Friday, 27 January 2012

Holocaust Day 1

Yesterday I took a train to London to read with Dannie Abse, Wanda Barford, Alan Brownjohn, and Lynne Hjelmsgaard for a Holocaust Memorial event. It's about three hours door to door either way so I had to leave during the interval to arrive home a little past midnight.

The reading was packed and good humoured though the underlying sense of tragedy was palpable. Wanda talked about personal experience, or rather that of her child cousins, who were murdered in Auschwitz. Dannie read from his own work as well as his powerful translation of Celan's Todesfuge, his whole voice changing as he read it. Alan read from his novel in which there is an encounter with a German Jewish optometrist and warned about developments in our own time, and Lynne, whom I didn't know, read a Karen Gershon and a Primo Levi as well as three short poems of her own. I was last and read four poems, the first parts of both Metro and of The Penig Film, adding Grandfather in Green and Children of The Ghetto. I was followed by a young violinist who played the first part of a Bach Partita, then brief coffee and away. The programme continued and by the time it ended I was well on my way to Cambridge.

I rarely read those poems in public though three of them deal with direct family experience of the Holocaust. Very briefly, my mother survived two concentration camps, Ravensbruck and Penig, despite her heart condition, and my father spent much of the war in labour brigades in the Ukraine where many died, and had he not escaped with two others on the route march back, he too would have died: the three of them were the only survivors of the brigade. On her realease my mother returned to her home in Transylvania to find her entire family wiped out and all their possessions vanished. My father's father vanished into Auschwitz. A few years ago I found some film records of the liberation of Penig on the web, which was the trigger for the writing of The Penig Film, which is primarily about the muse of history, Clio, as a film director.

I don't read these poems much in public, apart from on such occasions, because I am aware that some - an increasing number, of people, especially other poets (or so I guess) think of it as playing 'the Holocaust card' or 'the Jewish card', and, if not that, then at least a kind of privileged information, an 'advantage' in claiming attention. If something truly tragic occurred in your near proximity you should have the decency to shut up about it.

I am putting that far too strongly, possibly exaggerating. I may be describing an expectation rather than a fact, but I remember one poet describing how oddly funny it was that Jon Silkin would introduce himself by saying that he was a Jew. There was a suggestion that he was being a little overbearing, even something of a bore. I also recall another poet stressing to me, apropos of nothing, that the working class had suffered far more than the Jews. I hadn't mentioned Jews or Jewishness, but then I also recalled how he was ambivalent about Metro, which was my first venture into the area.

So the uncertainty worked on two levels: on that of taking the Holocaust as a subject at all and claiming part of it, and on that of the notion of personal advantage through the misfortunes of others close to you.

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