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The Poetry of the Holocaust Period Research Paper

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Updated: May 6th, 2022

The poetry of the Holocaust period contains various approaches and is written in different languages. It covers such topics as a struggle against the Nazi regime, life in concentration camps, and stories of ordinary people. Among survivors who settled in Israel after liberation, the following two poets seem to be rather convincing: Abraham Sutzkever who used Yiddish and Dan Pagis who wrote in Hebrew. Let us consider their writing styles and other poetic peculiarities.

In his poetry, Sutzkever called Jews to the struggle against Nazism and support each other. Being a virtuoso of the poetic art, he focused on such themes as Jewish sufferings of that period, tragedies and dilemmas of ghetto underground, Sondercommando, death, fate, and a range of others. Most importantly, the author depicted ordinary people who tried to help others to survive. For example, in one of his poems, Sutzkever refers to Polish Christian peasant, hiding him in the cellar. Withstanding horrors of Holocaust, the poet employs metonymy based on the ability to note the beauty of nature.1 In particular, the images of the “Flower” poem can be regarded as an example of encouraging metonymy as the author used a blue flower as a symbol of resistance.

Applying rhyme and rhythm, Sutzkever became a singer of the whole Jewish nation, revealing the pain of broken hearts and torments. His creative style is associated with dramatic lines, yet they are full of beauty and imagery world. Despite the most horrible time, Sutzkever remained a poet and transformed harsh reality into symbolical one, revealing eternal renewal of time. Furthermore, some metaphors used by the author can be treated differently. Sutzkever points out that the child had “a bloody herring in his mouth”.2 Unfortunately, both direct and literal meanings were possible during the Holocaust. In effect, the above stylistic device creates an atmosphere of fear, anxiety, and truthfulness. It should be emphasized that poems that were written by Sutzkever “liberate responses on the deepest levels of psychological, mental, emotional, and aesthetic concerns”.3 Broadly speaking, the oeuvre of this poet strives to connect culture and genocide, thus immortalizing anguish and the value of human life. At this point, culture is presented as an unbroken spirit that remains strong in spite of Holocaust events.

The power of the word was also applied by Pagis in his poems. The selection of Hebrew was caused by a desire to reveal the context of the Holocaust in the most truthful way. Knowledge of modern European literature and ancient formations of Hebrew poetry allowed Pagis to highlight the tragedy from another perspective that was rooted in the Holocaust of European Jewry. Unlike Sutzkever, he uses utterly dark colors to depict the Holocaust period. For example, in one of his poems, he referred to Biblical motives and used deictic expressions such as “here” and “this”.4 However, Langer emphasizes that poetry of Pagis “resists the temptation of concrete historical or autobiographical allusion”.5

It is also possible to note his usually precise style created due to the use of lapidary and clear epithets and rhythm. The motives of suffering that could not be expressed with words and are not likely to be understood by others are characteristic for the creativity of Pagis.6 The restrained and seemingly impartial description of subjects and phenomena hides the lurking hints and symbols, pointing at the memory. In cycles of poems about a primeval man and of a man in space, the artless at first sight stories are artfully intertwined with motifs that are openly associated with memories of the nightmarish experiences of the author in the concentration camp. His duel with death along with a sense of emptiness and loss reflects the helplessness of a man in a concentration camp.

Speaking of the difference between Holocaust poetry and other types of art including films, prose, and memoirs, it is essential to stress that poetry offers various tools to convey a poet’s message to the public. In particular, epithets, metaphors, allusions, and others can be employed to create impressive images and reveal the core concepts. At the same time, poetry seems to be more sensitive to emotions and feelings, thus becoming accessible for every reader. Even though ideas and motives of poems can be seemingly incomprehensible, the attentive reading provides insights into the inner world of a poet and helps to observe the events by his or her eyes, thus creating the effect of presence. Therefore, Holocaust poetry remains one of the most crucial tools to penetrate into that time and form a comprehensive picture of people, phenomena, and events that occurred with Jewry.

In conclusion, it seems appropriate to state that Sutzkever is a metaphysical poet as his creative thought focuses on the beauty of nature and the truthful presentation of events. Pagis’ oeuvre is more materially-minded – there is no place for bright images. If the first one wrote in Yiddish, then the latter used Hebrew. Likewise the mentioned difference, the styles of these poets also dissimilar, yet both of them persuasive and important to understand the period of the Holocaust. It was revealed that poetry considerably differs from other arts due to its saturation with images and stylistic instruments.


Langer, Lawrence L. Art from the Ashes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Roskies, David G., and Naomi Diamant. Holocaust Literature: A History and Guide. Waltham: Brandeis University Press, 2012.


  1. David G. Roskies, and Naomi Diamant, Holocaust Literature: A History and Guide (Waltham: Brandeis University Press, 2012), 150.
  2. Lawrence L. Langer, Art from the Ashes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 581.
  3. Ibid., 8.
  4. Ibid., 557.
  5. Ibid., 584.
  6. David G. Roskies, and Naomi Diamant, Holocaust Literature: A History and Guide (Waltham: Brandeis University Press, 2012), 201.
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