The witness body

“Can one imagine the Holocaust without thinking about bodies? The graphic images of the slaughter are now etched in Western consciousness like the tattoos imprinted on the arms of inmates. Emaciated limbs, gaunt faces and hollow eyes stare out at us from countless photographs since the camps were liberated, and numerous survivor accounts have filled in the details of daily life during the Holocaust. As Primo Levi observed, in the camps the human body was treated as ‘an object, an anonymous thing belonging to no one’; it was thus capable of being put to any number of uses – medical experimentation, sexual violence, casual brutality, pointless killing.” 

This quote was taken from “The Body,” in Writing the Holocaust, Jean-Marc Dreyfus and Daniel Langton, eds. (London: Bloomsbury, 2011), in press.

The literature on the holocaust (the genocide of six million Jews by the National Socialist regime in Germany during World War 2) is vast. A sample can be found here. The Hebrew word Shoah (meaning calamity) is preferred by many Jews for a number of reasons, including theological. A subset of this literature is “witness” literature, written by the victims themselves.

 3 witness poems:

  1. Primo Levi (Italian original “Se questo è un uomo”, English translation “If This Is a Man”)
  2. Paul Celan (German original “Todesfuge”, English translation “Death Fugue”)
  3. Miklós Radnóti (Hungarian original, English translation)

Se questo è un uomo

Voi che vivete sicuri
Nelle vostre tiepide case,
voi che trovate tornando a sera
Il cibo caldo e visi amici:
Considerate se questo è un uomo
Che lavora nel fango
Che non conosce pace
Che lotta per mezzo pane
Che muore per un sì o per un no.
Considerate se questa è una donna,
Senza capelli e senza nome
Senza più forza di ricordare
Vuoti gli occhi e freddo il grembo
Come una rana d’inverno.
Meditate che questo è stato:
Vi comando queste parole.
Scolpitele nel vostro cuore
Stando in casa andando per via,
Coricandovi alzandovi;
Ripetetele ai vostri figli.
O vi si sfaccia la casa,
La malattia vi impedisca,
I vostri nati torcano il viso da voi.

 (Primo Levi, 1947)

If This Is a Man

You who live safe
In your warm houses;
You who find on returning in the evening
Hot food and friendly faces:

Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a bit of bread
Who dies because of a yes and because of a no

Consider if this is a woman,
Without hair and without name
Without enough strength to remember
Vacant eyes and cold womb
Like a frog in the winter:

Reflect on the fact that this has happened:
These words I commend to you:
Inscribe them on your heart
When staying at home and going out,

Going to bed and rising up;
Repeat them to your children:
Or may your house fall down,
Illness bar your way,
Your loved ones turn away from you.

(Trans. Robert E. Williams)

Paul Celan’s poem Todesfuge is here (in the original German). The translation “Death Fugue” is here.

Mellézuhantam, átfordult a teste
s feszes volt már, mint húr, ha pattan.
Tarkólövés. – Így végzed hát te is, –
súgtam magamnak, – csak feküdj nyugodtan.
Halált virágzik most a türelem. –
Der springt noch auf, – hangzott fölöttem.
Sárral kevert vér száradt fülemen.

(Miklós Radnóti, 1944)

I fell beside him; his body turned over,
Already taut as a string about to snap.
Shot in the back of the neck. That’s how you too will end,
I whispered to myself; just lie quietly.
Patience now flowers into death.
Der springt noch auf, a voice said above me.
On my ear, blood dried, mixed with filth.
(Translated by Emery George and included in Against Forgetting: 20th Century Poetry of Witness, edited by Carolyn Forché)


“In November of 1944, a Jewish Hungarian poet known for mixing innovative and classical styles, was shot into a mass grave with his notebook of last poems in his coat pocket. One of 3,200 Hungarian Jews forced by fascist militia to march hundreds of miles in retreat from Tito’s advancing armies, Miklós Radnóti remained under that mound for eighteen months before he was unearthed and later identified by his wife. What she found in that notebook damp with his body fluids were his last poems, including love poems scribbled to her, Fanni, known to her friends as Fifi.”


I will finish with some more quotes from “The Body,” in Writing the Holocaust, Jean-Marc Dreyfus and Daniel Langton, eds. (London: Bloomsbury, 2011), in press.

Rather than viewing state-sponsored anti-Semitism merely as a development localized in a specific time and place, theorists like Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno see it as one possible consequence of the general movement of Western civilization. Since ancient times, they claim, the body has played a double role in Western culture. Historically rejected as a source of weakness and vulnerability and the seat of emotions that threaten to cloud rational judgment, it is also secretly ‘desired as something forbidden, objectified, and alienated’…

In The Jew’s Body Sander Gilman describes the key role played by physical difference in the anti-Semitic imagination (mostly in the nineteenth century), where everything about Jews – noses, penises, chests, speech, and even the way they walked – was made to speak volumes about the gulf that separated these people from the human mainstream. Outright Jew haters have not had a monopoly on Jewish corporeal stereotyping, and if some insisted on the irredeemable differences between Jews and Gentiles, others argued that such variations were mainly due to custom and environment. Even non-racist forms of antiSemitism, which were sometimes applauded as ‘philosemitic’ proposals to ease the assimilation of Jews into the Gentile mainstream, demanded the erasure of Jewish differences in creed, culture, hygiene, and dress. The eighteenth-century fascination with neoclassical forms placed greater pressure on Jews as well as Gentiles to conform to idealized corporeal forms, which led pro-Jewish writers like the Abbé Grégoire to insist that the ‘regeneration’ of the Jews be partly carried out in relation to their sick, weak and nervous bodies…

In this way some of Horkheimer and Adorno’s broad claims about the body and Western civilization make some sense: in anti-Semitic logic Jews are said to represent sheer corporeality (as opposed to mind or spirit) and possess diseased and contaminating bodies…

While we cannot minimize or forget the specific circumstances that produced the Holocaust, we must also acknowledge its more general conditions of possibility. In many ways the beaten, starved, humiliated, and finally murdered Jewish body encapsulated the conflicted and often destructive relationship that many Westerners have had with the body in the modern era, notably the clash between its idealized capacities for youthful beauty, strength, and vitality and the abject facts of ageing, weakness, disease, decay, and death. As Martha Nussbaum argues, wishing for a body that denies the latter is to engage in a ‘fantasy of self-transcendence’ in which ‘crucial elements of the human are lacking. . . . Next door to the fantasy of a pure state is a highly dangerous and aggressive xenophobia’. If exterminating millions is rightly dubbed ‘inhuman’, so too are the fantasies of corporeal purity that coax such deadly projects into being.


About middleeuropeanmelancholy

64 year old Australian born male. Into travel, poetry, philosophy, music, popular physics, mathematics (especially topology)...
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