Your family has been murdered. Your home – even your country  -are gone.  Would you have the courage to make art  out of the ashes? And is it morally right for any of us to do this?

Recently I heard  an  American poet, Barbara Hantman, give an illuminating lecture about three  of the “Holocaust Poets,” who coped with these questions

Abraham Sutzkever, a Yiddish poet cited by “The New York Times” in 2010 as “the greatest poet of the Holocaust,” was born in what’s now Belarus and grew up in Lithuania.   When the Germans forced him to live in the Vilna Ghetto, he hid many of Judaism’s precious documents inside the walls. His life became a flight from the Nazis, but his mother and infant son were captured.  In what must have been  an unimaginably anguished experience, he testified at the Nuremberg Trials against the man who killed them.

For writers like myself, who think if only we had a quiet space and free time we’d write more, Sutzkever’s experience is humbling. He composed some of his greatest poems while crawling through sewers or hiding in a coffin!  What gives someone that kind of strength?  He was armed with the belief that “as long as I was able to be a poet, I would have a weapon against death.”

Nelly Sachs was a German Jew.  A week before she was due to be sent to a  forced labor camp, she escaped to Sweden where she remained for the rest of her life. The one man she seems to have loved was murdered by the  Nazis.  Haunted all her life by delusions that the Nazis were coming after her, too, she suffered several nervous breakdowns.  Despite (or perhaps because of) what she endured,  she wrote poems filled with powerful images of suffering, death and madness. “I represent the tragedy of the Jewish people,” she said. In 1966 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The poet described most movingly in Hantman’s lecture was a woman she knew personally, Yala Korwin.  During the Holocaust, Polish-born Korwin lived “in plain sight” of the Nazis, as she said, with the aid of a friend’s sister’s Aryan passport, but had to work in a munitions factory.  Her parents and one of her sisters were killed  by the Nazis. Korwin’s poems are passionate portraits of Holocaust victims.  One of the most celebrated is “The Little Boy With His Hands up,” based on a photograph of a terrified child  holding up his hands in surrender. Korwin, who was also a visual artist (hundreds of her paintings and sculptures are in museums) emigrated to France after the war and then to America. She died in New York City earlier this year.

We can all be inspired by the courage of these poets, and their dedication to making the world aware of the catastrophe that befell their people. Yet, if “survivor guilt” is a well-known phenomenon,  is it even harder when your success is built, in a sense, on the graves of those who died?

Any of us who write books based on the death of a loved one –  even  on a far less monumental  scale – have to face this conflict.   My memoir, “Widow’s Walk, ” tells of my husband’s courage during his terminal illness, as well as the ways I forged a new life afterward. When the book was published my pride in it  was diluted by a haunting feeling that success had come at the cost of his death.  Doesn’t that underlying shadow exist for many writers?

We can take consolation from what  Korwin  said in one of her poems :  “The only mitzvah [blessing]  left  to you is to survive and tell the story.”

 WEBSITE: www.

BOOKS:  “Widow’s Walk” – available through; “Turning Toward Tomorrow”-;  “Ten Women of Valor” – and Also AmazonKindle.




I confess. I’m addicted to the Netflix show ”House of Cards.” Like millions of other viewers. I’ve devoured season two and am awaiting the yet unfinished third season.

Since I usually discipline myself not to get hooked on any series, I wonder about my fascination with this one. It’s true that the acting is excellent, the dialogue clever, and the fictional (?) machinations in Congress mesmerizing to those of us disgusted with the Washington scene.

Yet I would guess that the show’s popularity lies in something else. I think my co-addicts and I are fascinated by any character who refuses to be defeated, though you would shudder at having the live prototype in your life. Frank Underwood, the ruthless anti-hero of “House of Cards” and his equally amoral wife Claire never give up no matter what obstacles are placed in their path to power. A crucial Senate vote that goes against them? Allies who become enemies? A president who catches on to Frank’s schemes and bars him from White House meetings? Wouldn’t these cause any normal person to concede defeat? Not the Underwoods. They keep going, literally over dead bodies, because their aim is as focused as a light beam that never turns off.

On the other hand, how often does a rejection letter from an editor or a coldly formal response from an agent make us give up? Easy to succumb to the defeatist belief that our work isn’t good enough to be published. The standard advice is “keep submitting.” The dictionary informs us that the first meaning of “submit”“ is to “yield to the authority of another person.” What we forget is that the editor/agent/publisher rejecting us often reacts from individual feelings we know nothing about, and that may not be any measurement of our work.

The first short story I wrote was rejected 28 times. Yes, I gave up — who wouldn’t? (The Underwoods for one – or two.) Fortunately, a much more successful writer informed me that 28 rejections were nothing. “I’ve sent out some stories fifty times,” he said. Disbelieving, but ashamed not to try, I sent my story out again. On that 29th time, it was accepted.

As writers, we don’t have to be as ruthless as the characters in “House of Cards,” but we do need their kind of ironclad belief that ultimately our efforts will pay off. Though they only will if we get that manuscript off our desk and bravely send it out into the world again — and again.

I await further reinforcement from Season Three!


BOOKS: “Widow’s Walk” – available through; “Turning Toward Tomorrow”; “Ten Women of Valor” – and Amazon Kindle.