- Writing the Holocaust for Children: On the Representation of Unimaginable Atrocity
When reflecting on the subject of children and the Holocaust, Abraham Sutzkever’s “Poem about a Herring” (1946) nearly always springs first to my mind. In this profoundly moving and semantically intricate work, Sutzkever (1913–2010)—a Holocaust survivor, partisan hero of the Lithuanian Jewish resistance, and “one of the great Yiddish poets of his generation” (Berger)—describes a scene of horror typical of the Einsatzgruppen “Aktions” that occurred throughout Eastern Europe following the commencement of [End Page 147] Operation Barbarossa, the Nazis’ great Eastern offensive, on 22 June 1941. The Einsatzgruppen, or “Special Operations Squads,” were paramilitary units composed of members of the Nazi SS and SD and of various German police forces, including the Gestapo, who followed in the military’s footsteps as the Wehrmacht sliced through Poland and the Baltic states on their way to eventual defeat at Stalingrad in February 1943. At sites such as Babi Yar, they massacred over a period of two days more than 33,000 Jewish civilians, most of whom were killed by bullets fired at close range. Members of the Einsatzgruppen were responsible for the wet work of cultural cleansing from 1940 until 1942, when the psychological rigours of mass murder, coupled with the material wastefulness of this highly inefficient mode of human extermination, rendered concentration camps—capable of killing and disposing of millions of people—a more attractive option to the Nazi governing elite.
In his poem, Sutzkever imagines a mother and her child perched together on the lip of a burial trench, facing their Nazi executioners:
Right at the open limepit a child broke into tears: Mameh, I’m hungry, something to eat! So his mother momentarily forgot where she was —or she was forgotten by Him, God Who snatches time right from under our feet— and she quickly opened her satchel and gave her child this herring to eat. As if it were some silver bounty the young teeth grabbed the herring with pleasure. But quietly as though a nightingale suddenly burst into song from far away across blue waters a fiery string of notes of a sudden gave his head such a jolt. And out of the broken circle the naked child slid punctured into a pit. Frozen and grotesque this picture holds like a frieze: a child with a bloody herring in his mouth on a certain summer’s morning. And I search for that herring’s salt and still can not find its taste on my lips.(581)
Here Sutzkever captures key elements of a child’s experience of genocide, an experience marked by general incomprehension of his or her circumstances, vulnerability and mortal dependence on the kindness [End Page 148] of adults, nostalgia for earlier and more comfortable times, and the sudden exposure to unimaginably brutal violence.
Also present in the poem, partly because of the incomprehensibility of this violence, is the confusion of the surviving witness, Sutzkever’s speaker, who is confronted with the responsibility for making sense of this tragedy. The child’s final moments confound the speaker; try as he might, he cannot crack them open to peer inside. They offer no insight into the deeper meaning of the child’s death, and synecdochically of the genocide, beyond their obvious evocation of disconnection, absence, and loss—all important components of mourning. The poem ends with its speaker attempting to locate the contours of the boy’s death experience but failing to do so. The boy’s final moments of suffering remain visible from a distance only, their substance veiled by the passage of time and by the inevitable psychological and moral gulf separating the victim from the survivor. Such agony resists not merely signification but conceptualization in...