- Anthony Hecht in Occupied Japan
That Anthony Hecht spent more time in Japan than he did in Europe while in the U.S. Army was a small but curious detail that intrigued me as I researched his powerful and moving war poems, which include “‘More Light! More Light!,’” “Rites and Ceremonies,” “Still Life,” and “The Book of Yolek,” to name the ones widely anthologized. These pieces and the others written over his long career that have been the moral center of his work had their wellspring in Hecht’s experiences as an infantryman in Germany and as an interpreter at Flossenbürg, a concentration camp. Every substantial interview I read discussed his service in Europe, sometimes at length, and all suggested that his World War ii experience was dehumanizing and harrowing. Of Flossenbürg, he would tell Philip Hoy, “The place, the suffering, the prisoners’ accounts were beyond comprehension. For years after, I would wake shrieking.” The poems, up to and including “Sacrifice,” in his last collection, The Darkness and the Light, were Hecht’s way of responding to this formative experience in the dying weeks of the war. It haunts him, as it does the speaker of “The Book of Yolek,” published some thirty-seven years after the war’s end:
How often you have thought about that camp, As though in some strange way you were driven to, And about the children, and how they were made to walk, Yolek who had bad lungs, who wasn’t a day Over five years old, commanded to leave his meal And shamble between armed guards to his long home.
As the war in Europe drew to a close, Hecht’s army service did not: despite his own best efforts (I later found out) and those of his mother, Dorothea, who wrote in protest to Under Secretary of War Robert Patterson, Hecht and his division were reassigned to occupation duty in Japan. There is little in the published interviews about this period in the poet’s life, apart from a short paragraph in Hoy’s book-length interview with Hecht. What had Hecht done, how had he felt, in the immediate aftermath of Flossenbürg?
My inquiries led me to the Hecht archive at Emory University, where an altogether different Anthony Hecht began to emerge from the letters and other material collected there, one who was funnier, more high-spirited, and, yes, even happier than anyone had a right to expect, given his experience [End Page 641] in Europe and the subsequent reconfiguring of those matters in verse. This can be explained in a number of ways, not the least of which is the resilience of youth and the reflex to suppress what cannot be circumscribed. Nor had Hecht had time to assimilate what he had seen and learned; whereas after the war, he explained to Hoy, he “read widely in Holocaust literature,” which provided perspective on how appallingly common was the experience of the prisoners at Flossenbürg. Finally the letters probably exhibit the self-censorship of the typical infantryman writing home, if not the official censorship that the military routinely enforced. Stanley Huff, like Hecht a member of the 97th Infantry Division, published in the year 2000 a collection of letters entitled Unforgettable Journey. These letters provide a parallel to Hecht’s own letters as we follow both men through Europe and Japan. Huff explains that his letters were “considerably more lighthearted” than he was at the time: “Censorship limited what could be said in those [letters] we did write; however, I tried hard to let my parents know I was still alive, and to give them the feeling that all was going well, whether it was or not.” Of one batch from Germany, he observes, “In the letters from this period, I kept writing, ‘There isn’t anything to say.’ It would have been more accurate had I written, ‘I can’t think of anything to write about that isn’t horrible.’” As I read Hecht’s letters from the war, I also came to understand that his interval in Japan, although far less traumatic and revelatory than his European tour of duty, was part...