Poetry in Holocaust Education: “Testimony” by Dan Pagis

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. Dan Pagis was a Holocaust survivor, born in
Romania. He began writing poems in his adopted language, Hebrew, shortly after his arrival
in pre-state Israel. But the first poems he published on the Holocaust, would
wait for 25 years. I would dare say that ‘Testimony’ is a
difficult poem. That the tone of the poem is a contained anger, and that the theological
question about the presence or absence of god during the Holocaust, is being addressed
here, under a glaring spotlight. This is only one of the themes, and I will present the
other interlocking themes as they unfold through the poem. The first four lines, present a picture of
the perpetrators, and Pagis is very simply stating, that this perversion of human behaviour
was in fact human. And that no one should relegate their inhuman behaviour to the world
of animals. This insistence on their being humans, in the phrase, “No no: they definitely
were human beings”, warns us, that if humans perpetrated these obscenities once, the evil
could repeat again, and unfortunately, how right Pagis was. He lived to read about the
atrocities that were exacted on millions in Cambodia in the 70’s, and one can assume sadly, that
he would not have been surprised by the recurrence in Rwanda, and other locations in later decades,
up until today. In the fourth line, we have the first reference
to god. “They were created in the image”. This description of the perpetrators, in uniforms,
and boots, created in the image of god, sounds like a sarcastically laden statement about
the Nazis. As opposed to the victims. The middle two lines of the poem, noticeably
separated by blank lines above and below them, present the heart of the poem. “I was a
shade, a different creator made me”. In the original Hebrew, Pagis creates a play
on words between the Hebrew words Tselem, the image of god, and Tsel, shadow. Which
is slightly shorter but sounds similar. So Pagis has uniquely used the Hebrew words to
present the theological difficulty, of reducing the idea of god to a shade, or a shadow, without
mass or body, representing the victims. In the three monotheistic religions, there
is only one god. And when Pagis talks about another creator, he is harking back to Babylonian
times. Before the first monotheistic religion, when other different gods, created the various
forces and shapes in nature. This is tantamount to a negation of the idea of the one god.
With Pagis’ phrase, “a different creator made me”, lingering, and reverberating
in our minds. In the last five lines, we return to the living
survivor. We read about god’s mercy, in leaving nothing of me that would die. “And
I fled to him”, “forgiving”, even “apologizing”, “without image or likeness”. It appears
that in clear ironic descriptions, the poet as a representative of the victims, has been
transformed into a mirror image of god, smoke, to omnipotent smoke. But without the omnipotence.
With these phrases the poet has provided an uncomfortable picture of the survivor doing
the forgiving, which by the end of the line, has actually become an apology. An apology
for surviving. This can only be understood as an anguished irony. This is hard for any reader to deal with because
the inversion Pagis has created of the murderers being the human beings, and their victims apologizing
for their survival, is an unpalatable presentation of the protagonist in this tragedy. This phenomenon
of apologizing, is mirrored in the very real time lag that marked the absence of any real
dealing with this recent tragedy. The problem of how to handle the Holocaust in the decades
after the war, was shelved. Governments put it on a back burner, historians were not yet
foraging the facts, and the survivors themselves, were for the most part silent or apologizing.
The spate of memoirs presenting private sufferings, would have to wait for several
decades, until the survivors felt secure enough to relate realities, that beggar description. This poem of Pagis was published 25 years
after the events. Pagis began this poem by presenting the Germans as created in the image
of god. The two lines in the middle of the poem relate to the essence of this creator.
And the last five lines of the poem conclude, with a virtual elimination of the
survivor-victim. Pagis called this poem ‘Testimony’. Now testimony, is given in a court of law.
And someone, is usually on the accused bench. So the question that gathers emotional volume
throughout the poem, and that still remains to be answered at the end of the poem is,
who was Pagis accusing, when he wrote this poem he called ‘Testimony’?

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