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Footprints, traces, remnants: the operations of memory in Dan Pagis' "Aqebot." (poem discussing narrator's journey through past and return to present life)

Footprints [Aqebot]

"From Heaven to the heaven of heavens to the heaven of night" - Yannai

Against my will

I was continued by this cloud: restless, gray, (1) trying to forget in the horizon, which always receded

Hail failing hard, (2) like the chatter of teeth: refugee pellets pushing eagerly into their own destruction

In another sector (3) clouds not yet identified. Searchlights that set up giant crosses of light for the victim Unloading of cattle-cars.

Afterwards the letters fly up, (4) after the flying letters, mud hurries, snuffs, covers for a time

It's true, I was a mistake, I was forgotten (5) in the sealed car, my body tied up in the sack of life

Here's the pocket where I found bread, (6) sweet crumbs, all from the same world

Maybe there's a window here - if you don't mind, (7) look near that body, maybe you can open up a bit. That reminds me (pardon me) of the joke about the two Jews in the train, they were travelling to

Say something more; talk. (8)

Cain I pass from my body onwards -

From the heaven to the heaven of heavens to the heaven of night
long convoys of smoke (9)
 The new seraphim who haven't yet understood, (10)

prisoners of hope, astray in the empty freedom, suspicious as always: how to exploit this sudden vacuum, maybe the double citizenship will help, the old passport maybe the cloud? what's new ill the cloud, here too of course they take bribes. And between us: the biggest bills are still nicely hidden away, sewn between the soles - but the shoes have been piled up below: a great gaping heap

Convoys of smoke. Sometimes (11) someone breaks way, recognizes me for some reason, calls my name. And I put on a pleasant face, try to remember: who else who

Without any right to remember, I remember (12) a man screaming in a corner, bayonets rising to fulfill their role in him

Without any right to remember. What else (13) was there? Already I'm not afraid that I might say

without any connection at all: (14) there was a heart, blue from excessive winter, and a lamp, round blue, kind-hearted. But the kerosene disappears with the blood, the flame flickers - -

Yes, before I forget: (15) the rain stole across some border, so did I, on forbidden escape-routes, with forbidden hope, we both passed the mouth of the pits

Maybe now (16)

I'm looking in that rain for the scarlet thread

Where to begin? (17)

I don't even know how to ask. Too many tongues are mixed in my mouth. But at the crossing of these winds very diligent, I immerse myself in the laws of heavenly grammar: I am learning the declensions and ascensions of silence.

Who has given you the right to jest? (18)

What is above you already know. You meant to ask what is within you, what is abysmally through you. How is it that you did not see?

But I didn't know I was alive. (19)

From the heaven of heavens to the heaven of night angels rushed, sometimes one of them would look back, see me, shrug his shoulders continue from my body onwards

Frozen burst, clotted, (20) scarred, charred, choked.

If it has been ordained that I pull out of here, (21)

I'll try to descend rung by rung, I hold on to each one carefully - but there is no end to the ladder, and already no time. All I can do is fall into the world

And on my way back (22) my eyes hint to me: you have been, what more did you want to see? Close us and see: you are the darkness, you are the sign.

And my throat says to me: (23) if you are still alive, give me an opening, I must praise.

And my upside-down head is faithful to me, (24) and my hands hold me tight: I am falling falling from heaven to the heaven of heavens to the heaven of night.

Well then, a world. (25)

The gray is reconciled by the blue. In the gate of this cloud, already a turquoise innocence, perhaps the light green, Already sleep. Heavens renew themselves, try out their wings, see me

and run for their lives, I no longer wonder. (26)

The gates burst open: a lake void of reflections

Over there, in that arched blue on the edge of the air, (27)

I once lived. My window was fragile. Maybe what remained me were little gliders that hadn't grown up: they still repeat themselves in still-clouds, glide, slice the moment (not to remember now, not to remember)

And before I arrive (28) (now to stretch out to the end, to stretch out) already awake, spread to the tips of my wings, against my will I feel that, very near, inside, imprisoned by hopes, there flickers this ball of earth, scarred, covered with footprints.

Innovation in art is not the same as innovation in the human psyche; just the opposite. Innovation in art has as its motivation the extension of humanity, not a flow of spite against it. The difference between barbarian and civilized expectations is the difference between the will to dominate and the will toward regeneration. To dominate you must throw the rascals out; to regenerate, you have to take them with you. Spite vandalizes. Innovation redeems.

Cynthia Ozick(1)

So great was the need for the continuity in the face of the Nazi onslaught that rebuke was read as lament and subversion became part of the greater tradition. Jews drew upon their strength to fight the apocalypse from a new amalgam of anger, repudiation, and creative betrayal.

David Roskies(2)

Dan Pagis' Gilgul(3) includes some of the strongest and most arresting poetry written in response to the Shoah: a cycle of Holocaust poems called "Qaron hatum" (the Sealed Car), a number of other poems which do not deal exclusively with the Holocaust but, nevertheless, touch upon some of the themes explored in"Qaron hatum,"and a long, difficult poem called "Aqebot" (Footsteps). Of all of these poems, the long piece, "Aqebot, " is the most striking and complex. As Naomi Sokoloff writes, "Aqebot" constitutes a kind of compendium of outstanding themes touched upon in the pieces of "Qaron hatum" which expand out into other parts of Gilgul.(4) In fact, "Aqebot" can serve well as a framework or beginning point for the study of the other Holocaust or Holocaust-related poems in Gilgul, particularly those poems which deal with various notions of survival and personal and collective memory.

"Aqebot" tells the story of a survivor's journey to, and out of, the death camps, through a celestial or spiritual realm where, neither dead nor alive, he follows the literal and metaphorical smoke-trail of memory. Ultimately, after his journey of remembrance, he finds his way back to the world and to his present. The poem is divided into three sections and twenty-eight stanzas.(5) The first section describes various scenes relating to the speaker's death camp experiences and his eventual escape; the second depicts his transformation into a quasi-spirit and his encounter with death, guilt, and memory as such; the third, describes his return to the material world and his attempt to begin his life anew.

Like many of the shorter poems in Gilgul, "Aqebot" is steeped in paradox and contradiction, gripped by tensions between the survivor-speaker's need both to be silent and to bear witness, to escape from and to enter or re-enter history, to forget and to remember. Throughout "Aqebot," but primarily in the first half, Pagis' speaker expresses the desire and need to shrug off memory - to forget his personal experiences in the death camps and to reject traditional Jewish explanations and apologies for catastrophe. And yet, all the while, he remembers. Paradoxically, it is through his various attempts to forget and to reject that Pagis' speaker takes the first steps toward transforming, re-invigorating, and preserving memory - the memory of specific Holocaust events, as well as religious dicta, legends, poems (both by others and by Pagis, himself), prayers and hopes. By incorporating traditional Jewish explanations or responses to catastrophe in subversive, iconoclastic contexts, and by expressing rage, disbelief, and doubt through the medium of traditional Jewish expressions of faith and continuity, Pagis' speaker achieves poetic catharsis, enabling him to invent a kind of memory that he can live with, continue and be continued by.


"Aqebot." The dialectical operation of memory in this poem is encapsulated in the meanings and origins of this Hebrew word. All of these meanings - footprints, traces, remnants - bespeak both survival and death. Because they have a material reality that originated in the past and continues into the present, a reality that can be reconstituted or redirected in the present and future, "Aqebot" represent the enduring nature of previous experience and the remarkable staying power of the past. At the same time, because they are constant reminders of what was and no longer is, "Aqebot" points to the irretrievability of the past, the impotence and, hence, the burden of memory.

The Biblical origins or usages of this word demonstrate a similar tension. The root, "aqeb," appears in the Bible for the first time in the story of the birth of Esau and Jacob:

When her [Rebecca's] time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first one emerged red, like a hairy mantle all over; so they name his Esau. Then his brother emerged, holding on to the heel (aqeb) of Esau; so they named him Jacob. (Genesis 25: 24-26)(6)

The same root reappears when Jacob dresses up like his brother, Esau, and brings his father a meal of game, in order to claim for himself Esau's birthright and blessing. When Esau discovers what his younger brother has done, he cries out: "Was he, then, named Jacob that he might supplant/deceive (aqab) me these two times?" The Biblical usages of the root aqeb or aqab thus bring to mind the birth of Jacob and the covenant between God and the children of Jacob or Israel. At the same time, they recall the enmity between Jacob and Esau, between Jew and non-Jew, the competition between them for the birthright of the firstborn, the deception practiced upon Esau by Jacob, and the many subsequent persecutions inflicted upon the descendants of Jacob.

The competing usages or definitions of the root aqeb, or aqab, thus mirror or embody the competing qualities of memory. The world is both beautified and scarred by history; it is both enriched and hopelessly damaged by its past. Memory and survival are a great burden, one that the survivor-speaker of this poem feels has been thrust upon him by an irksome quirk of fate. "Against my will/I was continued by this cloud" he says. He was passed over by the clouds of smoke from the crematoria; he was continued by time, attached unwillingly to the continuum of history, pursued by his experiences.

Because memory has been thrust upon him against his will, he remembers with defiance and vengeance. In the first section of the poem as well as in the first seven stanzas of the second section, Pagis' speaker challenges Jewish theology and literary memory by pitting them against his immediate personal memories of the Shoah. Pagis' sacrilegious rejection of Jewish collective memory begins in the third stanza of the poem. Here, he underscores the history of Christian persecution of world Jewry. At the same time he subtly criticizes the traditional Jewish concept of sacred martyrdom, of dying al kiddush Hashem, with the following images:

In another sector

clouds not yet identified.

Searchlights that set up

giant crosses at night

for the victim [korban]

Unloading of cattle cars.

In no uncertain terms, Pagis identifies the crimes of the Nazis with the long history of Christian persecutions of the Jews. It is the Jews, unfortunately, who have inherited the mantle of suffering from the Jewish Jesus.(7) Contrary, however, to the assertions of both Christianity and Judaism (the notion of dying al kiddush ha-Shem), suffering and martyrdom do not redeem. The extermination of the Jews in the concentration camps, above all other Jewish experiences of persecution and death, attested to this bitter fact. Theirs was a factory martyrdom, instant and meaningless. Disembarking from the cattle cars, the search lights shining, the Jews were designated immediately for the crematoria, transformed almost instantly into smoke, vapour, and cloud.

In this mode of response to collective Jewish suffering, Pagis follows in the modern Jewish tradition of "sacrilegious parody," a literary technique which, according to David Roskies, was popularized in the nineteenth century by the Yiddish and Hebrew fiction writer Y. Abramovitsh (Mendele Mokher Seforim). As Roskies writes, in his wonderfully illuminating study of Jewish cultural responses to catastrophe, Against the Apocalypse,

thanks to Abramovitsh, parody came into its own as a preferred mode of

response. Henceforth, the more closely linked a concept was to the central

articles of Jewish faith - to retribution and redemption - the more likely

it was to be subverted, inverted, mimicked, and mocked in the face of catastrophe.(8)

Pagis takes his rejection of sacred martyrdom several steps further in the fourth stanza, with its references to the "flying letters," with a bitter parody of the famous Jewish legend of the martyrdom of Rabbi Haninah ben Teradiyon. The Babylonian Talmud tells that Rabbi Haninah was captured and condemned to death by the Romans for continuing to learn and teach Torah:

Straightaway they took hold of him, wrapped him in the Scroll of the Law,

placed bundles of branches around him and set them on fire. Then they

brought tufts of wool, which they had soaked in water, and placed them

over his heart so that he should not expire quickly ... His students said to

him. "Rabbi, what do you see?" He responded: "Burning parchments and

flying letters." (B. Avodah Zarah 18a)(9)

The reply of Rabbi Haninah to his students has been invoked repeatedly throughout Jewish history as an affirmation of the eternality of the Torah and the inviolability of the Jewish spirit. The Torah scroll was destroyed, but the covenant between God and Israel survived. Rabbi Haninah's body burned, but his soul was sanctified through his steadfast commitment to the Torah and through his martyrdom. In "Aqebot," Pagis admits no solace from Jewish collective memory, flatly rejecting Rabbi Haninah's assurance of the eternality of the Torah and the continuity of commitment. "Afterwards" - after the burning of the Jews in the crematoria - "the letters fly up,/after the flying letters and mud/hurries, snuffs, covers for a time." (stanza 4) In this depiction of execution, the letters of the Torah, the Talmud and all other Jewish literary explanations of catastrophe fly up and migrate from the scene. No longer can they serve as adequate or relevant means of accounting for atrocity. In the absence of these ancient spiritual "letters" or constructs of meaning, all that remains is the relentless materiality and filth of the earth to snuff the fire, to cover the corpses and ash, for a time.

Pagis' sacrilegious parodies continue in the next stanza (stanza 5), where his speaker recalls his escape from the death camp, subversively alluding to a famous line from the memorial liturgy: "In exchange for my pledge of charity on behalf of the deceased, let his soul be bound in the bonds of eternal life" ("zarur bi'zror ha-hayyim"). Inherent in this prayer is the notion that man and God co-operate in matters of life and after-life, that through prayer and good deeds one can appeal to God and alter the status of a soul. Pagis' speaker turns this entire notion on its head, by using this line to describe neither death nor afterlife, but, rather, a very haphazard, chance getaway:

It's true, I was a mistake, I was forgotten

in the sealed car, my body tied up

in the sack of life. (stanza 5)

According to Pagis, then, life and death are completely arbitrary designations. The speaker of the poem escapes his death quite by accident; he is simply "forgotten in the sealed car," taken for a dead man, when, all along, he was "tied up in the sack of life." There is no God presiding over the process. Heaven and after-life are not acknowledged possibilities. All that exists is life, death, and the limbo state of the survivor, a kind of death-in-life, as signified by Pagis' use of a death prayer to describe his survivor's escape into life.

This stanza serves as an interesting counterpoint to another Holocaust poem in Gilgul, "Qatuv bi'ipparon ba-qaron he-hatum" ("Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway Car"), the most widely anthologized of all of Pagis' poems. Here, the speaker never escapes the sealed railway car. All that remains is her message, a poem without end about a cycle of horrors that has no end:

Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway-Car

here in this transport

i am eve

with abel my son

if you see my other son

cain son of man [ben adam]

tell him that i(10)

Two elements mark this poem specifically as a Holocaust piece: the title, "Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway Car," and the word "mishlaoh" ("transport"). This is a Holocaust poem, however, with a mythical/universal message. Eve, the Biblical mother of humankind, and her son Abel, the first man in the Bible to be murdered, are the deported victims; Cain, son of Adam or Man, the first murderer in the Bible, is the implied perpetrator. Eve's message, cut off before its completion, functions both as a response to the specific historical situation of the Holocaust and a general response to the murderous history of the world. On a specific level, her scrawlings exemplify the desperate efforts of so many Jewish Holocaust victims to bear witness. The lack of closure to her message metonymically and mimetically symbolizes the abruptness of their deaths and their resultant inability to complete their testimony. Eve's fall into silence also bespeaks the unspeakable nature of the Holocaust, a horror that can never be fully depicted in any wordly or worldly manner.

On a more general level, her message operates like a broken record of universal memory. As Sidra Ezrahi writes, "[t]he lack of closure recapitulates the experience of lives abruptly terminated, the meager lines of speech surrounded with vast white margins of deathly silence."(11) Against this background of silence, the archetypal story of the invention of murder by Cain, the first son of man, pounds out an endless refrain of murder and horror:

if you see my other son

cain son of man

tell him that i

[am] here in this carload

i am eve

with abel my son

if you see my other son

cain son of man

tell him that i

[am] here in this carload ...

Tragically, Eve's cause, as represented by her message/poem, is forgotten in the Sealed Railway Car. The speaker of "Agebot" also finds himself forgotten in the sealed railway car, but for him this is a stroke of fortune. Or is it? Unlike Eve, this speaker escapes, and is able to record a long, completed message, a poem with an end. In the process, however, he must bear a heavy load. He must confront and overcome his haunting visions and memories of atrocity and the guilt burden of his accidental survival.

All of the themes mentioned in the discussion above - the recurrent cycle and burden of memory, the chance nature of escape and survival, and the limbo state of the survivor - are touched upon in yet another poem in the "Qaron hatum" cycle, entitled " Hamisdar" ("The Roll Call").(12) In this selection, the Nazi officer who is leading roll call, "a diligent angel [of death] who worked hard for his promotions," suddenly discovers a discrepancy in his numbers of prisoners. The speaker of the poem has escaped; he is the mistake. "Only I," says the fugitive speaker,

am not there, am not there, am a mistake

turn off my eyes, quickly, erase my shadow.

I shall not want [lo ehsar]. The sun will be right

without me: here forever.

As in "Aqebot," escape and survival in "Hamisdar" are the result of a quirk of fate: the camp guard discovers a mistake in his calculations, and then arbitrarily chooses to ignore it. Contrary to the assertions of the Psalmist in Psalm 23 ("The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want [lo ehsar]"), which is cleverly parodied in this poem ("I shall not want. The sum will be right/without me"), no God-Shepherd watches over and protects the flock assembled in the camp; it is the Nazi officer (with his occasional mistaken calculations) who determines the fate of the Jews. Events occur randomly, haphazardly.

The fugitive-speakers of both of these poems, "Aqebot" and "Hamisdar," face several overwhelming obstacles on their road to freedom. In order to complete the escape, the speaker of "Hamisdar" must become something other than a man, visionless and invisible: "Turn off my eyes, erase my shadow," he says. The elimination of eyes and shadow, two very basic aspects of wholeness and human physicality, represent in clear terms the indefinite status of the survivor. As Alan Mintz writes, in Pagis' poetry, "to survive your death does not mean to live. The status of the survivor is liminal and ambiguous. He is already dead yet existent his fate is this-worldly mortality."(13) Constantly subjected to recurrent visions of unjustifiable atrocity, the survivor (as represented by the speakers of both of these poems) is chained to horrors of his past, to the deadweight of memory.

For the speaker of "Aqebot, " nothing seems capable of sweetening or lightening the load of memory: neither the "sweet crumbs" (stanza 6) of bread which he remembers discovering in his pocket, nor the language of humour, as exemplified (in stanza 7) by "the joke about the two Jews/in the train, they were traveling to."(14) The sweet crumbs fail to soothe for they are too much a part of the "same world" of evil (stanza 6). The attempt at joke-telling(15) fails because human language has become imprinted with atrocity. This joke, as recalled by Freud, demonstrates "the democratic mode of thinking of Jews, which recognizes no distinction between lords and serfs, but also, alas, upsets discipline and co-operation."(16) It laughs at the differences between traditional and modern Jews, and, more importantly, at the uneasy relations between Jew and Gentile. Placed within the context of this Holocaust poem, however, this casual joke metamorphoses into cruel irony. When speaking about the death camps, one cannot joke or theorize about Jewish frustration of discipline or co-operation, or about Jewish-Gentile relations. In the Holocaust context, "gentlemen" strangers on the train become the mortal enemies of Jewish passengers; Jews sharing a train compartment, though they are different both in appearance and lifestyle, ride a common train to their deaths. Pagis shows that the Holocaust has imprinted language with images of horror; one can no longer use the words "Jew," train," and "travelling" without conjuring up images of sealed railway cars and crematoria.

"Say something more; talk," Pagis' speaker says in the last stanza (8) of the first section. This survivor needs to establish new lines of communication. "Can I pass from my body onwards - " he asks. Can I somehow be transformed into spirit and thus dodge the responsibilities of this-worldly existence?


In the second section of the poem, Pagis' survivor-speaker tests this possibility, leaves his body, and rises into the heavens. He discovers, unfortunately, that the heavens have become, literally and figuratively, permeated by the smoke and memory of the crematoria. In a parody of a medieval piyyut by Yannai (the first line of which serves as the epigraph to "Aqebot"), the now-spirit speaker describes the appearance of the heavens after the Holocaust, confronts the heavenly God Who stood by as the horrors were being perpetrated, and laments the immense reach of human evil and suffering. "From heaven to the heaven of heavens to the heaven of night/long convoys of smoke," writes Pagis (stanza 9). In contrast, Yannai's conventionally structured poem, which includes such conventional rhetorical figures as anaphora and incremental repetition, is a paean to God, a celebration of His celestial reaches, His infinite domain:

From the Heavens to the Heaven of Heavens,

From the Heaven of Heavens to the Dark Clouds,

From the Dark Clouds to the Abode

From the Abode to the Dwelling Place

From the Dwelling Place to the Skies

From the Skies to the Plains

From the Plains to the Plains

From the Plains to the Height of the Throne

and from the Height of the Throne to the Chariot -

who can be compared to You, who is your equal? ...(17)

Pagis' seemingly unstructured and formless poem subverts both the traditional form and content of Yannal's piyyut. The skies and clouds which, in Yannai's poem, represent the infinite majesty and pristine beauty of God's reign, represent, in Pagis' poem, a dark absence of divine power over, and intervention in, the affairs of the human world. The inhabitants of heaven in "Aqebot" are not traditional angels or seraphim, the ministers and messengers of God; they are the "new seraphim," a name which, in this Holocaust context, becomes a pun on the Hebrew verb word seruphim (burnt ones) from the verb saraf (to burn), identifying the angels as the newly burnt victims of the Shoah.

It is in this spirit state, however, floating beside these trails of smoke, that the speaker of the poem undergoes a series of confrontations with his past, which, ultimately, empower him to rediscover a quasi-hopeful present as well as a form and forum for self-expression. On several occasions, he meets a familiar seraph, a figure from his past, who has been exterminated by the Nazis. These meetings compel him, despite his feelings of anger, guilt, incapacity, and despair, to remember the horrors and commemorate the losses:

And I put on a pleasant face, try to remember

who else


Without any right to remember, I remember

a man screaming in a corner, bayonets rising

to fulfill their role

in him

Without any right to remember. What else

was there? (stanzas 12-13)

The most striking feature of these three stanzas of recollection, are the speaker's contradictory opinions about the act of remembering. "Without any right to remember, I remember," he says. On the other hand, he has a recurrent need to remember. Furthermore, he considers remembrance a forbidden indulgence. Perhaps this idea of the forbidden quality of memory stems from the notion that recollections always fall short of the actual event, that history always betrays reality. Or, perhaps, what prevents him from remembering freely is his guilt for surviving while so many others perished. Whatever the case, he remains torn between contradictory impulses and imperatives.

"Pagis' image of the survivor," writes Alan Mintz, as "torn between contradictory instructions to forget and to remember, is one of the strongest moments in Hebrew literature."(18) Mintz makes this comment in the context of his interpretation of another "Qaron hatum" poem, Hora'ot ligneivat ha-g'vul" ("Instructions for Crossing the Border"), a poem which both illuminates and is illuminated by the examination of "Aqebot." The poem reads as follows:

Imaginary man, go. Here is your passport.

You are not allowed to remember.

You have to match the description:

your eyes are already blue.

Don't escape with the sparks

inside the smokestack:

you are a man, you sit in the train.

Sit comfortably.

You've got a decent coat now,

a repaired body, a new name

ready in your throat.

Go. You are not allowed to forget.(19)

Like the speaker of "Aqebot," the imaginary man of this poem has escaped, survived, and, in the process, has undergone major personal transformations. His passport reads with a new name, a new physical description. In order to escape successfully, he must forget his past identity. "You are not allowed to remember," he is told. He must act the part of the typical train passenger, unaffected by memories of previous train rides. Then, just as he is about to embark upon his new life, the imaginary man receives the opposite command: "You are not allowed to forget."

The contradictory instructions or impulses expressed both in "Aqebot" and in "Instructions for Crossing the Border" clearly derive from a set of similarly contradictory Biblical instructions, also written after a catastrophe - the Amalekite attack upon the Israelite camp after the Exodus from Egypt. "Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey," says the Bible,

how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you

were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear ...

You shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under the Heaven. Do not

forget. (Deuteronomy 25:17)(20)

Remember. Blot out the memory. Do not forget. These contradictory impulses have been canonized in Jewish collective and personal memory. On the one hand, one is compelled to blot out the memory of past evils and escape into a neutral present. On the other hand, one is compelled to remember, to pay respect to those who died, and bear witness to past atrocities in order to ensure that they never occur again.

In "Aqeboi," Pagis repeatedly pits these contradictory impulses against one another, in order to effect a kind of dialectical resolution. Eventually, after repeatedly remembering against his will, angrily, reluctantly and remorsefully, Pagis' speaker arrives at a turning point in his response to his own personal catastrophe. Memory begins to console (stanza 15). Sacrilegious parodies of Jewish literary and liturgical texts begin to gesture toward a foreshortened form of "sacred parody." That is, Pagis' speaker begins to describe his own expericiences in terms of Jewish collective memory, to adapt various sacred Jewish texts in ways that demonstrate identification with, and fondness for Jewish tradition, without going so far as accepting "the covenantal framework of guilt and punishment."(21)

This turning point begins in stanza 15, where, once again, the speaker himself, as if addressing a friend in conversation, willingly recalls his escape from the camps: "Yes before I forget:/the train stole across some border, so did I." The speaker then (stanza 16) begins to muse over this experience, making a very poignant allusion to the Bible:

Maybe now

I'm looking in that rain

for the scarlet thread

The allusion here is to Joshua 2, to the story of Rahab the harlot who sheltered the Israelite spies who were sent to Jericho before Joshua's invasion of the city. Upon their departure, the Israelite spies promise Rahab that, because of her kindness, neither she nor her family will be harmed by the invading Israelitcs. They demand, however, that she tie a length of scarlet thread to the window through which she received the spies. This scarlet thread physically distinguishes her house from those of her neighbours; it also functions as a metaphor of faithfulness, a tangible symbol of the act of charity through which she earned her right to survive. As Pagis' speaker (an extension of Pagis himself, who escaped from the camps) looks back upon his past, he cannot help contrasting his story with that of Rahab. What entitled him to survive? Where was the scarlet thread that granted him immunity from harm?

The difference between this adaptation of Jewish literary memory and those seen in the earlier parts of "Aqebot" is subtle but suggestive. Unlike the parody of the story of Rabbi Haninah ben Teradiyon or of Yannai's piyyut, where traditional responses to catastrophe are completely flouted, this stanza represents an effort on the part of the speaker to incorporate his own experiences into the continuum of Jewish collective memory, to explain his good fortune in traditional terms, to adapt rather than reject. This is no easy task. The Holocaust, as shown earlier in the poem, does not readily lend itself to traditional explanations or characterizations. Implied in this reference to the Biblical story of Rahab is the idea that, in reality, there are no scarlet threads, there are no ready assurances of survival or community. At the same time, the allusion to Rahab also demonstrates a yearning for a world in which scarlet threads really do exist, and a nostalgia for the mythical world of the past.

The speaker's newborn desire to view personal experience through the lens of Jewish memory is even more apparent in the next stanza. After floating around in limbo, he has "reached the crossing of these winds." He needs to move onward with his life, but finds himself at a loss for a starting point:

Where to begin?

I don't even know how to ask.

Too many tongues are mixed in my mouth. But

at the crossing of these winds,

very diligent, I immerse myself

in the laws of heavenly grammar: I am

learning the declensions and ascensions of silence. (stanza 17)

Embedded in this stanza are two allusions to Jewish literary texts. The first is a somewhat humorous allusion to the Passover Haggadah, to the fourth son at the Passover Seder, who does not even know how to ask his father about the Exodus story. Pagis' speaker, like the ancient Israelites, has experienced torture, enslavement and exodus. He has been initiated to pain and suffering. What he knows nothing about, however, is redemption. In this respect, he is like the fourth son, completely out of sorts, entirely incapable of identifying with the meaning of the Passover story. To complicate matters, he has run into a language barrier. Like the people in the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel (the second Jewish literary allusion in this stanza), who suddenly find themselves speaking different languages, this refugee (like Pagis himself, who migrated to Israel after the war) has left his native tongue behind, and is at a loss for a way to articulate the right questions. "Too many tongues are mixed up [nivlelu] in my mouth," he laments. And, so, like God who stood by silently as the horrors of the Holocaust took place, this shade of a survivor, hovering between his past and his present, resolves to immerse himself "in the laws of heavenly grammar," in "the declensions and ascensions of silence."

Immediately, however (stanza 18), an inner voice chastises him for mocking or mimicking God, for attempting to understand the grammar of heaven, for abandoning his human nature. "Who has given you the right to jest?/what is above you already know." This is the moment of catharsis in the poem, where the speaker confronts the fact that heaven is above him and beyond his grasp; he must now come to terms with his role as a human being. "You meant to ask," his inner voice intones, "what is within you,/what is abysmally through you. How is it that you did not see?"


It is at this point in the poem that the speaker's re-transformation from spirit back to body begins (stanza 20). "Frozen and burst, clotted/scarred,/charred and twisted," he rediscovers his physicality. As he falls back into the world, he regains his physical senses, and comes to terms with the responsibilities and privileges of survival:

And on my way back

my eyes hint to me:

you have been, what more did you want to see?

Close us and see:

you are the darkness, you are the sign [ha'ot]

And my throat says to me:

if you are alive, give me an opening,

must praise (stanzas 22-3)

As he falls away from the long convoys of smoke, "from heaven to the heaven of heavens to the heaven of night" (stanza 24), he comes to identify with his role as witness to catastrophe, as poet, like the medieval Hebrew poet Yannai, whom he re-echoes here. He is a living sign of the darkness of the past, of the horror that was and must never be again. The line, "you are the darkness, you are the sign [ha'ot]," serves as a counterpoint to the earlier allusion in the poem to the legend of Rabbi Haninah ben Teradiyon. In that earlier section (stanza 4), the speaker said, "Afterwards the letters [otiot] fly up,/after the flying letters [otiot] mud." Here the speaker, who became earlier a kind of flying letter, that is, a physical entity transformed into ether, coasting through the sky on the smokeheels of memory, acknowledges that, as a survivor, he is not merely a burnt, vaporous letter (one meaning of the Hebrew word ot), but a palpable sign and a witness to the past. He is a man of voice and words, one who can speak, describe, bear testimony, blame, praise, and offer thanksgiving.

The second part of the third section of the poem, stanzas 25-28, describes the speaker's final descent into the world, the panorama that he sees as he approaches earth:

Well then: a world.

The gray is reconciled by the blue.

In the gate of this cloud, already a turquoise

innocence, perhaps light green. Already sleep.

Heavens renew themselves, try out their wings ....

Significantly, this final section of the poem makes no direct reference to the speaker's painful experiences in tile death camps. Moreover, it contains no allusions to previous Jewish literary texts. After a long process of remembering, railing, and digging deep, Pagis' speaker finally becomes capable of forgetting, of looking at the sky without remembering the long convoys of smoke. For one brief moment, purged and renewed, he gazes upon a lake (stanza 26) that is "void [pure] of reflections" of his past. Deliberately he staves off his dark memories - (not to remember now, not to remember)" (stanza 27) - in favour of happy childhood recollections, of windows, kites and blue clouds.

Nevertheless, despite this moment of respite, Pagis' speaker recognizes that he can never permanently erase or ignore personal and collective memory. The earth to which he is returning may flicker with hope. But the body and soul of this earth, like his own, have been eternally "scarred" and "covered" with "aqebot," with the footprints, remnants, or traces of the past. He, the poet, "is the darkness. [He] is the sign." (stanza 22) And it is his responsibility to tell the tale.

Not A Boast

But Necessity



Where the blood Meets the shore, Where many died And many more Watched -

Come, I will show you -

Where the wind Has its way, Where I Must have mine And make you A nation At the healing


(1.) From "Innovation and Redemption," Metaphor and Redemption (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1989), p. 243. (2.) From David Roskies, Against the Apocalypse (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1984), p. 208. This book and Alan Mintz's book, Hurban (New York: Columbia, University Press, 1984), two fascinating studies of the history of Jewish literary responses to catastrophe, provided me with a theoretical framework upon which to build my own understanding of Pagis' Holocaust poetry. (3.) Dan Pagis, Gilgul (Ramat Gan: Masada Publishers, 1970). (4.) Naomi Sokoloff, "Transformations. Holocaust Poems in Dan Pagis' Gilgul," Hebrew Annual Review (Vol. 8, 1984): 236. (5.) All English citations from the poem will be from Dan Pagis, Points of Departure, Stephen Mitchell trans. (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1981), and will be identified in the body of the paper by stanza number. (6.) The Bible (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1982). (7.) For more information about Jewish use of crucifixion imagery in cultural responses to collective persecution, see Roskies, Against the Apocalypse, Chapter 10, pp. 258-310. (8.) Ibid., p. 77. (9.) The translation of this passage from tractate Avodah Zarah of the Talmud was taken from the Hebrew-English Edition of the Babylonian Talmud (London: The Soncino Press, 1983). (10.) From Dan Pagis, Points of Departure, p. 23. (11.) Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, "Dan Pagis - Out of Line: A Poetics of Decomposition," Prooftexts 10 (1990): 335-363. (12.) Dan Pagis, Points of Departure, p. 25. (13.) Alan Mintz, Hurban, p. 263. (14.) The joke mentioned here about the two Jews travelling on a train may be an allusion to a joke included in Freud's jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, which reads as follows: "A Galician Jew was travelling in a train. He had made himself really comfortable, had unbuttoned his coat and put his feet up on the seat. Just then a gentleman in modern dress entered the compartment. The Jew promptly pulled himself together and took up a proper pose. The stranger fingered through the pages of a notebook, made some calculations, reflected for a moment, and then suddenly asked the Jew: |Excuse me, when is Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement)?' |Oho!' said the Jew, and put his feet on the seat again before answering." (15.) Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, The Standard Edition, James Strachey, trans. (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1960), p. 95. (16.) Ibid., p. 134. (17.) The translation of Yannai's poem is taken from T. Carmi, The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1981), pp. 218-219. Carmi's translation does not include line breaks; the line breaks that appear in this paper conform to the line breaks in the actual Hebrew text. (18.) Mintz, Hurban, p. 265. (19.) Pagis, Points of Departure, p. 27. (20.) The Bible (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1982). (21.) In Against the Apocalypse,, p.20, David Roskies makes an important distinction between these two modes of literary response: sacred and sacrilegious parody. He explains that, before the modern era, when a survivor inverted or parodied scripture, it was his means of keeping the faith. Roskies writes:

At the moment of crisis, individuals have the ability to reinterpret and radicalize their

tradition. They can take the supreme act of profanity and convert it into sacred use,

creating their own personal "sacred parody" - to borrow out of context from the

English devotional poet George Herbert ... What makes individual sufferers people

of faith is their willingness to accept the covenantal framework of guilt, punishment

and restitution; or, to put it differently, it is in the self-imposed limitations of their


WENDY ZIERLER is a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at Princeton University. She has recently been in Israel on a Fulbright grant, working on a dissertation on women writers and the immigrant experience.
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Author:Zierler, Wendy
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Date:Sep 22, 1992
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