Theodor Adorno wrote that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” But there are good reasons not to agree with Adorno. There is a body of powerful, respectful, and penetrating poetry that has been written in reflection upon the Holocaust. And these works are another valid way for non-participants in the evils of the Holocaust to be brought to understand, respect, and reflect upon the suffering that occurred. Consider the beautiful, sorrowful, and indicting poem written by Yevgeny Yevtushenko in 1961, “Babi Yar”. Yevtushenko helps the reader to mourn and recognize these children, women, and men who were murdered at Babi Yar. And he points a finger of accusation against the continuing anti-Semitism rampant in the Soviet Union in which he lived. Wim Ramaker’s powerful elegy for the thousands of Dutch Jews who departed from Westerbork in The Netherlands to the extermination camps of Poland is equally powerful. And Czesław Miłosz’s poem “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto“ helps the reader to feel and think about the human loss and suffering that occurred in Warsaw and throughout Poland. Vasily Grossman was not a poet; but some of his passages in “Ukraine Without Jews” and “The Hell of Treblinka” are deeply poetic and expressive of a profound emotion that helps the reader to experience the depth of what has been lost.
No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A drop sheer as a crude gravestone.
I am afraid.
Today I am as old in years
as all the Jewish people.
Now I seem to be
Here I plod through ancient Egypt.
Here I perish crucified on the cross,
and to this day I bear the scars of nails.
I seem to be
is both informer and judge.
I am behind bars.
Beset on every side.
Squealing, dainty ladies in flounced Brussels lace
stick their parasols into my face.
I seem to be then
a young boy in Byelostok.
Blood runs, spilling over the floors.
The barroom rabble-rousers
give off a stench of vodka and onion.
A boot kicks me aside, helpless.
In vain I plead with these pogrom bullies.
While they jeer and shout,
‘Beat the Yids. Save Russia!’
Some grain-marketer beats up my mother.
O my Russian people!
are international to the core.
But those with unclean hands
have often made a jingle of your purest name.
I know the goodness of my land.
How vile these antisemites—
without a qualm
they pompously called themselves
the Union of the Russian People!
I seem to be
as a branch in April.
And I love.
And have no need of phrases.
is that we gaze into each other.
How little we can see
We are denied the leaves,
we are denied the sky.
Yet we can do so much—
embrace each other in a darkened room.
They’re coming here?
Be not afraid. Those are the booming
sounds of spring:
spring is coming here.
Come then to me.
Quick, give me your lips.
Are they smashing down the door?
No, it’s the ice breaking . . .
The wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar.
The trees look ominous,
Here all things scream silently,
and, baring my head,
slowly I feel myself
And I myself
am one massive, soundless scream
above the thousand thousand buried here.
each old man
here shot dead.
here shot dead.
Nothing in me
shall ever forget!
The ‘Internationale,’ let it
when the last antisemite on earth
is buried for ever.
In my blood there is no Jewish blood.
In their callous rage, all antisemites
must hate me now as a Jew.
For that reason
I am a true Russian!
Westerbork, debarkation point for Dutch Jews
Who dares to raise his voice here?
Departure point of a whole people:
with known destination left for Auschwitz,
Sobibor, Theresienstadt, Bergen-Belsen, Kosel …
And nobody saved them
To be sure there was much waving when they passed by
A gesture that always touched the deported deeply
but nobody shifted the point to life,
or changed the track
Scores of trains have left from here,
according to schedule
exactly on time, because no one was allowed to die too late
Stand for a moment …now the point of departure and arrival have almost caught up with
Here left a whole people:
more than one hundred and two thousand Jewish fellow citizens, children, mothers, fathers,
fathers, mothers, children
and also babies and those old of days
were gassed, shot, burned alive,
beaten to death, hanged
while we waved
At last the rails are shifted
of sadness twisted
and at the place where they were readied for their journey
to amplify their silent whispering in the universe
and to wave again
when they wave.
A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto
Bees build around red liver,
Ants build around black bone.
It has begun: the tearing, the trampling on silks,
It has begun: the breaking of glass, wood, copper, nickel, silver, foam
Of gypsum, iron sheets, violin strings, trumpets, leaves, balls, crystals.
Poof! Phosphorescent fire from yellow walls
Engulfs animal and human hair.
Bees build around the honeycomb of lungs,
Ants build around white bone.
Torn is paper, rubber, linen, leather, flax,
Fiber, fabrics, cellulose, snakeskin, wire.
The roof and the wall collapse in flame and heat seizes the foundations.
Now there is only the earth, sandy, trodden down,
With one leafless tree.
Slowly, boring a tunnel, a guardian mole makes his way,
With a small red lamp fastened to his forehead.
He touches buried bodies, counts them, pushes on,
He distinguishes human ashes by their luminous vapor,
The ashes of each man by a different part of the spectrum.
Bees build around a red trace.
Ants build around the place left by my body.
I am afraid, so afraid of the guardian mole.
He has swollen eyelids, like a Patriarch
Who has sat much in the light of candles
Reading the great book of the species.
What will I tell him, I, a Jew of the New Testament,
Waiting two thousand years for the second coming of Jesus?
My broken body will deliver me to his sight
And he will count me among the helpers of death:
Ukraine without Jews
When our forces enter the villages of Left-bank Ukraine under a volley of fire and the din of hand grenades, domestic geese rise up into the air. Flapping their enormous white wings, they circle above peasant huts, above lakes covered in water lilies, above fields and gardens.
There is something worrisome and strange in the heavy, arduous flight, and the sharp, alarming and sorrowful cries of these domestic birds. It is as if they are calling the soldiers of the Red Army to witness heartbreaking and frightening images of life, as if they are rejoicing at the arrival of our forces, simultaneously weeping with joy and lamenting, screaming of great losses, and of the tears and blood that have aged and salted the soil of Ukraine.
And it occurred to me that just as Kozary is silent, so too are the Jews in Ukraine silent. In Ukraine there are no Jews. Nowhere—not in Poltava, Kharkov, Kremenchug, Borispol, not in Iagotin. You will not see the black, tear-filled eyes of a little girl, you will not hear the sorrowful drawling voice of an old woman, you will not glimpse the swarthy face of a hungry child in a single city or a single one of hundreds of thousands of shtetls.
Stillness. Silence. A people has been murdered. Murdered are elderly artisans, well-known masters of trades: tailors, hatmakers, shoemakers, tinsmiths, jewellers, housepainters, furriers, bookbinders; murdered are workers: porters, mechanics, electricians, carpenters, furnace workers, locksmiths; murdered are wagon drivers, tractor drivers, chauffeurs, cabinet makers; murdered are millers, bakers, pastry chefs, cooks; murdered are doctors, therapists, dentists, surgeons, gynecologists; murdered are experts in bacteriology and biochemistry, directors of university clinics, teachers of history, algebra, trigonometry; murdered are lecturers, department assistants, candidates and doctors of science; murdered are engineers, metallurgists, bridge builders, architects, ship builders; murdered are pavers, agronomists, field-crop growers, land surveyors; murdered are accountants, bookkeepers, store merchants, suppliers, managers, secretaries, night guards; murdered are teachers, dressmakers; murdered are grandmothers who could mend stockings and bake delicious bread, who could cook chicken soup and make strudel with walnuts and apples; and murdered are grandmothers who didn’t know how to do anything except love their children and grandchildren; murdered are women who were faithful to their husbands, and murdered are frivolous women; murdered are beautiful young women, serious students and happy schoolgirls; murdered are girls who were unattractive and foolish; murdered are hunchbacks; murdered are singers; murdered are blind people; murdered are deaf and mute people; murdered are violinists and pianists; murdered are three- year-old and two-year-old children; murdered are eighty-year-old elders who had cataracts in their dimmed eyes, cold transparent fingers and quiet, rustling voices like parchment; murdered are crying newborns who were greedily sucking at their mothers’ breasts until their final moments. All are murdered, many hundreds of thousands, millions of people.
The people have been murdered, trampled in the earth.