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6 Muted Chords The Survivor I am twenty-four led to slaughter I survived. These labels are empty and synonymous: man and beast love and hate friend and foe light and dark. Man can be killed like the beast I've seen: cartloads of hacked-up bodies who will never be saved. Concepts are but words: virtue and crime truth and falsehood beauty and ugliness courage and cowardice. Virtue and vice have equal weight I've seen: a man who was vicious and virtuous. I seek a teacher and master From Victim to Survivor let him restore to me sight hearing and speech let him once again name things and concepts let him separate light from dark. 109 110 I am twenty-four led to slaughter I survived. (Tadeusz Rozewicz, 7) Muted Chords T adeusz Rozewicz's 1947 poem, "The Survivor," inspired by his experiences in the Polish underground movement during its struggle against the Nazi invasion, moves from seeming triumph to ironic despair. While the protagonist of The Painted Bird struggles to survive, as Kosinski explains in his Notes, "because he cannot do otherwise, because his is a total incarnation of the urge for self-realization and self-preservation" (16), Rozewicz's survivor questions the worth of survival . The poem's survivor cannot dismiss what he has witnessed, yet he does not know how to absorb it. The poem focuses not on atrocity itself-its depiction takes only one line-but on the moral chaos left in its wake. The "hacked-up bodies" call into question all the survivor wishes to believe in; they signal the devaluation of human life and reduce moral "concepts" to mere "words," empty rhetoric. Witness to events so searing that they blind him, Rozewicz's survivor becomes a mute witness, deprived of "sight hearing sound." His inability to connect to the world on a sensory level serves as an analog for a corresponding inability to make moral distinctions. He remembers the words-"man," "beast," "virtue," "crime," "truth," "falsehood"-but not their sense. The intermingling of"light and dark" evokes the primeval void-the tohu-bohu before the "beginning," before the "Word." Like Kosinski's protagonist, Rozewicz's survivor has lost faith in words. The paradigms that order his universe have been shattered. With neither humanly nor divinely sanctioned values, he rejects the value-laden language of abstract moral concepts. He seeks a "master" to restore order to the chaos man has wrought-someone godlike, to distinguish light from dark, to infuse words once again with meaning. Ultimately this divine task may prove beyond mortal ability; the shattered world, Rozewicz implies, may not be ours to piece together. Thus, the poem ends as it begins, with the fact of survival-but a survival burdened with a devastating knowledge, a knowledge that undoes all other knowing. Perhaps this is why Charlotte Delbo ends the first volume of her trilogy, Auschwitz and After, with the following words: "None of us will return. / None of us was meant to return" (113-14). Some scenes, some events remain too devastating to integrate psychologically and cogni- Muted Chords 111 tively. Three decades later, Argentinean journalist Jacobo Timerman discusses the effect of atrocity on the tender bonds of family and filial connection. For Timerman, incarcerated more than thirty years after the defeat of the Third Reich by another anti-Semitic regime, the systematic torture of family groups in view of one another marks "the true end ofthe civilization I'd been reared in" (Prisoner Without a Name 149). The tender bonds of intimacy prove fragile in the face of such brutality; the personal and communal values associated with them fall apart: The entire affective world, constructed over the years with utmost difficulty, collapses with a kick in the father's genitals , a smack on the mother's face, an obscene insult to the sister, or the sexual violation of a daughter. Suddenly, an entire culture based on familial love, devotion, the capacity for mutual sacrifice, collapses. (148) An encounter with atrocity on so massive a scale as the Holocaust-not one family, not several, but millions-rends the fabric of culture and faith. Whatever once held at the center of one's universe--God, man, political ideology, nature-holds no longer. More than the struggle against great odds for survival, the search for a moral center informs much ofthe writing by and about survivors of Nazi genocide. So much so, that some readers express concern that the psychological and moral struggle...


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