Collected Poems (Poezje Zebrane)

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COLLECTED POEMS (Poezje zebrane)

Poems by Tadeusz Różewicz, 1957

Among the many ways in which Tadeusz Różewicz's various works can be interpreted, critics are fond of talking of "being paralyzed by death." This is true of the characters of his works as well as of the personal fears and existential experiences of the author himself.

Różewicz was born and lived in Radomsk, a provincial Polish town with a Jewish population of nearly 13,000, more than 50 percent of the town's total. The outbreak of World War II changed this radically. After the defeat of the Polish army, German repression affected all Poles, but the Polish Jews were particularly hurt during their isolation in the ghetto, after which, in 1943, they were transported to the concentration camp in Treblinka. Różewicz did not remain indifferent to the tragic fate of the Jews, with whom he had close ties.

During 1947-56 the poet published seven poems directly related to the problem of the Holocaust. These poems are found in Poezje zebrane (1957; Collected Poems, 1976). "The Living Were Dying" describes Jewish families dying of hunger in the ghetto, while "Chaskiel" deals with a young boy killed by the Germans during the liquidation of the ghetto. One can make an analogy with the fate of the child in the poem "Ballads and Romances" by Władysław Broniewski, in which members of the SS murder a 13-year-old girl, Ryfka. Broniewski has Jesus accompany the girl as both are executed because they are Jews. Różewicz elevates the death of Chaskiel with a reference to Exodus in these closing lines: "A red sea/hid him." He thus sanctifies the death of an innocent Jewish child. "The Slaughter of Boys" equates the Nazi murders with the biblical acts of Herod. The despair produced by the sudden, irreversible destruction of the innocent lives of children is expressed by the poet in the metaphor "a tree from dark smoke/vertical/a dead tree/without a star in the tree-top."

Another dimension of the hideous efficiency of the Nazi murders is revealed in "A Little Tress." Before the women in the concentration camps were sent to the gas chambers, their heads were shaved. (Those who visit the Auschwitz Museum can see in glass cases what remains of the tresses of the victims, hair the Germans did not had enough time to convert into mattresses.) The tress of the title of Różewicz's poem refers to the hundreds of thousands of Jewish women who were first deprived of their hair and then of their lives. By describing the tress, the author pays homage to the victims.

"Stony Imagination" deals with the bestial methods of killing Jews. The merchant "Rozenberg will never see/the islands of the Great ocean/the Ukrainians caught up with him in the latrine/he died suffocating in excrement/you cannot imagine/Rosenberg's death in a town/near Piotrków in Poland." Różewicz is offering here his own definition of the poet as an insignificant, anonymous human being who is possessed of a "little, stony, implacable" imagination. What the poet needs after Auschwitz is, not the sham of old beauty, but remembrance petrified by pain and murder and yet relentlessly disavowing all sham and falsity. Czesław Miłosz , in solidarity with the dying Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto, evaluated memory in an identical way. In "A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto" Miłosz became the first of the Polish poets to identify with the victims as a "Jew of the New Testament," and he condemned the unfeeling mob in "Campo dei Fiori."

Różewicz emphasizes the similarities of the Polish and the Jewish tragedies in his poems "From My Home" and "Polish Thermopylae." In the former he shows the destruction of a house and its inhabitants, and in the latter he contrasts the pathos of ancient heroism with the modern hideousness of slaughtering people with a spade, a bullet, a bayonet, poison, or the gallows. While the former illustrates the traditions of the lyricism of the threnody, the latter is an example of the more innovative poetry of Różewicz, a realist who does not avoid the ugliness of human words and acts. Różewicz puts logic and hard facts, without a romantic veil or classical conventions, above emotion. He does not shock the reader with words, but he paints brutal scenes, showing heads split with a spade, walls spattered with brains, a Polish underground fighter with spilling guts, and a hanged Jew with "a six-pointed star in his eyes." He condemns murder with tremendous power, and he shares the responsibility. Różewicz the poet has survived not to enjoy life but to expose a civilization that has sunk into degradation and to identify every human evil.

This uncompromising search for the truth about the attitude to recent history has also affected Różewicz's prose. For example, the theme of the story "A Visit to the Museum" is close to that of the poems "A Little Tress" and "The Slaughter of Boys." Here Różewicz offers his reflections after a visit to the Auschwitz Museum. The textual background of "A Visit" is a story by Tadeusz Borowski , "People Who Were Walking," which describes the last walk people condemned to gas chambers had to take from the railway loading ramp. Writing a dozen or so years later, Różewicz was hardly less critical. He pointed out that after the end of World War II those who had become free did not become any less hypocritical. They forgot all too easily about the past because they wanted to enjoy themselves without any qualms of conscience. The author reveals his moral aversion indirectly, however. He gives different participants in the visit their own voices so that, without his interference, they themselves reveal their infantile awareness and trivial needs against the background of this terrifying graveyard, where they should remain silent in order that their hearts might speak.

In the poem "Der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland," published in Płaskorzeÿba ("Bas-Relief") and dedicated to Paul Celan , Różewicz states with desperate courage, "During the time that came to be after a worthless time/after gods had left/the poets are leaving/I know I will die complete." In this way the poet came full circle to the themes, questions, and obsessions with which he began his creative journey. The old poet attempts to confront them through a diversification of the forms, genres, and styles of his strongly intertextualized artistic output, which is imbued with the thoughts of the great creators of a universal culture. This is particularly true of Franz Kafka, who with a brilliant intuition predicted in In the Penal Colony the hell of the totalitarian systems and of the genocide.

—Stanisław Gawliński

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Collected Poems (Poezje Zebrane)

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