{Review} Requiem: Poems of the Terezin Ghetto by Paul B. Jeneczko

Requiem Poems of the Terezin Ghetto by Paul B. JeneczkoLiterature’s power lies in its ability to bring depth, immediacy and empathy through the words and into the heart. Images of the Holocaust haunt anyone who has seen black and white reels and photographs of the horror, the reality of an era that must never be forgotten.

Paul B. Jeneczko’s Requiem Poems of the Terezin Ghetto stands as a requiem to the people who lived, suffered, endured, died and carried the inhumanity of a shameful period in their hearts and literally tattooed to their arms, a number never to be diminished.

Terezin was originally a fortress town in Czechoslovakia. Hitler and his fellow Nazis turned it into, in their euphemistic terms, a collection and transport camp for the Jewish people. The original residents were “transported” out, and the Jewish prisoners began arriving.

The Nazi regime purported that Terezin was “a home for Jewish intellectuals and artists.” In truth it was a propaganda tool for the Third Reich. In the midst of the horrors of captivity there were musical performances, lectures and other artistic endeavors.

The reality was a different tale, one of woe.

Musicians who performed beautifully one night were packed into cattle cars the next, transported to the gas chambers. [They] …played as only the heartbroken can play.

By the time Terezin was liberated in 1945, 140,000 European Jews had been through the camp, 35,000 never left but died of disease, starvation and brutality, and 87,000 were transported out to other camps.

To develop empathy, to feel emotion and to gain knowledge as close to first-hand as possible can come through reading about the reality of others. Yet Janeczko’s poems have been criticized because they’re his fictional recreations of the experience of others, that the characters in the poems are imaginary, and therefore not valid.

The literature of the Holocaust touches the heart through found writings, memoirs and fiction

Eli Wiesel’s Night is a case in point. The first time I read it was in preparation to teach the book to a class of tenth grade students. I tried to read with detachment. It was difficult for me. I conjured images in my mind whirling into monstrous abominations.

Never shall I forget that night, that first night in the camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

—Night, Elie Wiesel

Detachment didn’t work well when simple, powerful words came vividly to me. I also worried about students and their reaction to the memoir. Nonetheless, I ventured into territory that caused me anguish. We read the book aloud. Through this process, the students and I delved into profound discussions, authentic learning for teacher and students.

It’s one experience to cite facts and numbers. It’s another to feel the reality of what they mean.Whether the writing is memoir or historical fiction, the knowledge and emotions are real.

Janeczko noted that although the characters in the poems are fictional, many are composites based on research, while some are his inventions. Many of the events in the poems did happen, such as the Red Cross inspection. He called upon his imagination and his humanity to conjure the emotions and feelings of those who lived through the horrors of the time.

The illustrations in the book are black and white sketches that survived the Holocaust.

By themselves they speak volumes of heartbreak and fear. The last page of the collection is in shades of gray and shadowed forms. A lone man stands looking outward past a barbed fence. All we can see is the back of his body with arms spread wide reaching up toward the fence, his legs slightly bent appearing weakened and desperate. The simple poem on the opposite side reads,

Blue sky
beyond
barbed wire. 

I wish I were
sky.

Its poignancy and impact hit hard after reading the verses and looking at the original art on the previous 88 pages.

The writing is by Janeczko. The art is original work from the camp. Valtr Eisinger / 11956, the lone writing recovered from Terezin, covers two pages. It sings of love through the wire fences of the hell of the camp. It reaches through time and touched my heart, brought tears to my eyes.

I shall always think of you.
Thoughts of you will be
my morning prayer when I get up
my evening prayer when I go to bed.

Memories of you will be a balm
to whatever blows fate deals me.

Each poem is titled with a name and a number that would have appeared tattooed on the writer’s arm, becoming historical verses. The writing invites and demands acknowledgement of the universality of human emotion.

My beloved,

I long

to know

the beat of your hear

again

and fill each

brief

silence

with a kiss

until

curved together

we sleep.

Love and passion are the hallmarks of humanity.

The process of reading the imagined words from the camp, looking at the original found writings and contemplating what happened is the point of reading the verses and looking at the art. That is not to say those who do not like reading historical fiction in the form of poems are wrong. It is to take the position that the book is a heartfelt and deeply personal account of one specific camp and a generation of people. If it serves to develop greater depth of emotion and knowledge and more sensitivity, then so be it.

The dead, the fallen

were lifted by weak arms

and carried for hours

back to the ghetto

as the rain became mist,

the road endless.

The poems evolved from facts serving to increase our empathy and knowledge, to imagine what lives were lived and lost. They imprint an indelible impression on the heart and soul. Music in the Terezin Ghetto was,

…played as only the heartbroken can play.

 

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