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