27 January 2023

Praying through poetry and
with USPG: 27 January 2023

The train tracks in Auschwitz-Birkenau (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Christmas is not a season of 12 days, despite the popular Christmas song. Christmas is a 40-day season that lasts from Christmas Day (25 December) to Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation next Thursday (2 February).

Throughout the 40 days of this Christmas Season, I have been reflecting in these ways:

1, Reflecting on a seasonal or appropriate poem;

2, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

I interrupted that pattern for the past week to mark the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which came to an end on Wednesday.

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, and the theme for this year is ‘Ordinary People’. It focuses on the idea that it is ordinary people that facilitate genocide – and that those who are persecuted are ordinary people who belong to a particular group. My choice of a poem this morning is ‘Testimony’ by the Israeli poet Dan Pagis (1930-1986).

Dan Pagis was born in a German-speaking Jewish family in Bukovina, Romania (present-day Ukraine), and was interned in a concentration camp as teenager before escaping in 1944 and emigrating to Israel.

He wrote in Hebrew, a language he learned only as a teenager, and his first poems about the Holocaust appeared 25 years after the events. He also taught mediaeval Jewish literature at the Hebrew University.

His poem ‘Testimony’ draws attention to the experience of the victims of the Shoah, not the perpetrators. The perpetrators are just ‘uniforms and boots’; instead we are drawn the survivor’s voice.

Like so many survivors of the Holocaust and other traumas, the poet’s life is changed. He is more like smoke than a human being – a shade or shadow, in the central stanza, rather than an ‘image’.

In the Hebrew original, there is wordplay between these two words, as they differ only by one crucial letter (‘tzelem’ and ‘tzel’ are the words for ‘image’, and ‘shade’, respectively). Being a ‘shade’ or a shadow is a poignant and troubling description of life after trauma, and fits with this year’s theme for Holocaust Memorial Day.

Life does not simply return to ‘normal’ after events like those Pagis experienced. Moreover, the poet, who did nothing wrong, even feels the need to apologise to God in the last stanza – an example of the survivor’s guilt that has been well-documented amongst survivors of the Shoah and trauma in general.

The poet’s shadow-like existence is a challenge to the closure we seek in art and literature. Although the poet has lived to tell the tale, there is no happy ending here, no easy comfort. A simple contrast between light and dark is not appropriate here; the shadows persist even in the light of liberation.

The poem also voices anger at humanity: ‘No, no, they were definitely human beings’, reads the first line. The perpetrators were not monsters or animals. They were created in the image, they were humans like us.

The humanity of the perpetrators is a reminder of genocides in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur. The only hope is that human beings ‘be the light in the darkness’, not the perpetrators of violence.

This poem directs our attention to the victims, in empathy, and to our shared human nature, in resolve. It is, perhaps, this journey as readers from smoky formlessness to anger and resolve that is this poem’s hope. Even so, the shadow-like existence of the survivor is a haunting and significant image.

A Holocaust memorial at the Jewish cemetery in Berlin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Testimony, by Dan Pagis (1930-1986):

No, no: they definitely were
human beings: uniforms, boots.
How to explain? They were created
in the image.

I was a shade.
A different creator made me.

And he in his mercy left nothing of me that would die.
And I fled to him, rose weightless, blue,
forgiving – I would even say: apologizing –
smoke to omnipotent smoke
without image or likeness.

The gates of Auschwitz (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

USPG Prayer Diary:

The theme in the USPG Prayer Diary last week was the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The theme this week is the ‘Myanmar Education Programme.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday with a reflection from a report from the Church of the Province of Myanmar.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (Holocaust Memorial Day) invites us to pray in these words:

Let us pray for the Rohingya people, denied citizenship in Myanmar and persecuted. May we never forget the Holocaust and work ceaselessly for justice for all ethnic minorities.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued Tomorrow

The Holocaust Memorial at the Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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