By Charles Reznikoff
Black Sparrow Books, $15.95 (paper)
In 1971, Charles Reznikoff began the arduous task of composing a book-length poem about the Shoah as recounted by witnesses at the Nuremberg Military Tribunal and the trial of Adolf Eichmann, architect of Hitler’s “Final Solution,” held in Jerusalem. From U.S. government transcripts of these trials, he selected and spliced together witness testimonies, calling the poem Holocaust. Published in 1975, it was Reznikoff’s last major work in a career that had spanned nearly half a century, most of it spent in obscurity.
Holocaust opens with a scene that is all too recognizable: “One evening, a policeman came and told him— / …‘To the police station at once.’ / …When they reached the police station, / they saw Jewish men, women, and children, / some sitting, others standing— / and many in tears.” We already know the story that led to the crowded station—how the Jews were steadily excluded from German society, how they were forced to close their businesses and pin a yellow Star of David on their children’s coats. And we know what followed.
Although those who remember the death camps are, at the beginning of the 21st century, a dwindling population, there is a chilling immediacy here. The extermination of six million people hasn’t slipped from public memory, nor can we speak of ethnic cleansing in the past tense: Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur offer bloody and persistent reminders of its evils. More than thirty years after Holocaust’s first publication, then, the poem’s reissue by Black Sparrow Books begs discomfiting questions. Does contemporary American poetry need another retelling of the Shoah, particularly one by someone with no firsthand experience of its atrocities? Paul Auster, who otherwise championed Reznikoff’s work, criticized Holocaust for being too distilled, offering no new information and, in some sense, no new thinking about the events it describes. Why, then, should we listen to this particular account?
Reznikoff was born in 1894 in Brooklyn, where he lived most of his life. A talented student of journalism and law before setting his pen to poetry, he was deeply committed to revisiting history and often made his own Jewish heritage the subject of his work, as he did with the lives of his parents, who had fled Russia after the assassination of Alexander II.
If Reznikoff’s poem has been dismissed in the past, it is in part because its raw, unmediated account of the slaughter is so difficult to read. This hasn’t changed with time; opening Holocaust remains an agonizing task. The poem itself is a skeletal epic. The twelve sections roughly chart the progression of the Nazi extermination, beginning with the deportation of the Jews from Germany. As in biblical scripture, witnesses seem to call out from the multitudes to describe individual murders, acts of torture, and the horrifying sight of the dead. These distinct voices have a rhythmic continuity, a oneness of purpose: “When they were gathered again in the courtyard / women were sent to the left, men to the right.” And later, “In the camp they were lined up for roll call; / stood there all night, stark naked in the cold, / waiting for the S.S. men to come.”
But any similarity to epic poetry or biblical verse ends here. The section titles don’t evoke chronology so much as a monstrous tableau, tugging us into the functioning institutions of genocide: “Ghettoes,” “Gas Chambers and Gas Trucks,” “Mass Graves.” There are no names, no individual characters among the victims. A few dates appear in the text to mark shifting events: the march of the Jews to the gas chambers at Treblinka, the burning of the corpses, the emptying of the camp at Chelmno. There are allusions to the invasion of Poland, to the sealing off of the Warsaw Ghetto and to its doomed uprising, and finally to the arrival of the Russians. But Reznikoff does not direct the poem toward the war’s end and liberation, much less toward resolution.
Instead, Holocaust becomes a kind of anti-epic, a tale that spills off into darkness. The last section, “Escapes,” relates stories of men who were sent “to the left” and not directly to the gas chambers, and that of a person who by chance “ran into the neighboring woods and escaped.” The very last stanza of the poem ends this way:
…the Jews were escorted to the coast by
many of them students—
and ferried to safety in Sweden:
about six thousand Danish Jews were rescued
and only a few hundred captured by the Germans.
In the flicker of light across the water these rare escapees appear as ghosts, less survivors than thin voices that will return to tell of what had happened. Holocaust turns back on itself, eschewing a narrative structure that might offer the kind of self-contained meaning in adventure that is ordinarily epic’s domain. Exactly eight notes explicate Nazi policies and an epigraph cites source material, but historical context is otherwise absent. Nowhere is there reference to the outcome of the trials at Nuremberg and in Jerusalem. The fact that these testimonies already served their political purpose long ago is beside the point, and Reznikoff refuses to draw any “conclusion” about the mass extermination practiced by the Nazis.
The reader is thus left to confront every page of Holocaust afresh. Each section and stanza stands alone, revealing again and again how the Holocaust stands as an ineradicable, irreducible moral and physical reality:
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.
Reznikoff conveys the brutality of the Nazi regime simply by describing the familiar and mundane. Everyone knows the fibrous rip of a rag, and here slaughter is as easy as housecleaning; cruelty is a lump of sugar.
Elsewhere, a soldier in a death camp is described as if he were fishing at the end of a pier on a steamy summer afternoon:
The soldier doing the shooting was
sitting at the narrow end of the pit,
his feet dangling into it;
smoking a cigarette,
the machine gun on his knees
The enormity of the Holocaust is captured in this singular, nonchalant posture.
But Reznikoff can just as easily use juxtaposition to reveal small acts of spiritual triumph and heroism:
An old woman with white hair
was holding a child about a year old
in her arms ,
singing to it and tickling it,
and the child was cooing with delight;
and a father was holding the hand of his
the child about to burst into tears—
speaking to the child softly,
stroking his head
and pointing to the sky.
Bodies were soon heaped in the large pit,
lying on top of each other,
heads still to be seen and blood running
over their shoulders;
but some were still moving,
lifting arms and turning heads.
The effort of the man and woman to soothe their children in the first stanza resists the surreality of the second. Next to the morass of heads and bloody limbs, a loving exchange—the very possibility of affection—seems miraculous.
I try to imagine the emotional labor the poet applied to these transcripts, how he read without any expectation of finding redemption or justification or answers. What was he looking for?
Reznikoff walked prodigiously, up to twenty miles a day around his native New York City, never tiring of passing the same scenes again and again. “I like this secret walking / in the fog; /…only the narrow present is alive,” he writes in his 1941 collection Going To and Fro and Walking Up and Down. He was a man of concentration and discipline and, it seems to me, faith—if not religious faith, then faith that worldly revelation would come with careful, intense observation: “It has been raining for three days. /…the gilt has been washed from the sky: / we see the iron world.”
For Reznikoff, writing poetry was, like walking, a means of achieving not only proximity to the world but authenticity of self. In this sense, The Poems of Charles Reznikoff: 1918-1975, edited by Seamus Cooney and reissued by Black Sparrow in 2005, illuminates the logic of Holocaust, which in turn shows how “the iron world” was revealed to Reznikoff not only out in the street but through a careful reading of documentary history. He prepared for his work on Holocaust over the forty years he worked on Testimony, a 500-page verse history of the United States based on court cases dating back to 1885. In his statement of poetics, which with a nod to his legal education he called Obiter Dicta, Reznikoff outlined his approach to writing and the philosophy he felt linked him with Objectivist poets, including his friends George Oppen and Louis Zukofsky:
[The poet] does not write about his feelings but about what he sees and hears; [he] is restricted almost to the testimony of a witness in a court of law; and [he] expresses his feelings indirectly by the selection of his subject matter and . . . by its music.
Holocaust is the apotheosis of this project: it is in this poem that Reznikoff’s historicism and objectivism are brought together in an ethical and spiritual climax. By using the language of others he attends to the “object” of genocide without imaginative or philosophical flourish, and by reciting it again in his own rhythm he becomes a second witness to its truth. Ultimately, the reader responds not to the poet but to the testimony itself.
Auster’s critique that Holocaust does not dissect or enrich the history it recounts belies what any reader of the poem is likely to experience: a dual sense of nausea and frustration. It presents a story already told and a story never to be finished. It is neither novel nor revelatory, only horrific; as a piece of art it does not seduce us. But this is precisely its moral power as a document. It remains open like a photograph, shocking and repellent. Unlike a photograph, however, we cannot easily turn away from it; its length demands engagement with these atrocities for the duration and requires us to become—as the poet became—a witness. In this way, the poem strives, perhaps unwittingly, to compete in an image-ridden world. The reissue of Holocaust and the resurrection of its modest author argues for the kind of moral vision and voice perhaps only poetry provides.