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Poetry in Auschwitz
"To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric."
People who think about the Holocaust confront this inevitable dictum of Theodor Adorno. Usually he is quoted to the effect that writing poetry after Auschwitz is impossible, which is not quite what he said. He did say that it was impossible to write poetry "today" (in 1949). It is difficult to know what he could have meant, since good poetry was being written in 1949, including good poetry about the Holocaust. It is also hard to know what he meant by "barbaric," and there is no sign that he gave the term much thought. Adorno made matters more confusing by retracting the remark, not in the form in which he pronounced it ("barbaric") but in the form in which it is quoted ("impossible.")
Generally people are respectful of Adorno, and a lot of effort has been spent trying to make sense of his words. Personally I have never been able to care what Adorno was saying on this matter, if he was saying anything at all. Adorno's explanation of the Holocaust (which I will not go into here, but which I address in my book Black Earth) was simpleminded and wrong. His inarticulate and contradictory mumblings about the Holocaust and poetry have, for seven decades now, distracted us from the actual Holocaust and its actual poetry. Thanks to Adorno, passing judgement (barbaric, not barbaric, impossible, not impossible, etc.) on poetry after Auschwitz has become a substitute for knowing the poetry of the Holocaust.
It is worth knowing. Poets were among the murdered, and some of them kept writing until the very end. The extraordinary Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti (1909-1944) wrote a poem about mass executions. He wrote his final poems during his own death march. His notebook was discovered in his pocket when his corpse was exhumed. Some of the lines that stay close to me are: "I the root was once the flower/under these dim tons my bower/comes the shearing of the thread/death saw wailing overhead." Radnóti's story has been told, and some of his poems translated, by Zsuzsanna Ozsváth.
Hungarian Jews were the single largest victim group at Auschwitz. When Imre Kertész, a Hungarian Jewish survivor, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2002, he referred to another writer. Tadeusz Borowski's "stark, unsparing and self-tormenting narratives," said Kertesz, had been a model and an inspiration. Borowski was a Polish poet who witnessed the mass murder of Hungarian, Polish, and other Jews in Auschwitz.
Borowski (1922-1951) debuted as a poet at the age of nineteen in occupied Warsaw in 1942. After his (Jewish) girlfriend was arrested in April 1943, he willingly followed her to Auschwitz, where he helped her to stay alive. Poetry had helped him towards a worldview that Auschwitz did not break but reinforced. His poetic catastrophism, fully formed before his deportation, was unchanged by the gas chambers.
His friends published some of his poems after he was deported. He himself had managed to self-publish a collection called "Wherever the Earth" in 1942. This is the final quatrain of its final poem, entitled "Song":
Night above us. The stars on high
Violet putrefacting sky
Our legacy is scrap iron
and the mocking laugh of generations
His poem "Night over Birkenau" includes the quatrain:
Like a shield cast down in battle
blue Orion amid stars supine
Through the dark an engine rattles
And the eyes of a crematorium shine
I don't know how to catch this in English, but in Polish the title of the second poem echoes the language of the first. The words "over" and "above" is the same word ("nad") in the Polish original. In Polish "night" is "noc." "Us" here is "nami." So we first have "nad nami noc" and then we have "noc nad Birkenau." The three n sounds work together in a way that I also failed to get across in English. But you do see: it is the same night and we are the same people on both sides of the barbed wire.
Borowski's poetry was about the suicide of civilization, but it was not uncivilized. He loved Shakespeare. Few things are older in the history he was taught (in an underground university by an excellent professoriate) than the Greek names of the constellations. His poetry prepared him for the writing for which he is now best known, a handful of short stories about Auschwitz.
Without Borowski the poet there would be no Borowski the writer of prose -- and without his stories we would not have the image of Auschwitz that we do. Although neglected somewhat in recent years, Borowski is perhaps the single most important chronicler of Auschwitz. Perhaps what is barbaric is to try to think about Auschwitz without poetry.
Borowski's prose will soon receive more attention. His fiction has been beautifully translated from Polish into English by Madeline G. Levine. It was humbling for me to write a foreword to these stories, a task that led me back to the poetry (and to translate these few lines). The stories published under the title Here in Our Auschwitz are merciless and yet not unkind; they refuse to allow us to separate the inhuman from the human; it is their very plausibility that haunts. I will have more to say about Borowski, Auschwitz and us soon.