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On Holocaust

Marie Syrkin

While he was still obdurately producing more Testimony I urged him to use the technique of law cases for another project--the Nazi extermination of European Jewry. Available were the records of the Nuremberg trials and other accounts. Remembering his moving "Kaddish," written in the thirties, and various later poems I hoped for a lyrical threnody. But Charles was committed to his system. He refused to use any material from numerous first-hand witness reports. Only the records of the Nuremberg Trial and of the Eichmann Trial were to be his sources; nor would he allow himself any subjective outcry. Again the bare facts, as selected by him, would speak for themselves: there would be no tampering with the experience through imagery or heightened language. The Black Sparrow Press brought out Holocaust in 1975.

From "Charles: A Memoir." In Charles Reznikoff: Man and Poet. Ed. Milton Hindus. Copyright ã 1984 by the National Poetry Foundation. Reprinted with permission.

Janet Sutherland

The sources for Holocaust were The Trials of the Major War Criminals at Nuremburg and The Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem. These are the verbatim records of the trials in English and are voluminous works amounting to a total of twenty-six volumes. Much of the material contained within them is concerned with secondary material relating to the trials such as discussions over which documents are admissable, discussions over points of law, comments by judges, etc. Reznikoff is interested only in the primary sources; affidavits given by witnesses, and to a lesser extent material from certain official war documents used in the trials. Of the primary sources Reznikoff extracts only those concerned with the Jewish question. He excludes material about Gypsies, Poles and the ill-treatment of prisoners of war by Germany. Whilst reading Holocaust the reader never becomes aware that the sources are trials (except when the sources are cited at the beginning) for the names of the war criminals are withheld, their sentences are not given, the judges do not appear. It is by these means that Reznikoff achieves most of the compression of Holocaust. Twenty-six volumes are reduced to one hundred and eleven pages in which events concerning the Jewish problem are divided up by subject-matter, for example "Escapes," "Children," "Marches" etc.

From Reznikoff and His Sources." In Charles Reznikoff: Man and Poet. Ed. Milton Hindus. Copyright ã 1984 by the National Poetry Foundation. Reprinted with permission.

Sylvia Rothchild

Holocaust, published in 1975, is written in the same, dry, spare style as the early testimonies. The twelve chapters are counted off like the plagues afflicting the Egyptians before the exodus. Altogether they are a remarkably accurate record of deportation, invasion, research, of ghettos, massacres, gas chambers and trucks, work camps, treatment of children, the sadistic entertainments, the mass graves, marches and escapes. Reznikoff in a hundred and eleven pages has left us with his version of the record, as much and more than we will ever need to know. He tells about the rare good men, "A priest in Germany would find Jews shelter," as well as about the S.S. squads "whipping those who lingered," about "the children screaming Mama as--they're taken into trucks," and about the deceptions used to lure and confuse the victims. The details, reported by witnesses, document a collapse of Western civilization.

[. . . .]

His Holocaust testimonies are unsentimental, unreligious, unvarnished with mystical consolations. He is more explicit than many survivors care to be. He also seems determined not to exploit the tragedy for any purposes beyond its own credibility. He wrote as if to a morally responsible world, capable of feeling outrage. His Auschwitz was not Elie Wiesel's holy mystery or William Styron's "fatal embolism in the bloodstream of mankind," but a real place where men and women lived and died without witnesses, and mourners.

From "From a Distance and Up Close: Charles Reznikoff and the Holocaust." In Charles Reznikoff: Man and Poet. Ed. Milton Hindus. Copyright ã 1984 by the National Poetry Foundation. Reprinted with permission.

Anne Stevenson (with Michael Farley)

When we come to the end of Holocaust (granted, it is a poem, not a play) we want to find a place to be sick. No poet has ever written a book so nakedly shocking, so blatantly calculated to make us feel that the Nazi persecution of the Jews can never be fictionalized or abstracted into "literature." One marvels at the courage Reznikoff must have drawn upon to write it. Yet it is because Holocaust is written--every word and fact of it--that it is believable. Reznikoff deprives us of our coveted catharsis while he gives us no excuse for forgiving ourselves (who in some sense does not share in the perpetration of such crimes?) through abstract understanding. No wonder Reznikoff has never been a popular writer.

From "Charles Reznikoff In His Tradition." In Charles Reznikoff: Man and Poet. Ed. Milton Hindus. Copyright ã 1984 by the National Poetry Foundation. Reprinted with permission.

Paul Auster

The success of Testimony becomes all the more striking when placed beside Holocaust, a far less satisfying work that is based on many of the same techniques. Using as his sources the U.S. Government publication, Trials of the Criminals before the Nuremberg Tribunal, and the records of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, Reznikoff attempts to deal with Germany's annihilation of the Jews in the same dispassionate, documentary style with which he had explored the human dramas buried in American court records. The problem, I think, is one of magnitude. Reznikoff is a master of the everyday; he understands the seriousness of small events and has an uncanny sympathy with the lives of ordinary people. In a work such as Testimony he is able to present us with the facts in a way that simultaneously makes us understand them: the two gestures are inseparable. In the case of Holocaust, however, we all know the facts in advance. The holocaust, which is precisely the unknowable, the unthinkable, requires a treatment beyond the facts in order for us to be able to understand it--assuming that such a thing is even possible. Similar in approach to a 1960s play by Peter Weiss, The Investigation, Reznikoff's poem rigorously refused to pass judgement on any of the atrocities it describes. But this is nevertheless a false objectivity, for the poem is not saying to the reader, "decide for yourself," it is saying that the decision has already been made and that the only way we can deal with these things is to remove them from their inherently emotional setting. The problem is that we cannot remove them.. This setting is a necessary starting point.

Holocaust is instructive, however, in that it shows us the limits of Reznikoff's work. I do not mean shortcomings--but limits, those things that set off and describe a space, that create a world. Reznikoff is essentially a poet of naming. One does not have the sense of a poetry immersed in language but rather of something that takes place before language and comes to fruition at the precise moment language has been discovered--and it yields a style that is pristine, fastidious, almost stiff in its effort to say exactly what it means to say. if any one word can be used to describe Reznikoff's work, it would be humility towards language and also towards himself.

From "The Decisive Moment." In Charles Reznikoff: Man and Poet. Ed. Milton Hindus. Copyright ã 1984 by the national Poetry Foundation. Reprinted with permission.

Eliot Weinberger

I wrote him wildly enthusiastic letters, soliciting work for Montemora, offering him as much space as he liked in the magazine; the manuscripts he sent in reply always contained a self-addressed stamped envelope. Yet this invisible man, who published his own books for 50 years, who never left the country, who sat in Hollywood watching the flies on his desk, whose poetry is filled with people but no friends, who rarely mentioned in print his life after late adolescence or his wife of 46 years--this man also lived in the world of Testimony, Holocaust, The Lionhearted, the novel By the Waters of Manhattan. It was a world of injustice without ultimate justice, of disembodied outbursts of violent passion, of suffering without the illusion of a political redemption. If Reznikoff's life is ever known, I suspect that what we saw as an untiring humility will be far more tragic.

From "Another Memory of Reznikoff." In Charles Reznikoff: Man and Poet. Ed. Milton Hindus. Copyright ã 1984 by the National Poetry Foundation. Reprinted with permission.

Robert Franciosi

Despite his persistent interest in Jewish history, Charles Reznikoff waited nearly thirty years before writing a major poetic response to the destruction of the European Jews—his long poem Holocaust. During those years he had often explained to Milton Hindus that "his emotions about [the subject] had entered into the parts of Testimony he was working on in the 1960s," yet Hindus suspected a more complicated reason for the poet's hesitation:

Until this time I had attributed his refusal to treat the forbidding subject directly to his aesthetic tact, his literary instinct that the explosive power of such a subject could hardly be contained, certainly not by someone who had not actually "been there." If even the expressions of survivors sometimes seemed to be little better than exploitative "Kitsch" and those of others more sincere and genuine proved repetitive, diminishing and sentimental, was it possible for an American Jew to do any better? There was an abyss of cliché, propaganda and editorialism in the subject which even the wariest writer might have difficulty in avoiding. Was it possible, then, that the central event of Jewish history in almost two thousand years defied the imagination and had best be surrounded by silence? (37)

While George Steiner might deem silence appropriate (and moral), for Reznikoff reticence seems not entirely attributable to the Holocaust's enormity as historical event and literary subject. Reznikoff had in fact written poems on both the rise of the Nazis and the ongoing destruction of the Jews of Europe during the war. Only after 1945, when the full magnitude of these crimes against the Jewish people was known, did he fall silent. When he broke that silence in Holocaust, it was by means of the poetic adaptation of court records, the technique that he had used to write the multivolumed Testimony—only in this poem the testimonies were derived from the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials.

The literary use of testimony from the war crimes trials, however, was not original with Reznikoff. Peter Weiss had adapted similar records in his controversial play The Investigation (1965); indeed, Holocaust initially seems vulnerable to many of the charges lodged against Weiss's play. Lawrence L. Langer, for example, condemns Weiss's minimal alterations of court testimony given at the Auschwitz trial held in Frankfurt in the mid-1960s: "By duplicating the details of history without embellishing them, while at the same time being highly selective in his use of them, Weiss eliminates any perspective which might offer his audience an entry into their implications; oddly, and certainly unintentionally, the result is not a new aesthetic distance, but an aesthetic indifference, a failure of the artist's imagination to seduce the spectator into a feeling of complicity with the material of his drama" (31). For Alvin H. Rosenfeld, the inadequacy of The Investigation's language results from Weiss's political interpretation of Auschwitz as a logical product of capitalism. The playwright removes all emotion from the witnesses' testimony, he says, and thus reduces it "from the level of actual human discourse to a code of raw data that would accommodate his political design" (158).

Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi also views the removal of "the emotions with which the testimonies were delivered by the witnesses" as a fatal flaw in Weiss's play. "The facts or evidence in this drama," she says, "serve as statistics, not as means of individuation" (38). She criticizes the absence of names for the testifying survivors, the scientific detachment of the language, and Weiss's unwillingness to identify the Holocaust's particularly Jewish reality, then questions his use of the legal frame itself. Courtroom protocol might seem "to provide a kind of decorum to defy or reform the criminal order of the concentrationary system," she says, but when applied to the "systematic lawlessness of Auschwitz," it becomes "a mockery of the pretense of justice" (36).

Ezrahi contends that Reznikoff's Holocaust suffers from a similar "explicitly reverent attitude toward the operations of justice":

In the absence of any visible editorial hand, whatever irony is brought to bear on the notion that the legal procedure can contain or avenge the horrors of genocide must be read into the text. The condensed presentation of bare facts, the terse, forensic language give equal weight on the written page to the testimony of Jew and Nazi and assign a kind of anonymity to both sides as they appear as witnesses for the prosecution or the defense, for the victim or the victimizer—as two facets, that is, of the human condition. (37)

Her willingness to associate the deficiencies of The Investigation, particularly its detached, monotonous language, with Holocaust is based, I believe, on a superficial similarity between the two works. Reznikoff's earlier poetic responses to the Holocaust, which I will discuss directly, reveal his struggles to encounter the event in poetry and suggest that his decision to use the legal documents as the basis for his long poem was not a casual one.

Reznikoff's use of the testimonies is not a sign of excessive faith in the procedures of the courtroom. Rather, it is an invocation of that setting's rhetoric of factuality, a rhetoric he deemed equal to such grave matters. Reznikoff commits himself to these testimonies as his source, but he does not surrender the emotional and moral authority with which they were delivered to austere factuality, does not sacrifice the witnesses' humanity (in the manner of Weiss) to a naive gesture toward the "neutral" documentation of historical or political events. His very selection of these records is rhetorically determined and precludes any possibility of neutrality. Ezrahi claims, however, that "a comparison of the successive drafts of Reznikoff's Holocaust reveals [a] process of simplification, of objectification, that left a bare skeleton of facts without any rhetorical wraps" (45). In fact, by examining the evolution of a representative section of Holocaust from trial record to final poetic form, I will demonstrate that Reznikoff does indeed embellish his material by deliberately attempting to instill the "bare facts" of the transcribed testimonies with a rhetorical, an emotional power.

[. . . .]

Reznikoff once explained, in remarks before a reading from Holocaust, his motive for adapting trial records as poetry:

In telling about a minor incident or a great catastrophe -like the Holocaust in which six million Jews lost their lives—how is it to be told? In the conclusions of the facts? The way many histories—generally out of necessity because of the absence of details—are written? Or in detailing the facts themselves? As, for example, the way law cases are tried in court. A witness in a court, for example, cannot say a man was negligent in crossing a street: he must testify instead how the man acted: the facts instead of a conclusion of fact. So, in reading or listening to the facts themselves, instead of merely [coming] to conclusions of what happened in the life of a person or to a people, the reader or listener may not only draw his own conclusions but is more apt to feel actually what happened as if he or she were—fortunately—only a spectator. (Charles Reznikoff Papers Box VII, Folder 26)

In theory, Reznikoff refuses, as Kathryn Shevelow notes, "to provide any mediation between the reader and the experience of these grotesque and horrifying deeds" (302) in order to intensify their effect on the reader, who is then more "apt to feel actually what happened" (my emphasis). But a reader can no more experience the actual Holocaust through reading the poem than Reznikoff could through studying the legal testimonies, despite his stated objectivist stance: "I see something and it moves me and I put it down as I see it. In the treatment of it, I abstain from comment" (Interview 194). Of course Reznikoff does not comment in his own voice, but his selection and presentation of the documents are comments, are rhetorically determined acts. He sought the kinds of narratives that moved him. Another reader of the records would likely select different ones. Therefore, despite his claims to "abstain from commenting," Reznikoff's construction of Holocaust is itself a particular comment on the events. It is Reznikoff's account that readers respond to, not the Holocaust itself. Yet rather than lacking emotion, as Ezrahi claims, the accounts in Holocaust are invested with emotional power by means of Reznikoff's adaptation of them. My discussion of the evolution of a representative passage (from the "Gas Chambers and Gas Trucks" section) as it was developed from the edited photocopies, through the various typed drafts, to the final published version will demonstrate how.

There are four basic stages in Reznikoff's transformation of legal testimony into poetry. Selection (Fig. 1): This involves the reading of many volumes of law records (in the case of Testimony literally thousands of volumes) to find suitable material. "I might go through a volume of a thousand pages," Reznikoff says, "and find just one case from which to take the facts and rearrange them so as to be interesting" ("Conversation" 117). Editing (Fig. 1): Reznikoff cuts the selected testimony to a core of material that he feels has poetic value. Often he reproduces the legal language verbatim, but he does not hesitate to alter it for the sake of clarity and direction. Scoring (Figs. 2, 3): The edited law case is lineated, typed out as verse. Those details Reznikoff wants to emphasize are strategically placed, both within the line itself and in the entire selection. Rewriting (Figs. 2-4): This process may consist of a number of drafts and is essentially a honing of the lines' rhythms and details in order to enhance the intended emotional and poetical effects.

[. . . .]

Reznikoff knew that no matter how many specific details he included in his poem it was impossible to create more than a general historical sense of the Holocaust:

Of course, in the case of a great catastrophe affecting as in the Holocaust millions, only comparatively few incidents are available. The great majority or detail has been lost with the victims. Of what happened in the Holocaust It the hands of what was generally thought to be one of the most advanced among the nations of the world, . . . in spite of many excellent biographies that have been written or memoir[s] found and published[,] only comparatively little of all that happened remains. (Box VII, Folder 26)

By recognizing the limits of his materials, however, he was able to avoid the formal difficulties that had diminished the effectiveness of Testimony. Neither Holocaust nor any other account could ever be a complete depiction of this catastrophe; therefore by necessity what he could produce would be at best only representative. Reznikoff's acceptance of this encouraged him to abandon the arrangement of Testimony, which was based largely on repetition. Rarely does he present more than a few incidents under any particular category. The result is a haunting spareness that evokes for the reader the historical magnitude of these crimes without deadening their emotional effect through excessive repetition. Out of the whirlwind of seemingly limitless horror, Reznikoff rescues specific human accounts, stories of men, women, and children whose fate seems more comprehensible because of his emphasis on the human dimension. Probably the greatest emotion is evoked in the reader by Reznikoff's persistent return to the destruction of that most basic unit of humanity—the family. Some of the poem's most incomprehensible and horrifying moments are those depicting the special grief of survivors who had witnessed the massacring of families:

Her father did not want to take off all of his clothes
and stood in his underwear.
His children begged him to take it off
but he would not and was beaten.
Then the Germans tore off his underwear
and he was shot.
They shot her mother, too,
and her father's mother—
she was eighty years old
and held two children in her arms;
and they shot her father's sister;
she also had babies in her arms
and was shot on the spot. (36)

Reznikoff's choice of individual testimonies is not the only means by which he invests Holocaust with emotional power. Often the numbered sections of the poem's particular "books" are concluded with especially horrible or poignant scenes. The majority of these are brief but gripping moments, as for example the following account from book five, "Massacres":

They gathered some twenty Hasidic Jews from their homes,
in the robes these wear,
wearing their prayer shawls, too,
and holding prayer books in their hands.
They were led up a hill.
Here they were told to chant their prayers
and raise their hands for help to God
and, as they did so,
the officers poured kerosene under them
and set it on fire. (40)

Or this even briefer scene from the book devoted to "Children":

Women guards at the women's section of the
        concentration camp
were putting little children into trucks
to be taken away to the gas chambers
and the children were screaming and crying, "Mamma, Mamma,"
even though the guards were trying to give them
        pieces of candy to quiet them. (70)

We read these passages and gradually become unwilling to turn the page, to continue on to the next section. We are offered no relief from the memory of these moments in the succeeding white spaces—only blank pages and solitary Roman numerals introducing yet another section. The traumatic effect of these moments lingers, until we break it by beginning the next section and entering further into l’univers concentrationnaire.

In describing the difficulty confronting any author who chooses to write on the Holocaust, Rolf Hochhuth explains that "because he is faced with such a plethora of raw material, as well as with such difficulties in collating it, the writer must hold fast to his freedom, which alone empowers him to give form to the matter" (288). Reznikoff's drafts of the opening description of the camp, as well as the larger design of the poem itself, prove that Holocaust is more than a simple "transcription of reality." Furthermore, it is an error to assume (as Shevelow and others have demonstrated) that Reznikoff's method consists solely of copying verbatim the court records and then arranging them as verse.

[. . . .]

Reznikoff's detailing of the facts is an orchestrated procedure that directs the reader's emotions to a greater degree than Reznikoff acknowledges, but its adequacy as a response to the Holocaust is finally due to the very union of poetic innovation and moral stance.

Ezrahi, however, includes Holocaust among a group of "documentary" responses to the Holocaust that she criticizes for hiding behind the "camouflage of ‘factuality.'" They are, she says, guided by "explicit or implicit ideological perspectives which generate specific selections and interpretations of history and different modes and logic of relating and manipulating the historical reconstruction of reality in literature" (47). We should of course question claims to absolute factuality, as Ezrahi suggests, even the claims of those who testified, yet I believe she too readily dismisses a vast middle ground occupied by works such as Holocaust that attempt to combine historical "fact" and imaginative response.

Langer loosens the strict notion of document as only factual evidence and reminds us of its original meaning in the Old French document, as both evidence and lesson. "History provides the details—then abruptly stops," he says. "Literature seeks ways of exploring the implications and making them imaginatively available" (9; my emphasis). Reznikoff's desire to have the readers of Holocaust draw their own conclusions and experience the feelings inherent in the events described indicates his own awareness of the dual demands of factuality and imagination on the author of Holocaust literature. The poem's historical accuracy—at least the history found in the law records—is maintained by his allegiance to the court testimonies and by his attempts (through footnotes, for example) to provide a general overview of the catastrophe. Yet as his many deletions, rearrangements, and additions to the original prove, Reznikoff was intent on using the powers of art to give the historical details emotional depth.

Despite Ezrahi's claim that in a work such as Holocaust it "is the very pretense of factuality that precludes imaginative transformation of events " Reznikoff succeeds because he actively frustrates the rhetoric of fact by depicting/interpreting the catastrophe in the terms Yehuda Bauer has called for: Holocaust is "an alliance of the Chronicler with Job" (49), a consummate union of historical narrative and human tragedy.

from "'Detailing the Facts': Charles Reznikoff's Response to the Holocaust." Contemporary Literature 29.2 (Summer 1988).

Charles Bernstein

Dear Jean-Paul Auxeméry,

[. . .]

I won't ever forget the first night, and first morning, of this year's Jewish New Year, where we celebrated the work of Reznikoff in a former Christian abbey at Royaumont, near Paris. I won’t forget that our Reznikoff panel ended with your overwhelming reading of Holocaust--your French translation of a work barely known in its native land. My own intervention had focused not only on Reznikoff's Testimony, as you note, but also more particularly on his Complete Poems. What I remember thinking was that Holocaust had never sounded so necessary, so appropriate (in your sense that Reznikoff always found the most "apropos" words). Yes, I have had my difficulties with Holocaust--the most unrelentingly painful to read of Reznikoff’s work, about the most unmitigated horror of our common, "modern" history. I think I must have said this work was about a problem specifically European; I could not have meant that it was "solely" European, however, since the destruction of the European Jews is of the most urgent relevance to all Americans, to all Jews, indeed to all humans. I think I must have suggested that Holocaust is necessarily Reznikoff's most problematic work at a technical--in the sense of aesthetic or formal--level, in the sense that no American work of poetry had found a form to adequately acknowledge that which is beyond adequate acknowledgment; so that Holocaust stands apart and beyond the achievement of Reznikoff’s Poems and Testimony.

I say specifically European for a very practical, literal reason that you, with your remarkable involvement with Olson, would certainly appreciate the implications of Reznikoff's work, apart from Holocaust and his biblical poems and talmudic "collages," has been a profound investigation of "American" materials: it is work immersed in the local and particular details of this place that he found himself in, first generation in his family, and also of a language, English, that was an intrinsic part of that emplacement. One of my favorite Reznikoff remarks is one he made to Marie Syrkin, his wife, in explaining why he would not go to Palestine with her in 1933; he told her that "he had not yet explored Central Park to the full." Indeed Reznikoff never left North America or English (an "American" English of course) in real life or in his poems, with the primary exception of Holocaust, which not only involved a European site or place (lieu) but also for the first time working with documentary materials not originally in English. For me, what was so striking about your reading of Holocaust in French was that one could imagine those incidents happening near the place, even Royaumont; we were close by the scene.

Reznikoff’s Complete Poems and Testimony explore the tragedy and violence that is the grounding of this Republic, call it United States. It is not a story that Americans are familiar with or, even now, ready to acknowledge. Each poem of Reznikoff's, always placed in series, shocks by its recognition of something otherwise unstated or unsaid: say, unacknowledged or repressed or denied or suppressed. Testimony, while a litany of sorrows, finds new avenues to locate the transgression of dominance against the human spirit.

By contrast, the violence, the repulsiveness, of the incidents in Holocaust are always and already known, hence preclude the insinuating subtlety of Testimony. And, for Americans, always and already projected outward to the German, to the Nazi, to a European story. If it does not hit home, it is because the story of World War II has been the greatest source for American self-congratulation: we defeated the Nazi monsters. NOT: the Nazi monsters in us, which go on, largely on the loose. This is like saying, North America has not had a twentieth-century war on its soil. Reznikoff shows otherwise. The Complete Poems and Testimony testify to a system of domination and disregard that has won; Holocaust to a system of explicit violence that, at least on the face, lost.

From The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural Poetics. Ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Peter Quartermain. Copyright © 1999 by The University of Alabama Press.

Norman Finkelstein

That Reznikoff's world is one of endless wreckage becomes all too clear in his long poems, Testimony and Holocaust. In both, "wreckage upon wreckage" are hurled at our feet. The poems, particularly Holocaust, could be regarded as the endpoint of Objectivism's testimonial strain, as the subjectivity and presence of the poet virtually disappears, replaced by the dispassionate court records from which the texts are drawn. Like the angel of history, we can only stare, aghast at the sight of human violence and depravity as we are blown into an ever-worsening future. Yet this is not to say, as does Robert Alter, that "this is an extended exercise in masochism conducted under the cover of an act of testimony."According to Alter, "History, it would seem, had become a hypnotic vision of unrestrained murderous impulse for the poet: the ultimate breakdown of his whole problematic relation to the past is starkly evident in the flattened landscapes of disaster that take the place of round imagined worlds in these two long poems of his old age." Granted, Reznikoff's relation to the past is problematic, but Holocaust does not constitute a "breakdown." It is, I believe, a confrontation with history set at the limit of Reznikoff's art:

The bodies were thrown out quickly
for other transports were coming:
bodies blue, wet with sweat and urine, legs covered with excrement,
and everywhere the bodies of babies and children.
Two dozen workers were busy
opening the mouths of the dead with iron hooks
and with chisels taking out teeth with golden caps;
and elsewhere other workers were tearing open the dead
and looking for money or jewels that might have been swallowed.
And all the bodies were then thrown into the large pits dug near the gas chambers
to be covered with sand. (Holocaust 46)

Holocaust offers so radical a challenge to the conventional category of poetry (or, perhaps, of the aesthetic) that in reading it we must put aside most of our assumptions about literary texts and historical representation. Drawn entirely from records of the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials, Reznikoff’s poem demands a sort of religious silence from its readers, in much the same way that witnessing the event of the Shoah itself demands silence of those in the presence of such testimony. As George Steiner says in "Postscript" (1967), his essay on witnessing and representing the Holocaust, "The best now, after so much has been set forth, is, perhaps, to be silent; not to add the trivia of literary, sociological debate, to the unspeakable." By contrast, Steiner is critical of the dramatized, but still largely accurate, account of events in the French study Treblinka:

But because that evidence is mastered by the literary talent of the writer, because a narrative persona full of distinct rage and stylistic force interposes between the insane fact and the profoundly exciting economy, hence order, of the book, a certain unreality obtrudes. Where it is represented with such skill, intricate modulations affect the hideous truth. It becomes more graphic, more terribly defined, but also has more acceptable, conventional lodging in the imagination. We believe; yet do not believe intolerably, for we draw breath at the recognition of a literary device, of a stylistic stroke not finally dissimilar from what we have met in a novel. The aesthetic makes endurable.

In composing Holocaust, Reznikoff seems to intuit that "The aesthetic makes endurable," and yet given his understanding of the testimonial role of poetry, he is still obliged to produce a text in which what Steiner would call "a narrative persona"--that is, the voice of the poetic subject--faintly lingers. The order of the sections of Holocaust moves in a loosely chronological fashion, from "Deportation" and "Invasion," through "Massacres," "Gas Chambers and Gas Trucks," and "Children" to the last sections, "Marches" and "Escapes." The poem ends with an account of the Warsaw ghetto uprising and the escape of six thousand Danish Jews to Sweden with the help of their gentile fellow citizens. In other words, Reznikoff proceeds from the beginning of this saison d'enfer, to its darkest moments, to the new beginning of a period of struggle, hope, and recovery. Furthermore, a horrible irony can sometimes be heard just below the surface of the narration, as in this last stanza from the section called "Entertainment":

On Sundays there was no work and Jews would be placed in a row:
each had a bottle on his head
and the S. S. men amused themselves by shooting at the bottles.
If a bottle was hit,
the man lived;
but if the bottle landed below,
well, the man had it.

The ironic resignation of that "well" in the final line can only belong to a narrative voice that cannot lose itself entirely in the univers concentrationnaire.

Reading Holocaust throws us back on the rest of Reznikoff’s poetry with a renewed sense of his cultural predicament. As we have seen, identifying with Jewish history means suffering the loss of Jewish tradition. Compelled to bear the historical burden of Jewish identity without the inner strength provided by the continuity of Jewish faith, secular Jews like Reznikoff experience the intertwined processes of secularization and assimilation as a full-blown crisis of transmission.

From The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural Poetics. Ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Peter Quartermain. Copyright © 1999 by the University of Alabama Press.

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