Written behind barbed wire

How these poems survived the Holocaust is as miraculous as their authors' own survival.

b and w smiles 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
b and w smiles 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A Wall of Two By Henia Karmel and Ilona Karmel Translated from the Polish by Arie A. Galles and Warren Niesluchowski University of California Press 158 pages; $16.95 'Another volume of Holocaust poetry?" I thought with embarrassed dread when a bookseller pressed this new book of something called "adaptations" from Polish into my hand. But this book I otherwise would not have heard of is essential, a major contribution to Jewish literature and to world poetry. The literature of the Holocaust includes harrowing poetry, memoir and fiction by Paul Celan, Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, all written after the war, but to my knowledge this is the first volume written inside a forced-labor camp by two teenage sisters who wrote the poems to each other, and who miraculously survived, along with their poems. From the first page, this slim book assumes that the reader will not care, because at that time no one cared, if the two Jewish sisters who wrote these words at great danger lived or died, and if they died, whether that death came by hanging or gas or hunger or just plain overwork. Initial poems emphasize the ordinariness of these girls. In the first poem, titled "Autobiography," the first part is called "Childhood": This story begins like any other A childhood tale as ordinary As milk and flowers. A world so small It could be contained within four walls. Quickly, in the time it takes to turn a few pages, the world of two teenage sisters from Krakow - their family was in the metal business, and they were well-off and distinguished - changes forever. It changes in the amount of time it takes to drink a cup of coffee. One day, one sister's boyfriend takes her to a café, and to his great embarrassment, forgets his wallet. A friend who is also sipping coffee in that café bails him out, and pays his bill. The boyfriend runs home to get cash, and when he comes back, that friend is gone, taken by the Gestapo, and executed. This quickness of pace in the change from decency to indecency is one thing the poems capture. The sisters and their mother end up in a string of forced-labor camps. The father, having made a fateful last-minute decision, is shipped to Treblinka, where he perishes. In the worst section of these forced-labor camps, where these poems were written behind barbed wire, rebellion of any sort brought grave consequences. Prisoners who did the slightest thing considered out of place "were turned into objects," the distinguished American poet Fanny Howe - who edited and transformed these poems into haunting English from translations from the Polish by Arie A. Galles and Warren Niesluchowski - writes in her introduction. "They were painted different colors and wrapped in paper sacks and displayed as walking skeletons to strike horror into the hearts of other prisoners." And so these poems now strike horror into us. They are the skeletons, facing us. Howe has made that possible by bringing her considerable poetic gifts to the manuscript of poems written behind barbed wire, taking out tired old-fashioned devices, or the awkwardness of very young writers working under horrific conditions, and leaving in all of the powerful eyewitness testimony and incredible souls of the girls. In her "adaptations," Howe transforms the poems into ones that will matter to us. The poems put the atmosphere of being worked to death. It was an endless parade of death and indifference. Still, in Werk C, there in the Skarzysko-Kamienna camp, there was "continual resistance," Howe writes, including this poem, "Procession," written there by Henia Karmel: Two marched by in striped prison garb then two more in rags. After them came four on stretchers. Their bodies jerked up comically at the night sky. Half-naked with broken legs. A frozen cadaver and then just beside the prison gate came four more stretchers. One pressed a blood-soaked cloth across his face. The parade went on while we watched in dread. The rag man on the litter was dying. And at the end, four from a nightmare lugged on their heavy shoulders a bundled body. They couldn't cope and let it drop. It screamed in its own blood. Clearly these poems required bravery not only by the sisters, but by the non-Jewish plant worker who gave them paper, and by others who provided pencils, and by the cousin who took these poems as she was on a death march at the end of the war. But despite that worker's bravery, Germany - the land of so much great poetry - offered the sisters no hope. Here is how Germany seemed to them, memorialized in "The Land of Germany": Wires, wires everywhere. Barbed and bright Like mad-dog teeth. Like pots with their cracks stapled shut. Like fear blockers. Like Germany itself - Fearful, fanged, easy to break. One of the strongest poems here, to my eye, is "German Uniform Mania." Like the best Karmel poems, it addressed itself to everyone - to all of humanity, and at the same time, it's funny and young while haunting and horrifying. Here it is, the work of the girl whose boyfriend ran to get some cash to pay for coffee, the girl who was a teenager only a few days before: Excuse me, sir, just a minute. Could you kindly tell me where I can find a human being? That's right. A normal one in a suit or something. Maybe double or single-breasted. Black or navy, no brass buttons, no uniforms. A person. Are they out of stock? Is this mania for uniforms all we get? Is this today's fashion? What a shame! I thought maybe there would be one specimen left, perhaps in the zoo in Berlin. How these poems survived in a time and place when "a human being" was scarce is as miraculous as how the sisters themselves survived. Near the war's end, Henia and Ilona and their mother were on a forced death march, walking in circles with 28,000 other prisoners. A German tank deliberately crushed them and pushed their damaged bodies into a pile. Miraculously, a cousin happened to pass by, on her own awful march. One sister ripped apart the hems of her dress, where the poems had been sewn, and urged the cousin to take the poems and get them to Leon, Henia's husband, in Krakow after the war. Meanwhile the mothers and the sisters, their bodies broken, lay there in a pile. On the last day of the war a Polish woman, also a slave laborer, passed by and saw some bodies still alive. She summoned her boss, who got the sisters to a hospital. Each had a leg amputated. The mother died of her wounds. Years later, after both sisters had died, after long and full lives as mothers and writers, their children left the Polish poems to an old friend of Ilona's who was a poet - Fanny Howe. The children chose well, and the poems continued their miraculous journey. Knowing no Polish, Howe tracked down Polish-speaking artists and spent seven years making them into strong, contemporary poems in American English. This book is the work of at least six people - the sisters, of course, the two translators, the husband and Howe. Fortunately, Howe describes her unusual process and her choices in detail for the translation aficionados out there, and I think she knocks down the arguments of those who say, "it's not word by word, so it's not accurate." Yes, these poems have been published before in Polish, and in Hebrew. One sister's husband saw a poem in the Auschwitz bookstore in 1988. But these poems must be known outside of the camps, and the bookstores that now dot them, making it easy to overlook a poem like "Us." One, two, three, four…. Numbered and nameless And clothed in standard-issue rags Here they come - to prison To be introduced To trembling lamps, Drizzle, rifles and hard rain, To sufferings without number. This book, and these brave reimaginings of our common human language - the language of "us" - are an effort to let language end this sort of apathy. If you feel a wall rising up in you at the thought of another Holocaust book, and worse, a bunch of poems translated from Polish, consider letting A Wall of Two break it down. As Henia Karmel wrote to another poet after the war, "Maybe you'll even throw them away without reading them all the way through. But please remember one thing - these poems are real, not just scribblings." The writer's poems have appeared in Harvard Review and Prairie Schooner. Her first book, And There Was Evening, And There Was Morning, is forthcoming from Spiegel & Grau.