Arne Weingart’s new book of poetry is a first-person narrative, told from the point of view of someone who is trying to survive a Nazi concentration camp. Written in forty-eight eleven-line verses, Weingart’s poems are tight and dramatic. The narrator being held prisoner reflects on God, his family, life in the camp, memory, and many other relevant topics. It reads like a stream of consciousness, with images that are often surprising and striking.
In Verse XXV, the prisoner writes about being in the camp band. He starts off by explaining that some of the members used to play an instrument “when music was as natural and unpretentious as breathing.” And then he continues:
We rehearse in the short interval
between supper which is not supper
and sleep which is not sleep. We play what we
can still remember without looking at
a score. Sheet music is as scarce
as the light from incarcerated stars.
Most of the verses — this one included — are about different aspects of survival. In this one, music is a savior, and a metaphor for the importance of memory.
Many people question whether or not someone who did not directly experience the Holocaust, or any form of genocide, can write about it from a first-person perspective. Are these stories in fact appropriated? That question might linger in readers’ minds as they read through Weingart’s collection. Even though the poems are compelling, one might wonder, for example, how many prisoners played music, or even if they had the luxury of thinking.
That said, the thoughts and imagery are fresh, with many providing a new perspective. In Verse XXXI, the prisoner writes about the birds that still come to the camp:
You’d think that birds would be forbidden here.
That somehow they would know not to appear
as usual and sing and fight and fly
and squat on branches. Balance on barbed wire.
The prisoner experiences the birds as witnesses — all the more startling because they can’t react, and their lives haven’t changed. They are still birds balancing on wire; they’ve simply adapted to the barbs. Weingart might also be suggesting a kind of personification here. How much are the birds like — and unlike — the general Aryan population?
In Verse XXIX, the prisoner questions the use of poetry “to talk about what happens when the world is at its worst.” He comes down on the side of poetry and art, and their potential to express what cannot be said in any other form.
Concentration is an ambitious book. It helps us reflect not only on the horrors of the Holocaust, but also on the potential threat of any totalitarian government. When people lose their free will, they become prisoners; at totalitarianism’s worst, they become victims of genocide.
Stewart Florsheim’s poetry has been widely published in magazines and anthologies. He was the editor of Ghosts of the Holocaust, an anthology of poetry by children of Holocaust survivors (Wayne State University Press, 1989). He wrote the poetry chapbook, The Girl Eating Oysters (2River, 2004). In 2005, Stewart won the Blue Light Book Award for The Short Fall From Grace (Blue Light Press, 2006). His collection, A Split Second of Light, was published by Blue Light Press in 2011 and received an Honorable Mention in the San Francisco Book Festival, honoring the best books published in the Spring of 2011. Stewart’s new collection, Amusing the Angels, won the Blue Light Book Award in 2022.