Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day

Two minutes can seem a very long time. I know because I was given the responsibility for keeping time during the two-minute standing silence that our UK ward observed every Remembrance Sunday. I was strict about it and timed exactly two minutes, but everyone, including my fellow bishopric members, began glancing around anxiously, the other counselor looking at me out of the corner of his eye. Perhaps in past years, people had been casual about the two minutes, just estimating it. Based on my experience of a two-minute silence, a two-minute long siren wail would seem an eternity.

Yom Hashoah, 2014. Two-Minute Siren at 10:00 a.m., April 28, 2014, source: http://tinyurl.com/l5gmbvo

* * *

At 10:00 a.m. today in Israel, a two minute long siren brought the country to a standstill. As Haaretz reported,

Cars stopped on the highways, pedestrians froze in place, and everyone – men, women, children, young, old, male, female, Arab and Jew – were expected to take two minutes of time out for some silent solemn reflection.

I find this a very fitting (and moving) way to remember the unimaginable, the Holocaust. Some survivors of the atrocity still linger in many societies, and many in Israel.

My reflections today turned to Auschwitz survivor Eli Wiesel‘s January 24, 2005 Speech to the UN (see full text here) in which he pondered his suffering in Auschwitz,

At the time, the witness tried to understand; he still does not: How was such calculated evil, such bottomless and pointless cruelty possible? Had Creation gone mad? Had God covered His face? A religious person cannot conceive of Auschwitz either with or without God. But what about man? How could intelligent, educated or simple law-abiding citizens fire machine guns at hundreds of children and their parents, and in the evening enjoy a cadence by Schiller, a partita by Bach?

I considered Wiesel’s comments to the UN (on the occasion of the first time in history that the UN General Assembly commemorated the victims of the Holocaust in a special ceremony) in a post over at ABEV titled “Of Schiller and Shulamith” nearly a decade ago when he delivered the speech. Wiesel concluded the speech provocatively with this observation:

The Jewish witness speaks of his people’s suffering as a warning. He sounds the alarm so as to prevent these things being done. He knows that for the dead it is too late; for them, abandoned by God and betrayed by humanity, victory came much too late.

Paul Celan reading “Todesfuge” (“Death Fugue”), Felstiner’s translation below

Particularly Wiesel’s question — “How could intelligent, educated or simple law-abiding citizens fire machine guns at hundreds of children and their parents, and in the evening enjoy a cadence by Schiller, a partita by Bach?” — calls to mind Paul Celan’s own remembrance as a concentration camp survivor in his 1948 poem, “Todesfuge” (“Death Fugue”):

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening
we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night
we drink and we drink
we shovel a grave in the air there you won’t lie too cramped
A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margareta
he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling, he whistles his hounds to come close
he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground
he commands us to play up for the dance.

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at morning and midday we drink you at evening
we drink and we drink
A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margareta
Your ashen hair Shulamith we shovel a grave in the air there you won’t lie too cramped

He shouts jab the earth deeper you lot there you others sing up and play
he grabs for the rod in his belt he swings it his eyes are so blue
jab your spades deeper you lot there you others play on for the dancing

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at midday and morning we drink you at evening
we drink and we drink
a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margareta
your aschenes Haar Shulamith he plays his vipers
He shouts play death more sweetly this Death is a master from Deutschland
he shouts scrape your strings darker you’ll rise then as smoke to the sky
you’ll have a grave then in the clouds there you won’t lie too cramped

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at midday Death is a master aus Deutschland
we drink you at evening and morning we drink and we drink
this Death is ein Meister aus Deutschland his eye it is blue
he shoots you with shot made of lead shoots you level and true
a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margarete
he looses his hounds on us grants us a grave in the air
he plays with his vipers and daydreams der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland

dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein aschenes Haar Shulamith

(Tranlsated by John Felstiner in Paul Celan — Poet, Survivor, Jew, New Haven: 1995.)

As I noted in 2005 at ABEV, this poem is poignantly beautiful and tragic in the extreme as a Holocaust Remembrance. The words convey emotion, pain, and grief that is, ironically, beyond expression in words. Shulamith, “the ‘black and comely’ princess in the Song of Songs in the Old Testament,” is associated with the Jewish people. Margarete, on the other hand, is the fair German maid of Goethe’s writings; the pure vessel who is tragically corrupted in Goethe’s Faust and becomes, in inverse fashion to the new name given on the white stone of John’s Revelation, the despised and desperate infanticide Gretchen. The following stanza captures the discontinuity, the mystery of how this could happen in the heart of civilization:

A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margareta
he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling, he whistles his hounds to come close
he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground
he commands us to play up for the dance.

The Kommandant, representing Germany, like it or not, sits in his house and writes to his fair, golden-haired Margarete — and then steps outside for the mass execution of a collective, ashen-haired Shulamith.

he whistles his hounds to come close
he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground

This portion is masterfully translated, as is the entire poem. This is a powerful line for me: the dogs and the Jews in the same sentence and action. The Kommandant whistles both to attention but kills the latter after they dig their own grave.

The entire poem is a lamentation of Biblical quality, in my opinion. It could and perhaps should be scripture. The Jewish people, God’s chosen people, have drunk the black milk. Either the Bible’s Job or Celan’s Shulamith embodies this experience. The difference is that Celan’s Shulamith represents six million, maybe more, exterminated human beings. It pains me to say it, but I find it difficult to disagree with Wiesel’s bitter remark that the victims were abandoned by God and betrayed by humanity.

* * *

Pictures from Ben Gersten’s 2014 trip to Poland as he reads a translation of Idan Raichel’s lyrics to “Mi Ma’Amakim” with the song itself playing in the background

Comments

  1. Thanks for this, John. The Celan poem is beyond powerful.

  2. I remember these sentiments from ABEV. They remain grim.

  3. Last night, not even realizing what today was, we watched a powerful Oscar winning documentary, The Lady in number 6. It is the life story of a Jewish holocaust survivor. At 109 years old, she was still lucid and could tell their story. Included in the piece are two other friends who also survived. Each of these women, were the Jews selected to play in the orchestra’s at the camps and for the Germans. It is only 38 minutes long, yet it leaves such a mark on you as the viewer. Today would be a great day to watch it.

  4. Wonderful, John. Thanks.

  5. Finally had the opportunity to read this. Thank you. I suspect the lack of comments reflects the puzzlement of Job’s comforters, who when they first arrive on the scene for their friend, can do nothing more than sit in silence.

  6. People rarely comment on devotional reflections though I have heard some accusations that BCC isn’t devotional enough. Go figure.

    Thanks, though, Blair — that means a lot to me.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 8,626 other followers