jewish-sounding name, so that, in his time, his son, my father, Saul, could do his apprenticeship before his father suffered bankruptcy, two years before the Great Depression, only to have my dad resurrect the company as Biltwell Company Manufacturers, a maker of men's jodhpurs and dress slacks, which he'd bring to the pinnacle of success, in the post-World War II years. By the mid-fifties, my father would become a self-made millionaire, albeit with too many memories of having been discriminated against repeatedly, told "Jews aren't welcome here," when he'd ply the highways, with his sample garments stuffed into bulging black cases.

I suppose the humiliations from those early days of working with his father (and, later, driving a five-state sales circuit and nurturing my broken grandfather, by making a place for him, in his new business, until the day, in 1937, when Louis Daniel — Lou — died of a heart attack, out on the sidewalk, smoking his signature meerschaum pipe, in front of my dad's office, at 1128 Washington Avenue) were why Saul would never share, with me, any of his deeply suppressed memories of his youth, almost never disclose why he'd straightened his curly hair, why, in his affluent years, he'd personally hand out Christmas gifts to the entire St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, with each officer coming into his '50s-modern headquarters, still at 1128 Washington Avenue, one by one, to choose between a ham or a turkey, a scene that I, at six, eight, ten, could only marvel at; after all, that was my three-piece-suited dad those fully uniformed, black-booted, square-chinned motorcycle, horse, and street cops thanked profusely. Being extremely taciturn with me, he never elaborated on all the Jew-hating entrepreneurs in the small towns of the Illinois prairie, the Jew-baiting backwashes of Arkansas, Tennessee, and northern Mississippi, the plains ranging just beyond Missouri, into Kansas and Oklahoma, all of whom dismissed him before he could get two steps past their polished-brass front-door step plate.

Now, I certainly see it — why he never would tell me about his past. He was still smarting, still ashamed, still scarred despite his ultimate wealth.

In fact, after all these years, I vividly remember a scene in which my father and I, in early 1980, were sitting in the breakfast room of his house. I was so excited to show him the galley proofs of two of my poems, "Résumé of a Scrapegoat" and "Between Connections," which were scheduled to appear in the December issue of the Southern Review. My pride was twofold: first, that my work was appearing in such a prestigious literary magazine; second, that the magazine's editor, Lewis P. Simpson, had responded with such enthusiasm to the poems' subject matter — my Jewish traveling salesman, Willy Sypher, peddling his garments through the Midwest and the Mid-South, having to confront the bigotry of small-town U.S.A. When I handed the proofs to my father and watched his eyes skitter back and forth, over the pages, I was anticipating his validation. Instead, he looked up, bewildered, scowling, and remonstrated, "You're not going to publish these, are you?" My heart sank. Suddenly, it came rushing up to me: he was shocked, appalled, that I would expose my Judaism to public scrutiny, make myself vulnerable, open to ridicule, castigation — this when he was in his financially-secure early seventies and had no need to worry about exposing himself as a Jew and, thus, risking his career. I still recall becoming defensive, rebuking him for his still feeling the need to hide his identity. I slunk out of his house, disappointed, dejected, humiliated.

Yet his reaction should probably not have come as such a surprise to me, since it was, in fact, commensurate with the protective behavior he'd exhibited toward me throughout my youth. His impulse had always been to spare me the corrosive anti-Semitism that had dogged him from his teens well into his fifties, little realizing that his newly established fortune would make it all the easier for me to discover the true nature of racial discrimination, when he thrust me right into the lion's den — a ten-year-old kid encountering, for the first time, in Class 8 (fifth grade), at St. Louis Country Day School, the inculcated disdain of gentiles threatened by the gradual incursion of nouveau-riche Jews into their long-established social and mercantile corridors.

By the time I entered the graduate English program at Washington University, in St. Louis, in 1963, I'd developed a justified sensitivity to intolerance, bigotry, hypocrisy of the religious, more than the political, variety. But not until 1967 did I write my very first Holocaust poem, to my great surprise: "Valediction Forbidding Despair." It erupted from my guts more than from my intellect, from a nauseating, appalling sense of disgust, on having finished reading Jean-François Steiner's book Treblinka, which was prepublished, in English, translated from the French, in two successive issues of Look magazine and was truly my first exposure to the ghastly, atrocious events of the Shoah.

Valediction Forbidding Despair

This summer is Treblinka;
Its regimental months
Are maws that caress us
In bloodless custody.

Victims, like crickets
Scratching dryness from limbs,
Chant hymns from lips
Which shape the air
With unfinished kisses.
Musicians and carpenters
Guard darker silences
Of those who crowd naked
In boxcars and chambers
Where perfumed night descends.
Memories race down chutes
To steaming graves
Obsequious few ply with balm.

Minds are excused from spirit.
The end obliterates nothing
But flesh
And the temporary wish
To rest.

This poem shocked and horrified me. It also released a terrible, gnawing sense of shame and guilt. And though I couldn't have known it then, it held the seeds of what would blossom into a very, very ugly and poisonous plant. I didn't know I had such angst in me, such rage, such hatred toward what and who it was I didn't even understand at that point. Nor did I know that I wouldn't write another Holocaust poem until 1974. All I knew was that I couldn't believe people could possibly treat other people with such brutality, such merciless murderousness.

By then, I had decided against teaching, as a profession, and was living with my wife and first child, in a small mid-Missouri town that seemed to boast one Jew: me. In the end of July 1974, on a trip I made to a factory that was part of Biltwell Co., Inc. (my father's company, for which I now worked), as I focused on all the women at their sewing machines, I began to imagine my family heritage, those ragmen from a past my father never talked to me about, a past that played itself out in Ukraine, from which my great-grandfather, Daniel, and great-grandmother, Anne, emigrated, in 1875, before arriving in New York, then St. Louis, to begin life anew, as less-than-modest merchants who bought, for pennies, garments needing to be repaired and washed, which they did, before putting them up for resale, for nickels, dimes, quarters, in an outdoor stall. That night, I wrote a breakthrough poem, one that I couldn't know would open up a whole vista into my heritage, albeit one I'd mainly have to invent out of tatters and strands and threads of my imagination: "Breaking Stallions."

Breaking Stallions

I ride naked
Atop the sweaty genome of chromosomes
Bucking dizzily in a corral
Where generations of my forebears
Have been thrown
And broken their spines in the dust.

Ancient eyes are on my performance,
As I try to break the leaping creature
Trapped in its frenzied fear
Of not being able to unseat me.
We hang as one on the hot air,
Each obsessed with maintaining stability

And prevailing in the face of a history
Racially oppressed for ages.
Damn the whiskered ragmen
Who've tracked me to this time!
Goddamn them for reminding me
Of the proud and threadbare tailors

Who rose from crude peasant stock
Ravaged in the Steppes beyond Kiev!
Why, for so long, have I eluded
Their hereditary nets and thrived
In an academic nether world,
Only to be dragged back

And forced into a raw saddle
Atop survival's frothing wild stallion?
I reel in a drunken paraplegia.
My feet rip loose from the stirrups.
Caught in the vortex of old dust
Blocking my nostrils and throat,

The stench of my flowing blood
And the shame locked in my brain
Can't mistake the truth of my defeat
Or negotiate another compromise
With genes that have permanently hurled me
Into a factory of trouser-making machines.

This poem had such a transformational effect on me because it made me aware of my ancestry, something I hadn't ever been exposed to, growing up.

A month before I composed "Breaking Stallions," I experienced an anomaly, in the form of a poem called "Panning for Gold." Most likely mentally cued to such atrocities, from having read Steiner's book, I must have read an article about the gold fillings Nazis extracted from Jewish corpses and found it so grotesque that I had no choice but to write about it. That this poem virtually coincided with "Breaking Stallions" wasn't serendipitous.

Panning for Gold

In among the ash heaps,
Prospectors haggle over the gold teeth.
Each keeps a daily assay
Of nuggets he retrieves: caps and inlays
Once securely positioned
In upper-class European circles
Of smartly dressed patronesses of the arts,
Sophisticated financiers, politicians,

Concert pianists, and rabbis
Named Jacobs, Weinstein, Prinzmetal,
Schwartzkopf, Kalish, Abrams,
Rabinovitz, and Glazer.
Now, forty-three years later,
Bounty hunters shake their sieves
At Auschwitz, Bełżec, Chełmno;
Their death rattles shatter the silence
With white noise so loud
It would wake the dead were any still alive.

As the teeth are brought to auction,
Bidders grow restless; they get frenzied,
Aggressive, hostile, genocidal.
Their ear-to-ear sneers
Expose myriad gold-filled cavities,
Intricate bridges and plates.
Dealers trip over numb tongues,
Bite lips to bleeding,
Quixotically jumping their own bids
To insure they secure the lot.
After all, they have clients worldwide
Whose collections are complete . . .
Except for the extremely precious teeth.

Something about this poem, not only the gruesome idea of auctioning the teeth but the grisly irony of the last three lines, brought my intellect to its knees.

A month later, I wrote a poem called "Grandfather," which incorporated both my family heritage and the Holocaust.


Damn it. Goddamnit.
That dear man is dying of cancer.
He refuses to eat or be fed intravenously,
Desires to die at home in bed, desires
To die,
and here I am lamenting his loss
As though I know him for the close friend
I wish he had become
rather than the shadow
Of a vague acquaintanceship we made
On occasional High Holy Days and Friday nights.
We're the keepers of their ashes,
those gone souls
Devastated by wars among their leaders,
People designated by scrolls on their doorposts
And frontlets between their frightened eyes
to be spared famines and blights on Pharaoh
For the cyanide.
We're their keepers
In spirit, self-appointed, properly anointed
With a seminal heritage we share
through ancient marriages.
Our births, though fifty-five years apart,
Are marked by a tribal family name
Sealed in common ceremony.
That dying man,
With whom I tried to reason only once
Concerning the meaning of a living religion,
Is reason enough for my lamentation:
His loss is mine;
his departing shadow
Will deprive me of that constant reminder
That all those gone people
rely on me
To substantiate the decency of their existence.

That was in August 1974. It would take me another sixteen months before the Holocaust poem "Dreamscape with Three Crows" would be written. I must have needed that hiatus, interlude, moratorium, to allow my mind to assimilate these two deep, vast veins, which would begin to manifest themselves in obsessions that, to this day, thirty-five years later, continue to trouble and anger and sadden me enough, beg me, exhort me, force me, to give them life, in the form of Holocaust poems.

When I reread "Grandfather," today, I realize that what's inherent in this poem from so long ago is the core of that which still motivates me to write Holocaust poems. I feel that I'm the keeper of my people's ashes, a keeper in spirit, a self-appointed scribe, sofer, and that it's my responsibility, my mandate, my mission never to lose touch with them. I'm best able to do so when I'm deeply immersed in the Shoah, through poetry.

CF: Was Falling from Heaven: Holocaust Poems by a Jew and a Gentile (Time Being Books, 1990), the collection of poems you collaborated on with William Heyen, the first book of poems on the Holocaust that you published?

LDB: No. My first book was The Thorough Earth (Timeless Press, 1989), and it came about as follows.

In June 1976, I composed another poem, "Résumé of a Scrapegoat," that would significantly jolt my self-awareness. It was a full-fledged portrayal of me as a ragman/road peddler and the victim of age-old Jewish oppression. The nameless character is the creative, imaginative epitome, manifestation of what I'd experienced in my very narrow and highly insular life, to that point. The poem captures the essence of the self-conscious me in disguise. I was that scrapegoat — the lowliest of the goats, the one who "scrapes" the bottom of the barrel, the one who was beginning to take the shape of the downtrodden traveling salesman I'd soon name Willy Sypher, who'd become the embodiment of, the synecdoche for, the victims of Pharaohs, Nebuchadnezzars, Herods, Hitlers, the sad, lonely, proud, indefatigable soul I'd eventually immortalize in a book devoted to his daily travails and tribulations, his lifetime of disappointments and small successes, a book of poems very close to my heart, Peddler on the Road: Days in the Life of Willy Sypher (Time Being Books, 2005). Willy is a Jewish schlepper who represents, for me, not only my great-grandfather and father, not only their forebears from the shtetls of Eastern Europe, not only their tribal sand-dwelling ancestors of the Abramic and Mosaical days in the Biblical Fertile Crescent, Mesopotamia, but me, as well.

Résumé of a Scrapegoat

Every highway I drive,
With station wagon straining to contain goods
Brought up out of steerage,
Is Hester Street,

And I'm the displaced waif
A hundred ancient diasporas left behind
To hawk rags and stitched shit
Made in sweltering lofts and dank basements.

I'm the entremanure of flawed raiment,
Remainders dead as flounder
Stacked flat on shelves
Or hanging in static masses from racks

The lowest class capitalist,
Searching low and lower for newer Laputas
In whose depraved precincts
I might display my thieves' market.

I'm the wide-smiling, gold-filled mouth,
The glistening, beady eye,
The hooknosed, seven-foot shadow
That demonizes Teutonic children's dreams,

The eternal, stereotypical victim
Hanging by my three pawned balls
Outside the emporium with shattered plate glass,
Cluttered with xenophobic bigotries.

I'm the scrapegoat for last season's guilt,
Soiled hopes, dreams with tiny holes,
Spirits returned for overlooked defects,
Mismatched leisure lifestyles,

The robber baron impeding competition
By fixing prices on perfects
I label "Irregular" and flawed garments
I advertise as "Grade A" merchandise.

History's kiss has touched my lips
With the viper's flicking tongue,
Singled me out from the crowd
To toil in dirty gutters and alleys

With cunning and guile, quietly,
By the sweat of my Semitic brow,
While crawling naked on my scaly belly
To avoid being swastikaed by sign crews

Gluing posters, on every available board,
With news of another outlet-store
Or wholesale-chain opening
In a strip mall or shopping center. Amen.

Shit! I'd give my eyetooth
Just to be the solid-gold watch
Tucked neatly in Pierpont Morgan's
Well-stretched Protestant vest pocket,

Instead of a thimble-fingered tailor
Drawing chalk lines and pinning seams
Across the whim of every fat ass
Able to afford his own graded patterns.

Yet history's also nourished me
With fruits from the tree of life eternal.
I've peddled myself from one generation
To the next, a perpetual hand-me-down,

Promoting my own brand of survival
At cut-rate prices, offering my soul,
On a moment's notice, to anyone
Who'd wear robes like those I sewed for Moses.

In October 1982, I read a review of a book, published in England, that piqued me in a very strange way, a volume by Australian writer Thomas Kenneally, Schindler's Ark. I bought the book and read it in two sleepless nights in that small Missouri town, where, as a father of two children, by then, I was working in Biltwell's Farmington factory. As had been the case with Steiner's Treblinka, I was stupefied, appalled. I felt personally degraded. I reread the book, a few months later, and in April 1983, I composed "Cracow Now," a poem in which I staked claim to my role as poet-in-residence for my people, a "messenger for the dispossessed."

Cracow Now

Defeated, exiled, indefensibly committed,
Those dispensable souls
Relegated to the ghetto in Cracow:
Bankers, Talmudic scholars, grocers, musicians,
Strict, disciplined family men,
Whose reverential Leahs, Rachels, Miriams
Bore, in pride, brilliant children —
Ghosts now, still guiding wheelbarrows,
Filled with pillows and sheets,
From cultured salons, in family estates,
To ventilator shafts, attics,
And dead air-space between rooms
In hovels cluttering memory's tear ducts.

The metamorphosis of three centuries,
Accomplished in months: Jew to lice to typhus.
Then the Madagascar Plan.
In the end, only Hitler's witless tactics

(Matching his storm troops
Against Russia's forces of winter)
Could suspend the Final Solution,
For tribes confined to greenhouses
Producing a variety of Venus's-flytraps so profuse
Neither Linnaeus nor Darwin
Could have classified them:
Auschwitz, Treblinka, Bełżec,
Chełmno, Majdanek, Sobibor.

Just writing their bleak syllables chokes me.
Each is a puff of black smoke
Escaping crematory stacks
Punctuating skylines of my verse,
Each a caesura too frequently breathed.
This morning, four decades downwind,
The measures of my sanity dwindle.
I, too, as messenger for the dispossessed,
Wearing a "J" on my brain-band,
Push all my earthly belongings — paltry words —
In a rickety wheelbarrow, across the years,
Toward precarious lodging
In the ghettos of your unsuspecting ears.

Not until May 1986 did I actually group some of what I considered my most powerful Holocaust poems together, in a pamphlet called "Selections from the Ash Keeper's Everlasting Passion Week." The term "ash keeper" had stuck with me, from 1974's poem "Grandfather," in which I determined that my grandfather, whom I didn't really know, and I would be "the keepers of their ashes," those of our agelessly persecuted people. This collection would be the germ for the conception of my first book of Holocaust poems, titled The Thorough Earth, which was published by Timeless Press, in August 1989.

Regarding this first of my nine completed volumes of poetry about the Holocaust, Lewis P. Simpson wrote:

No achievement in his poetic career exceeds Louis Daniel Brodsky's creation, a Jewish travelling salesman for a Midwestern manufacturer of men's clothing, who, in an earlier version of his life, “sewed and sold to Abraham and Moses.” Juxtaposing a series of poems about Willy's career and a series of poems reflecting on the Nazi Holocaust, Brodsky projects a vision of Jewish history in The Thorough Earth that includes in its range the comic compulsiveness of Willy's quest for sales and the unspeakable horror of the death camps. No poet at work today has a more vividly ironic sense of history combined with a more passionate regard for the infinite worth of the experience of being alive.


Louis Daniel Brodsky, born in 1941, has written sixty-four volumes of poetry, including the five-volume Shadow War: A Poetic Chronicle of September 11 and Beyond. You Can’t Go Back, Exactly won the Center for Great Lakes Culture's (Michigan State University) 2004 best book of poetry award. He has also authored fourteen volumes of fiction and coauthored eight books on William Faulkner.

The link for Time Being Books is Louis Daniel Brodsky’s website is

The second part of this interview with Louis Daniel Brodsky will appear on Writing the Holocaust later this month.