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In its spareness, eloquence, and simplicity, Charles Reznikoff's poem "Holocaust" remains one of the best literary attempts to come to grips with this bleak tragedy. Reznikoff (1894 -- 1976) wrote the poem in 1975 when it was published by John Martin and Black Sparrow Press. It is good to have it back in print.
Reznikoff was little known during his life. He wrote "objectivist" poetry which took as its motto "no ideas but in things." Poetry for Reznikoff directs the reader to things -- to reality and experiences -- rather than to ego or to the feelings of the author.
Holocaust was Reznikoff's final work. It is based entirely on the records of the Nuremberg trials and of the Eichmann trial. There is no narrative voice or "I" in the poem. Further, there are no names given, with the exception of the salutation "Heil Hitler" by members of the S.S.
The poem is told in a roughly chronological way in 12 sections beginning with the early deportations of Jews and ending with the pending liberation of the camps. The cruelty and destructiveness of the Holocaust are shown in spare, understated short poems. Here is the concluding poem of Section IV, "Ghettos".
"One of the S.S. men caught a woman with a baby in her arms.
She began asking for mercy: if she were shot
the baby should live.
She was near a fence between the ghetto and where Poles lived
and behind the fence were Poles ready to catch the baby
and she was about to hand it over when caught.
The S.S. man took the baby from her arms
and shot her twice,
and then held the baby in his hands.
The mother bleeding but still alive, crawled up to his feet.
The S.S. man laughed
and tore the baby apart as one would tear a rag.
Just then a stray dog passed
and the S.S. man stooped to pat it
and took a lump of sugar out of his pocket
and gave it to the dog."
Here is a section from part V of the Poem, "Massacres"
"They gathered some twenty Hasidic Jews from their homes,
in the robes these wear,
wearing their prayer shawls, too,
and holding prayer books in their hands.
They were led up a hill.
Here they were told to chant their prayers
and raise their hands for help to God
and, as they did so,
the officers poured kerosene under them
and set it on fire."
Reznikoff works hard so that his ego and judgment do not intrude upon the events he describes. The writing is simple, understated, and direct. The reader feels he is witnessing the events described without an overlay. To the extent possible, the reader is allowed to respond to the events directly, without the intermediary of the author, and with no superfluities or ideological commitments beyond the events themselves.
There a bleak scenes of horrors and killings in "Holocaust", both of individual people and of masses, in gas chambers, gas trucks, firing squads, burnings, and elsewhere. There are also a small number of episodes of acts of kindness. Reznikoff presents his materials throughout lucidly, simply, and with understatement. Here is one final passage from the book, from section VI, "Gas Chambers and Gas Trucks":
"The bodies were thrown out quickly
for other transports were coming:
bodies blue, wet with sweat and urine, legs covered with excrement,
and everywhere the bodies of babies and children.
Two dozen workers were busy
opening the mouths of the dead with iron hooks
and with chisels taking out teeth with golden caps;
and elsewhere other workers were tearing open the dead
looking for money or jewels that might have been swallowed.
And all the bodies were then thrown into the large pits dug near the
to be covered with sand."
Reznikoff is an American poet who deserves to be read and remembered. This poem of his old age will help the reader to reflect upon the Holocaust.
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