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Poetry of the Holocaust: Writing After Auschwitz

Updated on July 6, 2011

In the wake of World War II, the philospher Theodor Adorno declared that "to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." For Adorno, no language, no poetry, could possibly begin to articulate the horror that had been unleashed upon the world. The inhumane cruelties of Auschwitz, Dachau, death marches, crematoriums could never be contained in sonnet, villanelle, sprung rhythm, free verse.

Likewise, painting, dance, performance of any kind could not begin to express the inexpressable pain experienced by millions of Jews, Poles, Gypsies, political dissidents, homosexuals, mentally ill, and on and on. To Adorno, the language and form of art had been stolen and perverted, and could never do justice in bearing witness to an unspeakable atrocity.

However, despite Adorno's proclamation, many poets did indeed courageously attempt, to write poetry not only after Auschwitz, but about Auschwitz, about Chelmno, Treblinka, mass graves, prisoners playing their own orchestral death fugue to the sounds of the executioner's pistol. Said Edmond Jabes, "To Adorno, who says that we cannot write poetry after Auschwitz, I say that we must write. But we cannot write as before."

In post-Auschwitz poetry, two distinct trends emerge. The first is an imagery and language of horror, in which the words are violent, raw, and undisguised. Tim O'Brien, in The Things They Carried , says that a true war story is felt in the gut. "A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach beleive." The second trend utilizes a softer form of language, meant less to shock, than to question, to reevaluate, to digest that gut impact. This type of poem is felt not in the gut, but in the heart and soul, not just of the reader, but of the poet himself.

Holocaust - Mikhail Onanov. 1996. Oil on canvas.
Holocaust - Mikhail Onanov. 1996. Oil on canvas.

Imagery of Horror

In trying to put the unfathomable into words, the imagery of horror attempts to capture the most brutal of experiences, the worst depravity of human nature. It uses words such as death, rotting, blood, barbed-wire.


Miklos Radnoti: "Worm-ridden captive beast: that is just how I lie on the bunk board.” “Bodies hacked."

Nelly Sachs: “Ingeniously devised habitations of death”

Gertrud Kolmar: “The night is a long worm,”

Tadeusz Borowski: “My country-- a rotting grave.”

Death and decomposition abound. It pervades the poems as it no doubt pervaded the existence anyone in the death camps, anyone who was forced into contact with the German army. Radnoti speaks of worms, Primo Levi calls the prisoners of Buna “You multitudes with dead faces.” Jiri Orten talks about “the grave-bugs making fast work of everything.” For Paul Celan, gravedigging: “I dig, you dig, and the worm digs too.”

Death is all around in these poems, not a figurative, literal spectral death, but an earthly, literal one. This death is not some vague poetic construct, but one in which life ends, bodies decompose, grass grows over the graves. It is ever-present and inescapable. It is as Edith Bruck says, “You know death lurking in ambush…”

All That Remained - Elsa Pollack (Fired Clay)
All That Remained - Elsa Pollack (Fired Clay)

Something Missing?

Does all this death-imagery put the unfathomable into words? Or is there still more to it? The impact of Holocaust poetry will not be the same if it exists as simply a cataloging of horror. Says Dan Pagis: “I won’t mention names out of consideration for the reader, since at first the details horrify though finally they’d be a bore.”

This is part of the struggle to put the unfathomable into words. To do so is difficult, terrible, yet even in this naming there is the fear that readers will become numb to it all. Edith Bruck talks about danger in “Pretty Soon," musing that someday the events of the Holocaust will become trivia for game shows, lost in the annuls of history and perhaps overshadowed by that which is more spectacular, more engaging, “better” than a tale of constant persecution.

The Holocaust - George Segal. 1984 installation in Lincoln Park, San Francisco.
The Holocaust - George Segal. 1984 installation in Lincoln Park, San Francisco.

Horror of the Heart

This is where the second trend comes into play, moving from a gut-level horror to a soul-level. Imagery that is vaguer, imagery that corresponds to the feeling, the question of how to find a voice in all of this, imagery that makes the poems more than just a catalog of horror. It’s no less dark, maybe no less forboding, but speaks more to the mind and the heart than pure gut reaction.

Such an imagery expresses questioning, spirituality, turmoil, the role of memory, the role of the poet, the challenge of finding words for all this, the impossibility of living in this world somewhere between living and dead.


Nelly Sachs: “When Israel’s body drifted as smoke,”

Gertrud Kolmar “Words ascend among grayish vapors,”

Miklos Radnoti “On my eyes you flash-the mind projects its film,”

Primo Levi: explores words/voice “If you listen hard you can still catch the echo/ Hoarse voices of those who can no longer speak.”

Jiri Orten: “Become the soul of lamps whose light is almost out.”

Although there is an earthiness to these poems, a grittiness of dirt and decay, there is also the beauty of the dim light of the soul struggling through this darkness. This is how these poets manage to put the unfathomable into words, as best they can manage. It’s a combination of the rawness, of unimaginable death and horror, with “music [reaching] up here through a crack of light” (Orten). It’s the horrors exacted upon the body combined with the heart, the mind, the soul’s search for understanding, clarity, survival, and beauty.


Forche, Carolyn, ed. Against Forgetting. Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness. New York: Norton, 1993. Print.

Bibliokept. "Poetry After Auschwitz and Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil."


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