This past week our student Simon Goldberg presented at Yad Vashem’s 7th Annual Summer Workshop for Holocaust Scholars. We are so proud to have two of our students involved in this prestigious workshop, and are excited to share a bit about his work with you today. Simon shared this piece with us, and we look forward to seeing more from him in the future:
“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
Whenever I encounter Dan Pagis’ “Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway Car,” quoted above, I feel the urge to complete the poem. What did Eve wish to be told to her son Cain? What was a last mother’s wish, sealed as she was in a train car, presumably headed to a ghastly death? Last year, when I opened a Holocaust unit with 10th grade students in Hong Kong, I asked them this question. “Tell him that I love him,” said one. Another: “Tell him that I miss him.” Most piercing was a response that seemed to consider the missing son, Cain, in his biblical role as his brother Abel’s murderer. It had Eve, the mother, saying: “Tell him that I forgive him.”
The poem’s destabilizing devices made me wonder: Did Pagis intend the poem as a reflection of real letters written in transport? Or was he trying to express something by not being realistic? My MA research at Haifa explores these questions. It examines letters written in transport for what they communicate about individuals’ attitudes and expectations as well as the role of the transport in the collapse of the family unit. I look letters culled from archives at Yad Vashem and the Ghetto Fighters House in Israel, the Center for Contemporary Jewish Documentation in France, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. In my analysis, I bring themes and questions from the poem to my reading of the letters—asking how Pagis’ postwar representation prompts our reflection on historical aspects of transport.
I’ll share a brief example here. In “Written in Pencil” Pagis attempts to indicate a disruption of time and stability on the train. For one thing, characters from biblical times substitute for Holocaust victims. David Roskies’ interpretation of this conflation is a commentary on the evolution and permutation of violence: the story of Cain and Abel is that of the first murder, which would simply repeat throughout history until it peaks in the Holocaust. The temporal fluctuation is also reflected in that the train from which Eve of the poem writes is an unspecified “here”—anywhere in the vast universe of deportations, and therefore nowhere in particular—at no one time. The poem thus confronts us with a warping of chronology on the train car.
Indeed, this is an interesting question: were deportees able to keep track of time? Letters written even days into transport indicate that some deportees, while in the midst of sensory and bodily assault, did not lose an accurate perception of time and were aware of their surroundings. In their letters, these deportees recollect a chronology of events that took place prior to deportation as well as the conditions of transport. For instance, Lisa Kouchelevitz, deported from Drancy to Auschwitz in October of 1943, wrote a letter to her family two days into transport. In it, she informed them: “Tomorrow Thursday at 3 o’clock after midnight they will finish us up. We are here a 1000 people. Among us are many old people and small children.” Other letters corroborate a tenacious grasp of time and cognition .
As I develop this project, I ask myself: what does this tell us? Surely conjecture is limited and my role as a researcher cannot be to psychologize, but on the issue of time, I’d like to suggest that perhaps deportees found strength through documentation. Perhaps, as victims were degraded physically and mentally on the train, these letters were intended not only for their recipients, but also for themselves. Perhaps preserving an ability to report on one’s experience was an assertion of humanity and individuality that offered solace in a maelstrom of destruction.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Record Group 10, “Small Collections,” Lisa K., “Letter,” 30 October 1943, RG-10.054*01; Acc. 1992.A.058.”
Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program? You can find the application and more information at our website: http://holocaust-studies.haifa.ac.il/