Jackie Metzger, of Yad Vashem’s International school, talks about Poetry and the Holocaust

IMG_3351Dr. Jackie Metzger shared his talk “Literature in the Holocaust: Teaching the Holocaust through Poetry” with our students during their seminar at Yad Vashem. Here are three of the poems he discussed.

Written in Pencil in a Sealed Freightcar | By Dan Pagis
Here in this car
I am Eve
With my son Abel
If you see my older boy
Cain son of Adam
Tell him that I…

This was the first poem Dr. Metzger presented. Dan Pagis, 1930-1986, was a revered Professor at Hebrew University from Bukovina, Romania. This poem, Written in Pencil in a Sealed Freightcar, is written on a memorial at Belzec Death Camp. In his presentation and discussion, Dr. Metzger suggested a relationship between Eve and life, Cain and death, and Abel with the murdered. Pagis draws attention to the first murder in relation with mass murder and the Holocaust. Dr. Metzger suggested that as Cain and Abel were brothers, so were the Germans and Jews, because we are human therefore we are related. The poem touches on the incomprehensibility of the Holocaust.

Testimony | Dan Pagis
No no: they definitely were
human beings: uniforms, boots.
How to explain? They were created
in the image.

I was a shade.
A different creator made me.

And he in his mercy left nothing of me that would die.
And I fled to him, rose weightless, blue,
forgiving – I would even say: apologizing –
smoke to omnipotent smoke
without image or likeness.

Pagis makes a distinction between them and me, “they were created in the image,” and “a different creator made me.” In saying that a different creator made him, he’s rejecting the monotheistic idea of God. Dr. Metzger made an interesting conclusion, saying, “Who you fear is your god, the Germans feared Hitler.” Is Pagis rejecting the idea of Hitler as a god? Pagis, acknowledges his god in the last stanza, “He in his mercy,” which confers this idea.

Shema | Primo Levi
You who live secure
In your warm houses
Who return at evening to find
Hot food and friendly faces:

Consider whether this is a man,
Who labors in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or no.
Consider whether this is a woman
Without hair or name
With no more strength to remember
Eyes empty and womb cold
As a frog in the winter

Consider that this has been:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts
When you are In your houses
When you walk on your way
When you go to bed, when you rise
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house crumble,
Disease render you powerless,
Your offspring avert their faces from you.

This poem was written 15 weeks after the liberation of Auschwitz. This last poem is named after a prayer that devout Jews say three times a day, affirming the name of God. Levi wrote this poem as a sort of prayer, as a plea to remember the Holocaust. The first stanza is directed at the Germans and anyone that wouldn’t help him. Then Levi describes the Holocaust in the second stanza. The last stanza takes words from the Shema and  commands the reader to tell everyone about the Holocaust, it is imperative to pass on to future generations.

If you are interested in learning more about poetry and the Holocaust, read this educational guide by Yad Vashem.


Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program?  You can find the application and more information at our website