Poetry in Holocaust Education Part 3/4: “Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway-Car” by Dan Pagis


Dan Pagis was born into a Jewish family in
Bukovina, Rumania in 1930, and died in Jerusalem in 1986.
He was first confronted with the Holocaust as a boy of eleven, on a German transport
train, with his grandparents. Pagis survived the Holocaust and arrived in Palestine as
a sixteen-year-old. He married, had children and besides being a popular teacher of Literature
at the Hebrew University, he also became one of Israel’s leading poets. Here in this carload
I am eve, with Abel my son.
If you see my other son Cain son of man
tell him that I For me it’s one of the ultimate poems on the
Holocaust. This poem has to be taught together with the four verses in the book of genesis,
because he invokes the name Cain and Abel and Eve and Adam in the poem itself. So what
Pagis is doing is making a direct connection between that first universal family, the first
murderer on earth – there are only four people on earth and one brother murders the other,
Cain murders Abel – and it’s an uninterrupted history of murder for Dan Pagis, because history
for Dan Pagis is cyclical, and if you look carefully at the poem, the poem is not concluded.
So you can read the poem from the end of the poem, it’s cyclical, from the end of the poem
to the beginning of the poem ad infinitum, and I think that one of the themes to be extracted
from this particular fact is that for Dan Pagis history is cyclical in terms of murder,
from that single murder to mass murder. Other things that emanate from the dialog
between the verses and the poem: Woman in the two tragedies: the tragedy of the murder
of her one son, her youngest son, and the place of woman in the tragedy of the Holocaust.
You could touch on the theme of Holocaust denial because Cain, in the story in the Bible,
in one of the verses, denies – he doesn’t know where his brother is, “Am I my brother’s
keeper?” So you have here a denial that is a prototype of Holocaust denial three thousand
years down the line. The subject of the mark of Cain, that is something that could be discussed
as a theme. The need to leave testimony: If you look at the poem, the last line of the
poem is “tell him that i”, and Dan Pagis doesn’t put any words into Eve’s mouth. He’s unable
to actually formulate the testimony that she wants to leave. So one of the things that we suggest you can
do with the students in your class, is to have them write out this testimony that Dan
Pagis didn’t formulate. And then you have of course wonderful material for class discussion
afterwards.

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