Western Libraries Reading Series: Poetry After Auschwitz (Alfers)


Thank you everyone for coming. I know there seems to be
standing room only now which is really quite nice
and never really happens. So, I don’t know if this
breaks the fire code, but I’d be happy
if people wanted to sit in front of the
table, particularly students and younger folks in the room. So, feel free to come
up if that’s OK with you guys you can sit here. I’m going to be standing
here behind the podium so I won’t move around a lot. If you want to move up here. And while you do that let me
thank the Western Libraries for hosting me today. In particular Peter Smith
for organizing this talk. Clarissa Mansfield for
advertising the talk. And also to the
entire library team really who helped me a
great deal in this book and they might not know that. And I’m just going
to name a few. That’s Jennifer McCool
who is there in the back. Margaret Fast, of course. Both helped me in
securing materials. And I also would like to thank
Elizabeth Joffrion and Tamara Belts in Special Collections
for hosting us this afternoon. So it’s my privilege
to be here with you and of course all
the students I’m glad it’s not 70 degrees quite
yet so that you are here. So what I would like to
do in the next 45 minutes is to introduce you
to my area of research and talk about my
latest project which resulted in the publication
of my German language book on the German Jewish writer,
journalist, and activist Else Dormitzer. The title of the book
“weiter schreiben. Leben und Lyrik der Else
Dormitzer” translated roughly into Continuing To Write,
The Life and Poetry of Else Dormitzer. It appeared in Germany in
the Berlin publishing house Hentrich and Hentrich
specializing in Jewish culture and history in late 2015. So in order for you to have a
better understanding of my work I’m going to do a
few things today. First, I will talk about
my teaching and research to illustrate its connections. And then second, I will
introduce the life and work of Else Dormitzer for you
or just a little glimpse before finally
introducing the poetry she wrote during the Holocaust
and published in a book called Theresienstadter Bilder, images
or pictures from Theresienstadt immediately after the war. So let me begin with talking
about my teaching and research. And as you just
heard I’m currently wearing two hats at Western. I’m a professor of
German in the department of modern and
classical languages. And since my arrival here
at Western nine years ago I’ve been teaching language,
literature, and culture courses on all levels
of the curriculum from 101, the first course
in the language and culture sequence, to 450,
our senior seminar. And like my colleagues
in the German program, my position is that
of a generalist, which means I teach a wide
range of courses that are not necessarily
aligned with my research focus. For example, I teach a class on
18th century German literature. I’m currently serving the German
program as German section head as you’ve heard. And we have about eight
different sections in the department of modern
and classical languages. And they really functioned
like little mini departments. And many of our
students are here today, so a shout out to MCL students. The other hat that I’m wearing– and this is also where my
particular research interest comes in– is that of founding
director of the Ray Wolpow Institute for the study of
the Holocaust, genocide, and crimes against humanity. The university created the
Institute in September 2016 to support, expand,
and carry forward the mission of the
Northwest Center for Holocaust, Genocide,
and Ethnocide Education. It is named for Professor
Emeritus Ray Wolpow who is here with us this afternoon. And until his retirement
from Western in 2014 he was the director of the
Northwest Center for Holocaust, Genocide, and
Ethnocide Education, he was a professor of secondary
education in Woodring. The mission of this
newly created Institute– by the way, the
only such Institute at a public university
in the state– is, and I quote, “To
advance knowledge about the Holocaust
and genocide, including ethnic and religious conflict as
well as attendant human rights abuses.” What does the Institute do? It supports the
study and research of the Holocaust, genocide,
and crimes against humanity. It offers public programs for
instance Noemi Ban’s visits to campus. But also professional
development opportunities, for example, for educators. Ultimately it will also
provide new curriculum for you, our students. My research interests
are very closely aligned with the Institute. So let me tell you what
these are and how I got there and I’ll have a blank slide
up there for a moment. Many, many moons ago I was
an international student at the University of Nebraska. And I enjoyed my study abroad
experience so immensely that I decided to continue
my studies in the US rather than in Germany. In Germany I was a double
major in German and English, but here I decided to
focus on German studies. And thus I completed my graduate
work in a German department. As part of the
curriculum, I took courses on German literature
in the 20th century and on the culture of memory. And this is where I became
interested in German language representations of the
Holocaust in film, art, and in literature, and even
more specifically in poetry. While publications on all
aspects of Holocaust literature abound in German
studies, the study of German language poetry
written during the Holocaust in situations of internment has
been surprisingly marginalized particularly in comparison to
the multitudes of publications on poetry written
after Auschwitz. This distinctive
wording after Auschwitz inevitably invokes
Theodor Adorno and his much debated dictum on
the limits of poetic language in representing the
Holocaust which he originally published in his essay
[SPEAKING GERMAN] in 1949. Questioning the capacity
of traditionalist that it forms to convey
the horror of the Shoah in a culture characterized
by mass consumption, he specifically
directed his critique toward lyric poetry
written after the event. Cultural criticism,
and I quote, “finds itself faced with the final
stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after
Auschwitz is barbaric and it corrodes
even the knowledge why it has become impossible
to write poetry today.” End of quote. Adorno’s argument
that the rupture in the continuum of German
history must not be forgotten and that the limits
of representation have been reached within the
traditional parameters of art has been both applauded
and critiqued. Despite his subsequent
explications and modifications, scholars and writers repeatedly
narrowed in on the phrase, after Auschwitz, often isolating
it from its immediate and wider content and reading
it, for example, as a prescriptive ban on poetry. As late as 2006, Lawrence Langer
observed in using and abusing the Holocaust– that the
after Auschwitz citation remains an authoritative
force and has not lost its continuing appeal. While Adorno now plays
a far less pivotal role in Anglo American
scholarship he continues to be influential in
German language criticism. And many German language studies
on the poetry of the Holocaust continue to frame and
position their work in light of these debates. Yet, what by and large has
been absent from scholarship are investigations
of German language poetry written in the
various Nazi camps, ghettos, and prisons. Scant knowledge of this
writing on the one hand and a prevailing poetic
discourse privileging traditionalist aesthetic
analysis on the other has prompted the far
too general conjecture that poetry written in
spaces of confinement mostly consists of clumsy
meter as well as dull rhymes and displace an adequate
figurative language. While being recognized
as human documents or political
manifestations these texts have failed as poetry. Scholar Hermann Korte even
questioned, albeit indirectly, the existence of such poetry
all together when he remarked, and I quote, “In principle
the places of the Holocaust elude poetry. The lyrical subject reconstructs
spaces of experience and produces images
as well as conceptions of the topography
of horror and death but it is excluded from
actual experience.” End of quote. This negative
assessment not only devalues poetic texts
written during the Holocaust but also denies them a
representative capability of the [SPEAKING GERMAN]. For my dissertation, I started
investigating the reasons behind this canonical
exclusion and in the process began collecting Dutch
and German language poetry written
during the Holocaust in the archives
of Bergen-Belsen. The Bergen-Belsen
concentration camp is located on this map in the
Northwest corner of Germany and also in the archives on
the Theresienstadt ghetto that is the second arrow
that you see there. To my surprise,
not many scholars had done this kind
of work before. And many of the text
and writers that I discovered in the archives were
and continue to be unknown. Thus I also began
introducing German language texts and their writers to
a larger academic audience and offered avenues for reading
and interpreting camp poetry. What does my
research illustrate? Very generally it shows that
German language poetry from Theresienstadt– and I need to
say here that Theresienstadt became the main
focus of my work– German language poetry
from Theresienstadt can be read as an instance
of victim testimony. More specifically,
I make the case that current genre theory
provides important impulses for the analysis of
poetry from the camps and that it recognizes
the fluidity of text through constructions and
allows us to read text within broader concepts that
ultimately do not oppose but complement each other. In this sense camp poetry
shapes and transforms the generic categorization
of Holocaust poetry and broadens our understanding
of the diversified text that constitute Holocaust writing. My use of the term camp poetry– or [GERMAN] in German– not only encompasses
the particularities of textual production and its
writers in different spaces and languages but
also acknowledges poetry’s various
formal realizations, its particular modalities,
and its manifold functions within the camps and ghettos. It is important to recognize
that this poetry emerged in a spatial, geographical,
and temporal proximity to the Holocaust. Within this framework
I offer an alternative to positions in
German studies that have deemed German language
poetry from the camps and ghettos inadequate
representations of the Holocaust because
these texts resist straightforward classification
along traditional generic lines. The post-Auschwitz
discourse privileged text that displayed postmodernist
qualities such as meta textual, self-referential reflection
on the possibility of signification, and
emphasis on the in between of language and fragmentation
of voice and authorship. But poetic texts from Auschwitz
necessitate readings that reveal poetry’s aptitudes
beyond the aesthetic, which cannot be their sole
defining feature and critical criterion. Such readings need to illustrate
poetry’s forms and functions, expanding rather than limiting
them to a singular assessment. Little did I know when I
started work on my dissertation that I had found a
research area that would keep me busy for years to come. I published mainly in German
and English but some of my work has also been
translated to Czech. Well, why Czech? The Theresienstadt
ghetto or transit camp– and I will use ghetto transit
camp and camp interchangeably in this talk for
linguistic variation– is located in today’s Czech
Republic approximately 70 kilometers northwest of Prague. And here you have a map
of Czechoslovakia in 1933 with the arrow pointing
to Theresienstadt. In Czech, Terezin Theresienstadt
was and is a town. It’s an old fortress
city built in the 1780s and on the right there
you have a ground plan. It operated as the
Theresienstadt ghetto from December 1941 to May 1945. And at different times during
its four year operation it served different purposes. In 1930 Terezin’s
population was 7,000. In September 1942
approximately 58,000 women, men, and children,
were held prisoner in a town that measured
700 by 500 meters. Approximately 2,296
by 1,640 feet. According to the United States
Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Encyclopedia of the
Camps and Ghettos, Theresienstadt was and I
quote, “Originally intended for the Jews from
the [SPEAKING GERMAN] and later held Jews
from Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark,
Slovakia, and Hungary. Inmates lived in overcrowded
and pest infected barracks and attics. They died of
malnutrition and disease. And were in constant fear of
being deported to the east. 63 such transport carried
more than 87,000 people from Theresienstadt to
killing centers, ghettos, and labor camps in the east. By May 8th, 1945, approximately
155,000 people had passed through Theresienstadt . Some 35,000 of them had
died during imprisonment. For a number of
reasons Theresienstadt has been considered an anomaly
among the camps and ghettos. One of them being the
relative tolerance and tactical encouragement
of cultural activities by the authorities. And you might have heard
of the music in particular and the children’s poetry
that was produced in Terezin. Here are just two examples
of musical events. Brundibar, the children’s
opera, was performed 50 times in Theresienstadt. You have the poster there
for its announcement. And you also have a
sketch on the right hand of the PowerPoint slide
depicting a musical evening in one of the attics. But as Sybil Milton
reminds us, we need to be very, very
careful with this assumption. I have a longer quote for you. “The Theresienstadt ghetto
was thus, as we now know, a camp designed as
a link in the chain that inevitably led
to the gas chambers and also an elaborate hoax to
deceive international opinion. As part of this depiction
the SS tolerated some cultural activities,
including theater, music, lectures, and concerts. Other cultural activities,
such as art and teaching the children were not
specifically prohibited, but carried risks if discovered. But while we know that
Terezin was nothing but a way station to
the killing centers, the posthumous fame
of Theresienstadt is based primarily on the
myth created by this hoax.” As in other concentration camps
and ghettos throughout Europe, many prisoners in Theresienstadt
found artistic outlets to express the traumatic
experience of deportation and imprisonment. Some created art to bear witness
and to document daily life. Yet for others, as Sibyl
Milton and Marjorie Lamberti have shown in their
work, the creation of art served as a temporary
flight from reality and as a strategy for survival. Testimonial and
imaginative writing in form of chronicles
and diaries as well as cabaret performances,
libretti, plays, and poetry, constituted an important part
of the spiritual resistance against dehumanization. So why did people write poetry? Poetry has long been
considered to be one of the most stylised
and abstract forms of literary expression. And yet, it appeared to have
had a most practical purpose for those finding themselves in
the confines of concentration camps and ghettos. In trying to understand
and translate the new conditions and
their imminent consequences, writers not only resorted
to a condensed form, but also to a language
known and familiar to them. Poetry became
particularly important since it allowed a quick
and immediate reaction to the everyday, especially
when pen and paper were scarce. And even if a first reaction was
that of seemingly unspeakable disbelief, experience
was eventually translated and rendered speakable
and representable in an attempt to voice the void
either on paper or in the mind. For example, as Ruth Kluger
states in her widely acclaimed autobiography “weiter leben. Eine Jugend” and this
biography has also been translated into English
as Still Alive, a Holocaust Girlhood Remembered– writing poetry kept her from
emotional disintegration. And I quote, “the person who
only lives through the events without rhymes or
thoughts is in danger of losing his or her mind. I did not lose my
mind, I made rhymes.” For Kluger and for others who
wrote in the ghettos, camps, and in hiding, the creative
act of finding and establishing one’s voice constituted both a
poetic and a therapeutic act. It, and I quote
“preserved their identity reminding them that
they were thinking autonomous human beings.” Scholars such as Freda Aaron,
Alan Mintz, and David Roskies, among others, situate
the choice for poetry within a particular
tradition of Jewish writing, namely as a reaction to
persecution and destruction. As Torah and time would
teach, once evil is witnessed, it needs to be
described and reported, so that it can be remembered. Just as the camp
and ghetto diaries wanted to bear witness to the
events unfolding around them, so did many poems. Poets. A closer look into the social
history of Theresienstadt reveals that poetry took
on particular importance among other cultural activities. According to sociologist
Hans-Gunther Alder, on the left there,
it was produced in such large quantities that
he characterized this obsession as a rhyming disease. In German, [SPEAKING GERMAN]. And Alder was also
imprisoned in Theresienstadt. Philipp Manes on the
right– a central figure in the orientation service
in Theresienstadt– reacted more positively
to this phenomenon. Recognizing a testimonial
value of many poems as well as their ability to provide
comfort to prisoners and to construct a bond
when openly recited, he elicited and collected texts,
organized poetry evenings, and called for at least
two poetry competitions– one in 1942, the other in 1944– each receiving at
least 200 entries. The response to
these public events shows that prisoners
in Theresienstadt valued the opportunity to
participate and to recite before an audience if
chosen as a prize recipient. While the organizers could count
on an appreciation of creative work on the part
of the audience. It validated creative
work and the performance created a communal space in
which individual experience as expressed in the poem could
manifest itself collectively as a shared experience
of the audience. Not all poetry, however,
was openly recited. Cultural performances were
controlled and censored by camp authorities
and the policies regarding permitted
artistic expression underwent frequent change. Art that was too realistic
and critical in its depiction was considered subversive by
the Germans, and, if discovered, the artist, and
sometimes the community as well, were punished,
tortured, and even killed. Among the prisoners writing
poetry in Theresienstadt was a woman named
Else Dormitzer. And I first discovered her
poetry a number of years back in the holdings of the
Beit-Terezin archive in Israel. I also learned a little bit
about her life in a book by Ruth Schwertfeger,
Women in Theresienstadt, and I knew that
she was originally from Nuremberg in Germany
where she was born in 1877, and that she had died
in London in 1958. But I really did not know
much more about her other than this very
basic information. Then in the summer
of 2008 I was invited to speak at a reunion
of Holocaust survivors, the Nuremberg Fuerth survivors’
group in New York state. And this meeting was organized
by the late Frank Harris and you actually have
a picture of him there. Frank Harris had fled
Germany for the United States via the Netherlands
and the UK with his parents after the November
pogrom in 1938. It was at this reunion
in the Catskills that I met some distant American
relatives of Else Dormitzer, Claudia Strauss and her mother. And they generously shared
a family tree with me. I stayed in touch
with Frank Harris and he later encouraged me to
place a call for any surviving European relatives in his annual
newsletter which I finally did in the fall I think of 2012. And you have the newsletter
there on the right. A few weeks after the
newsletter was sent out, I received a phone
call from Paris in my office in Miller Hall. A man by the name
of Gerard Langlois introduced himself to me
and inquired quite sternly who I was and why I wanted
to get in touch with Else Dormitzer’s family. So I explained my
interest to him and I seemed to have
made some sense since he agreed to reach out to family
members and be in touch again. We exchanged some more
phone calls and e-mails in the following days
and then he indeed connected me with Else
Dormitzer’s great grandson in Germany, Thomas Runkle
and her grandson Henk Haas in the Netherlands. And here we have a family
picture from the 50s. You see Thomas Runkle as a
small boy there to the right and Henk Haas is the
young men in the blazer in the upper left picture there. So how did Mr. Langlois
knew the family? It turned out that his
father, Robert Lowensohn was a business partner of Else
Dormitzer’s son-in-law, Ernst Rosenfelder, before the war. While Ernst Rosenfelder survived
the war in London with his wife Elisabeth– and Elisabeth
was Else’s daughter– and their two children. Robert Lowensohn
Mr. Langlois father, and his mother Ella-Ruth were
murdered during the Holocaust. In the following months
I corresponded regularly via phone and email with
Thomas Runkle and Henk Haas and they also connected me
with other family relatives. For instance, Ernst
Rosenfelder’s son Albert– who is now 92– and his children. And they live in the UK. In our conversations I learned
that the family had preserved a wealth of materials. We’ll go back here. In their family archive across
European borders consisting of– and here are
some examples– letters, postcards,
diaries, among them a diary from Theresienstadt,
photographs, documents, newspaper clippings, essays,
guest books, books, and so on. And both Thomas
and Henk invited me to visit them and their families
in Germany and the Netherlands to take a closer look
at the family archive. And so I did. And what I learned from
these unsorted materials in the family archive and
elsewhere was that of course there was much more to Else
Dormitzer than the 10 poems she had written
in Theresienstadt that neither I nor
her family knew. While they had
preserved the materials they had not read many of them. And much of what I
uncovered was indeed unknown to the
Dormitzer’s grandchildren and great grandchildren. So, who was Else Dormitzer? It turned out that Else
Dormitzer, born in 1877, had worked as a freelance
journalist since the turn of the century and published
numerous articles in local, regional, and national
newspapers and magazines on a variety of topics. She was also a
children’s book author. I was able to find 29
children’s books, many of them in the holdings of the
German National Library. In addition, she translated
two more into German, one from Swedish, the other from. English and she also
wrote six new fairy tales. In 1922, when she
was in her 40s, she was what appears to be the
first Jewish woman in Germany to be elected onto the board
of the local Jewish community in Nuremberg. And, in 1924, she became most
likely the first female member of the National Board
of the [SPEAKING GERMAN] one of the largest Jewish
national organization in the early 20th century. Translation would be
the Central Association of German Citizens
of Jewish Faith, an organization that
fought anti-Semitism. Along with social worker
Henrietta May, and I quote, “she played a key
role in rallying women to become active
members of [GERMAN].”.” During the 1920s, she
traveled throughout Germany on behalf of the
Central Association and gave several
public lectures. She talked about topics
such as famous Jewish women and German history,
and the necessity of women’s participation
in the work for the Central Association. She was a passionate public
advocate for women’s rights at a time when, according
to historian Marion Kaplan, and I quote, “society expected
a smattering of intelligence and polish but not
more from its women.” In addition, she contributed
articles to the Central Association newspaper as well
as two other national weeklies and dailies, including
the [SPEAKING GERMAN] and the [SPEAKING GERMAN]. In 1925, the Central
Association published her essay
[SPEAKING GERMAN] Famous Jewish Women In
Present and Past, which enjoyed
widespread popularity. And of course,
last but not least, she was the keeper and organizer
of a house and household in Nuremberg, a mother to
two daughters, Hildegard and Elisabeth, and a
loving and supporting wife of her husband Dr. Sigmund
Dormitzer, a highly respected lawyer in Nuremberg. Like the majority of
German Jews at the time, the family identified
with progressive Judaism, focusing much of
its work on gaining full equal rights
and civil liberties without loss of their
Jewish identity. They were proud of
the accomplishments of the liberal reform
movement seeing themselves as part of the German nation. As Leibl Rosenberg remarks
in an essay on the family, and I quote, “very
naturally, one was Jewish and Nurembergish,
cosmopolitan and local patriot participating fully in cultural
and social life in Nuremberg just like all other citizen.” End of quote. After 1933, life in Nuremberg
changed for the Dormitzers. And that is not to say that
life wasn’t challenging at times before 1933. Their daughters had already
fled Germany for Hilversum in the Netherlands
and London in the UK. And they had long urged
their parents to do the same, but to no success. It was only after the
infamous Kristallnacht pogrom on November 9. 1938, that the Dormitzers
indeed saw the need to leave their home town. That night, they
witnessed the destruction of much of their property,
and Dr. Dormitzer, who was 69 years
at the time, had to be hospitalized because
of severe injuries inflicted on him during beatings at
the hands of his attackers. In early 1939, they finally
received the appropriate papers and left for the Netherlands,
where they resided in Hilversum until May 1940. But soon after the German
invasion and occupation of the Netherlands,
the German authorities ordered them to
move to Amsterdam where they remained until their
deportation to Theresienstadt on April 21, 1943. Dr. Dormitzer died in
Theresienstadt in December that same year. Else survived along
with an older sister and returned to the Netherlands
in the early summer of 1945. In Theresienstadt she
participated actively in the ghetto’s office
for leisurely activities. For example, she gave 275 talks. She also kept
diaries and here you have an example of one of the
diaries from Theresienstadt that I was able to see
in the family archive. In the middle there is a slide
it’s a picture of all the talks that she had given during
her time which she wrote down in chronological sequence. And on the right hand side
there you see a diary entry. What she had also done– this is quite amazing–
is that she had compiled her own registry
of prisoners which contains more than 800 names. So you can see this
here alphabetical order and she noted little
characteristics about the people and
what happened to them. After liberation,
she split her time between the
Netherlands and the UK. She became a British
national in 1951 and was delighted about it. In London, she became
actively involved in the neoliberal
Jewish congregation where she organized
regular meetings for Holocaust survivors. And of course, she continued to
write short articles and essays on Holocaust remembrance,
mostly for the synagogue review and the AGR review. On June 3, 1958 shortly
after her 80th birthday, Else Dormitzer died
in the German hospital in Hackney, London. This is of course a very,
very short summary of her life and my book goes into much
greater detail of her biography so I really encourage
you to read it. Here we have a picture
of Else, by the way, in the summer of 1945 that was
taken shortly after her return to the Netherlands. I would now like to
turn to her poetry for the remainder of the time. In the fall of 1945, the
Dutch publishing house [SPEAKING DUTCH] made
available 500 copies of Else Dormitzer’s poetry
written in Theresienstadt and you have the book
cover on your slide. Her poetry collection
opens with a short preface in which she reveals a
performative dimension of her poetry by informing the
reader that the texts included in this book had been publicly
recited in Theresienstadt and that its publication is
the result of a promise she had made in captivity. From the beginning,
she establishes herself as a direct, credible,
and reliable witness of the Holocaust. Simultaneously, she
presents other witnesses who attest to her having been
in Theresienstadt, to her having written these poems, and
for these poems to have been communally recited. Thus poems and publications
serve as printed proof of the actuality of
writer and events a defining characteristic of
the literature of testimony. The preface is framed
as a dedication to her former fellow inmates. Her, as she calls them,
companions of fate. Which is illustrated by both the
opening and closing sentences. To you, my companions
fate of Theresienstadt, I dedicate this little book. With this relationship in
mind, I dedicate to you the pictures of Theresienstadt. She speaks to them directly
as an implied group of readers and the use of the second
person plural pronoun [GERMAN] in the German original expresses
not only a plurality but also a strong familiarity
with this group. A few lines later she defines
this familiarity further by alluding to a strong,
irrevocable bond because of the shared lived experience
of their Theresienstadt past. This bond, she states,
is thicker than blood. The verb choice in the
opening and closing line of the German
original is noteworthy since [GERMAN] first sentence
and [GERMAN] final sentence denote two slightly
different meanings. Even though they have
been both translated as to dedicate in Schwertfeger’s
Women in Theresienstadt. The latter, which can also be
translated as to consecrate, signifies a spiritual
dimension of the volume at hand, which not only honors
the plight of her companions of fate, but also
elevates them to a status beyond the ordinary. With this act she venerates
all former inmates, those who survived, and who
might read this book, but also those who did not. The preface therefore
serves a threefold function. It establishes her authority
as survivor and witness, it honors and remembers
her fellow inmates, and it serves as an orientation
for a general audience on how to perceive these primary texts. Dormitzer endows her readers
with an important message and assigns them a central role
in the meaning making process. The written images
and pictures come to live in the interplay
between reader and text, and as repositories
of individual memory, they extend to
empathetic readers outside of
Theresienstadt as they become part of a secondary
witnessing process. Else Dormitzer arranges the
past as a linear sequence, providing a consoling and
immediate closure, the return home. The opening and closing poems
[GERMAN] do not despair, [GERMAN]– I now just found a typo– and [GERMAN] create a
narrative of redemption in which Dormitzer inserts
the remaining poems. Such an arrangement produces
a plausible interpretation shortly after liberation, not
only for Dormitzer, but also for the reader
who reads all text within this
affirmative framework. The remaining poems
uncover the reality of the barbed wire depicted
on the book’s front cover and reveal ordinary
life in Theresienstadt. [GERMAN], the first poem. And that’s the poem you
also have on your handout, and I don’t have enough copies. So if you could share
that would be great. [GERMAN],, the first poem,
sets the tone of the volume by describing the bleak
circumstances of life in Theresienstadt in general,
a life filled with sorrow, constant worries, and pain. The poetic subject is part of
a collective whole expressing a communal voice through the
use of the first person plural possessive pronoun [GERMAN]. But the reader learns
that hope exists to escape this
dreadful existence even in the darkness that
is Theresienstadt. Hope is continuously
nourished by an inner voice. But an inner voice repeats, do
not despair, do not despair. The last stanza focuses
entirely on revealing the source of strength,
and it becomes apparent that it is the faith in God
to provide peace, freedom, and light. This continued
belief will not only be a source of
strength and hope, but it will bear
real fruit, liberty. Thus the poetic subject
encourages itself and others to remain vigilant in
the face of darkness. The comforting mode
of this poem which extends to its
formal realization is easily detectable. The precise and clear
language, simple rhyme scheme, and meter provide
comfort and support as the poem provides a general
depiction of the experienced. Repetition marks
individual stanzas, particularly that
of the inner voice, speaking directly and clearly
to anonymous whole guiding, them to not despair. It is easy to see how the
simple structure of the poem would lend itself
to communal use and how a performance would have
had the capability to instill hope and strength, to soothe
the pain at least temporarily. The volume ends
with [GERMAN] and it describes the anticipated
event of freedom, the day of liberation. The tone of this poem
transforms from one of despair and disbelief to
that of exhilaration and praise. The past is
immediately perceived as an uncanny ghostly
episode, [GERMAN] in German. And the poetic , again a
communal voice, [GERMAN],, instantaneously recognizes the
beginning of a new or better time. There is no room for further
reflection as to what this future might look
like, but the poem makes clear who is
ultimately responsible for freedom and thus
praises God, who has redeemed the people of Israel. The title of the poem
underlines the conclusiveness of the end of suffering
on the day of liberation. Written from within
the events, this poem highlights freedom itself. And at the time of
composition, this concept naturally remains vague. Only later will the full
picture emerge along with it the realization that what
has constituted home is lost and the closure will
not be attained. At the moment,
however, the experience is jubilant and
represented as such. Similar to the opening poem
of the collection, [GERMAN] displays the spiritual
mode by being designed as a poem of praise. While Else Dormitzer makes
use of a rhyme scheme, it is not as regular as in
Do Not Despair and the poem also lacks some of the
lyrical characteristics of the first poem. For instance, repetition,
organization in stanzas. It might therefore lend itself
less for performance and ritual and is a different
realization than the first. The remaining poems are
inserted within this narrative of redemption. The reader learns about six
recurring and concrete themes of daily life in Theresienstadt,
hunger, work, death, pests, torture, and deportation. While all poetic texts
hold onto meter rhyme and diversification, they
display modes and functions extending beyond the
testimonial, lyrical, and spiritual. The poem [GERMAN],,
Night of the Bed Bug, for example, in which
the nightly hunt for lice and other pests is depicted,
is primarily satirical, and as such functions
as a critique of the terrible
hygienic conditions in barracks, rooms, and attics. The poem [GERMAN]
shows the agitation created by rumors
of deportations and subsequent
deportation announcement describing the nervous
restlessness of those deemed to leave and also
of those staying behind. [SPEAKING GERMAN] When are they going
to get the next ones? As in other poems, Dormitzer
creates this tension by transforming verbs and
stringing them together as nouns in a series. Such a grammatical adjustment
maximizes expression within short verses. It also has the added
effect of concreteness as the new nouns articulate
actions and feelings more effectively and broadly. Additionally, Dormitzer employs
the figure of the grim reaper to represent death as a
constant companion of prisoners here waiting besides
the train tracks. She relies on traditional
poetic imagery and quotations in other poems as well. For example, in
[SPEAKING GERMAN],, Death in Theresienstadt. Dormitzer not only
depicts the process of dying and bodily
decay, but she chronicles what happens to
the dead after, and I quote, “some poor soul ascends
for home,” end of quote. While this line evokes Joseph
van Eichendorff’s romantic poem Moonlit Night, Dormitzer has
changed the subjunctive mood of the original
to the indicative. Eichendorff’s construction
has lived on in German culture ever since it was first
published in 1837. And to bring it up
here seems absurd and out of place, and perhaps
that is precisely its function. Whereas Eichendorff’s text
exalts the romantic artist’s experience of nature and
beauty in the context of death, the construction of
death as mass murder serves to distance Dormitzer’s
poem from the original. Death is a reality. It’s a regular
occurrence and the body is quickly prepared
for immediate disposal and stripped of whatever
personal valuables might remain. The use of a regular rhyme
scheme in the German original renders the poem
even more unsettling. Apart from [GERMAN],,
the poem [GERMAN] also depicts a particular
day in the history of Theresienstadt, the
infamous census on November 10 to 11, 1943. Here Dormitzer inserts a
short prose description before her poem to
contextualize the specific event within the history
of Theresienstadt. In eight stanzas, she chronicles
the tortuous events of the day. The endless hours of
waiting for young and old without food and water before
being able to return home to the ghetto. For two other poems,
Dormitzer explains the meaning of particular
words in the context of Theresienstadt. The words [SPEAKING GERMAN]
reinforcements, also the title of the poems. The latter focuses
on the lines people endure to receive an
extra serving of soup, whereas the former depicts
work in the mica factory, a job mainly completed by women. Just as [GERMAN],, this poem also
underlines the strenuous nature of everyday life and how
the individual experiences abuse on a daily basis. Dormitzer arranged the poems she
had written in Theresienstadt into publishable form between
the summer and fall of 1945, shortly after she had
returned to the Netherlands. She presents the Theresienstadt
past as a linear sequence, providing a consoling ending,
freedom, and immediate closure, return home. The opening and closing
poems create a narrative of redemption in which Dormitzer
inserts the remaining poems. These, as I’ve
tried to illustrate, uncover the reality of
the barbed wire depicted on the book’s front cover
and reveal ordinary life in Theresienstadt. The poems are characterized by
the immediacy of experiencing the Holocaust as is affected
the writer and her surroundings and by their conventional
parameters, providing structural security
in which to situate the experience of persecution,
deportation, and annihilation. The preface
establishes Dormitzer as a credible and
reliable witness who shares her work with an audience
interested in completing the act of secondary witnessing
by receiving her poetry. She dedicates her book
to her fellow inmates thus creating a textual
memorial with which she honors the dead and the living alike. At the same time, the collection
reaffirms her own position as she now confronts
the post-war period. Else Dormitzer’s poetry,
I would like to conclude, serves as a salient and
poignant reminder of the range of German language camp poetry. Contributing to the writing
of the Holocaust in general, and to the writing of
Theresienstadt in particular, the poems produced in
this particular setting are distinct textual
representations of its time and place,
linguistic and artistic renderings of experience. Just as there exists a number of
competing memories of an event, so will there be a variety
of forms trying to represent memory of that event. Each form passing down its
own distinct kind of memory. The poems written
in Theresienstadt constitute valuable repositories
of individual memory and play an integral part
in the collective writing and remembrance
of the Holocaust. Thus, recognizing
poetry’s potential, rather than limiting
its modes and functions. It’s perfect timing. Can only add to our
understanding of the writing of the Holocaust. And this brings me to the
end of my presentation. So what did I talk about? I had another slide but you know
what I talked about I really thank you for listening
so attentively and I look forward to answering
any questions you might have about this presentation. [APPLAUSE] Yes, we’ll start with
you and then, yes. You said that in Germany you had
a major in German and English, but then here you only majored
in German, what’s it like? Was the English harder or easier
here and then like the German really easy for you or
was it more difficult? OK, so I have a– wait I’m going to go back here– So there is a question of
what I did with my major when I came to the United. States. It didn’t seem to
make a lot of sense to me to study English
when I came here and be another English speaker
when English is not my mother tongue. And so, I had a great professor
in a German department and I decided to
continue studying German. I thought that made a little
bit more sense at that time. So it had nothing to do with
being easier or more difficult, I think at that
point, it really had to do with the class and
the professor that I had. So, I’m just wondering
if there are– anybody’s looked at differences
in poetry at different camps at their differences
or similarities? Yes, so, Professor Hyatt
is asking a question about the different
poetry written in different camps and
sort of the differences and the similarities. And this is a question that
we could spend a lot of time on but the short answer is,
yes, people have looked at this, but not really trans-nationally. So it’s more like a look
at, we look at this one particular camp, and
then sort of analyze the poetry that’s taken in or
that was written and produced in that particular space. Now, it really depended on
what kind of a camp or ghetto this was. A lot has been done
in Yiddish language, for example, in
the Polish ghettos. So there have been
some there has been, Frieda Aaron, for example,
worked extensively on that. Within a German context,
some of the German camps have been looked at. In Ravensbruck for example,
which is located in Germany, it had a lot of
Polish prisoners, so there was a lot
of Polish women particularly writing poetry. So yes and no. I think there’s
still a lot to do and a lot of ground to cover. Leah. Somewhat related
to that actually, what are some major
stylistic differences that you know of between Yiddish
poetry and German language poetry written then? So the question
about differences between Yiddish language poetry
and German language poetry. And I think here,
again, we have to be very cognizant of the
situation of internment that that poetry was written in. Even in Theresienstadt,
we can see a difference in the topics and
forms between the Czech and the German prisoners. I’m going to answer this
question slightly differently. So within, Theresienstadt,
for example, we have a high number
of elderly German Jews deported to the camp. So they grew up with a
very different tradition of German poetry, and had a
very classical upbringing, many of them. So, it seems to be
the case that there we have a lot of what we would
call more traditional poetry. For the Czech
language poetry, we had a lot of younger
Czech inmates and the poetry also is much
more avant garde, in a way. Now it also, of
course, relates to who was able to understand
what language and where was there room
for criticism, for example. Since most of the Nazi officials
that were in Theresienstadt did not speak Czech, there
was a much higher chance of having the kind
of critical works being written and displayed. Now in terms of
Yiddish poetry, too, I think that there,
you will probably find many more religious
and not as secularized forms as you will find
in Theresienstadt, and in that German
language poetry. So if you are
interested in that– and I had some reading
recommendations actually on one of the slides– but
Frieda Aaron’s book, Leah, is really a good book to go
to pick up on Yiddish poetry. Emily, yeah. I had two questions. One is you spoke about how
the poetry from the camps was generally ignored
after the Holocaust, but I’m wondering if there’s
a role of anti-Semitism and or anti-Communism that
played a role in ignoring that work and I also wonder
about Else Dormitzer’s having been a women’s rights activist
whether those politics whether you saw an influence
of those politics in the poetry that she was writing? To answer the second
question first. So is there an influence of
sort of the political work that she has, that she
did, if I could see that in her writing of poetry. No. The question would
actually relate quite well to the children’s
books she has written. So it’s really quite
interesting to see, because a lot of
her children’s books are written in
rhymes and verses. So I see more of a tradition
there as being very apolitical, and we can talk about what
that might mean politically, but she doesn’t mention that
in that poetry in particular. So, it does not come up in
the Theresienstadt poetry. As to why this poetry
was largely ignored. There are different
reasons for that. I think one has to do with the
aesthetic debate and Adorno, I alluded to that,
that there was a focus on other
forms at that point and we wanted to find
a break from that past and that also meant a break
from traditional forms. But, yes, you are
also absolutely right, that German history played
into that as well in terms of, for example, wanting to deal
with that kind of poetry on a different basis
would have required to ask different questions. So, it might have not
been particularly related to anti-Semitism, but more to
Germany dealing with its past immediately after the post-war
and a refusal to do so. Yes. Were there any other camps
besides Theresienstadt that had a lot of poetry
coming out of them? So, it’s really interesting. It really depends on the
different camp or ghetto. Thank you for that question. So when I started in
Bergen-Belsen, for example, when I went into the
archives to look there, there was a lot of Dutch
poetry that had written but nobody had written on. So my assumption is that,
yes, if you look for a topic to work on for you
at master’s degree or your PhD in German
studies and history, there is a lot to do. Yes, Monica. Are Else Dormitzer’s children’s
books easily accessible or they were just in
the country’s archive? Oh, this is a perfect question
to ask in the library. So, because we spend
quite a bit of time trying to get them through interlibrary
loan and they didn’t lend them. So, I went to the German
National Library in Leipzig and actually found
most of them there. Henk and Thomas also had
one or two books each. But Margaret and
Jennifer did a great job of trying to help me finding
and getting these books here, but we were not successful. But it wasn’t too
bad either, so I just had to go to Leipzig
and to the library, so, hey, nothing
wrong with that. So, is there one
more question, or? OK, Clarissa. You mentioned that
their family– a lot of what you
discovered in your research was stuff that they
didn’t know about. Can you talk a little
bit their reception to your book or some kind of
exchange that you had with them that is noteworthy about how
they reacted to being found? Yeah, thanks for that question. It was quite the process,
as you can imagine. And so, it was great visiting
them and them letting a stranger into
their house and going through their shoe
boxes of materials is really quite astounding. So they were very receptive,
they were very hopeful, they were very supportive,
they were very interested, and we had great
conversations that were also very difficult to have. So I think for them, even more
than for me, was discovering that family history of course,
had a very different dimension for them. They’ve been very
receptive to the book. And I’m still in touch
particularly with Thomas who has a great interest and
knowledge of Jewish history in Germany and of literature. And he’s just a
source of information. And so they have they’ve
reacted very positively. And I could have not written
this book without them quite simply, so. And that’s where some
of the pictures that I had there, these
amazing documents I found that they had kept. For example, the letter they
got from the Jewish council in Amsterdam announcing their
deportation on April 17th. They had to come
in the next day. They still have that
deportation letter. Else could not, for
example, let her family know that her husband had died. So what did she do? They had kept a card which
was a receipt attesting that she had received a package
of food in Theresienstadt. She was not allowed to
write anything on there but she sent it on December
9th, so after he had died, and she just signed
it as widow Dormitzer. Which would have told her family
at that point when they got it that their father had died. So these kind of documents
they have kept letters. And of course it’s a very
difficult conversation and a very difficult time and
they haven’t read some of it because they don’t want to. They don’t want
to read the diary. And then I shared what I
found with some family members and then others did
not want to know. Yes, one final question. What does your research get
received as German academics today? I think quite well. So German studies has improved. And there’s a small
group of us that works on this kind of topic. And it’s still a
little marginalized, but, you know, change
is slow sometimes, so. But it’s received well. Good. All right, I won’t keep you
enough, that much longer. So if you have more
questions stick around. But thank you so much for
coming, I really appreciate it. [APPLAUSE]

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