The Holocaust Object in Polish and Polish-Jewish Culture

The Holocaust Object in Polish and Polish-Jewish Culture

by Bozena Shallcross

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Overview

In stark contrast to the widespread preoccupation with the wartime looting of priceless works of art, Bożena Shallcross focuses on the meaning of ordinary objects—pots, eyeglasses, shoes, clothing, kitchen utensils—tangible vestiges of a once-lived reality, which she reads here as cultural texts. Shallcross delineates the ways in which Holocaust objects are represented in Polish and Polish-Jewish texts written during or shortly after World War II. These representational strategies are distilled from the writings of Zuzanna Ginczanka, Władysław Szlengel, Zofia Nałkowska, Czesław Miłosz, Jerzy Andrzejewski, and Tadeusz Borowski. Combining close readings of selected texts with critical interrogations of a wide range of philosophical and theoretical approaches to the nature of matter, Shallcross's study broadens the current discourse on the Holocaust by embracing humble and overlooked material objects as they were perceived by writers of that time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253355645
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 02/21/2011
Pages: 200
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Bożena Shallcross is Associate Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Chicago. She is author of Through the Poet's Eye: The Travels of Zagajewski, Herbert, and Brodsky and editor (with David L. Ransel) of Polish Encounters/Russian Identity (IUP, 2005).

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The Holocaust Object in Polish and Polish-Jewish Culture


By Bozena Shallcross

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2011 Bozena Shallcross
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-35564-5



CHAPTER 1

A Dandy and Jewish Detritus

I who am not, who only was once, There where the road led to the camp gate.

My trace, a diary hidden between bricks. Perhaps someday it will be unearthed.

— Czeslaw Milosz


The Nazi war economy sustained itself not only through production, exploitation, or looting, but also through substitution and replacement, which took the form of a whole range of ersatz products, cheap fakes, and impermanent copies. For example, an inferior food product made from sugar beets replaced marmalade and its proverbially bad taste was long remembered after the war. These imitative products were a part of larger processes of emulation summed up by Kazimierz Wyka in the phrase zycie na niby, "life as if lived, life not quite lived." One encounters the same bitter resentment in the expression zycie-ersatz, "ersatz life," coined by Wladyslaw Szlengel, the Polish-Jewish poet (1914–1943), to whom this chapter is dedicated. The expression aptly refers to his existence in the Warsaw Ghetto.

This ubiquitous substitutive force had its parallel within the domain of Holocaust representation, mainly in its wide use of metonymy and synecdoche. When objects entered the frame of representation, playing the role of protagonists while signifying their absent users, they performed only one role among the many available in the metonymical paradigm. Paradoxically, this entrance into the sphere of representation gave trivial things their maximum agency.

An ordinary item, such as a pair of shoes, introduces us to the world of the Holocaust. It should be surprising that shoes perform this function, but it is not; the shock they cause comes from their sheer quantity. Moreover, shoes achieved a stunning career through literary strategies of substitution. Though a pair of shoes is just a pair of shoes, their inside is a reversed image of the feet which they protect. Together with their outside peculiarities, they inform an imprinted "portrait," and, by extension, a metonymic image of the individual who, long absent, made this "footprint." Likewise, the worn surface of a tool contains an impression of the hand that used it for various chores. One is intrigued by the visual details inscribed on the surface of objects: the older the object, the more intricate the traces and texture of use and abuse. A single ordinary item — a pencil, suitcase, or penknife — can stand for the larger whole of historical processes. Once again, the Holocaust comes to mind, engaged, as it is, repeatedly and stubbornly, in the dynamics of miniature and massive accumulation. An indispensable item such as a pair of shoes, accumulated in camps as detritus, became part of a common series of things that were regularly thematized in Holocaust texts. One of them, entitled simply "A Load of Shoes," was written by the Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever on January 17, 1942, in the Vilna Ghetto. In an attempt to reach beyond an amassed and unspecified pile of shoes, "transported," as they were, "from Vilna to Berlin," he questions the "objectual heroes" of his poem about their owners — "where are your feet?" or "where is the child / who fit in these?" — and emphasizes the forced separation of these things from their users, whose demise they, then, suggest. While the poem tends to personalize the shoes in a sentimental fashion, it also attempts to dispel a sense of the all-encompassing and chaotic anonymity of their pile. This is clearly the case with a pair of women's Sabbath shoes, which are identified as belonging to the poetic persona's mother. This moment of recognition communicates her death.

A written account, perceived in terms of a physical object, reveals a similar logic. Here a poem stands for its author, implying both the person and his or her lived experience. When considered within the context of mass genocide, a poem enters a stage of contradiction: it stands as a testimony to the dying human presence, but also to its own, often accidental, survival. A single episode from the posthumous peregrinations of Szlengel's oeuvre is sufficiently evocative. After the war, Ryszard Baranowski, a man from the town of Józefów near Warsaw, found a typed collection of Szlengel's poems in the double top of an old table Baranowski was demolishing. The collection bore the poet's handwritten inscription with the date 11.2.1943. Hence, these were some of the last poems Szlengel wrote before his own death. Although it turned out that these were merely copies of the poems that were, for the most part, already known, their endurance triggers one's apocryphal imagination to narrate and fill in the gaps of the poet's biography and the copies' separate history. Most likely, the owner of the copies, who received them from the author, uncertain of his own fate or aware of their accusatory message, entrusted his precious gift to the table. The table, like all possessions owned by Jews, went through its own precarious adventures before its existence nearly ended under Baranowski's axe. Today the collection, along with all other archival materials related to Szlengel, is deposited in the archives of the Æydowski Instytut Historyczny in Warsaw; its completed journey stands metonymically for the poet.

In order to analyze the representational and poetic side of Szlengel's object lessons, one must situate his poems within multiple perspectives that are, at times, oppositional and, at others, overlapping. These poems deal, in turn, with street grammar and dandyism, jouissance and voluntary death, as well as with the miniature and the monumental. For the poet, creating a metonymic object pattern to represent the Jewish world inside the Warsaw Ghetto was not a goal in itself, since he was never prone to the cult of things. Szlengel retreated to this repertoire in order to give the Holocaust word its highest degree of historical urgency and textual palpability. In his poetic writing about history, he was careful to speak from a specific moment and place, from the unrelenting hic et nun as he lived it in the Warsaw Ghetto. To this end, the poet modified and expanded the time-honored device of metonymy in a manner that placed small, even miniature material things in dialectical tension with their large-scale surroundings. The outcome of Szlengel's poetic project intensifies the sensation of the destruction of everyday life, which comes across in the multitude of its individual forms. By juxtaposing the minute to the large — and even the immense — the poet indicates the central, albeit absent, protagonist of the process: the unrepresented or only indirectly represented human figure or the diminishing human presence. Contrary to the formalist view that metonymy communicates that which is tangible and concrete through abstract terms, Szlengel's metonymy communicates the concrete through the most concrete. He develops a language of objects which, in its precision and specificity, assesses historical events from a perspective both collective and individualized. This language reveals the proximity or association between both points of view. Its method, wherein correlations are made in a specific manner and where a physical object stands in for the user, ultimately reinforces the substitutive logic of Holocaust literature.

Let us look at a volume of Szlengel's Tyrteian poetry, entitled Kontratak. Wiersze z dni ostatnich. Tomik trzeci. Luty 1943 (Counterattack. Poems from the last days. Volume three. February 1943). It was written in Warsaw during the first wave of resistance to the Nazi liquidation of the ghetto; in terms of its style, the volume displays how well grounded Szlengel was in Skamander poetry and its neo-traditional sense of form. The specificity of the title indicates a manner of dating poems by the month, day, and even by hour, a frequent practice among "ghetto scribes," to use David Roskies's phrase. By citing the date of the volume in its subtitle, Szlengel aimed to create a sense of immediacy and urgency for the reader's gaze — a sense that pervades his poetic reportage of what was then the most recent chain of events in the ghetto. Despite its precise date, which coincides with a concrete historical event, the volume's subtitle produces another, somewhat prophetic, effect: it suggests that these poems could be the poet's last and, therefore, the last ever written in the Warsaw Ghetto, which was, at that point, doomed for destruction. In fact, Szlengel's premonition that the ghetto would be completely destroyed was realized only two months later.

Szlengel's poetic project during the last months of his life was simultaneously personal and universal, radically dramatizing the way in which material possessions were caught up in the whirlpool of history. Written between September 1942 and his death in April 1943, these poems are also his most mature, transforming the voice of this former cabaret performer into a dark cry of despair. The manner in which he chronicled and bemoaned the demise of the Jewish community of Warsaw earned him, after the war, the honorary title of "the bard of the Warsaw Ghetto." This title betrays — on the part of those who bestowed it upon him — no fear of the pathos so foreign to Szlengel, who, for the most part, served the muse of light entertainment. Prior to the war, he wrote satiric and jocular poetry, as well as cabaret songs, one of which, entitled "Tango Notturno," was a hit. But the events that he described and that later became known as the Holocaust, drastically darkened the tonality of his lyrics. Those included the poems in his collection Co czytalem umarlym. Wiersze getta warszawskiego (What I Read to the Dead. Poems from the Warsaw Ghetto), which commemorate the trauma of everyday life in the ghetto and lament the poet's growing isolation and certainty of death.

Szlengel became known for his detailed descriptions of various methods of violated existence and the suffering these processes caused. For Irena Maciejewska, otherwise appreciative of his poetry, "These are more documents then artistic works" (Maciejewska 1977, 27). Always clinging to the concrete, Szlengel's poetic notations in Co czytalem umarlym also tell stories of how ingeniously and successfully frantic people constructed hiding places in the ghetto. Again, the bunkers signify their unquenched desire to survive: "Carting of cement, bricks, nights reverberate with the din of hammers and axes. Pumping of water, constructing of underground wells. Bunkers. Mania, running, the neurosis of the heart of Warsaw Ghetto" (What I Read to the Dead; Szlengel 1977, 49). The word ghetto was forbidden by the Nazis, who allowed only the use of the periphrastic term dzielnica zamkniëta (closed neighborhood), but the poet disregards the imposed limitations of censorship and does not mince words to call the ghetto by its own name.

Light, underground cables, making the exits,
again bricks, ropes, sand ... Lots of sand ... Sand ...
Board-beds, bunk-beds. Provisions for months.
(What I Read to the Dead; Szlengel 1977, 50)


Those cleverly disguised shelters, tunnels, basements, and burrows, which Frieda W. Aaron eloquently calls the "architecture of despair" (Aaron 1990, 100) were in response to the "liquidation" of the ghetto. People moved from the places they inhabited above the ground to new shelters underground. For the builders, the construction of the bunkers bespoke hope. For the pursuers, these hiding places were a demonstration of the Jews' subversive attitude. For Szlengel, despite his praise of the ingenuity and resistance of the ghetto's inhabitants, these spoke of an utterly debased lifestyle, which humiliated him. Those condemned lived the atavistic existence of burrowing creatures, of "moles" deprived of basic conveniences. Only the most indispensable utensils accompanied them in these tight places: kitchen pots or some bedding. People were forced to operate within a new kind of practical arrangement that was devoid of the achievements of civilization to which they were accustomed. In this sense, the poet anticipated an important strain in the discourse of the Holocaust that understands Nazi practices as a new form of attack against civilization in which, in this case, the result of the attack is forced solely upon Jews:

Crossing of electricity, water pipes, everything. Twenty centuries crossed out by the whip of an SS-man. Cave age. Cressets. Village wells. Long night. People are returning underground. (What I Read to the Dead; Szlengel 1977, 50)


To enhance this and earlier stages of regression, Szlengel singled out certain objects that belonged to the previous order of things and, thus, to a different lifestyle: door buzzer, window, and telephone used to be taken for granted in prewar life. Several poems are structured around these everyday objects because these unsublime poetic themes represented a past life that Szlengel wished to sentimentalize. In order to do so, the poet retreated to an adaptation of the pictorial genre of the still life, creating, arguably, the most expressive of his objectual configurations.

Today, post-Holocaust literature of a highly sophisticated aesthetics is, sooner or later, viewed with suspicion, as if aesthetization were something unbecoming. Szlengel, like many of his contemporaries, demonstratively operated beyond these limitations. His critic, Maciejewska, wrote with considerable admiration for his wide range of poetic forms and artistic means. Although Maciejewska did not fear that the text–image comparison would transcend the ethics of a Holocaust philologist, she did not discuss Szlengel's translation of the painterly genre of still life into the textual sphere in terms of ultimate aesthetization. The pictorial genre fit Szlengel's poetic project, perfectly complementing the metonymical figuration and controlling one of its main characteristics — the exclusion of human presence. This is a genre requirement, which dictates that a still life is primarily constituted through a more or less complex arrangement of inanimate objects in an artificial setting.

In another time and place, this type of visual sensitivity of a poet toward the world of concrete, casual objects could indicate the represented world's prosperous stability and order, or even its beauty. In contrast, Szlengel appropriated the characteristic features of the still life to narrate an impoverished world in which lives were disrupted and destroyed. A voyeuristic glimpse at the interiors of houses after Nazi "action" grasps those moments through observing and listing discarded things:

In the abandoned flats
scattered bundles,
suits and comforters,
and plates and stools,
fires are still dwindling,
idle spoons lie about,
thrown out in a hurry
family photographs. ... ("Things"; Szlengel 1977, 127)


Any Dutch still life that portrays the disorder of, for example, a table after a feast or an interior after an excessively jubilant night would share some of its aspects with the images of objects portrayed by Szlengel: a half-empty glass, an open book, flatware tossed away. Obviously, the lack of human presence within the space of Szlengel's still lifes connotes a different preposterous history of these images, to refer to Mieke Bal's concept, encompassing the violation of normalcy of a domestic abode that has been destroyed and whose inhabitants have just embarked on their last journey. He captures the pathos of their departure only by conjectural signs, referring to the scattered utensils that communicate the abruptness of that which has happened in those surroundings. In such a way, he also renders these preposterous and unportrayed events frozen and, moreover, dead. Szlengel's compositions of the empty domestic interiors after "action" evoke a double meaning of deadness and rupture. The first relates to murdered people, while the second recalls useless things. Only the metonymic suggestiveness of the detritus does not allow the lingering human presence, in its everydayness, to be entirely erased.

Szlengel engages objects to talk about the debased and disrupted lives of the owners from which they were wrenched. On the level of extreme poverty and dispossession, synecdoche enters the frame of the poem in an equally limited manner. For example, in the poem "Pomnik" (Monument), a simple kitchen utensil, a single pot, is elevated to the role of a headstone and monument for a Jewish woman. This sole material vestige is all that remained after she, a housewife and mother, was sent to die in a camp. Reminiscent of the simple still lifes depicted by twentieth-century painters, the image is minimalist and understated in its realism evoking "Her cold, dead pot." Imprinted with her personal history, this ordinary object testifies to her past proximity, her bygone touch, and the pot's everyday usage which, as seen above, has granted it, as an object, meaning vis-à-vis her nourishing presence. While the mapping of the life–death dichotomy onto the sensual polarity of heat–cold is not necessarily original, this pot as a solitary material sign is not an empty and abstract item; at least in this case, the object is pregnant with symbolic meaning, since, in a final gesture, Szlengel endows the object, which, during the woman's life, embodied nothing more than its use value, with a commemorative function. In devising this conclusion, the poet, who used to thrive on clever punch lines, rewrites the poetic message to shift its metonymic logic to the level of an homage. In a double entendre, he moves the memory of the dead woman into an ellipsis of pathos.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Holocaust Object in Polish and Polish-Jewish Culture by Bozena Shallcross. Copyright © 2011 Bozena Shallcross. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

The Totalized Object: An Introduction

On Jouissance
1. A Dandy and Jewish Detritus
2. The Material Letter J
On Waste and Matter
3. Holocaust Soap and the Story of Its Production
4. The Guilty Afterlife of the Soma
On Contact
5. The Manuscript Lost in Warsaw
6. Things, Touch, and Detachment in Auschwitz

Coda: The Post-Holocaust Object
Acknowledgments and Permissions
Notes
Bibliography
Index

What People are Saying About This

D. Hutchins]]>

As those who remember the personal trauma of the Nazi invasion and genocide are increasingly few, the only remaining traces of human suffering lie in objects that reify that suffering. Ordinary objects of Holocaust victims can reflect individual martyrdom, and Shallcross (Slavic languages and literature, Univ. of Chicago) looks at this in her meticulous, novel analysis of the writings of Zuzanna Ginczanka, Wladyslaw Szlengel, Elzbieta Nalkowska, CzeslawMilosz, Jerzy Andrzejewski, and Tadeusz Borowski. Applying Heidegger's notions of temporality and objective existence and Derrida's, Freud's, Lucan's, and Todorov's concepts of morality, the author tenderly elevates the ordinary objects—e.g., a penknife fabricated by a camp prisoner—pointing out how cradling such objects, in the face of deadly danger, gave hope to the dying of 'bearing witness ... both on their behalf and against the perpetrators.' Here, as aptly as she has in her previous work, Shallcross looks at depictions of the depths of suffering through the 'dispossession' of belongings when a prisoner entered a concentration camp. This is a brilliant analysis. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty. —Choice

University of North Carolina - Madeline G. Levine

Brilliant and ambitious . . . approaches [the] topic from a fresh and intellectually challenging perspective. . . . Shallcross's book is surely the most sophisticated analysis of Polish Holocaust literature ever written.

D. Hutchins

As those who remember the personal trauma of the Nazi invasion and genocide are increasingly few, the only remaining traces of human suffering lie in objects that reify that suffering. Ordinary objects of Holocaust victims can reflect individual martyrdom, and Shallcross (Slavic languages and literature, Univ. of Chicago) looks at this in her meticulous, novel analysis of the writings of Zuzanna Ginczanka, Wladyslaw Szlengel, Elzbieta Nalkowska, CzeslawMilosz, Jerzy Andrzejewski, and Tadeusz Borowski. Applying Heidegger's notions of temporality and objective existence and Derrida's, Freud's, Lucan's, and Todorov's concepts of morality, the author tenderly elevates the ordinary objects—e.g., a penknife fabricated by a camp prisoner—pointing out how cradling such objects, in the face of deadly danger, gave hope to the dying of 'bearing witness ... both on their behalf and against the perpetrators.' Here, as aptly as she has in her previous work, Shallcross looks at depictions of the depths of suffering through the 'dispossession' of belongings when a prisoner entered a concentration camp. This is a brilliant analysis. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty. —Choice

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