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Menorah - a poem sequence for Holocaust Memorial Day 2005

by Don Barnard, Birmingham Poet Laureate 2004/2005


The author wishes to thank Birmingham City Council and Birmingham Libraries for his appointment as Birmingham ninth Poet Laureate in 2004/2005. This sequence was written as one of the civic duties of the post.

Menorah



The 'Menorah' Sequence consists of:



The poems are followed by notes on Writing 'Menorah'

Shoah

In the beginning was the Word and the word was Jew.
And the word said Other, the word said Them. Not Me, not You.

Then the ploughing of the minds and the sowing of the lies
and the lies said Rapists and the lies said Thieves
and the lies said Evil in disguise.
And the Word was Demonise.

Then the growing of the Weeds. And the Weeds were Greed.
And the Weeds were Spite and the Weeds were Schadenfreude
and folk passed by on the other side.
And the Word was Bleed.

Then the writing of the Laws.
And the Laws said Jews
are not as other men.
No loving of your neighbour.
No Jews as citizens.
And the Word was Cleanse.

Then the packing into trucks and the tracks led east.
People carried like beasts and harried like beasts
and herded like beasts into pens.
And the Word was Untermensch.

Then the Words became a sentence and it sent them to their death
by burdening the strong, who earned another breath
before they died,
and murdering the rest, who simply died.
And the Word was Genocide.

From the Book of Numbers

Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, after their families, by the house of their dying.

At Maidanek, two hundred thousand.

At Sobibor, two hundred and fifty thousand.

At Chelmno, three hundred and twenty thousand.

At Belzec, six hundred thousand.

At Treblinka, seven hundred thousand.

At Auschwitz-Birkenau, one million.

and the sum of all those who passed through the gates and died was three million.

And in forests and in fields and in cellars,
in the backs of vans as they drove to the lime pits
and in the ghetto streets and sewers;
in all the places where they lived
or had fled or were taken, and died,
again three million.

These were the numbered of the children of Israel who died,
six million.


Six Million and One


Gather the memories,
one, and six million.
Count them,
account them,
for ever, for ever,
ullmei allmayaw

Gather the memories,
the family photographs
tucked in your suitcase,
your name on the lid -
quickly, now, quickly -
to take to the trucks
where they count and account you,
transport you and sort you
schwacher from shtarker,
kranker, gezunter,
Arbeit or Freiheit,
where they stack you like suitcases,
ransacked like suitcases,
spectacles, clothing,
shoes, hair and fillings,
bone-ash and smoke,
your memories scattered...
'This is me mit mayn Tate'
'This is me mit mayn Mame'
'This is me mit mayn Bruder'
'This is me'
'This is me'


Appel

Fritsch promised, 'Two weeks for a Jew,
a month for a priest and the rest live three.'
Live because you have to prove him wrong.

Stand strong. The ovens smell the weak.
Surviving hell a trick of brain on body.
Live because your mind won't let you die.

Breathing itself brings hope, a trick
the body plays upon the mind.
Live because your ribs move in and out.

Work to live and live on your own flesh
for a month, three if you steal some food.
Live because you have to keep the scroll,

hold in the Ark of your skull the horror of Appel,
this harrowed field of heads bowed to the wind.
Live because you have to testify.


Tattoo

The tattoo is a bruise on your soul, an IOU
blued in your flesh
for the years they stole,
for the blood debt they cannot repay.
It a snap-shot,
a freeze-frame reminding you,
they took away your name.

It a raw spot,
a skin-prick you can numb
with all the calluses you grew.
You feel too much, and not enough,
marking your boundaries in blue
and shouting who you are,
with your star on your sleeve,
your insistent tattoo.


Testimony

It happened as I told you. I was there. Enough.

They took us all, taking from us all
or almost all.
Why ask of me the little that remains.
Just let me be.
Should I be more than human now,
when then they showed me I was less ?

Should I be angry ? So I am. Forgiving ?
Sometimes I can manage that.
Sometimes I am good, sometimes
less so.

And still you tell me, 'Tell us.'
Horror told so often is banal. Retelling
seems to alter nothing. I wanted to be ordinary,
not singled out as witness to this extraordinary
thing.
I wish I could forget,
sometimes.

Sometimes, I fear forgetting
When the gates opened
I could be anything,
save what I had been, before,
or what I might have been, except.
Freedom is not enough.

So I light another candle in the darkness,
that you may say,
see

Shamash

Our lamp is hammered from the one block.
Our branches are of the one tree
rooted in the one earth.
There is no gene for victim or oppressor.
We must all carry the lamp.
There is no-one else.

The truth of this is the shamash, the light
from which all other truths are lit,
and still we forget
that no outrage is beyond us
in the night of our righteousness.
We must all carry the lamp.
There is no-one else.

From the dark night of all their deaths
shine the stars of who they were.
Remembering them and bearing witness
is the lamp that lights the world.
We must all carry the lamp.
There is no-one else.

Copyright Don Barnard 2004


Writing 'Menorah'

It is daunting to be asked to write about something as terrible and as significant as the Holocaust. It is even more daunting, perhaps, for someone who is not a Jew. It was my greatest concern, in becoming Birmingham Poet Laureate, to succeed in this task, wherever else I might fail during my year of office.

I have read widely about the Holocaust. The period holds special interest for me and I have considered for years how it came about and tried to understand its implications for the survivors and for the rest of us. I am also familiar to an extent with the Middle East, having studied Arabic at university, and am concerned at the intractability of the region problems.

Why 'Menorah'?

I felt that it would not be possible even to touch on the most important of the issues raised by the Holocaust in a single poem. The facts, the personal horror, the events leading up to it, the impact today there is simply too much. The question I faced was how to extend the work.

I thought of writing a triptych, but was concerned that this has more associations with the Christian church than with Judaism and that even three poems would not be enough. I then thought of the menorah, the seven-branched candlestick or lamp used ceremonially by Jews (not the nine-branched one of Hanukkah). The imagery of the menorah, with six of its branches being lit from the seventh, the shamash, fitted exactly with what I had in mind.

So, 'Menorah' it was and I could use seven poems.

Six Million and One

In thinking about how to meet this challenge, I began by planning a poem about one victim, a child. I wanted to say Kaddish, the Hebrew Prayer for the Dead, for all victims and felt I could do so best by writing about one person. This was the first poem I wrote, though it sits later in the sequence.

I wanted to convey the terror of sudden dislocation and the breaking up of families, as well as the horrific objectification of those sent to the death camps. I hope I have not offended by including some Yiddish, which has always seemed to me the most lively of tongues, contrasting strongly with the death I am describing.

Also, I apologise for including a phrase from Kaddish, but feel that belonged here. 'For ever, for ever'. has particular significance in a year when it has been found that 60% of people under 35 in Britain have not heard of Auschwitz.

The tone is intended to be one of loss and remembrance, of incantation almost. Childish and skipping in tempo at first, but slowing into stillness.

From the Book of Numbers

It was not enough to talk about one victim, however evocatively. I wanted to see that one death in the context of all the others, so set out to write this poem.

It struck me that what the Nazis had done had been a census as ambitious as that of the accounting in the Old Testament Book of Numbers, except that instead of gathering the living, they were gathering the about-to-die. I chose to speak only of the six main death camps (like the snuffing of the six main lights of the Menorah) rather than continuing the roll call of camps. There were so many.

Apart from a certain amount of rounding for rhythmic reasons, the numbers in the poem are as correct as my sources allowed. For my part, I did not gladly omit even a single victim. The numbers are still being adjusted upwards as more is understood about the Holocaust. If you find them difficult to believe or to come to terms with, that is to your credit.

I apologise to the many other groups whose relatives died in the camps (the Poles, the Russian prisoners, the intellectuals, the gypsies, the homosexuals and so on) who are not included in these counts or the poem. This is not a sequence about all of Nazism's crimes.

The tone I aimed at in this poem was a cold, objective one, such as might have been used at the Nuremberg trials.

Shoah

If the Holocaust were the only genocide, there might not have been a reason to write 'Shoah'. However, it was not the first and certainly has not been the last.

I've tried to deal with the role of language and above all of propaganda in the treatment of the Jews in Germany in the Thirties. I wanted to record the Nazis' manipulation of opinion and exploitation of existing anti-Semitism in the de-humanisation process.

The slide into ever-greater cruelty was swift, but it was a planned and graded process and one we should be wary of allowing to repeat. Genocide still occurs, but the world is learning to react against it more quickly.

The tone I aimed at was one of inevitability, combined with an accelerating pace to the ultimate horror.

Appel

Having worked my way through the death poems of the sequence, I wanted to do justice to the survivors in this year when Liberation and the Survivors form the theme. Like most poems in the sequence, this one makes use of repetition. Here this is to echo the repeated calls to Appel, where the guards weeded out the weaker prisoners for death. Fritsch was deputy to the commander of Auschwitz and boasted to new prisoners about how little time they had.

The tone is grim determination to live for any of several reasons, but ultimately for the one, to tell the tale for those who don't survive.

Tattoo

I also wanted to write about the problem for survivors of living with their experiences and their loss of health, family and years from their lives. The tattooed number on the left forearm is a powerful symbol of their human will to survive, but is also a reminder of how their humanity was denied and of the experiences they went through.

The tone is flat, practical. The tattoo and what it represents is a fact that must be lived with and accommodated into today's reality.

Testimony

This poem seeks to represent the dilemma of the survivors. How do they come to terms with their memories, how can they live normal lives, unless they forget ? Unless they remember and bear witness, how do they fulfil their duty to the dead and to the future ?

The double burden is a terrible one. For many, dealing with the memories is not a process that can be debated, but something that tears them apart.

I have chosen, as with the earlier Six Million and One, to represent all individuals by one.

The tone is ambivalent. There is no resolution, either way.

Shamash


The final poem is one of hope. It expands its vision to include us all, Jew and non-Jew, speaks of our shared humanity and fallibility and looks to the dead of the Holocaust to remind us that we make our world the place it is.

The poem draws out the symbolism of the menorah, a candlestick that like the Jewish and the human races is made from the one block.

The tone is an incantation.

Afterthought


I have been struggling to make sense of the Holocaust to myself, looking for and mulling over meanings. In my research for the writing, I refreshed my existing knowledge of the Nazi phenomenon. In doing so, I uncovered things new to me that shocked even though I had expected to find them.

The business-like effort to increase the efficiency of the death camps, to increase the throughput of the ovens, shocks with its coldness. The extent to which the system forced the co-operation of those it was oppressing shocks with its cynicism. Above all, the testimony of how individual Germans killed individual Jews, pulling the trigger of a gun pointed at a naked and helpless man, woman or child, shocks.

It shocks because this was not madness but a mad form of sanity, in us all if we allow it.

The poem sequence began with the distinctness of the Jewish race, which meant the evil of the Holocaust could be focussed. It ends with the fact that we are all members of the human race, again connected by common descent.

Whatever else the Holocaust says, it reminds us that in such times it is our broader connection, to the human race, that matters and that 'humanity' has another meaning, beyond being human.


Don Barnard
Birmingham Poet Laureate
December 2004

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Copyright

These poems have also been published in a monograph by D. Barnard (formerly Semicolon Press)
99 Lime Avenue, Leamington Spa, Warks CV32 7DG

ISBN 0 95335 254 4

The right of Don Barnard to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of these poems may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without prior written permission from Don Barnard.


Web sites about the Holocaust
Holocaust Memorial Day - recommended reading list
Holocaust Memorial Day - A booklist for young people