Erika: Poems of the Holocaust

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Poems by William Heyen, 1984

William Heyen's procession into the Holocaust inferno is threefold. The first is nurturing and upbringing by German immigrant parents in a German-speaking environment and the security of a pastoral childhood on Long Island. The second is a gradual loss of that world in an adulthood quest of personal history that merges with the history of the Shoah. The third is a visit to the landscape of camps and crematoriums in order to make sense of shattered innocence and uncertain destiny. For Heyen the quest to understand began early, when swastika signs appeared on his boyhood home, "how the heart beats with it,/how the eyes remember." His Swastika Poems (1977) included in Erika: Poems of the Holocaust (1984; reissued in 1991) represents one of the earliest Gentile efforts to directly confront issues of the Shoah.

Erika is divided into four sections. The second section, entitled "Erika," is a prose memoir of a one-day visit to Bergen-Belsen. At the camp museum Heyen encounters the statistics and face of death; outside he walks among the markers of death, whose mass graves are covered with Erika, "Erika, bell-heather, heide, a heath plant, wild and strong." The beauty of the Erika plant growing over the graves and the objects the caretaker at Belsen finds when he tills the soil in spring—a piece of human bone, a frame of someone's glasses, a heel of a shoe, a wedding band—are memories that spring eternal and christen an anguished and sensitive soul of an American poet of German heritage to seek how and why.

The epilogue juxtaposes counsel from Susan Sontag and a dream-poem from Heinrich Heine, and together they set the intent of this work. From the former, to remember the murder of the six million European Jews is right, proper, and moral though it runs the risk of not being practical or good. And from Germany's outstanding Jewish poet and essayist,

I dreamed I had a lovely fatherland
The sturdy oak
Grew tall there, and the violets gently swayed.
Then I awoke.
I dreamed a German kiss was on my brow,
And someone spoke
The German words: "I love you!" (How they rang!)
Then I awoke.

Heyen's pledge at the end of "Erika,"—"I will always remember"—is a testimony of attachment to his cultural heritage and how far he must exorcise the demons from within and without.

The first section of poems painfully describes Jewish life in Nazi-occupied Europe in life and death hues. Childhood memory of crooked crosses etched on "our doors [which] father cursed and painted over" and joyful Volksfesten and boundless Deutsche Geistigkeit, which destroyed the Jew in the street, ghetto, community, and camps. Streams of consciousness connect these entries. But what happens years after the Event, when forgetfulness reigns? The penultimate poem, "Darkness"—a descent into "Treblinka green,/Nordhausen red,/Auschwitz blue,/Mauthausen orange,/Belsen white"—answers surrealistically that there are fragments of killer and victim although the distinction is blurred. The section ends in "The Legacy" and the terrible revelation said thrice-over by the author: "I am dead. They are dead."

The third section, called "The Numinous," confronts in stanza and verse the brutality of the Shoah on its own ground. In the title poem Heyen and his wife are walking on a Hannover street when suddenly their trancelike disposition is disrupted by an "explosion" of pigeons, which "we will always remember." "The hundred hearts [of blue-gray pigeons]/beating in the air" suggest the transcending moments of Jewish children murdered in blue flame and rising to a blue sky, to the Lord of blue. In "Blue" and "Simple Truths," feelings about God's presence or nonpresence are expressed. "The Children" is an anguished personal testimony that "within my dream/… I do not think that we can save them" but there is solace in the speaking voice that affirms "they are safe in my body." Other poems are fragments of dreams ("Listener, all words are a dream/You have wandered into mine"), which talk of nature (the Erika over the graves, the wind and the dawn sun mixed with the smoke of Belzec, "The Tree," in Lidice, Czechoslovakia, destroyed with the village in reprisal for the killing of Gestapo chief Reinhardt Heydrich by Czech partisans) and the nature of the Nazi program of "willed chaos" ("Poem Touching the Gestapo").

The third section begins with "The Baron's Tour" of the führer's castle on the Rhine where "we have always lived" and ends in "This Night" by querying Who am I? Who are you?—necessary questions about the human predicament that come out of the inferno. To wit Heyen advises in "The Tree," "Read the book made from the leaves of that tree from Lidice and see the faces of what was and the face of what must be."

—Zev Garber

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Erika: Poems of the Holocaust

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