Trau­mat­ic Vers­es: On Poet­ry in Ger­man from the Con­cen­tra­tion Camps, 1933 – 1945

Andres Nad­er
  • Review
By – November 1, 2011
One cul­tur­al fact of our age is that the imag­i­na­tive lit­er­a­ture on the Holo­caust con­tin­ues to pro­lif­er­ate at an aston­ish­ing rate. Fic­tion, mem­oirs, film, dra­ma, and poet­ry about the Shoah appear with pre­dictable reg­u­lar­i­ty. Despite the hor­ror of the sub­ject mat­ter and the ambi­gu­i­ty of many of the con­clu­sions that can be drawn from it and con­cerns expressed by lit­er­ary and social crit­ics like George Stein­er and Theodor Adorno, who warn of the col­lapse of the imag­i­na­tion when con­front­ed with the Holo­caust, the temp­ta­tion to with­draw from it has been resist­ed. One rea­son for this is that many artists see their pur­suit of the sub­ject as an inher­ent­ly moral one. 

Trau­mat­ic Vers­es, an eru­dite, well-researched, and lucid­ly rea­soned aca­d­e­m­ic study by Andrés Nad­er, close­ly exam­ines a rep­re­sen­ta­tive range of poems writ­ten in Ger­man in a vari­ety of camp set­tings by Has­so Grab­n­er, Fritz Löh­n­er-Beda, Karl Schnog, Ruth Kluger, Edgar Kypfer-Kober­witz, and Ilse Weber, among oth­ers, com­posed in Buchen­wald, Dachau, Flössen­burg, and There­sien­stadt. These poems are marked in two par­tic­u­lar ways. They were writ­ten while the authors were impris­oned in con­cen­tra­tions camps and they were writ­ten in Ger­man, the lan­guage of their persecutors. 

Nad­er pro­vides a psy­cho­an­a­lyt­i­cal­ly informed read­ing of these poems, tells the sto­ries behind the com­po­si­tion and preser­va­tion of these writ­ings, and dis­cuss­es their sig­nif­i­cance for aes­thet­ic the­o­ry and for research on the con­cen­tra­tion camps. Most of these poems appear for the first time in Eng­lish trans­la­tion along with the orig­i­nal Ger­man texts. 

The book explores some impor­tant and fas­ci­nat­ing ques­tions. Why did some inmates engage in aes­thet­ic prac­tices? Why poet­ry? Why would peo­ple deprived of the most basic and essen­tial human require­ments and human rights resort to cre­ative expres­sion? What do their vers­es tell us about poet­ry and lan­guage in con­di­tions of extrem­i­ty? And most specif­i­cal­ly, what is the sig­nif­i­cance of the cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion from the camps in the lan­guage of the per­pe­tra­tors? At its most pro­found lev­el, poems in Ger­man, par­tic­u­lar­ly those com­posed by Jews, direct­ly defied the Nazi ide­ol­o­gy that linked cul­ture and lan­guage to race and claimed that Jews were inca­pable of authen­tic expres­sion in Ger­man. By writ­ing in Ger­man they were reclaim­ing the lan­guage that had been cor­rupt­ed and co-opt­ed by Nazism. Their poems are exam­ples of the ways in which inmates tried to resist the attacks on their cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty and their indi­vid­u­al­i­ty. By com­pos­ing poems in Ger­man and poems that occa­sion­al­ly incor­po­rate clas­si­cal aspects of the lyric tra­di­tion, Jew­ish writ­ers implic­it­ly were insist­ing on a cul­tur­al role for them­selves in Ger­man. The poems engage ques­tions of moral­i­ty, agency, and authen­tic voice. They are also expres­sions of poet­ic defi­ance” because they are ges­tures that con­tra­dict the humil­i­a­tion, silenc­ing, and dehu­man­iza­tion imposed by the per­pe­tra­tors. The poems are thus pri­vate acts of protest, on the one hand, and expres­sions of pri­vate cre­ativ­i­ty and free­dom, on the other. 

This book makes an impor­tant con­tri­bu­tion to Holo­caust Stud­ies, and to trau­ma stud­ies, that fills in the gaps left by lit­er­ary schol­ars who, for the most part, have not care­ful­ly stud­ied the poet­ry pro­duced in the camps in Ger­man. It adds a sig­nif­i­cant and nuanced dimen­sion to our under­stand­ing of the camp expe­ri­ence and of the Adorno ques­tion of the fea­si­bil­i­ty of poet­ry after Auschwitz.”

Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

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