Holocaust Memorial Day – Poetry After Auschwitz

It is difficult to reflect on such a horror from the perspective of someone who did not witness it, but Adorno’s claim of ‘no poetry after Auschwitz’ is, in my opinion, an unfortunate reaction. It is understandable of course – there is a fear of romanticising, of letting Modernity’s machines off the hook. And yet we feel the need to find some way of remembering. I explored some of these impasses of memory – the impossibly fine line between memorial, monument, and museum – in my undergraduate thesis, a set of psychogeographic, walked maps and essays in the public spaces of Berlin. I have uploaded this to my academia.edu profile (see below) should you want to read it – if not the whole thing, then perhaps the essay on the Holocaust Memorial itself. However, for now I just want to quote that most prescient poem of Auschwitz, that which prefaces Primo Levi’s eye-opening account of the concentration camp, If This is a Man.

You who live safe

In your warm houses,

You who find, returning in the evening,

Hot food and friendly faces:

       Consider if this is a man

       Who works in the mud

       Who does not know peace

       Who fights for a scrap of bread

       Who dies because of a yes or a no.

       Consider if this is a woman,

       Without hair and without name

       With no more strength to remember,

       Her eyes empty and her womb cold

       Like a frog in winter.

Meditate that this came about:

I commend these words to you.

Carve them in your hearts

At home, in the street,

Going to bed, rising;

Repeat them to your children

       Or may your house fall apart,

       May illness impede you,

       May your children turn their faces from you.

It is all powerful, yet the most powerful of all lines for us now must be “Meditate that this came about“. It is Levi himself telling us what humans are capable of; warning us not to put it down to an exceptional Evil, and to recognise that these horrors can and do arise from modern minds.