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

Lou Sarabadzic, Asymptote, © 2020

Nazis wanted to dehumanize and annihilate their victims on two different yet deeply interconnected levels. They sought to destroy groups by forbidding languages, razing cultural works and traditions, and tearing apart families and communities. And they attacked people as individuals by denying them the most elementary identity and sense of self. Poetry, as both a collective and personal endeavour, could counter these sinister strategies, and the multilingual Poetry of the Holocaust: An Anthology, edited by Jean Boase-Beier and Marian de Vooght, fights on both fronts by offering an innovative and inclusive approach to Holocaust poetry. Thanks to the careful and eloquent framing as well as remarkable research, this anthology empowers individual voices and emphasizes their singularity while also honouring their existence as part of larger social groups and solidarity networks. The poems' selection, organization, and paratext all work cohesively towards the same goals, which are clearly identified on the back cover: to present poems in languages readers may not typically associate with the Holocaust, by authors belonging to one or several of the many groups persecuted by the Nazis because of their religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, or political opinions. In that sense, the book "aim[s] to give a fuller picture than do most Holocaust anthologies."

This anthology embodies the best feature of the form, as it brings more voices to the public (ninety-three authors to be exact), and therefore champions lesser-known poets alongside established ones (such as Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs, and Robert Desnos). To read a poem by eleven-year-old boy Jerzy Ogórek Z B?dzina, written in the Kraków ghetto in 1942 in the same book as writing by Nobel laureate Nelly Sachs implies both equally deserve our time and attention. And they do. We also needed to read more poems by people from all persecuted groups, such as "So I Learn Life's Greatest Art..." by disabled poet and Polish Resistant Irena Bobowska, executed in 1942, and "The Urns", by Angela Fritzen, a journalist with Down's syndrome. The latter, who was born in 1974, reflects several decades later on the tragic legacy of these dramatic events by writing about the history of people with Down's syndrome. We also needed André Sarcq's "To the Twice-Murdered Men (The Rag)", for it is, as the editors state, "the only poem we know of that remembers gay men as victims of the Holocaust." The presence of these authors in this anthology refuses further invisibilization or silencing.  

Boase-Beier and de Vooght also managed to include nineteen languages, cited here by order of appearance: German, Lithuanian, Dutch, Yiddish, Polish, Romanian, French, Danish, Italian, Spanish, Norwegian, Estonian, Hungarian, Japanese, Russian, Greek, Hebrew, Latvian, and Ladino. Some languages are necessarily more represented than others, but to even cover so many is a real accomplishment-one that will no doubt inspire others. Readers will also appreciate how open Boase-Beier and de Vooght are about the potential gaps in their work. Wherever representation could be seen as lacking, they did not merely acknowledge this fact but instead sought to include victims of Nazism in other ways. For instance, while they admit to not having been able to include poems in Romani, they did feature texts in memory of Sinti and Roma victims. They also voice an urgent call to fellow researchers, encouraging them to discover and publish even more poetry.

[...] Whether or not we agree with those who say poetry is the most difficult genre to translate, it's clear that all thirty-five translators involved in this project did a wonderful job passing on these stories to us, adding their own experience as readers of such texts.

[...] At a time when people from various continents keep asking for more walls, more borders, more nationalism and exclusion, it is essential to remember that such tragedies do not happen overnight. Although we may choose not to acknowledge the signs around us, they are there. Why, then, don't we act? Well, history, in that way, is very uninventive... We keep still. We today uncomfortably resemble the we in "World in Turmoil...", written in 1933-34 by Alfred Kerr:

And if the devils took over the world,
no-one would try to intervene:
we don't do that, we can't do that!
That's what they call diplomacy.
Even in cataclysmic times
'Internal affairs', they cry.
Some of them murder without a care
sanctified and above the law
The others whisper, and sit and stare.

(translated from the German by Jean Boase-Beier)

Let's put it otherwise: if we keep tolerating antisemitism, antigypsyism, xenophobia, racism, homophobia, and ableism, especially from leaders of the world, then we will certainly not be allowed to act surprised when poets will blame us with the same powerful language Jewish writer Stanislav Smelyansky wields in the aptly named "Guilty!" :

Quiet anger, fury -
Where is my beloved people?
The world accused fascists -
I accuse the world.

(translated from the Russian by Veronika Krasnova)


Lou Sarabadzic is Assistant Managing Editor (Issue Production) at Asymptote. She's a bilingual French-English writer and translator based in the United Kingdom.