Cemetery days

Pub date October 30, 2007
WriterAri Messer

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REVIEW A smaller selection of the poems in A Wall of Two would have been easier to take. Presented here in more than 50 bone-shaking adaptations by poet Fanny Howe, the devastating early works by sisters Henia and Ilona Karmel, survivors of the German concentration camp Buchenwald, are so harrowing I could read only a few at a time. But a lighter load would have detracted from their representation of a horrific captivity and possibly kept us from looking at suffering as the Karmel sisters do: directly in its dirty, doomed face.

When they were sent from Kraków, Poland, to forced labor camps in 1943, Ilona was 17 years old, Henia 20. Amid brutal work shifts behind barbed wire in Germany and Poland, the determined women, bordering on starvation but inspired by an education rich in literature and verse, scribbled poems on stolen work sheets. They sewed them into the hems of their dresses, and Henia, believing that her death was imminent, managed to hand them off, during a forced march near the end of the war, to a cousin, who in turn got them to Henia’s husband, Leon Wolfe. By the time the sisters were reunited with Wolfe, they had suffered mutiutf8g injuries by German tanks and, oddly, had each had one leg amputated.

Smuggled away from such darkness, the poems in A Wall of Two are intimate, physical, sometimes clumsy observations of a dire reality. They home in on a sense of looming threat, evoking the state of captivity as relentlessly as Jacobo Timerman did in sections of Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number, his 1981 masterpiece of human rights literature. In "A Child’s Vision of Peace," Ilona, who would later win acclaim for her 1986 novel An Estate of Memory (set in the concentration camps), envisions two boys cautiously standing face-to-face. They "grasp hands and hang on / As if they held a hammer and sickle," then suddenly lash out at each other: "Take that, and that." In "The Land of Germany," Henia is surrounded by wires "Barbed and bright / Like mad-dog teeth."

In many of her bleak little songlike poems, Henia scratches lines as stark as etchings on a prison wall: "Cemetery days / One after the other"; "You don’t believe what’s happening here, / Do you, my poor horrified brothers?"; "Sometimes a dream stupidly hangs on" — her verse rendered in Howe’s minimalist adaptations of literal translations from the Polish. Howe writes that she often chose to prune back "dangling clauses" or "excess adjectives" in order to bring forth the essential images in the poems, and such scaled-back lines cast a light on Henia’s brutal irony in "Snapshots":

And do you want to know

what I do for a living?

I’m not joking.

I sort shell casings

It’s the best job

because killing is good

and time passes fast

when the work has a purpose.

Cunning and immediate, poems such as this are sandwiched between remarkable letters and essays, stories and acknowledgements, reminders that if any of the little twists of fate hadn’t occurred, everything could have quickly disappeared — not just the wall of words, but the women fighting behind it. *


By Henia Karmel and Ilona Karmel

Adaptations by Fanny Howe

Translated by Arie A. Galles and Warren Niesluchowski

University of California Press

158 pages; $45 hardcover, $16.95 paper