Teaching the unimaginable: the role of poetry in remembrance of the Holocaust

Recently attending a Remembrance Day service I was struck by the speech given by the local vicar who asked the gathering whether we thought we took our freedom for granted? Of course we take our freedom for granted if we are lucky enough to be free.   If we have never known what it is not to be free. Can we imagine soldiers coming to our homes, dragging members of our family away, looting and burning? No-one who has not directly experienced such things can really imagine it.

How then do we teach the unimaginable? For teach it we must.

An item which appeared in the Museums Journal (November 2017) refers to Holocaust remembrance and discusses the Museums of 21st century will interpret this subject. The article starts with a description of two televisions screens in the V&A in London relaying testimonies from Holocaust survivors:

“We always say never again, but it happens all the time. Not for nothing does one say that history repeats itself.”

Education is a vital part of breaking the chain of history repeating itself yet a report by the 2015 Holocaust Commission apparently concluded that teachers are confused about how to teach the holocaust with many schools avoiding the topic.

With the voices of the remaining holocaust survivors being stilled by time it is vital that we continue to find ways to educate and warn new generations of the horrors of genocide. Not only the Jews but Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, history’s whole list of Chamber of Horrors murderers that gained power in the 20th century and held on to it long enough to cause the deaths of millions of innocent people of whatever race or creed, all this has to continue to be taught.

One of the usual ways ‘into’ studying the history of genocide is to look at the political, economic and cultural factors that were in play at the time. In many ways these are incidental factors, not reasons at all. There are never any reasons, or rather there is only one reason, that such horrors can occur – it is the same reason that nuclear weapons continue to exist despite that many people alive today witnessed reporting of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is almost not enough to stop people killing each other although that would be a great start. The challenge is to stop them wanting to. We have not yet achieved that.

Yet we continue to try. Music art and poetry find a way into places that don’t seem accessible through purely intellectual means.

Holocaust poet Paul Celan (1920-1970) wrote probably the most famous poem to come out of the Holocaust – ‘Todesfugue’ – death and music combined. There were indeed orchestras in the death camps. Celan’s poem was apparently so shattering when read in his own voice (according to his biographer John Felstiner[1]) that even those with no German understood – not ‘the gist’ that oh so useless word – but the agonizing heart of it.

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Paul Celan (1920-1970)

 

In 21st century Britain do we think of poetry as decorative? Therapeutic? Inessential? Difficult? Perhaps all of those things to some extent. In Stalin’s Russia there were no such doubts. Reading Hope against Hope and Hope Abandoned by Nadezhda Mandelstam wife of the murdered poet Osip Mandelstam it is clear that poetry was a game played for the highest stakes.

The freedom of artists is the first thing to go in a dictatorship. In Russia, during Stalin’s era, the role of the poet was to tow the party line. Failure to do so was a deadly business. Russian poet Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) effectively signed his own death warrant with a poem about Stalin. Twelve lines was all it took.

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Mandelstam was arrested, but was not executed immediately. He was sent into exile for years, accompanied by his wife Nadezhda; much of this time was spent in Voronezh. He continued to the end to be hounded for his failure to take ‘an official line’ in his poetry and eventually was rearrested, dying years later in a transit camp waiting to be shipped to the Siberian camp at Kolyma or some such hell on earth.

While Paul Celan survived the holocaust in terms of years he drowned himself in the Seine in 1970, a victim of ungovernable trauma in a mind which had witnessed too much that could never be unwitnessed. Poetry, Celan said, could retrieve the German language from the abuses of the Nazis:

Reachable, near and not lost, there remained amid the losses this one thing: language. It, the language remained, not lost yes in spite of everything. But it had to pass through its own answerlessness, pass through frightful muting, pass through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech.[2]

The poems of the holocaust are not just survivor or victim stories written in poetic form.

Teaching poetry fulfills the double function of filtering the unimaginable through language and the language of experience. Experiences evolve – we cannot showcase human experience only through artefacts in museums however horrific those artefacts may be.

It is difficult to freeze events in time. There is always a before and an after. A possibility of prevention and a possibility of re-enactment.  Of history repeating itself.  The best art drills down through time and concentrates intensity of lived experience, getting to its humanist core. The best poetry holds up a mirror and shows us ourselves stripped of political expedience and economic relativism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] J. Felstiner. Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew. Yale University Press (New Haven and London: 2001)

[2] Introduction by J. Felstiner. Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs: Correspondence. Trans. Christopher Clark. Ed. Barbara Weidemann. The Sheep Meadow Press (New York, 1995)

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