Sunday, December 04, 2011

Voices From the Depths

In his brief Author's Note, which appears at the end of Requiem, a slender but powerful collection of poems about the Terezin Ghetto, Paul B. Janeczko writes:

“I chose Requiem as the title of this collection because I saw many of the poems in it as solemn songs to the memory of the people who died within the walls of Theresienstadt.”

Solemn songs, indeed. These poems stand as memorials honoring the dead. They capture the sense of desperation and inevitability, the anguish and daily uncertainty of life for the Jews sent to this camp, where the Nazis showcased the talents of mostly artists and intellectuals from Prague as a sign to the world of the “humane” treatment the Jews were receiving.

As we know now, it was a complete and utter sham.

“By the time the Russian army liberated Terezin on April 20, 1945,” writes Janeczko in the Afterword, “nearly 140,000 European Jews had passed through the camp. About 35,000 never left Terezin, victims of disease, starvation, and brutality. Another 87,000 were transported to other concentration camps, such as Auschwitz, where all but a small number perished.”

With Janeczko’s help, though, some of the victims of the Nazi terror (as well as a few of the Nazis themselves) leave indelible impressions on us in this collection, their voices making their way to the page–and back to life–through the miracle of Janeczko’s pen.

"Although the poems in this collection are based on historical events and facts, most of the characters that appear in the poems are fictional," Janeczko acknowledges. "Some are composites based on my research. Others are totally invented.... the characters, their thoughts, and their conversations are products of my imagination."

Here is Hilda Bartos, a resident of the town forced to leave after its streets and homes are commandeered by the Nazis and set aside as a ghetto to hold the Jews:
This was a good town.
My family farmed,
raised goats for generations
before war arrived,
a menacing visitor
that took away my town
because its walls,
empty barracks
would be easy to guard.
They liked the railroad
so close in Bohusovice.
And Helena Berg/13376:
I wake to rare hugs, hurried
hugs, fragile hugs,
hugs as brittle
as the winter twigs that snap
as we walk
with eyes down
afraid to look at anything
And Franz Keller:
I am honored, Herr General,
that you have come to see
our crematorium,
the newest in the protectorate.

Let me show you how it works.
This body wrapped in sheets
will not object
to being part of our demonstration.
And Miklos, the boy known as “Professor,” who keeps a notebook hidden in his shoe to record his impressions as he wanders through the ghetto:
Morning moon,
in the window
beyond bare branches.
The hearse, too, is silent.
What can one say about these poems?

They touch the souls of the dead and the living simultaneously.

Each line, each word, is not merely a requiem but a song to the spirit of the victims.

Somehow, Janeczko has found the strength and courage to reach into the heart of each character and bring out of its depths a pulsing, vibrant voice so that these voices speak to us, the living, on page after page.

Thanks to the miracle of pen and ink--and the sympathetic heart of a poet like Janeczko who heard their plea from the grave--their voices can sing again.

For more information about Janeczko and his work, visit his website:

If you’d like to read more about Requiem, visit:


Anonymous said...

Powerful work (then again, I love Paul Janeczko's writing anyway) - I'll have to get my hands on a copy of this.

Anonymous said...

I would agree, this is an important and stunning collection of poems.

laurasalas said...

Wow. Heart-breaking, chilling, and more. Will have to find this collection.

Paul B. Janeczko said...

Thanks so much for your kind words, Bruce. I've been blessed to have gotten good reviews for my books. But rarely do I get one that is as beautifully rendered as yours. Thanks again.


Bruce Black said...

Thanks to all for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. (And thanks, Paul, for the lovely note.)