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MY SHADOW IN DACHAU: Poems by Victims and Survivors of the Concentration Camp (New York and London: Camden House Publishing, 2015, $85.00, 314 pages). Edited by Dorothea Heiser and Stuart Taberner. Review by James W. Wood.

Writing in his commonplace book, A Certain World, WH Auden noted that, “every poem ever written is important, since it affirms the existence of an individual mind.” Auden’s words might serve as a maxim for the reader of this collection of more than seventy poems by sixty-five writers, translated into English for the first time since its original German publication in 1993.

It would be uncharitable, if not untrue, to state that this book’s significance as a cultural and historical document possibly eclipses the quality of some of the verse included. Yet as the book’s English-language editor, Professor Stuart Taberner, notes in his considered and passionate introduction, “each of these poems embodies an individual’s attempt to confront an awful reality” – the barbarity of the Nazis as seen by those imprisoned in Dachau concentration camp. For all that some of the poets may not have been “trained”, or, “literary” in any sense, the raw emotion captured in their verse rings clear across more than seventy years, asking today’s reader to compare their plight with, among others, today’s Professor of Creative Writing who simply can’t finish their next book of poems without a grant.

Divided into four sections which capture life in the concentration camps, meditations on the purpose or meaning of suffering, the liberation experience in 1945 and poetry by those who survived into the eighties, nineties and beyond, much of this poetry is the precise opposite of the selfconscious, mannered and politically correct verse one might expect from some of today’s “professional poets”. In tone and content, most of these
poets are writing in a register somewhere between Whitman’s “barbaric yawp”, and the Gerard Manley Hopkins of the “terrible sonnets” – raw horror, disgust, shame and confusion reign in this work from first to last. And yet, throughout, there is beauty in the horror.

Here is writing as a form of prayer, with post-war German intellectual Walter Jens recording that inmates would scribble “secret messages on scraps of paper”; writing as an act of memory, as poet Karl Roeder recalled how, “the ideas, thoughts and feelings [I had] screamed to be written down”; and, most of all, writing as testimony and warning, as the French inmate Arthur Hulot determined in a letter written on his liberation from the camps, “one must fight with pity and compassion for those who will follow.”

Indeed, the vast range of what’s on offer here, both in terms of languages (poets writing in Russian, German, Dutch, French, Italian, Serbian, Slovenian, Czech and Polish are included), form (everything from free verse to, strangely, metrically perfect romantic sonnets) and subject matter is another compelling factor. The poets themselves range from literary professionals working as journalists, writers and teachers prior to their incarceration to scientists, architects and engineers – in other words, human souls who turned to self-expression both as succour in the face of horror, and for the ancient purpose of creating a memorial to experience.

If criticism of some of the less achieved originals is inappropriate given the circumstances of the poems’ making (one poet/inmate recalled “swapping my bread for scraps of paper”; another worked on “a single, dirty folded piece of paper” which he kept for years until his release from Dachau), then readers may feel more justified in finding fault with some of the translations, which range from the uniformly excellent work of George Szirtes, the British/Hungarian poet and translator, through to other more workmanlike attempts at rendering various European tongues in to English. Szirtes wonderful English quatrain below captures the despair and revulsion of the concentration camp inmate:

………………………..“Yesterday is past and gone
………………………..Tomorrow is a whore
………………………..Bright skies you dreamed beneath
………………………..Are not dreams any more.” (Laszlo Salamon, “Forgetting”)

Unfortunately, some other translators have chosen to render the wide range of rhymes available in certain Slavonic languages into an English which occasionally falls short of the mark. Recent translations of Brodsky (by the English poet Glyn Maxwell) and Milosz (by Robert Haas and Robert Pinsky) suggest that one can render Slavonic languages into English verse and retain their music and mood. Elsewhere, a poet writing in German makes use of a refrain which is translated two or three different ways depending on the context in English, a practice which surely detracts from the phrase’s power as a refrain.

These minor quibbles apart, both the publisher and editors should be congratulated on making this wide range of voices available in English at last. Biographies of each poet are complemented by notes on Dachau itself, a glossary of terms, and suggestions for further reading on the period. Above all else, this volume appears at a time when our world looks once more to be sliding towards a level of barbarous inhumanity last seen in these concentration camps seventy years ago, and thus its significance both as testament and warning to us cannot be underestimated. If the poet/inmate Stanislaw Wygodzki wrote that, “one day, you will enter sleepy bookshops/for a book to read about us…/forget it, you won’t understand anyway”, then he surely could not have imagined that our world would now have the horrors of Raqqa and Mosul to compare with those perpetrated by the Nazis.

Ultimately, through the despair, suffering and horror, the final message of this book is optimistic: whether they perished in the camps (as many of these writers did) or lived on for over sixty years, all seem to believe, somewhere, in the continued existence of humanity and in the importance of poetry as a form of witness – and this in direct opposition to Theodor Adorno’s oft-quoted saw that, “there can be no poetry after Auschwitz.” The poet/inmate Nevio Vitelli, who died in 1948 at the age of twenty as a result of an illness contracted in Dachau, provides the poem from which this volume takes its name. The survival and subsequent publication of this poem was only possible because his friend and fellow poet Mirco Giuseppe Camia retained the handwritten manuscript of the poem for more than forty years, believing that, “this poem holds everything: the agony of imprisonment and the elegy of freedom; the memories of earthly love and motherly love…forgiveness…I have saved this poem for over forty years [because] it became for me the essence of life: too many people have created Golgotha for others.”

James W. Wood has written four books of poetry including The Anvil’s Prayer (2013), and a thriller. He is published in the UK, US and Canada, including The TLS, Poetry Review, London Magazine, Fiddlehead, South-West Review, Boston Review and others. Educated at Cambridge, he won a scholarship to Boston University and lives in Toronto.

This review was published in the digital issue 12:1 “Surrender.” To see more from this issue, please visit Vallum‘s website.

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