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Shoah in Israeli writing, with an emphasis on Hebrew poetry: editor's introduction.

Jewish literature on the Shoah recounts the horrors of the Nazi treatment of Europe's Jews in the historical context of deep-rooted prejudices and ethno-centric behavior. A number of these works indict antisemitism, anti-Judaism, hypocritical humanism, and the inactivity of influential leaders as contributing factors in the murder of innocents, including six million Jews.

Many writers and poets maintain that the Shoah is truly sui generis. Nothing can compare to the enactment of the human suffering and the historical evil that plagued the Jewish people and other minorities during the 1930s and the 1940s. In his review of the TV mini-series Holocaust presented on NBC television in April 1978, Elie Wiesel wrote: "The witness feels here duty bound to declare: What you have seen on your screen is not what happened there. You may think you know how the victims lived and died, but you do not. Auschwitz cannot be explained nor can it be visualized. Whether culmination or aberration of history, the Holocaust transcends history. Everything about it inspires fear and leads to despair: the dead are in possession of a secret that we, the living, are neither worthy or capable of recovering." (1)

In The Oath (translated from French, and published by Random House, 1973), Wiesel talks about Moshe, mad survivor of a pogrom, who has taken an oath never to tell of his ordeal. He is bound to silence as a testimony on behalf of all humanity to lie against death, to sanity against madness, and to the God of Torah against all lapses into paganism. To scream about radical dehumanization raises the possibility that the world is not listening or doesn't care, and this is a victory for absolute evil. Within the Jewish tradition humanity is made in the image of God and must imitate God. God's silence during epochs of Jewish pogroms may be interpreted as God's presence in suffering. (2) If so, then what is the message to the Jews living in this Suffering Servant-like stance? What comfort to the Chosen People when its Lord of Hosts appears to be the "Lord of Fires"? (3) Further, does not silence convey the survivors' most dreadful fear: Shoah happened: is anyone listening, does anyone care?

One survivor's loyalty to the dead becomes another survivor's query, how to live in the silence of memory? This is the position taken by the famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal in The Sunflower. (4) In a sensitive and provocative story, Wiesenthal tells the account of a Nazi soldier, a participant in the slaughter of innocents, terrified of dying with a burden of guilt, asking forgiveness from a concentration camp Jew (Wiesenthal), one who knows well the meaning of the Jewish moral millennium, a period ushered in when victim-survivor shakes hands and makes peace with the enslaver-destroyer. The Jew listens with horror and feeling to the German's deathbed wish, and walks quietly out of his presence without giving absolution.

But Wiesenthal is haunted by this memory and invites a distinguished group of respondents to tell what they would have done in his place. The contributors (Jews and non-Jews) reflect a wide variety of behavior and belief, discipline and experience. Their writing is a reciprocal tool: it reveals and at the same time it is revealing. That is, not only do they tackle a moral question from Auschwitz but they also explain and define themselves within and without that world. Though all agree that one cannot forget, there is a divide between commentators whether to forgive. And this speaks of many things: Can one forgive and not forget? Can the living forgive for the murdered dead? Does forgiveness perpetuate the very evil it wants to make easier to bear? Is following orders the same as giving them? Is it right to impose Nazi crimes on a postwar generation in Germany? Can forgiveness confront, not close, the cycle of pain? If forgiveness is not possible, can reconciliation be? And so forth. (5)

The questions are agonizing, the answers are blasphemous, possibly because the Shoah is the ultimate paradox. It imposes silence even while it demands speech. However, the voices from the ovens construct a new language. The goal of Hitlerism from beginning to end was the total annihilation of European Jewry. Never in history has state-sponsored, legalized murder been executed without hindrance or restraint. The tragedy of the Six Million becomes our obligatory memory. We must learn of Shoah's horrors and pass on the story lest the cunning of history repeat again and destroy all that God and humanity have wrought.

What and how may we remember? In the field of Yiddish poetry, the Holocaust poems of Jacob Glatstein (6) (1896-1971) is instructive. Glatstein's Shoah poems are meant to confront, shock, understand, give solace, and mend a shattered Jewish world. His poetry is informed by an authenticity that is anguished by memory and reflection. His striking imagery, ear for folk idiom, and ability to divest and invest words, sounds, and structure enhance his verse. His "Good Night World" (1938) is a shattering rejection of European culture, state and church included, in whose bosom the Shoah was thought, prepared, and executed. His bellwether poem, which speaks to the downtrodden Jew not to exchange Yidishkeit (Jewishness) for all the emancipation in the world, echoes the lessons of Ahad Ha-Am (7) and Haim Nahman Bialik (8) on enlightenment and pogroms.

Glatstein anticipated the horror of the Khurbn ("catastrophic destruction," the preferred term in Yiddish for Holocaust). His reflections on the dawn of the Shoah are expressed with a tear-laced quill on burning parchment. His portrayal of the life and anguish of the Jew in the ghetto and in the camps is a vivid reminder that the shtetlekh, the thousands of small-town Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, are no longer. Some of his poems are anguished testimony to the difficult privilege of Jewishness and the moral crises of faith. In "Wagons" (1938) he relates that the wegener--sign of a once robust shtetl life--return at night with no one there to greet them. A fearful plea is offered to heaven: "Let me not remain the only one,/ Do not pass over me with my thin bones." Yet the Voice of Compassion and Justice does not reply and the heavens do not cry.

In "Smoke" the poet explains and wonders,
    Through the chimney of the crematorium
    A Jew wafts upward to eternity.
    And as soon as his smoke disappears,
    His wife and child curl upward too.
    And up above, in the heavenly pale,
    Holy ghosts keen and wail.
    O God, up where Your glories resound
    Not even there can we be found.


What emerges is that every day becomes unbearable and the Eternal is uncovered as mystifying and baffling. Reacting to the destruction of the Six Million, Glatstein's elegiac challenge to God, seeded in the rabbinic genre of klapei shemayya' (against heaven) is not without merit.
    Who will dream You?
    Remember You?
    Deny You?
    Yearn after You?
    Who will flee You?,
    Only to return
    Over a bridge of longing?
    No end to night
    For an extinguished people.
    Heaven and earth wiped out.
    Your tent void of light.
    Flicker of the Jews' last hour.
    Soon, Jewish God,
    Your eclipse.


The suggestion that the Shoah twins Jewish history and the Jewish conception of God is decisive and stark.

For Glatstein, to honor the memory of the brutally murdered is never to forget nor forgive ("I Keep Recalling"). True, his elegies cannot restore the autonomy of the victims, but they reconstruct flesh to bones, personality to numbers, and novelty to novum--a written memorial to honor those who suffered and hoped in the eye of the storm.

Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi suggests that Jewish writers speak of the Shoah as tragedy, covenant, myth, apocalypse, and visionary. (9) This is particularly evident in her evaluation of the Hebraic writer who alone writes of the Holocaust as the event of Israel's destruction out of knowledge of a collective memory, martyrology, and inherited faith. Alan Mintz writes on responses to selected catastrophic events in the lachrymose history of the Jews and compares them to the treatment of the Shoah in the works of Hebrew writers, in particular, the poet Uri Zvi Greenberg and the novelist Aharon Appelfeld. (10) Michael Taub critiques examples of two generations of Israeli Holocaust drama. (11) The plays from the 1950s and the 1960s (Leah Goldberg, Lady of the Castle, 1955; Aharon Meged, Hanna Senesh, 1958; and Ben Zion Tomer, Children of the Shadows, 1962) confront the abyss by exploring statements of survival and issues of heroism. The second wave of writers, represented by Motti Lerner (Kastner, 1985) and Joshua Sobol (Adam, 1989), is more ambiguous about the moral issues of collaboration and resistance, the theological issues of inherited faith and contemporary fate (who lives and who dies and who decides), thoughts of right and wrong in the face of evil, the agony of forgetfulness and forgiveness, and proper remembrance.

Themes from the Israeli Shoah novel are enumerated by Edward Alexander in his essay on "The Holocaust and the Israeli Imagination" (12): the hero's strong inclination to avenge the murder of his family and his friends; the ethical dilemma of revenge; the sabra embarrassment of the passivity of the European Jews who went to their death like tson la-tevach/"sheep to the slaughter" and disgust for the Jewish survivor who chose to stay in post-World War II Europe; the inner struggle between moving ahead and the subliminal commitment to remain steadfast to the past lest one not remember effectively; the realization of Nazi Germany's murdered Jews and peacetime Germany's economic contribution to the Jewish state; the shameful notion in the minds of some post-Zionist writers that the State of Israel breeds Nazi-like conduct (Edwards cites Yehoshua Sobol and most playwrights of the Haifa Municipal Theater as exemplars of "Israeli antisemitism"), and so forth.

This brings us to the select studies in this issue of Shofar on the concept of shoah and the phenomenon of the Shoah in Hebrew literature, with particular emphasis of their use in Hebrew poetry. Paul Overland points out that in biblical wisdom literature shoah played a brief but significant role. As sages determined to direct youths toward a life of skill and success, it was shoah that they threatened as alternative, the fools' final end. This article applies poetic analysis to the two occurrences in Proverbs, showing that when first introduced, shoah raised the sapiential warning to a fierce crescendo (Prov. 1:27). In the second occurrence, shoat-resha 'im turns from threat to rich reassurance as it measures the safety the wise will enjoy--they will escape unscathed from the certain destruction of the wicked (Prov. 3:25). The article concludes with a discussion on how shoah describes suffering unserved (Job 30:14).

Zohar Livnat and Tamar Wolf-Monzon write that "(t)he poetry of Uri Zvi Greenberg is a unique phenomenon in the history of Hebrew poetry. In the entire corpus of Jewish poetry of recent generations, there seems to be none more profound and multilayered. Semantically, this poetry constantly reveals new possibilities for the use of sources, and demonstrates interactive negotiation with the canonical corpus of Hebrew literature of all time. This is achieved by Greenberg's special choice of motific, pictorial, and linguistic materials from broad areas of culture and from different fields, merging them into a coherent text." By decoding the poet's metaphysical poetry and his novel use of kosef ("yearning"), nigun ("melody"), and nofim ("landscapes") in his magnum opus, Rechovot ha-Nahar, and in his later writing, they show why.

Although the volume of Yehuda Amichai's works of poetry consists of thousands of poems, it is rather rare to trace in his poetry a poem that focuses on the Shoah. From a biographical perspective, this is surprising. Yehuda Amichai was born in Germany (1924) about one decade prior to the Nazis' first formal victory and when he arrived in Israel (1936), the Nazis' diabolic plan of "Final Solution" for the Jews was in its planning stage. Hence the fact that Yehuda Amichai hardly composed and published Shoah poems is enigmatic. An exception, however, is his "My Son, My Son, My Head, My Head." Yair Mazor explores the poem itself: structure, text, and internal logic are examined against themselves, and showing the poet as a persona parsed in the stanzas. Mazor adroitly displays how Yehuda Amichai skillfully enlists his aesthetic dexterity and complexity, the very core of his literary credo, upon "sculpting" a Shoah poem, one that introduces unique challenges, notably on an emotional basis. Hence, the poem under consideration is replete with the most typical characteristics traditionally displayed in Yehuda Amichai's ars poetica.

Passover commemorates the birth of the Jewish People and the Exodus from Egypt. As a religious institution, Passover transcends generations, gender, and cultural ties and invites all to participate in its narrative of freedom and its message of liberation. Its table drama, the Seder, has evolved into a forum on right and wrong, enslavement and empowerment, equality and inequality. Yet in telling Judaism's core story of freedom, many contemporary Jews add narrative and song to honor the memory of the Six Million who did not survive the slave and death camps of Nazi Europe built by the whims of tyrants worse than the Pharoah. Wendy Zierler's exploration of Leah Goldberg's rare Shoah poem, Keneged 'Arba' ah Banim, explicates this gifted poetess' unusual approach, a blending of elements of ancient tradition with elements of counter-Tradition, to explain this aberration in Jewish history. Re-imagining the Four Sons of the Haggadah as Four Sons of the Holocaust illustrates how an age-old religious faith is challenged and informed by a modern-day historical fate.

Set in rhymed prose and published posthumously in 1989, Something about Whales is one of three children's books written by Abba Kovner. A powerful allegory dealing with calamity, survival, bereavement, and remembrance, this work of Kovner's received little attention in the general discussion of his poetry. Esther Raizen's essay positions Something about Whales in that discussion, highlighting the manner in which the molding of the protagonist, a fish-prince turned whale, and the shaping of the locale, the deep sea as a source of grave danger and great solace, anchor the work in Kovner's poetics. The poet who wrote in 1940, "[t]he works of God's hands are drowning in the sea and we--the first among the drowned--are still chanting songs," erected in this simple and unassuming work a unique memorial to the drowned, providing a painfully elegant way to impress their legacy upon the young. In this context, Raizen discusses Something about Whales from the angle of Shoah representation in children's literature, with reference to strategic decisions, composition choices, and visual considerations involved in producing such literature for very young readers.

Survivors have much to say on the Shoah, but their testimonies reflect as many shoahs as there are survivors. If Elie Wiesel is right that "Auschwitz cannot be explained," then we cannot expect a singular authoritative response to cover all. Each response, therefore, is relative to some particular aspect of the Shoah. How this may be seen in the minds of children and interpreted as a reflection on the change in Shoah thinking for Israelis in the 1980s is the focus of Marc S. Bernstein's analytical study of a short story by Yehudit Katzir (born in 1963), "Schlaffstunde" (1989), and the section "Momik" from David Grossman's (born in 1954) novel, See Under: Love (1986). In each work, Bernstein writes, "the author presents a child's imaginings of the unspoken horrors from 'Over There' that have traumatized his family. Both stories highlight the centrality of the Holocaust in formation of the young psyche, but they do so in divergent ways that reflect differences in the generation and gender of the protagonists, and perhaps the authors as well." Indeed, the younger Israeli writers Grossman and Katzir portray how the Shoah legacy of martyrdom serve the needs of state building and national identity contra the suppression of this epochal Diaspora event in the founding generation of the Jewish state. (13)

Understandably, Hebrew poetry of the Shoah is written by Ashkenazi Jews. But what of the Sephardim and Mizrachim who also reflected on Hitler's wish to eradicate the Jews? Lev Hakak's essay surveys their concern, fear, and suffering, and finds that their folk poetry and poetry reflect direct suffering at the hands of Nazi Germany and their allies or indirectly by identity with the Jews of Eastern Europe. Individually and collectively, the voices of Sephardim and Near Eastern Jewish bards speak out against the barbaric criminality of Nazism and caution the nations of their own debasement and destruction. But their primary purpose is to eulogize the kedoshim (saintly martyrs), to succor the suffering, and to express hope in Israel redeemed.

The essays in this special issue of Shofar posit a richness of taut realism and informed symbolism extracted from Hitler's inferno that casts a lingering shadow on an old-new society that grabbles with the pivotal questions of "What can we 'Here' learn from 'Over There'?" These essays are construed as an attempt, not a closure, to answer "Why?"

(1) New York Times, April 16, 1978.

(2) See E. Wiesel, Night (New York: Bantam Books, 1982), pp. 61-62.

(3) Title derived from the word holocaustum (Latin)/holokaustos (Greek): a burnt offering demanded by God and brought by man. On the etymology, consequences, and Wiesel's choice of "the Holocaust" as the term of record to describe the Jewish genocide during World War II, see "Why Do We Call the Holocaust 'The Holocaust'? An Inquiry into the Psychology of Labels," in Z. Garber and B. Zuckerman, Double Takes: Thinking and Rethinking Issues of Modern Judaism in Ancient Contexts (Lanham: University Press of America, 2004), pp. 3-30.

(4) Die Sonnenblume: Von Schuld und Vergebung, 1970; as The Sunflower, 1970 (3rd reprint by Schocken Books, 1977); revised edition, as The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, 1998.

(5) For a short biography of S. Wiesenthal and a critique of his memoir, see Z. Garber, "Wiesenthal, Simon" and "The Sunflower," in T. Riggs, editor, Reference Guide to Holocaust Literature (Farmington Hills, MI: St. James Press [Gale Group], 2002) pp. 340-341, 587-588.

(6) J. Glatstein, I Keep Recalling: The Holocaust Poems of Jacob Glatstein (English Translation). 1993.

(7) See translated essays by Ahad Ha-Am (Asher Ginzberg) in L. Simon, Ahad Ha-Am (Oxford: East and West Library, 1946), pp. 58-230. For a learned assessment of Ahad Ha-Am as an essayist of "Spiritual/Cultural Zionism," see J. Kornberg, editor, At the Crossroads: Essays on Ahad Ha-Am (SUNY Press, 1983).

(8) Of singular importance is Bialik's response to the Kishinev pogrom (April 6-7, 1903). See H. N. Bialik," City of Slaughter," trans. A.M. Klein in I. Efros, editor, Selected Poems of Hayyim Nahman Bialik (New York: Bloch Publishing Company for Histadruth Ivrith of America, 1948), pp. 114-128.

(9) S. DeKoven Ezrahi, By Words Alone: The Holocaust in Literature (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980.

(10) A. Mintz, Hurban: Responses to Catastrophe in Hebrew Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984). See, too, D. G. Roskies, Against the Apocalypse: Responses to Catastrophe in Modern Jewish Culture (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984; reprinted by Syracuse University Press, 1999). Roskies focuses on anti-traditionalist response to the adversity affecting Eastern European Jewry in the 19th and 20th centuries.

(11) M. Taub, Israeli Holocaust Drama (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1996).

(12) E. Alexander, The Holocaust and the War of Ideas (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1994), pp. 71-113.

(13) While Shoah was taught at the high school and university levels, it was only in April 1979 that it was introduced by the Ministry of Education as a compulsory subject. Thus a distinction was made between "knowing about" the Shoah and "being aware of" the Shoah as a human phenomenon. The Eichmann trial (1961) emphasized the role of the Shoah in the collective consciousness of the nation, and the wars of 1967 (Six Day War) and 1973 (Yom Kippur War) altered the perception that gevurah (heroism) not only is physical strength (a Zionist standard) but also maintained the demands of Jewish tradition (a central Shoah lesson). The phrase from "Holocaust to Rebirth" (or fact similar), which emerged in the 1980s, affirmed this. See A. Carmon, "Teaching the Holocaust in Israel: The Dilemma as a Disturbing Reality and Pedagogical Concept," in Z. Garber with A.L. Berger and R. Libowitz, eds., Methodology in the Academic Teaching of the Holocaust (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1988), pp. 75-91.

Zev Garber

Los Angeles Valley College
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Author:Garber, Zev
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Date:Jan 1, 2005
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