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Op-Ed: Turning to poetry, 75 years after Kristallnacht

Let us remember … that in the end we go to poetry for one reason, so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both. — Christian Wiman

NEW YORK (JTA) — It was evening and it was morning, Nov. 9 and 10, 1938. Those days that became known as Kristallnacht, with its deceptively beautiful and poetic sounding name, “Night of Crystal,” — or, more commonly, “The Night of Broken Glass.”

Kristallnacht was a two-day pogrom unleashed by Nazi party officials and carried out by storm troops and the Hitler Youth. About 100 Jews were killed, almost 270 synagogues destroyed and 7,500 Jewish-owned establishments looted. Tens of thousands of Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps. My father was one of them.

After hiding for the night in the family basement in Niederstetten, a small village in southern Germany, my father was ordered to report to the town hall on the morning of Nov. 10, 1938. When he asked what he had done wrong, he was told if he wanted to go home, they would arrest his father instead. The police had a quota of 10 men to arrest. So along with nine others, my father was loaded onto a truck and taken to Dachau. He was 16 years old.

It has been 75 years since that day. My father and I have talked many times about his experiences in Dachau. He told me how he stood in line to be photographed, fingerprinted and have his head shaved, how he stood naked before SS guards who aimed fire hoses at prisoners and then gave them a striped cotton uniform.

“If you were lucky,” he said, “you got a hat.”

My father passed away two years ago. Other survivors of the Shoah are dying every day. How will we remember when the last survivors are gone? And what form will that remembrance take?

As the child of two survivors, I have given much thought to what will happen after the survivors are gone and the next generation assumes responsibility for sharing the Holocaust narrative. There have been many efforts to ensure Holocaust remembrance, including academic study, recorded survivor testimonies, memorial services, museums and Holocaust education.

While all of these are invaluable, the disappearance of firsthand witnesses will require new ways to transmit the moral lessons and wisdom that can be gained through remembering.

“After the death of the last witnesses, the remembrance of the Holocaust must not be entrusted to historians alone,” the novelist Aharon Appelfeld observed. “Now comes the hour of artistic creation.”

In 2007, I published a book of poetry about the Holocaust and my family, “How to Spot One of Us.” Working with director Richard Kroehling, I am now producing “BE•HOLD,” a performance film that explores Holocaust poetry from the rise of Nazism to the present day. Highlighting poems by well-known and lesser-known poets, we are creating a deep well of voices responding to evil and its aftermath.

Poetry, like all great art, provokes us. And poetry about the Holocaust in particular can provoke us not only to remember, but to live more fully and with more meaning. Lawrence Ferlinghetti called poetry “the shortest distance between two humans.”

Though nothing can take the place of the survivors themselves, the poetry left by victims and survivors can shorten the distance between survivors and succeeding generations, helping to ensure that the Shoah is remembered. It can also help us internalize the Shoah and use its moral lessons for our personal lives.

Toward the end of his life, my father was concerned that everyone in our family knew the stories of his family members who were murdered in Auschwitz. I told him I will always remember their stories and pass them down.

There are many ways to remember. I choose to remember through poetry.

(Janet R. Kirchheimer is the author of “How to Spot One of Us” and producer of “BE•HOLD.” She is a teaching fellow at Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.)

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