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Poetry, love & literature after Auschwitz

Literary Landscapes is a monthly column by Indra Wussow, a writer, translator and director of the Sylt Foundation.

Growing up in the 1970s in West Germany, life was still very much defined by silence.

The silence was imperative when it came to our families’ pasts when it came to their potential in the monstrous crimes committed by the Nazis – whom nobody seemed to have followed. The village I grew up in was a place that had probably not changed much between the end of the war and my childhood. All 450 inhabitants knew each other, which does not mean that envy, resentment and ignorance were not an integral part of village life and, of course, village talk. The smalltown girl did not grow up with heroes or freedom fighters but with farmers and villagers who tried to forget their involvement in the Nazi machinery, often rather styling themselves as victims. Their skill at looking away was only matched by their stubborn refusal to address the past. It was a strange situation to be brought up in. On the one hand were my relatives who were refugees and stranded in the village, bare of everything and never welcomed in their new place. On the other hand, there were those who had lived quite safely in the village, who knew the war through their fathers, husbands, sons and cousins who often did not return, but they themselves lived unperturbed until the downfall of the Thousand-Year Reich. They kept silent, and turned the past into an abyss of speechlessness. 

Literary Landscapes
Scenes from Büscherheide

The relatives from Ostpreussen (East Prussia) hardly ever talked and worked the hardest to finally arrive somewhere. Where they hoped to arrive, they never specified. Only after several Likörchen (liqueurs) did they start crying and bemoaning the loss of their homes. Their generous figures were witness to their fight to combat their homelessness with Schnaps and Schwarzwälderkirschtorte (Black Forest Gateau). Only much later did the young woman understand that this tragedy was made worse by the silence of the time, and the seemingly impossible task of the different generations learning from the difficult past together. In school there was the enormous effort to learn from this difficult past. The time of the Nazis was discussed widely, with all its horrendous aspects. The young, 12-year-old student was left with an appalling feeling of guilt and powerlessness when faced with the crimes that were so deliberately blamed on others – the Nazi was always the other. The shameful silence in most families remained intact despite vast research on a social level. The diaries of the 13-year-old Anne Frank and her death in the concentration camp of Bergen Belsen were the last spark needed to besiege the persistent silence of our families.

Literary Landscapes
Scenes from Büscherheide

In the midst of persecution and death, Anne Frank wrote in her diary: ‘I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.’ A sentence that made our blood freeze, thinking about the apparent indifference we were facing in our homes. Society was ready to confront the horrors of the past and tried to explore how such a murderous regime could rise to power and commit their crimes almost unhindered. The literature of ‘Group 47’, named after the year it was formed, intended a radical new beginning and challenged the restorative order of the time in many of their works. As it stemmed from the rubble of the second world war, it was called Trümmerliteratur (rubble literature) or Kahlschlag (eradication). We grew up with these texts that our parents did not read, and our grandparents neither read nor discussed. A memento mori ignored by those who still preferred to live in the enormous void of silence.

Literary Landscapes
The Jewish Cemetery Preußisch Oldendorf

Time passed, and the new generation really tried to make a difference. Jewish cemeteries were restored by engaging citizens, but many local people still kept up the ruse that they had not known anything about the Holocaust. Their claim to be innocent was something so shameful for their descendants that it turned into a brimming feeling of powerless, and sometimes even self-hatred, in the next generations. For the young generation, shame was an integral part of our upbringing. A shame not to be talked about, and not to be understood. It took years and hard work to overcome the silence, to study the dark history, and to make this history a turning point; a place that should never be visited again. Chained and locked by examining it, not by leaving it to itself. The darkest place humankind ever inhabited, a place darker than one could ever have imagined before. If there could ever be poetry or love after Auschwitz was a question so often asked. If there is a form of comfort, it is that love and poetry did flourish and taught us that beauty can arise out of the darkest space. An example of which is the famous poem Die Todesfuge (The Death Fugue) by Paul Celan, himself a survivor of the Holocaust. It teaches us about trauma and survival, about guilt, and that healing wounds always needs to start in recognising one’s own involvement. The important task of the descendants of perpetrators to make a difference is to accept that there is a guilt, and even if it is not their own, it is their responsibility to ensure such crimes never happen again.   

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