Bees build around red liver,
Ants build around black bone.
It has begun: the tearing, the trampling on silks,
It has begun: the breaking of glass, wood, copper, nickel, silver, foam
Of gypsum, iron sheets, violin strings, trumpets, leaves, balls, crystals.
Poof! Phosphorescent fire from yellow walls
Engulfs animal and human hair…
—the first stanza of “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto,” by the Nobel-winning Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz
The systematic deportations of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto began seventy-five years ago this week, the first railway transports to the Treblinka extermination camp beginning on July 22, 1942. An estimated 300,000 were sent to the gas chamber from the ghetto, many of the earlier victims, encouraged by their two loaves of free bread, believing that they were escaping the suffering and starvation of their Warsaw confinement for “resettlement” or a labor camp.
Milosz’s poem, dated “Warsaw 1943” and one of the first written about the Holocaust, reflects the events of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April of that year, which quickly provoked Nazi retaliation — the ghetto razed, its inhabitants burned, shot, or shipped out. In his award-winning biography Milosz, Andrzej Franaszek notes that the thirty-two-year-old poet was living at the time in the Warsaw area, where he felt protected as a Catholic but defenseless as a human being, as conveyed by this Milosz recollection published just after the war:
In the spring of 1943, on a beautiful quiet night, a country night in the outskirts of Warsaw, standing on the balcony, we could hear screaming from the ghetto . . . This screaming gave us goose pimples. They were the screams of thousands of people being murdered. It travelled through the silent spaces of the city from among a red glow of fires, under indifferent stars, into the benevolent silence of gardens in which plants laboriously emitted oxygen, the air was fragrant, and a man felt that it was good to be alive. There was something particularly cruel in this peace of the night, whose beauty and human crime struck the heart simultaneously. We did not look each other in the eye.
Franaszek makes clear how deeply Milosz’s WWII experiences shaped his view of humanity and history, and how so much of his poetry is fueled by a “look each other in the eye” strain of social responsibility. The first question which scholar Peter Hayes raises in Why?: Explaining the Holocaust is “Why another book on the Holocaust?” Hayes also finds his answer in a sense of social responsibility: to describe the events as “incomprehensible” and “unfathomable” or as an “exclusively German project” is an escapist self-defense mechanism that won’t get us off the hook and may very well bait a new one:
The massacre took shape under specific political and military conditions and intensified in part because it suited the objectives of many other Europeans, at least during the short, ferocious period when most of the killing occurred. In the face of the slaughter, the victims were largely powerless and the onlookers preoccupied with their own, to them more pressing concerns . . . Afterwards, most countries of the old continent delayed acknowledging what they had participated in yet also constructed numerous barriers to its repetition, barriers that now, seventy years later, are under stress.
Milosz spent decades in exile from Communist Poland, where his books were banned. One of his most defiant, affirmative and most famous poems is “And Yet the Books”:
And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings,
That appeared once, still wet
As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn,
And, touched, coddled, began to live
In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,
Tribes on the march, planets in motion…
In The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance, Anders Rydell tells the largely untold story of how the Nazis systematically looted and dispersed thousands of personal and community libraries belonging to those whom they hoped to annihilate — not just Jews but Communists, Freemasons, Catholics, ethnic minorities, and regime critics, among others. Rydell goes beyond describing the library exterminations and the ongoing attempt to return the dispersed books, telling also the stories of the book owners, individuals who “desperately tried to hide their manuscripts, buried their diaries, and held on to their one, most beloved book on their last journey to Auschwitz.”
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