For an interview with Aliki in this issue.

For a paper on Eva and Chagall

This talk was originally presented at Associated Writing Programs Conference in Vancouver, B.C. March 31, 2005.

“Day Breaks on Andros, 1944” originally appeared in We Jews and Blacks: Memoir with Poems by Willis Barnstone (Indiana University Press, 2004).
In Defense of a Poetics of Witness

by Aliki Barnstone

I'm definitely on the side of sticking with the documents and morally opposed and emotionally opposed to the mythopoeticization of those events in form or genre. And yet, for some reason, I keep writing Holocaust fiction. It is something that has happened to me; I can't help it. If I had been there and not here I would dead, which is something I can never forget.

—Cynthia Ozick

      I am writing a book of poems, tentatively entitled Eva's Voice, which is written in the voice of an imaginary poet, Eva Victoria Perera, a Sephardic Jew from Thessaloniki. Until 50,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz, Thessaloniki had a large and thriving Jewish community, was known as “the Mother of Israel,” and was the seat of the Sephardim, who settled there after their expulsion from Spain in 1492. Theodor Adorno famously wrote, “To write poetry after the Holocaust is barbaric.” Less well known is Adorno's retraction: “Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems.” For anybody who writes about the Shoah, the question inevitably raised is “Is such a poetics ethical or morally defensible?”
      One central objection to writing about the Shoah is that it is an appropriation of one of the most horrific events in human history and only survivors have the moral right to depict it. A writer who is not a survivor and who portrays the Holocaust, or any atrocity, may be accused of exploiting the suffering of others for her own profit, whether it is the pleasure of making art or the potential of receiving renown for her work or even furthering her moral and political agenda. The issues raised by the specter of exploitation are compellingly explored in the essay, “Who Owns Auschwitz?” by Imre Kertész, the Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor. He writes: “A Holocaust conformism has arisen, along with a Holocaust sentimentalism, a Holocaust canon, and a system of Holocaust taboos together with the ceremonial discourse that goes with it; Holocaust products for Holocaust consumers have been developed.” While others have made the claim that the Shoah can only be represented by historical documents and first hand accounts by survivors, Kertész rejects the guise of historical fact in favor of imaginative recreation. He fervently denounces Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List as “reptilian kitsch” because the director tries “to make his representation of a world he does not know seem authentic in every detail.” In contrast, he is most laudatory about Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful, which was condemned by many as being an inauthentic and comic treatment of Auschwitz. But Kertész asserts that the film's critics “fail to see that Benigni's central idea isn't comic at all, but tragic. . ..[T]he spirit, the soul of Life is Beautiful is authentic, and it moves us with the power of the oldest kind of magic, the magic of fairy tales.”
       Another agonizing concern regarding writing about the Holocaust is epistemological. Even writers who have spent their lives writing about the Shoah doubt whether it can be done. As Elie Wiesel puts it "Auschwitz cannot be explained nor can it be visualized. . . . [T]he Holocaust transcends history." Primo Levi writes that “for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man.” There are those who claim that the Shoah is unique in human history and is unknowable. This leads us to the untenable notion that any comparison of the extermination of the Jews or the rise of the Nazi party is regarded as not just specious but obscene, that it diminishes the magnitude of the Holocaust to draw parallels between it and other atrocities. This interdiction against comparison translates into another interdiction against imaginative language, which might involve metaphor, allegory, or, as Kertész says, “the magic of fairy tales.”
      The Holocaust is evidence of a terrible evil in humanity. Its horror should not be understated, hence the prohibition against comparison. The problem is that if nothing is compared to the Holocaust, nothing can be learned from it. Kertész writes:
[I] regard as kitsch representations that seek to establish the Holocaust once and for all as something foreign to human nature; that seek to drive the Holocaust out of the realm of human experience. . .where Auschwitz is regarded as simply a matter concerning Germans and Jews, and thereby reduced to something like the fatal incompatibility of two groups; when the political and psychological anatomy of modern totalitarianism more generally is disregarded; when Auschwitz is not seen as a universal experience.
      On the one hand, we are exhorted to remember the Shoah, on the other, as Sidra Dekoven Ezrahi observes, “the imagination in any but its most constrained forms appears to many as a desecrating agent.” But she argues against this censorship of the imagination because it plays into the hand of Holocaust deniers, by allowing them to define the terms of remembrance. Furthermore, I ask, why remember, if we are forbidden to use comparative language in order perhaps to prevent future atrocities—or at the very least to create resistance to the kind of political atmosphere that leads to genocide? Ironically, one of Hitler's invectives against the Jews was that they made a claim for the universality of their subjectivity. The Jews, he said, defined art “as nothing but an international communal experience, thus killing altogether any understanding of its integral relationship with an ethnic group. . ..There was no longer any art of peoples or even races” (Modernism, 561). Jews, in other words, had the audacity to compare themselves to other people, regardless of ethnicity, and to speak for them through art.
      As you've probably gathered, I'm making a case for my project, for writing in the voice of a Holocaust survivor, for lyric subjectivity, and for the moral imperative to develop a poetics of witness. But beyond theorizing, my truth is a lot simpler and more particular. I didn't decide to write in Eva's Voice. She came to me. I have wrestled with the questions above, and the result is Eva did not go to Auschwitz. She survived by buying a false Christian identity. I cannot speak for death camp survivors, nor for those who died in the death camps. Nonetheless, Eva tells me to write in the voice of a survivor, who feels the fear of detection, sorrow for the loss of loved ones, the guilt and shame of surviving, to be alive and among the lucky while others suffer and die.
      I keep coming back to the terrible silence in Greece about the murder of 96.5% of its Jewish population. The Greeks seem to have forgotten that Thessaloniki was a Jewish city. The fact of the extermination of nearly 62,000 Greek Jews in the death camps does not appear in Greek textbooks. My friend Christopher Bakken tells me that when he taught at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, he made a point of telling his students the history of the Holocaust in their city. The students were dumbfounded. They’d never been told. When they went home and asked their parents about the murder of 50,000 of their fellow citizens, their elders replied, “No, that never happened here.” Greek survivors and their descendants, including members of the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki, with whom I'm in personal contact, are engaged in a valiant effort to break this silence about the Holocaust, seek restitution for lost lives and property, and to make the fact internationally known that Jews have a long and illustrious history in Greece. As Cynthia Ozick says, “History is the ground of our being, and together with imagination, that is what makes writing.” I am writing in the voice of a single person, who is Greek and who lives from 1917-2001. I consider it my ethical responsibility to give careful attention to the history and to bring it to the light in the now.
      In the States, so often when I tell people about Eva's Voice, I hear: “Oh, there were Jews in Greece?” My friend John Meghir is a Greek Holocaust survivor, whose family, like Eva’s, had false Christian identities. He speaks proper British English, recites poetry in several languages, and is a gallant and charming host. Sometime he forgets names. Yet when I asked him one evening to tell me about his experiences during the German occupation, he described them with the most vivid details, forgetting nothing. His mother posed as a maid in the home of Christian friends. When German soldiers came to inspect the house, the friends ordered her to serve them tea, so there would be no hint of concealment. His two cousins' Jewish identity was discovered and they were trucked off to their deaths. When we said goodnight, he said to me, “I must tell you, what I find terribly annoying is no one remembers and no one cares.” Eva asks me to translate the voices of Greek Jews into poetry, and I want to do it for her. This poem in Eva's voice is located on the island of Andros, where she and her family were taken in and protected by Christian friends:

      Day Breaks on Andros, 1944

When all at once dogs bark from the cobblestone
labyrinth in my nightmare and donkeys clop,
more burdened than ever, and the roosters panic
with church bells, footsteps, a screaming lamb,

I think, they know who I am, and they'll take me away. . .
at last, they've identified me, however narrowly.

Cerberus howls his unwanted welcome;
the doves grunt with the weary souls
in the underworld.

Then just as suddenly I wake, a taste on my tongue
like something spoiled. The red hibiscus flowering
outside the window spins a second among sunrays,
then stops. A gust of wind.

I'm on the island, safe for now.

I reach for my glasses on the nightstand,
put them on, and the room's colors shift into focus.
Then I turn my head slowly on the pillow,
almost afraid to reassure myself.

My daughter is asleep, there on the small bed
next to mine, her lips moving a little,
her braid coiled along her neck, her hand resting
on the chest of her doll.

I remember it is Easter Sunday and the scream
I heard was the lamb carried off to be slaughtered.
Today I will celebrate, too, posing as a Christian,
and I will call out with the rest, Christos anesti!
Christ has risen.

We've been passed over. I allow
sleep to lay its heavy body on mine
and I sink beneath it for a few more hours,
still and dreamless.


Works Cited

The Atlantic Online, “The many faces of Cynthia Ozick,” May 15, 1997

Vassiliki Kolocotroni, Jane Goldman, Olga Taxidou, Modernism: An Anthology
       of Sources and Documents
, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Sidra Dekoven, Imre Kertész, Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel in “Holocaust Reflections,” An Online Journal and Multimedia Companion to 
Anthology of Modern American Poetry 
(Oxford University Press, 2000)
. Edited by Cary Nelson.