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Review: Poetry of the Holocaust, ed. Jean Boase-Beier, Marian de Vooght

Tara Bergin, PNR no. 253, May - June 2020

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John Feistiner was speaking as a practitioner when he said that ‘translation is the art of loss’. For readers, translation is always the art of gain. Even the losses are gains; and sometimes, as in the case of Holocaust poetry, the losses can feel anachronistically integral to the whole process of transference.

This is not about the aesthetic appeal of rough literals or the conscious use of impoverished English in the final versions. Rather, it’s about the way that an increased awareness of the translator’s task can re-focus our attention on the words a poet uses to make a poem. When translation is placed in the foreground, we are encouraged to think further about what we are reading, and where it came from. As with Michael Schmidt’s recent study of ‘Gilgamesh’ (Princeton, 2019), when the re-telling becomes part of the life of the poem, its existence becomes ‘on-going’.

It’s partly this focus on translation that makes Arc’s new anthology, Poetry of the Holocaust, so interesting and unusual. With thirty-five translators working from nineteen languages, including Norwegian and Japanese, the collection places specific emphasis on giving a voice to those less frequently heard from in books of Holocaust poetry: the Roma, the Sinti, the gay, the disabled, the mentally ill. Some of these poems have never appeared in English before now, and the editors’ provision of brief biographies before every poem means we learn the fate of every poet before we read what they have written: imprisoned, hanged, beheaded, killed by dogs, gassed. We hear from Judith Kerr’s father (who survived), and Paul Celan’s niece (who didn’t). We learn about the blue buses in Riga, used to round up Jews and other unwanted people; we learn about the stinking ‘Dysentery Barracks’ and the hospital where thousands were killed because they were mentally ill. We learn about the poets’ own ‘skinny legs’ and ‘naked hands’, and about one Unknown Youth who gives his age as ‘nineteen plus two’— he’s twenty-one, but he can’t bear to count the years he spent in Plötzensee Prison.

‘The individual voice is everything’, write the editors in the introduction, and this is a crucial point. Above all else, this is a book of voices; a collection not just of poems but also of testimonies: statements, declarations, evidence. Furthermore, so the editors suggest, when we know we are receiving these poems in translation, the act of communication is even more poignant. If poetry is resistance, they write, ‘translated poetry is a double act of resistance’.

How to decide what poems should appear in an anthology such as this? The focus on translation was clearly an important factor. There are no poems by any English-language Holocaust poets here: their work, argue the editors, is already widely accessible to English speakers. They also omit any readily available translations. This means that the most famous Holocaust poem of all, Paul Celan’s ‘Death Fugue’, has been left out. Yevtushenko’s ‘Babi Yar’is excluded for the same reason, while Hungarian poet János Pilinszky is omitted for a different one. The editors explain why in their fascinating introduction, and while these gaps are at first disappointing, they do serve to drive home the purpose of this book, which is not to replace but to add. Read as an extension to our existing anthologies, this book proves essential. See for example Charlotte Serre’s short poem, ‘The Camp’, written in Ravensbruck, and quoted here in its entirety:

Horror, terror, hunger, blows,
Flames, the walls, the whip, the cold,
Lice and roll-call, dogs and snow...

The watch-tower...

Turn... turn.., carousel…

Poetically, Ted Hughes’s English version of Pilinszky’s ‘The Passion of Ravensbruck’ has more formal finality, but Serre’s first-hand account, translated from the French by Timothy Ades, sheds new light on Hughes’s powerful depiction of a shaven-headed male prisoner.

Poetry of the Holocaust: An Anthology arose out of a research project entitled ‘Translating the Poetry of the Holocaust’, carried out at UEA in 2013—14. Around that time, I attended a talk about the project, in which Jean Boase-Beier discussed her translation of Celan’s poem, ‘Totenhemd’ (literally ‘death-shirt’, but translated by Boase-Beier as ‘Winding Sheet’). Celan survived the Holocaust but his parents were killed, and he committed suicide in 1970 by drowning in the Seine. In her talk, Jean Boase-Beier mentioned that Celan’s mother used to knit him jumpers, and that he wore them long after she was killed. For years after that I imagined the jumpers were black, until I read in John Felstiner’s biography that Celan’s mother had knitted coloured sweaters for him, which made the image even sadder. But then, everything seems sadder when you learn more about the Holocaust. This anthology makes for harrowing reading, but it is also historically and linguistically and poetically necessary. As the introduction makes clear, ‘the time after the Holocaust is still ongoing’. We must keep the stories alive.