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Edition. National Public Radio, 1989. Richardson, Lynda. "A Poet (and Proprieter) Is a Beacon in the Bowery." New York Times 12 November 2002, B2.
HOLOCAUST CHARLES REZNIKOFF (1975)
Charles reznikoffs Holocaust is a long narrative poem about the Nazi extermination of the Jews, divided into 12 sections that recall the traditional 12 books of the classical epic (see narrative poetry and long and serial poetry). Like the traditional epic, Holocaust contains not only the history of a single person but also of an entire culture. In addition, also like most epics, Holocaust recounts a journey into the underworld; indeed, one may say that all the action of Holocaust takes place in a very real hell, the territory and institutions controlled by Nazis. Unlike an epic, however, Holocaust contains little heroic behavior, although it honors a great deal of suffering and courageous endurance. Unlike The Iliad, it records no victory, although its last pages foreshadow the defeat of the Nazis as they retreat from advancing Russian troops. Unlike The Odyssey or The Divine Comedy, it presents no return home, and unlike The Aeneid or Paradise Lost, it celebrates no founding of a new people.
Holocaust grows out of two of Reznikoff's long-standing concerns. The first is his concern as a Jewish American with the fate of the Jews and what he sees as a dying Jewish culture. In 1921 Reznikoff published his verse play Uriel Accosta about a Portuguese Catholic of Jewish ancestry, who returns to Judaism but finds himself at odds with both the Inquisition and the rabbis. For Reznikoff, Accosta, as the novelist and poet Paul Auster has observed, was "neither wholly assimilated nor fully unassimilated, [but occupied] the unstable middle ground between two worlds" (156). Thus in producing a book-length poem detailing Nazi attempts to exterminate the Jewish people, Reznikoff pursued themes that had concerned him from the beginning of his writing career. Reznikoff's other concern, which finds its fruition in Holocaust, is with long documentary works that record, in objective terms, social injustices. His multivolume Testimony: The United States (1965, 1968, 1978, 1979) recounts from legal records incidents occurring between 1885 and 1915.
Reznikoff's methods in Testimony and Holocaust are derived from at least three sources: his brief training as a reporter, his involvement with other objectivist writers, and his work as a lawyer and as a writer for Corpus Juris, an encyclopedia of law for lawyers. In 1910
he entered the newly established school of journalism at the University of Missouri. He left after a year, but his training in journalism certainly reinforced his tendency to stick to the facts. By 1930 he had met Louis zukofsky, George oppen, and Carl rakosi, with whom he formed the objectivists, a group of writers united by their Jewish background, left-wing politics, and desire to use language as an object with certain physical and historical properties. In 1912 Reznikoff entered New York University's law school and passed the bar in 1916, but he was not interested in practicing law. In 1928 he began work at Corpus Juris, where for several years he summarized law cases According to Reznikoff's wife, Marie Syrkin, "He worked painstakingly examining the minutiae of a case and phrasing his analysis not on the prescribed legal jargon but 'accurately' according to his own standards" (45).
These three influences informed Reznikoff's austere style, which is at once meticulously accurate and fully colloquial. Reznikoff typically limits his narratives to the sort of testimony allowed in courts of law—that is, to what people saw, heard, and did. He limits references to states of mind. Reznikoff was assisted in achieving this distance by taking incidents from the U.S. governments records of the Nuremberg Military Tribunals and the trial of Adolph Eichmann in Jerusalem. Yet the effect of such restraint is not dispassion. For example, part VIII, "Children," opens with a report on two freight cars filled with children arriving at a death camp and explains how "young men sorting out the belongings of those taken to the gas chambers / had to undress the children—they were orphans." The young men then took the children "to the 'lazarette'" where they were shot by the German Schutzstaffel (SS). Reznikoff refuses to speculate on the psychological state of the children, the young men who are "sorting out the belongings," or the SS men who shoot the children. He leaves details unexplained: Why were the children shot instead of gassed? Yet such writing is far from purely factual. He emphasizes the hypocrisy of the Nazi concern for children by placing the word lazarette, a diminutive French term for a children's washroom, in quotation marks to highlight the unsuitability, of the word to disguise blood-bath reality. He carefully separates with dashes the fact that the children were orphans, not to evoke greater sympathy but to explain why male prisoners who were usually relegated to "sorting out belongings" had been reassigned to "undress the children." Presumably had they not been orphans, their mothers would have undressed them for their executions.
Reznikoff's restraint emphasizes the indescribable cruelty and horror of the Nazi atrocities. It suggests that there is no way to imagine the feelings of those involved—not the SS men, not the children, and least of all the young men assigned to undress the children before they were sent—as those young men surely knew they would be—to their deaths. Any attempt to articulate more than the facts would falsify the horror with melodrama. To dress the narrative in anything other than the objective language of ordinary speech would deflect attention from the crimes and thereby mitigate the offenses. Reznikoff understood that, to transform testimony into poetry, he had to employ techniques so subtle they would disappear to all but the most attentive readers.
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