Thursday, October 24, 2013

Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields

The following review by Michael Kimmage originally appeared in The New Republic.  
Wendy Lower’s Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields returns the Holocaust to something of its original horror. It is a study of German and Austrian women on the eastern front, and the simple revelation behind their story is that women were no less capable of brutality than men. This might seem banal—the banality of evil across the gender line. Yet Lower’s book is thoroughly shocking. What these women saw and did was shocking. What they believed was shocking. What they lied about after the war was shocking. No less shocking is the credulity invested in their lies by Germans and by Germany’s postwar occupiers. The final shock is the lack of earlier interest in their story, despite its enormous scope. At least half a million women went or were sent east during World War II. Some committed atrocities, and most witnessed atrocities. Hitler’s Furies, published 68 years after the war’s end, is, in Lower’s words, a “book about how we fail to reckon with the past.”
Lower is an American historian, and American intellectuals and citizens have long been struggling to reckon with the Holocaust. Worries have even been aired, in Norman Finkelstein’s The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering (2000), for instance, about an American Holocaust industry and about an excess of remembrance, which—by making the horrific familiar—might render the Holocaust normal. But, if anything, sustained study of the Holocaust has resulted in one provocative act of remembrance after another. Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, published in 1963, caused waves of outrage, while Lucy Dawidowicz’s The War Against the Jews, 19331945 brought the Holocaust narrative to a general reading public in 1975. The Maus series, by Art Spiegelman, reached beyond scholarship to storytelling, starting in 1991.
In Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996), Daniel Goldhagen argued that many Germans—not just the SS—were complicit in the Holocaust. Goldhagen’s provocation was a popularized and less careful version of Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland from 1993, which persuasively demonstrated the guilt of the ordinary German men who were asked—but not forced—to participate in mass executions, shifting the focus from the Nazi high command to the faces of the actual killers.
Now Hitler’s Furies contributes to this study of “ordinary people” in an important new way. It looks beyond Germany to the eastern front—Poland, the Baltic States, Belarus, and Ukraine—where many of the deadliest atrocities took place. In this attention to place, Hitler’s Furies continues a project pioneered in Timothy Snyder’s 2010 masterpiece, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. Arendt, Dawidowicz, Goldhagen, and Browning’s preoccupation with Germany was necessary, but it also reflected the fact that, until 1991, many crucial archival holdings were off-limits to Western scholars, confiscated by Soviet authorities, shipped to Moscow or dispersed throughout the Soviet Union. Nazi ideology and governance existed in three dimensions, while the Holocaust’s Eastern European terrain was harder to picture.
The idea for Hitler’s Furies came to Lower during a 1992 trip to Kiev. There she came across material previously hidden in archives “behind the Iron Curtain.” Twenty years in the making, Hitler’s Furies tells of the half-million German women who went east during the war. One-third of German women were “actively engaged in a Nazi Party organization,” Lower notes, and they participated in growing numbers from 1933 to 1945. Those who chose to go east were modern, “the daughters of those first-time [female] Weimar voters [who] imagined possibilities in Germany and beyond.” Their vehicle of advancement was the workplace: Female teachers, nurses, secretaries, stenographers, typists, and telephone operators were in demand. These women found the east “a place of liberation” with abundant “freedom for self-expression” and “social mobility.” To this degree, theirs was a conventional twentieth-century progression: the acquisition of valuable skills, the departure from stifling hometown and family circle, the prospect of self-fulfillment through work and travel. Yet there was nothing typical about their destinies in the bloodlands or killing fields, and many women went east with a fierce anti-Semitism in their hearts.
Some 30,000 women were “certified by Himmler’s SS,” directly involved in the planning and execution of the Holocaust. Lower refers to the secretaries of Odilo Globocnik, the SS figure responsible for the murder of Warsaw’s Jews among other crimes, who “‘cheerfully’ prepared lists of Jewish deportees to Treblinka, lists of Jews who died, and lists of confiscated property.” In general, secretaries “contributed to the normalization of the perverse.” Those who killed, the perpetrators, are a group unto themselves. Their numbers are hard to calculate, their deeds as grotesque as any that have been gathered into the history of the Holocaust. A woman named Johanna Altvater had no official mission to murder, but she gladly did so “on her own.” Indeed, her “specialty … was killing children.” Liesel Willhaus would shoot Jews from the balcony of her home, to the applause of her young daughter.
After the crimes came an astonishing miscarriage of justice. Some 20,000 German women were deported to the Soviet Union after the war. Guilty or not, these women were certainly punished. About East and West Germany Lower writes with almost comic understatement that “the record of justice against Nazi perpetrators, male and female, is rather poor. Most women who participated in the Holocaust quietly resumed normal lives.” The evidence of their crimes was often hazy, not documented in the first place or lodged in documents that had been lost or scattered. Most of the eyewitnesses who might have testified against them were dead, and Stalin’s rearrangement of Eastern Europe “accomplished what Hitler’s henchmen had desired: a displacement of local memory.”
That former Nazis and wartime criminals slipped comfortably back into civilian life is well-known, but Hitler’s Furies adds a new note of cynicism. When faced with the possibility of a criminal conviction, female perpetrators presented themselves as apolitical women, far from the machinery of killing, incapable of crime because they were women and mothers. In postwar Germany, Lower writes, “the male judiciary remained skeptical of the testimony of Jews, especially of statements that described atrocious female behavior.” And so, the bleakest page of a bleak book: In many cases, Holocaust survivors were able to testify against women who had committed horrendous crimes, and either the women were not tried or their accusers were not believed. If incarcerated, the women were released—often early. Johanna Altvater—the woman who undertook to murder Jews on her own—was tried and acquitted twice. She worked, after the war, in a child welfare office.
The biography of a woman named Erna Petri is no less extraordinary. Put on trial in East Germany, she “confessed to murdering six Jewish children between six and twelve years of age.” She was found guilty and imprisoned. After German reunification, she negotiated her release, possibly with the help of Stille Hilfe (Silent Aid), a postwar SS organization in Germany. She moved to a Bavarian village “where she enjoyed the Alpine mountains and lakes with Gudrun Burwitz, the daughter of Heinrich Himmler and a prominent member of Silent Aid.” The entire village attended her funeral. This is a new genre of Holocaust story. Unlike Schindler’s List, a cinematic version of it would be unbearable.
Lower’s study contains some lapses. Occasionally, she conflates disparate strains of history. “The longstanding tradition of Prussian militarism,” Lower writes, “not only cultivated a culture of total wars and ‘final solutions,’ but, in its twentieth-century fascist form, integrated women into a martial society as patriotic nurturers and combatants.” Total war is too twentieth-century a phenomenon to have a Prussian precedent, and the final solution emanated from a pathology other than Prussian militarism. When Lower states that “the female biographies studied here are based largely on postwar investigations and trials,” one wonders if her method is not circular, the discovery of criminality in material stemming from the trials of alleged criminals. The author’s exhaustive research and forensic acuity put this worry largely to rest.
The triumph of Lower’s book is its meticulous biographical impulse. Nothing gets muffled in social science, and by tracing the lives of a dozen or so women, Lower brings out the uniqueness of their stories and the gray areas—the difference, for example, between a witness and an accomplice on the one hand and an accomplice and a perpetrator on the other. This measured judgment gives Lower’s documentation its power.
Hitler’s Furies is above all a brave book. It is brave in forcing from the archives a story that no one wanted to tell. It is brave as well in its willingness to imagine women lashing out with the same murderous will and rage as men. In this, it restates old, but still fundamental, questions: Who was guilty? Who knew what was happening in the killing fields? And what became of the guilty after the war? These are questions that even young Germans must continue to ask. The image of Erna Petri and Gudrun Burwitz walking arm in arm around the Bavarian lakes is not from the distant past. It is almost an image from the present, and Hitler’s Furies should negate any sentimental feeling one might have toward these two figures—surely, to those who encountered them then, the pictures of kindness and innocence.
Michael Kimmage is the author, most recently, of In History’s Grip: Philip Roth’s Newark Trilogy (2012).

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Appropriations of Bruno Schulz by David A. Goldfarb

The following essay by David A. Goldfarb was originally published in The Jewish Quarterly.

Despite his tiny oeuvre and tragically short life, the legendary Polish writer’s legacy to Western literature continues to grow

© Yuri Dojc. Last Folio: Textures of Jewish Life in Slovakia by Yuri Dojc and Katya Krausova published by Indiana University Press
© Yuri Dojc. Last Folio: Textures of Jewish Life in Slovakia by Yuri Dojc and Katya Krausova published by Indiana University Press
The Street of Crocodiles—Celina Wieniewska’s translation of Bruno Schulz’s stories (originally published in Polish under the title Cinnamon Shops)—is the tree from which Jonathan Safran Foer carves his latest work,Tree of Codes. Carves, with a knife—a real rather than metaphorical one—excising most of Schulz’s words to form new phrases and sentences with those remaining. Foer writes that he has long wished ‘to create a die-cut book by erasure, a book whose meaning was exhumed from another book’ and that he chose The Street of Crocodiles, being the richest text that he knows,‘feeling that [he] was…transcribing a dream that The Street of Crocodiles might have had’. Tree of Codes, he acknowledges, ‘is a small response to that great book’ and part of ‘The Great Book’ from which all Schulz’s stories come. Foer takes his place in a line of western writers who have appropriated not just Schulz’s modest oeuvre but also his life story, rendering the figure of Schulz himself as a symbol of loss and absence.
Bruno Schulz’s literary career began in 1934 and was abruptly cut short by the Second World War.As early as the 1920s he had received some recognition as a graphic artist but his discovery, by the psychological-realist prose writer, Zofia Nałkowska, led to the publication of his short story collection, Cinnamon Shops. This established him as one of the leading proponents of the Polish avantgarde, alongside such writers as Witold Gombrowicz and Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (‘Witkacy’). Following the war, all experimental writing was suppressed by the Communists, who enforced a rigid cultural agenda of Socialist Realism, and it was not until the Thaw in 1956 that Schulz’s works were published again. Schulz’s biographer, the poet Jerzy Ficowski, dedicated much of his life to tracing his lost letters and drawings; he never gave up searching for Schulz’s legendary lost novel, The Messiah, which is said to have been given to non-Jewish friends for safekeeping (or perhaps sent to Thomas Mann, whose Joseph and his Brothers he greatly admired).
When Schulz’s work began to appear in English it was accompanied by the dramatic story of his death. As a Jew with valuable artistic talents, Schulz had enjoyed the protection of a Nazi officer named Felix Landau who employed him to paint murals for his children. During an anti-Jewish action known as ‘Black Thursday’ in Schulz’s home town of Drohobycz on November 19, 1942, Landau allegedly shot a Jewish dentist who was protected by another Nazi officer named Karl Günther. The story, told by Izydor Friedman to Ficowski, is that Günther shot Schulz in revenge, with the line ‘you shot my Jew; I shot your Jew’. These words, uttered over the body of one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, are so ghoulishly mesmerising that they threaten to overshadow Schulz’s own luminous words. This death-scene has acquired mythical status. For many Jewish writers, it has come to represent the rupture with a golden age of Jewish writing to which they lay claim by virtue of their own second-generation experience of displacement and unresolved trauma. David Grossman (See Under: Love), Cynthia Ozick (The Messiah of Stockholm), and Philip Roth (The Prague Orgy) have all built legends around Schulz, invoking his biographical figure as a trope in their own stories. Each of these works incorporates a fictionalised character or lost literary father based on the figure of Schulz, who is easily identified by references to his stories, the lost manuscript of his novel, The Messiah, and the dramatic story of his death.
Ozick’s The Messiah of Stockholm recounts the obsession of Lars Andemening, an unappreciated literary reviewer for The Stockholm Morgentorn, with the stories and drawings of Bruno Schulz, whom he believes to be his actual father. He embarks on a quest to find the lost manuscript of The Messiah and is aided and thwarted in his goal by an elderly book dealer, Heidi, and her usually absent husband, Dr. Eklund. He obtains a manuscript, authenticated by Dr. Eklund as Schulz’s, that describes a desolate Drohobycz in which the people have been replaced by stone idols. To this city, the Messiah arrives—a feathery creature with wings resembling pages from a book—and gives birth to a small bird that lands on the idols, causing them to burn and leave Drohobycz empty. On reading this manuscript, Lars becomes suspicious; he accuses Dr. Eklund of forgery and rashly sets it on fire in its brass jar. Eklund is, indeed, an acknowledged forger, but it remains unclear whether he has forged this particular manuscript or merely falsified other documents to smuggle the manuscript out of Poland.
The symbolism of Ozick’s proposed reconstruction reflects a postwar vision of a Jewish land without Jews. Its former population, having escaped to the familiar destinations of Jewish emigrés, are replaced by stones. Even the stones are burned up, like the markers of Jewish graves bulldozed after the war to make way for progress.The remarkable fiction of Drohobycz has been ‘invaded by the characters of an unknown alphabet’. With the former Jews of Drohobycz succeeded only by their remnants, the text experiences its own Holocaust inside the brass amphora. The problem of the work, and one it shares with Grossman’s and Roth’s, is the seeming incommensurability that the postwar generation feels with regard to the world of their parents and grandparents. With the loss of family ties to Russia and Eastern Europe, those born in the West also lost the linguistic ties necessary to maintain continuity with that culture. The age of Schulz is, for these later writers, what the Age of Genius was for Schulz, as he described it in a 1936 letter to the critic Andrzej Plesniewicz—a time of ‘primordial childhood’ or a ‘messianic time’, which ‘is promised and sworn to us by all mythologies’.
Philip Roth’s epilogue to the Zuckerman trilogy, The Prague Orgy, is cast as a fragment from Nathan Zuckerman’s notebooks, in which he meets a Czech writer, Zdenek Sisovsky, and his companion, an actress, Eva Kalinova, (famous in Prague for her Chekhovian roles). Sisovsky describes his father as a Jew who, unlike Schulz, wrote stories about Jews in Yiddish. Despite having a Czech wife and children (who do not resemble him), the character clearly resembles the iconic Schulz: he is a shy high-school teacher, protected during the war by a Nazi until he dies in a revenge killing by a rival Gestapo officer with the unmistakable line: ‘He shot my Jew; so I shot his.’ It later transpires, however, that Sisovsky’s father was hit by a bus, and the story about the revenge killing ‘happened to another writer, who didn’t even write in Yiddish. Who didn’t have a wife or have a child.’ It seems that Roth is indulging in the creation of a literary father from Schulz’s biography while acknowledging that this is a fantasy. David Grossman’s ‘Bruno’ section of See Under: Love begins with an author from Drohobycz named Bruno, who is taken under the wing of the Polish writer and artist Zofia Nałkowska (known for his grotesque drawings in which he often portrays himself in submissive positions under the heel of a servant girl named Adela). Grossman’s Bruno carries a manuscript called The Messiah and is described jumping off a dock in the port of Danzig where he has escaped to see the Edward Munch exhibition.These details come from Schulz’s biography (except for the escape to Danzig) and several lines quoted later in the chapter come from Schulz’s texts and are attributed to those works by title: Bruno’s works are the works of Bruno Schulz, though Grossman’s Bruno is not actually Bruno Schulz—a fact acknowledged by the author-narrator within the work, who confirms that‘[i]t’s not their Bruno I’m writing about’ and then recounts his first encounter with The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz. It goes without saying that he retells the ‘I killed your Jew’ story of Landau and Gunther, although Grossman reverses the sequence of events.Then he spins a tale of his Bruno being consumed by the ocean, stirring elements of reality (the words ‘I killed your Jew’) into fantasy—the moment of death expanded over about a hundred pages. Still haunted by these words years later, Grossman went on, in 2009, to publish an interview in The New Yorker with Ze’ev Fleischer, a survivor of the Nazi ‘Black Thursday’ action in which Schulz was killed. Fleischer’s account of the sequence of events leading up to Schulz’s death affirms the rivalry between Landau and Günther, but raises questions about whether Schulz was actually shot by Günther or by common soldiers, and if, indeed, that immortal line was ever uttered at all.
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss does not have an explicit Schulz figure or a manuscript called The Messiahbut is shot through with fragments of Schulz: a lost manuscript that emerges from a correspondence between the author and a woman who inspired him; several references to The Street of Crocodiles; a mysterious writer character named Bruno who functions as the conscience of one of her protagonists; Leo Gursky, an aging retired Jewish locksmith who once aspired to be a writer but here functions as a lost father in search of his son. Gursky’s structural counter-weight—perhaps a literary granddaughter—is a young woman named Alma Singer in search of the ‘Alma’ she was named after, who inspired a character named Alma in a novel entitled The History of Love. In keeping with the ancient mythology mapped out in Schulz’s own writing, the evanescent Yiddish manuscript is drowned in a flood, although in the supremely interconnected world of Krauss’s novel nothing is ever quite lost: the lost father knows where his son is, and the son eventually knows where the father is, and the author of the lost manuscript knows who has it, and even when the original is lost it appears in translation and a translation of a translation. There is some hope, in the fragmented world, of restoring lost connections.
Salman Rushdie offers a fascinating and unmistakable homage to Bruno Schulz, first identified by Canadian scholar and novelist Norman Ravvin, in the last section of The Moor’s Last Sigh. The hero and narrator, Moraes Zogoiby, travels from Cochin, India, to Benengeli (a mountain village in Andalusia) to see Vasco Miranda, a long lost admirer of his mother’s. The village takes on a magical quality akin to Schulz’s Drohobycz, particularly a district called the Street of Parasites which resembles the very ‘parasitical quarter’ Schulz names the ‘Street of Crocodiles’:

…I felt as if I were in some sort of interregnum, in some timeless zone under the sign of an hourglass in which the sand stood motionless, or a clepsydra whose quicksilver had ceased to flow. [...] I wandered down sausage-festooned streets of bakeries and cinnamon shops, smelling, instead, the sweet scents of meat and pastries and fresh-baked bread, and surrendered myself to the cryptic laws of the town.

The hourglass is a clear reference to Schulz’s second collection of stories—The Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass—and is translated into Polish as klepsydra (either a sandglass or a mercury or water clock—‘clepsydra’ in English). ‘Under the sign of the hourglass’ is a common idiomatic form in Polish for referring to a business establishment, usually a cafe or restaurant, denoted by a distinctive sign or architectural ornament above the door. What Rushdie borrows from Schulz, however, is not merely an architectural idiom or biographical detail, but a metaphysical essence of Schulz’s imagined world: a sense of suspended time and a feeling of rootedness in displacement itself, which he transposes onto his own historical and cultural context.
In contrast with Western writers at pains to use Schulz as a cultural conduit to their own European past, are Polish and East European writers who come from the same cultural tradition as him. For these writers, Schulz is not a distant figure representing absence and loss but an exciting figure of the interwar avant-garde that paved the way for the most adventurous work of the postwar era in Poland. Key to this movement is Schulz’s idea that there was a mythological structure underlying all language and representation, which he articulated in his brilliant essay ‘The Mythicisation of Reality’:
Poetry happens when short-circuits of sense occur between words, a sudden regeneration of the primeval myths. . . . Not one scrap of an idea of ours does not originate in myth, isn’t transformed, mutilated, denatured mythology.The most fundamental function of the spirit is inventing fables, creating tales. . . . [T]he building materials [that the search for human knowledge] uses were used once before; they come from forgotten, fragmented tales or ‘histories’. Poetry recognises these lost meanings, restores words to their places, connects them by the old semantics.
This idea—that even the trivial and mundane had an underlying mythic structure—shaped the imaginations and work of countless Eastern European writers and artists, and the proliferation of Schulzean figures and references across this work testifies to this legacy. The Polish dramatist and visual artist, Tadeusz Kantor, uses characters and images from Schulz and from the work of Witold Gombrowicz’s interwar avant-garde fiction, in his great work for the stage, The Dead Class. Kantor’s work in the theatre began with underground productions of the pre-war dramas of Witkiewicz, who was also a great advocate of Schulz’s work. Kantor adapts characters like Adela the servant-girl, a sexually dominant woman in Schulz’s mythology: in Schulz, she sweeps her broom through the air to clear the birds from the father’s attic but in Kantor’s mythic world she becomes a force for destruction.There is a distinct pall of death hanging over this work,but it comes from Kantor’s own experience of the war rather than his references to the world of Bruno Schulz.
The contemporary Polish writer, Olga Tokarczuk, whose own novel Primeval and Other Times is required reading for Polish high school students, recently cited Schulz as one of her greatest influences. Unlike other writers she does not appropriate the paraphernalia of Schulz’s world. But she comes closer to its essence through this infusion of the everyday with the mythic. As a trained Jungian psychologist, her work deals with the intersection of the archetypal with daily life and her recent novel, Drive Your Plough Through the Bones of the Dead (not yet translated into English) reveals a keen interest in astrology. A pre-scientific art of psychological or social types (like astrology) should, she suggests, be seen as a rich source of symbolism and wisdom, a power Schulz acknowledges in the story ‘Tailors Dummies’ in which the sight of two fish top-to-tail on a plate transforms ordinary time into mythic time:

We assembled again around the table, the shop assistants rubbed their hands, red from the cold, and the prose of their conversation suddenly revealed a full grown day, a gray and empty Tuesday, a day without tradition and without a face. But it was only when a dish appeared on the table containing two large fish in jelly lying side by side, head-to-tail, like a sign of the zodiac, that we recognised in them the coat of arms of that day, the calendar emblem of the nameless Tuesday.

An obsession with Schulz seems to satisfy a particularly American search for the self, a trope not lost on the Eastern European writers of today. Anya Ulinich, the young Russian-American translingual author of the satirical novel, Petropolis (2007) about Russian immigration in the United States, has a story called ‘The Nurse and the Novelist’. This includes a conversation between a young male novelist and a woman who has sacrificed her own education to work as a nurse to support her graduate-student husband. The novelist, now successful and living with his family in a condominium near the nurse’s apartment, began his career as a depressed Manhattan writer wrestling with the demons of his identity and searching for his East European roots in a suburb of Minsk that had once been a shtetl destroyed during the war. They meet in a grocery store and arrange to have coffee, where the nurse tells the novelist: ‘In your novels, past calamities are nothing but milestones of self-discovery. The central question is: “Why am I collecting toenails in a jar?” It only takes a village of dead Jews to figure it out.’ Ulinich denies, despite the resemblances, that this is a satire on Foer’s first novel, Everything is Illuminated, but it is instructive that it was widely read as such, because it seems to capture what Foer’s detractors find so infuriating—the assumption of the identity, and, by implication, the suffering of others for narcissistic ends. Beyond Schulz and his oeuvre, there is a broader tension around the appropriation of East European identity that has manifested itself in contemporary ‘translingual’ writers like Gary Shteyngart, Andreï Makine, and Wladimir Kaminer—Russian-born writers with Western literary careers, writing in Western languages. Adrian Wanner, in an excellent essay on this subject published in The Slavic Review in 2008, recounts the illustrative tale of two reviews of Makine’s Le Testament Français by the Russian writer Tatiana Tolstaia, praising the novel for its ‘Russianness’ in The New York Review of Books and vilifying it in her review for Znamia for a Russian audience. Everything is Illuminated, in which an American student sharing the name of the author travels to Ukraine in search of the rescuer of his grandfather, likewise wasn’t received with as much enthusiasm in Ukraine as it was in the United States. Ukrainian scholar Ivan Katchanovski typified this response in his review in The Prague Post in 2004, criticising the novel for its negative stereotypes of Ukrainians and for omitting important details about the role of Ukrainian partisans who resisted the Nazis and defended Jews during the war in the towns named in the novel.
Perhaps these works that revive Schulz in fiction are only a sign that what we want is more Schulz. Krauss, at least, offers the hope that something lost is only lost to those who don’t know where it is or haven’t looked hard enough to find it. Perhaps the reason that Schulz appeals to writers struggling with a very personal sense of loss is that although he appears, from the postwar perspective, to have come from an Age of Genius, he, too, is writing about a lost world. The Drohobycz of Franz Joseph and the Emperor Maximilian, figures in Schulz’s postage stamp album, was actually a childhood legend (Franz Joseph having passed through the region in 1880, twelve years before Schulz’s birth): oil refineries and businesses were pushing aside the culture of that former era,and transitional urban spaces like the ‘Street of Crocodiles’ were displacing the ‘Cinnamon Shops’ of old. If modern readers don’t always recognise the absences in Schulz’s world, it is because he paints such a vivid picture with the remnants of the lost world that we can hardly recognise it as already lost. And if we strip away that richness, and use him as a proxy for a sense of loss we cannot remedy, we wilfully blind ourselves to what does, miraculously, survive.

David A. Goldfarb is Curator of Literature and Humanities at the Polish Cultural Institute in New York and is currently working on a book about the work of Bruno Schulz.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Nazi Archive Discovered

From the Polish American Journal:

HOLOCAUST DOCUMENTS UNVEILED. Meticulous records kept by the Nazis detailing the fate of 17.5 million of their World War II victims have been rediscovered in the German town of Bad Arolsen. The archive shelves, stretching 16 miles and containing 50 million pages of documents, are gradually being made public. They were confined to secret storage after World War II by the victorious allies out of concern for the privacy of the victims and also for political reasons.

Among the records are details about many of the imprisoned and murdered Jews, Christians, Russians, and others, including 1,900 priests who met horrific deaths under the German and Russian aggression. The archive stands as incontrovertible proof of the World War II exterminations which refute the ignorant and wilful claims of holocaust deniers. The “60 Minutes” segment detailing the archives is available on YouTube.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

PRISM: A Journal for Holocaust Educators

Prism Volume 5 2013

PRISM, published by the Azrieli Graduate School, is one of the premier journals for Holocaust studies, and the latest issue is now available as a free PDF download.

The current issue focuses on Kindertransport and other attempts at large-scale rescue of Jewish children.  Among the unique and classroom-ready pieces in the issue are a Readers' Theater piece on Kindersport, along with the background on its original production, information on a Kindertransport survivor, and narrative and poetic testimony from two Kinder saved by Nicholas Winton.

The free download of the issue is available by clicking here.

To find out more about PRISM, please go to the journals website: Click here.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Nightmare's End--One Soldiers Story

My wife's Uncle Buddy was one of the GIs who liberated the many concentration camps in Nazi Germany.  Several years ago he was interviewed by documentarians making a film about the liberation of the camps.

Here's a part of his statement:


Here's another post I did about Uncle Buddy and his war time experience.  Click here.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Origins of Crossed-Out Swatiska

We asked Cyrus Cassells to tell us something about the inspiration and composition of Crossed-Out Swastika, his powerful book of poems about the Holocaust which was featured in our most recent blog posting.  Here's what he told us:  

What happened consistently during my 2005-6 sabbatical in Paris, as I say in the poem “Sabine Who Was Hidden in the Mountains,” was that the Holocaust and World War II became “les devoirs”—my urgent, unavoidable homework; I couldn’t seem to escape the phantoms of the war. I lived in Paris at one point on the rue Pont Louis Philippe, about a half a block from the Shoah Memorial; my landlord noticed a copy of my second book, Soul Make a Path Through Shouting, and revealed that she’d been hidden away in the mountains of southern France as a child, and that her mother was interned in Bergen Belsen. One summer I lived on the rue des Rosiers and my writing desk faced the Ecole de Travail—with its plaque dedicated to the deported Jewish schoolchildren of the Marais.
This sort of phenomenon happened time and again in Europe. I would ostensibly go somewhere for a visit, such as Amsterdam, and I’d discover I was staying around the corner from the Anne Frank House. I traveled from the Slovak Republic to Krakow to meet the poet Adam Zagajewski, and on the way, the train stopped at the Auschwitz station. I was jolted out of a nap at dusk; I looked down and discovered we’d arrived at the Auschwitz platform. Later Zagajewski encouraged me to have a little courage and visit the camp memorial; the only day I could go was November 1, the “Day of the Dead”—a daunting prospect. It turned out to be a very powerful and distinctive day to make a pilgrimage—there were deeply moving memorial candles and flowers near the ovens and other key places in the camp. The experience in Auschwitz took hold of my psyche and spurred the creation of The Crossed-Out Swastika, a voice-driven poetic cycle focused on the haunting beauty and integrity of young people caught in the vise of World War II. We’re loathe to look at what children go through in the midst of war: it’s one of the most censored dimensions of conflict. But it’s inspiriting to look at Sophie Scholl, Anne Frank, and other young people who matured in the crucible of the war, to examine the chastening and enduring legacy they left.
In the six years it took to complete the book, silence and concision became important allies in attempting to do justice to the “antimiracle” of that time. Just as I break off the poem “The Toss” in Soul Make a Path Through Shouting, I felt the need to stop the action on the page in the seventh section of the long centerpiece poem, “The Fit,”—to let the silence and blank space signify atrocity. As poets, we’re always trying to locate the most effective way to represent reality in our poems. Silence, line breaks, white space, et cetera, can be major tools in this process of diligent and accurate emotional representation. These poems fragment under the weight of painful testimony—which is often the case in real life. Silence shores the intensity of the frequently painful testimony of the young, war-tapped speakers. Silence in the poems often serves as a healing tool, as an allaying strategy to cope with the conveyance and the absorption of trauma.
I have a powerful sense of history as very human and individual, as a lived, individual experience, not as a master narrative overlaid on people’s lives.  Empathy and witness, a reclamation of the wounds of the past, returning agency to those who have suffered—these were significant aims with this project; another aim was to create a sense of intimacy with individual  stories and voices from the war; I was thrilled and deeply gratified when a reviewer remarked that The Crossed-Out Swastika “reveals the commonality of  pain in such a stark, revelatory way, that it seems idiotic to think that there was ever any distance between a contemporary reader and a Ukrainian child in the 1940s.”


To read more at Writing the Holocaust about Mr. Cassells' Crossed-Out Swastika, just click here: Crossed-Out Swatstika.


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Crossed-Out Swastika by Cyrus Cassells

(Cyrus Cassells)

Introduction by Charles Adès Fishman:

There are poets who change the emotional, intellectual, and aesthetic landscape for us, whose words seem to fly even as they stagger with the weight of what they’ve imagined and what they’ve seen. They are our brothers and sisters in this life, yet they leap ahead of us at each stage of the journey because their hearts ache to write it all down, to say what has wounded and exalted them, and they say it with all the blood and flesh still clinging to the bone.

Cyrus Cassells is one of these poets, and the wonder of it is that The Crossed-Out Swastika, this most recent gathering of his poems, has an antecedent: Soul Make a Path Through Shouting (Copper Canyon, 1994), the first part of a projected three-book sequence that will deal with human rights and spiritual endurance. John Guzlowski and I have selected 5 poems from The Crossed-OutSwastika that we feel illustrate and embody this goal. The feature includes links to a wonderful reading Cassells gave in November at the Rothko Chapel in Houston and to a recent review of this book by Dan Shewan, as well as a personal statement about his enterprise and his vision.

I would like to add one more item to this feature: a 20-line excerpt from “The Weight of Brothers,” from Soul Make a Path Through Shouting: here is the drusy beauty of phrasing and the moral clarity that I associate with the writing of this exceptional poet:

To see at all is grace:

This child offers the camera
His blighted gaze.
This man peers through a mask of fire;

It has come to this:
Hen feathers, rubble, shards of broken dolls,
Rubbish from the pockets
Of a Russian soldier’s corpse,
Culled from the dust
Of his gutted shelter;
A tourniquet of turban cloth:
His blood and shock
Carried on a ragged mule
Through the winter-toothed mountains,
Over the poisoned ground,
Under hoary stars, grenades
Strapped to kites,
Over the border,
A cusp of iced trees,
To the camp —

And when her son never returned
from the meant-to-crush-him camps,

the crucible of Poland,
always-hard-at-work Isa slept

for endless hours,
and once, under her lids, she was led,

by diligent female Virgils,
to a vast meadow

where an inspirited Isa embraced,
one by one,

countless women who remained
in mourning for their cherished sons.                               

Gallant and stricken,
together the myriad bereaved               

but defiant women formed
an ever-widening circle,

prodigal with bitter tears,
and then, suddenly,

like a jackdaw darting
from eave to sun-drenched eave,

something flew between the throats
of the grieving,

heart-gutted mothers,
and a great beauty arose:

In the dream, Isa recalled,
the singing of the harrowed women

with war-taken sons   
hushed the world’s barrenness.

In the dream, the startling river of sound
altered the embattled earth.

I.  A Girl of Vichy France

Blue paper filled her first windows,
not snatch-gossip sparrows

or the sun’s reveille,
but a verdict of iron,

perfect-for-hopscotch parks,
Seine-lit stores

with exquisite engines
of this-and-not-that,

became, for “me–first” Sabine, impossible:
everywhere almond-green greatcoats

and boots like trampling hooves—
Bells of invaded parishes

tolled the sallow hours;
fine-made mezuzahs were mauled

by braying patriots,
and learners whose hair

would never thin or silver
were banished from their desks and inkwells:

École de Garcons, rue Neuve Saint Pierre,
École de Filles, rue de L’ave Maria . . .

Where a cellophane France,
all flyapart assurances,

renounced Sabine and her peers—
plane trees and regretful plaques

urging N’oubliez pas
or Ne les oublions jamais,

so that the questing pilgrim
or the alert passerby

might perceive,
in the midst of the sumptuous city,

where even the smallest Parisians

were obliterated without pity.

II. A Resemblance

A contrite Paris has unveiled
photos and still-vile documents to decry

the specter of sundering trains
aiming star-patched children

through tunnels and laconic fields:
11,400 hopes--

Sabine, who was hidden in the mountains,
has nudged me to city hall

to live awhile in the duress,
the dog’s-snarl cosmos

of never-grown deportees.
But will Parisians take time,

Sabine laments, to bear in mind
the children of verboten sidewalks,

verboten parks?
Look, Sabine remarks:

before his transport to Poland,
a brave boy left on a wall,

We are leaving Drancy in good spirits,
but for the traveler, the commuter,

today Drancy, where we Jews were held,
is only a place you whisk by

on the train to the airport—
Near us, some vying kids

are unsettled
by the uncanny resemblance

between a child in a yellowed photo
and a schoolgirl who lingers,

crestfallen, hollow before
the image of her deported twin–

When the welter of kids passes,
Sabine whispers:

Ma pauvre petite!
Hurry, we’ve got to help her:

she was too stunned to notice
the girl in the picture lived!

III. Ghosts

Sabine with her forest-colored blouse
fills my summer rooms

on the rue des Rosiers;
on Sabbath mornings,

Hebrew singing floats
from the temple on the rue Pavée,

competing with the voluble
pigeons who adore my ledge.

Clear-eyed Sabine is quick to notice
how my writing desk faces

the École de Travail with its doleful plaque
blessing deported pupils and teachers--

So the war has become
your devoirs:

Yes, Sabine, my homework
that I can’t seem to escape:

My friend, when I entered your flat,
I could feel it in my bones:

the family that once lived here
was deported!

No surprise in your neighborhood:
the Pletzl!

Sabine, yesterday my landlord read
my poem rooted in the war

and revealed: as a small girl,
she was hidden like you.

Poet, from cellar to cellar, I remember
I held onto, of all things,

a picture book about a magical goat,
inscribed by my witty father:

This storybook belongs
to Mademoiselle Sabine

the way Paris once belonged
to Marie Antoinette—

Somehow having that book
helped me to endure

the cold and fear---
And when I returned to Paris

it was to a world of ghosts,
the void shaped

by my murdered generation.
Was it the same for you

in the epidemic--
when you returned,

after so many deaths,
to San Francisco?

Do the men, like my school friends,
still come to  you in dreams?

At the exhibit, I thought:
Small as they were in life,

my playmates,
their souls must be immense by now.

Even here?
In this snowbound barrack?

Suddenly, the illicit sounds
of Beethoven’s concerto

erupt from Juliek’s smuggled violin,
suffusing this doomsday shed

teeming with the trampled
and the barely alive,

realm of frostbite and squalor,
clawing panic and suffocation—

Insane, God of Abraham,
insanely beautiful:

a boy insisting
winter cannot reign forever,

a boy conveying his brief,
bounded life

with a psalmist’s or a cantor’s
arrow-sure ecstasy—

One prison-striped friend
endures to record

the spellbinding strings,
the woebegone—

and the other,
the impossible Polish fiddler,

is motionless by morning,
his renegade instrument

under the haggard weight

of winterkilled, unraveling men.
Music at the brink of the grave,
eloquent in the pitch dark,
tell-true, indelible,
as never before,
as never after—

emending beauty,

linger in the listening,
the truth-carrying soul of Elie,      

soul become slalom swift,
camp shrewd, uncrushable;

abundance, be here, always here,
in this not-yet-shattered violin.


There is the lightning-white moment
when I learn—

the way my costive train to Krakow

and I woke to find myself,
in jostling twilight,

at the Auschwitz platform—
that the Italian postcard

I garnered in Milan years ago
as a genial talisman,

isn’t of a pipe-dreaming
Italian boy,

no, no, but an androgynous
image of Sophie Scholl,

the young, intrepid resistance heroine—
as if I’d registered,

in my Schubert-adoring daughter,
my school-resisting son,

a fire undetected before:
Doric-strong nouns demanding

What would you undertake
to stop tyranny?—

stouthearted nouns:
integrity, probity, courage;

in benighted Munich,
the spit-in-the-eye swiftness,

the unbossed bloom
of a crossed-out swastika,

the fierce integrity
in the gust of the word freedom

sprayed over the walls
and ramparts of a deranged

fatherland that rent flesh
as if it were foolscap—

Someday you will be
where I am now,

a steely, premonitory Sophie
proclaimed to the rapacious

Nazi tribunal that rushed her
to execution—

Gazer, collector, in clarity’s name,
look close, then closer:

it’s not just a bud-sweet,
pensive beauty,

a bel ragazzo’s charm;
all these years:

it’s the spirit of crusading youth
that I’ve cherished.


Look, we have made
a counterpoint

of white chrysanthemums,
a dauntless path

of death-will-not-part-us petals
and revering light;

even here,
even here

before the once-wolfish ovens,
the desecrating wall

where you were shot,
the shrike-stern cells

where you were bruised
and emptied of your time-bound beauty--

you of the confiscated shoes
and swift-shorn hair,

you, who left,
as sobering testament, the scuffed                   

luggage of utter hope
and harrowing deception.

Come back, teach us.
From these fearsome barracks

and inglorious fields
flecked with human ash,

in the russet-billowing hours
of All Hallows,

let the pianissimo
of your truest whispering

(vivid as the crunched frost        
of a forced march)

become a slowly blossoming,
ever-voluble hearth—

revealing to us,
the baffled, the irresolute,

the war torn, the living,
more of the fire

and attar of what it means
to be human.


The Crossed-Out Swastika by Cyrus Cassells is available at Amazon

A review of Cassells' book by Dan Shewan appeared recently online at The Rumpus.  You can read it by clicking here.

Cyrus Cassells is the author of five books: The Mud Actor, a National Poetry Series winner and finalist for the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award; Soul Make a Path Through Shouting, hailed as one of the Best Books of 1994 by Publishers Weekly, the winner of the William Carlos Williams Award, and a finalist for the Lenore Marshall Prize; Beautiful Signor, winner of the Lambda Literary Award, the Sister Circle Book Award (for African-American literature), and a finalist for the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award; More Than Peace and Cypresses, a Lannan Literary Selection, named one of the Best Poetry Books of 2004 by Library Journal; and The Crossed-Out Swastika, 2012. Still Life with Children: Selected Poems of Francesc Parcerisas, translated from the Catalan, is forthcoming. Among his honors are a Lannan Literary Award, a Pushcart Prize, and two NEA grants. He is a Professor of English at Texas State University-San Marcos.