By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Theodore Adorno famously said that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. The idea that the atrocities of the Holocaust can be responded to through art – and especially the idea that words can be found to respond to such horrific events – has persisted in the popular mind.
And yet for some poets, to say nothing has seemed a dereliction of the artist’s duty, especially for those poets who view the writer’s role as one of bearing witness.
Below are some of the most notable and powerful poems about the horrors of the Holocaust, whether it’s the realities of the concentration camps, the barbarous acts of those who worked there, or the life of the survivors and of those who come afterwards.
There is a very good anthology of poetry about the Holocaust: Holocaust Poetry. Some of the poems introduced below are available in that collection. Content warning: as you may have guessed, many of these poems contain harrowing imagery and description.
1. Martin Niemöller, ‘First They Came…’
This is probably the most famous Holocaust poem in the world, and is often quoted or alluded to whenever one group of people fail to stand up for their fellow humans simply because they belong to a different group. A German pastor, Niemöller vocally opposed Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps.
Much like Geoffrey Hill’s ‘Ovid in the Third Reich’, the poem focuses on those innocent Germans who nevertheless stood by while the Nazis persecuted and killed millions of people.
2. Czesław Miłosz, ‘A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto’.
Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004) was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980, for being a writer who ‘voices man’s exposed condition in a world of severe conflicts’. One of these ‘conflicts’ was the Second World War and the Holocaust; Miłosz experienced the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, and wrote this poem about the Warsaw Ghetto, which was destroyed during the Jewish Uprising of 1943.
3. Paul Celan, ‘Death Fugue’.
The Romanian poet Paul Celan (1920-70) wrote ‘Todesfuge’ (‘Death Fugue’) in around 1945, and it was published in 1948. Since then, it has become one of the most famous and widely anthologised poems about the Holocaust, endeavouring to capture the horrors of the concentration camps through raw, powerful imagery and language.
However, Celan was not a prisoner in one of the death camps himself; he composed this poem from eyewitness testimonies he heard and read.
4. Elie Wiesel, ‘Never Shall I Forget’.
Wiesel (1928-2016) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 for being a ‘messenger to mankind’ who had written powerfully about ‘his own personal experience of total humiliation and of the utter contempt for humanity shown in Hitler’s death camps’.
The Romanian-born Wiesel, who was a child when he was interned at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, writes here about his first night in the concentration camp and seeing the bodies of young children turned into ‘wreaths of smoke’ beneath ‘a silent [Godless] blue sky’.
5. Anthony Hecht, ‘More Light! More Light!’
Taking its title from the supposed last words of Goethe, ‘More Light! More Light!’ juxtaposes two bitterly tragic and horrific moments from history: the martyrdom of a Protestant during sixteenth-century England and the treatment of Jewish prisoners in the Nazi concentration camps.
A very dark poem, but a moving one too. This probably doesn’t need saying in a post about Holocaust poems, but the poem describes some harrowing violence.
6. Geoffrey Hill, ‘September Song’.
Beginning with the birth and death dates of a child who, we are told, was ‘deported’ (a military euphemism, we soon realise, for ‘killed’) in September 1942, ‘September Song’ was written by an English poet who was born in 1932 – and who, had he been born to Jewish parents in Germany at that time, may never have survived.
Hill’s final line seems to hint at the difficulty of writing about the Holocaust. The loose form of the poem helps to lend Hill’s poem a tentativeness (imagine writing an elegy for a Holocaust victim in perfect heroic couplets), as if he is unsure of the fitness of poetry, or at least his poetry, to do justice to this recent atrocity that occurred very much in living memory.
It’s also worth pointing out that the poem is fourteen lines, summoning the spectre of the sonnet but denying us either its rhyme scheme or its iambic pentameter rhythm. Hill wants to put us in mind of the sonnet, rather than write one. (Again, would there be something blasé about writing a perfect sonnet with impeccable rhyme schemes after the horrors of Auschwitz? Many poems on this list are written in a looser, free verse than regular couplets or quatrains.)
7. Ruth Fainlight, ‘Archive Film Material’.
A short, powerful poem about seeing grainy black-and-white footage that appears to show something pleasant – a field of flowers beside a railway track – only to realise that it’s actually footage of men being unloaded from ‘the cattle trucks’ at Auschwitz.
8. Primo Levi, ‘The Survivor’.
No pick of the most notable Holocaust poems would be complete without one of the most famous survivors of the concentration camps, Primo Levi, who wrote about his experiences in a number of poems as well as in his prose works. Here he examines his own feelings as a survivor of the concentration camps in a raw, honest, and powerful poem.
For more important poems about the Holocaust we recommend the anthology Holocaust Poetry.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.