These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

a poem for Yom Hashoah

Posted on April 17, 2012 by Reka Eszter

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Dear All,

Coming from a country and family shocked by the Holocaust for all time, I thought that I would share with you one of the poems that was most emotional for me on this topic.

János Pilinszky was one of the greatest poets of 20th century Hungarian literature. He was born in 1921 and was called to duty in ’44 where he quickly got wounded and spent the rest of the war in a German army hospital at Harbach where he was close to a concentration camp and was faced by the cruelty of this world.

Being deeply religious Catholic he was never able to get over this experience, understand how Christian people never stood up, how the Holocaust could be reconciled with his religious beliefs, with his God and his poetry was deeply effected by the Shoah till his death.

For me it is extremely emotional to see the response of someone who has no personal connection to Judaism to the tragedy of the Jewish people. He often uses Christian (Bible) language in his attempts to understand and this is a very different voice of what I am used to. This is one of his strongest poems which also speaks about the afterlife of a someone who couldn’t/didn’t help:

The French Prisoner

If only I could forget him, the Frenchman
I saw outside our quarters, creeping round
near daybreak in that density of garden
as if he’d almost grown into the ground.
He was just looking back, peering about him
to check that he was safe here and alone:
once he was sure, his plunder was all his!
Whatever chanced, he’d not be moving on.

He was already eating. He was wolfing
a pilfered turnip hidden in his rags.
Eating raw cattle feed. But he’d no sooner
swallowed a mouthful than it made him gag;
and the sweet food encountered on his tongue
delight and then disgust, as it might be
the unhappy and the happy, meeting in
their bodies’ all-consuming ecstasy.

Only forget that body… Shoulder blades
trembling, and a hand all skin and bone,
the palm cramming his mouth in such a way
that it too seemed to feed in clinging on.
And then the furious and desperate shame
of organs galled with one another, forced
to tear from one another what should bind them
together in community at last.

The way his clumsy feet had been left out
of all that gibbering bestial joy; and how
they stood splayed out and paralyzed beneath
the body’s torture and fierce rapture now.
And his look too – if I could forget that!
Retching, he went on gobbling as if driven
on and on, just to eat, no matter what,
anything, this or that, himself even.

Why go on? It turned out that he’d escaped
from the prison camp nearby – guards came for him.
I wander, as I did then in that garden,
among my garden shadows here at home.
“If only I could forget him, the Frenchman” –
I’m looking through my notes, I read one out,
and from my ears, my eyes, my mouth, the seething
memory boils over in his shout:

“I’m hungry!” And immediately I feel
the undying hunger which this wretched creature
has long since ceased to feel, for which there is
no mitigating nourishment in nature.
He feeds on me. More and more hungrily!
And I’m less and less sufficient, for my part.
Now he, who would have been contented once
with any kind of food, demands my heart.

There are some other poems here: