Holocaust Poetry


Wisława Szymborska is one of the leading poets of postwar Poland. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996 and named poet laureate of Poland in 1997. Born in western Poland in 1923, she moved to Kraków when she was eight years old. She studied Polish literature and sociology from 1945 to 1948, and her poetic debut dates to 1945, when she published her first poem. She had a volume of poems ready for publication as early as 1948, but it did not pass the test of political acceptability. She revised her work to make it conform to the exigencies of socialist realism, and a collection entitled Dlatego zyjemy ("What We Live For") was published in 1952, when Stalinist tendencies in literature had reached their peak in Poland. This volume, and to a lesser extent her next one, have dogged her reputation ever since, because in them she has responded to the muse of political expediency as well as that of poetry. Despite her repudiation of this early work, she has been accused by many of a lack of integrity in connection with it, although there has been little attempt to determine her real political inclinations at the time. Comparisons with poetic hacks and careerists are hardly defensible, however, since even the second collection overcame many of the deficiencies of the first. It is noteworthy that her poetry and career since the mid-1950s have been largely unmarked by political events. This is not to say she has not taken principled stands at critical moments in Polish history, but she has done so quietly and largely outside of her poetry.


Szymborska has been as reticent to discuss her biography as to discuss theoretical aspects of her poetry. In one poem she asks what poetry is and replies firmly, "I don't know and I don't know and I hold on to that/like to a life raft." Her work is characterized by humility, a wry and frequently ironic sense of humor, and a profound sense of the joy and tragedy inherent in individual human existence and in the collective history of the species. Commentators generally agree with her that there is no need to know anything of her life to appreciate or understand her poetry. This is one of the few theoretical questions on which her position is unambiguously known, and while it may not apply equally well to all poets, it does seem to hold true for her work. Each of her poems successfully creates its own world, and there is little to connect them beyond some stylistic and methodological consistency.


The poetry of Wisława Szymborska is remarkably rich in imagery, subject matter, and intellectual scope. She has written on topics ranging from the purely quotidian ("Cat in an Empty Apartment") to the arts, history ("Reality Demands"), love, existential angst ("Four in the Morning"), and much more. Her work is highly complex and constantly reveals new dimensions of meaning and expression. If there is one thing that characterizes her approach, it would be the concretization of our abstract and fragmented perceptions of the physical, psychological, and moral world. It is highly reminiscent of Hegel's pre-phenomenological position in his famous essay "Who Thinks Abstractly?" in which he describes people watching a hanging and shows each spectator focusing on just one aspect of the man on the gallows. Each of them thinks he or she is seeing the totality of the phenomenon, but in actuality each only sees a single aspect: criminal, son, youth, and so on. Szymborska examines familiar phenomena, and by reminding her reader of their details and multifaceted nature ("eagerness to see things from all six sides"), she brings to consciousness a refocused and renewed sense of what is there.


She has written numerous poems to address social and political themes, including the conflicts and atrocities of the twentieth century. The three poems from her oeuvre that most directly address the Holocaust are "Still" ("Jeszcze"), "Hunger Camp near Jaslo," and "Hitler's First Photograph," and each in its own way demonstrates her poetic method and contributes to an understanding, both of the phenomena they address and of her poetic imagination. The three poems appear in a 1998 collection of Szymborska's poetry, Poems, New and Collected, 1957-1997.


"Still" is an extended metonymic evocation of a sealed boxcar containing Jewish "names" travelling across the Polish countryside to a sinister destination. The focus on the names instead of the people to which they are attached is not an exploration of nominalism but an indictment of the crude objectification of the "other," which lies at the core of anti-Semitism and other forms of racism: "Let your son have a Slavic name,/for here they count hairs on the head,/for here they tell good from evil/by names and by eyelids' shape." It diminishes their value as individual persons, as personalities, and it seemingly legitimizes the artificial alienation it engenders. Interestingly the poet's target here is not Nazism and its adherents but her compatriot inhabitants of the countryside through which the train is traveling. True, the Nazis may have filled and sealed the boxcars, but it is local anti-Semitism she refers to specifically, and in doing so she raises the always disturbing and thorny question of the passive complicity of bystanders. The train is neither invisible nor silent as it moves like a ghost ship through the countryside. Indeed, she contrasts the clickety-clack of the train moving along holding its grotesque cargo with the "crashing silence" of those on the outside who know but refuse to act or even acknowledge what is happening.


In "Hunger Camp near Jaslo" Szymborska also refers to the silence around such events, but like Anna Akhmatova in "Requiem" she enjoins her poetic persona to "write it," to tell the world. She takes the reader away from conceiving the Holocaust as a phenomenon of unimaginable—and therefore abstract—proportions to confronting the individuality of each victim: "History counts its skeletons in round numbers./A thousand and one remains a thousand,/as though the one had never existed."


Similarly, in "Hitler's First Photograph"—a truly remarkable poem—Szymborska with disturbing irony presents a picture of Hitler as a lovable little baby ("Precious little angel, mommy's sunshine, honey bun.") who embodies all the hope and potentiality of any other infant. He represents and embodies his parents' joys and dreams, he might grow up to be just about anything, but there is no mention, no hint, of the diabolical monster he in fact became. He is identical with all of us and all of our children at that age—indistinguishable: "Looks just like his folks, like a kitten in a basket,/like the tots in every other family album." The reader is left with the realization that everyone is obliged to try to understand and to be engaged, unlike the history teacher at the end of the poem who cannot hear what is going on around him and simply "loosens his collar/and yawns over homework."


These poems, while not occupying a large space within Szymborska's work, are closely connected with other works that, in combination, develop an expansive and profound expression of the worth and importance of every human being and every human existence. Szymborska explores aspects of the Holocaust in the same way as she approaches the minutiae of daily life, probing common details with phenomenological thoroughness to force us to reintegrate our experience of them with greatly increased and intensified awareness of their complexity, richness, and power.


—Allan Reid