In 1945, at the age of 22, Pvt. Anthony Hecht (1923–2004) participated in the liberation of the Flossenbürg concentration camp in Bavaria. His experiences interviewing French prisoners would torment the young soldier, who was himself Jewish, for the rest of his life. The atrocities Hecht witnessed at the concentration camp left him, as he wrote, “scarred in thought and memory” and compelled him to write about the Holocaust in such poems as “Rites and Ceremonies,” “More Light! More Light!”, “It Out-Herods Herod. Pray you, Avoid It.”, “Persistences,” and a sestina, “The Book of Yolek.” As J. D. McClatchy writes in his introduction to the recent Selected Poems, Hecht’s poetry is “a responsible art, an art that responds to history, to political and domestic tragedies, with an awareness of personal accountability,” and “enable[s] the reader to share…both the baffled suffering of human-kind and the consoling wonder of language.”
Hecht’s own accounts of the wrenching events that inspired “The Book of Yolek” are as revealing as his compositional process. Our reading of the poem is enriched by an increased knowledge of Hecht’s intentions, as delineated in his interviews with Philip Hoy and in his “Commentary” in Jewish American Poetry (2000), edited by Jonathan N. Barron and Eric Murphy Selinger, in which Hecht explains—perhaps with retrospective clarity unavailable to him at the time of composition—his formal decisions, specifically his choice of the sestina to create a mood of obsessive thinking, to suggest both the necessary and nightmarish aspects of memory.
When Hecht was discharged it was at first impossible for the young poet to read or write. In time, he found solace again in literature and [End Page 336] began what would become an enduring practice: reading and writing about the Holocaust so as to better understand what he had witnessed. In his research on World War II, Hecht stumbled across a self-consciously fictionalized account by Hanna Mortkowicz-Olczakowa of what has become a legendary chapter in Holocaust history: the round-up of Jewish children in the middle of breakfast at a Polish orphanage. Their instructor, Yanosz Korczak, who was also a doctor, famously refused to abandon the children on their way to extermination, sacrificing his life to comfort them in their final moments. While many of the facts are unknown, there are records of the children’s names and eyewitness accounts of their tragic procession out of the village. Hecht’s exposure to Mortkowicz-Olczakowa’s account made a profound impression and led to “The Book of Yolek,” which tells the story of one boy, Yolek, on his journey from the orphanage to the concentration camp.
Although Hecht did not witness this particular event, his poem has the authority of experience, particularly in light of his more autobiographical Holocaust poetry. Mortkowicz-Olczakowa’s piece, for all of its bleakness, makes redemptive gestures that are not as apparent (if present at all) in Hecht’s retelling of the story. Before naming the victims, Mortkowicz-Olczakowa concludes her account with an attempt to sacralize the children through the religious language of martyrdom, suggesting that their lives have not been erased because we know their names and their story. For Mortkowicz-Olczakowa, Yolek and his classmates attain a hallowed afterlife: “This small group, under the leadership of Yanosz Korczak, has received eternal glory…the members of which are known by name, among the tens of thousands whose names a malevolent fate causes to be forgotten forever in the chaos of the general extermination.” The “eternal glory” the children and their supervisors have received suspends them in time, as they exist in a perpetual journeying state (implied in this image is the idea, I think, that our knowledge of the children enables them to exist eternally en route to an afterlife, rather than to death, even though cremation is a nightmarish step along the way). The children’s existence outside of time is further [End Page 337] reinforced at the very end of the piece, when Mortkowicz-Olczakowa writes: “From the scaffold of the ghetto and from the smoking crematoria of Treblinka—they travel on their way to eternity.”