Michael Oren: The many Holocausts
Lemkin is better known today as an international lawyer and activist than as a poet. Born in 1900 in Russian Belarus, he embarked on a career after World War I as a public prosecutor in newly independent Poland. At the same time, he worked as an editor for one of the most famous Yiddish-language newspapers of the day, the Warsaw Haynt, where he wrote a legal-advice column; he also wrote essays and poetry in Hebrew and Yiddish.
Deeply concerned about the threat of fascism, in 1933 Lemkin launched an international legal campaign to protect Jews and other European racial and religious minorities from persecution. That effort failed, and it triggered an anti-Semitic backlash that cost him his government post. Lemkin lost nearly his entire family in the Holocaust. During the war he fled via Lithuania and Sweden to the United States, where he embarked once more on his quest for an international law against what he now called genocide. Lemkin’s campaign led to the 1948 United Nations’ Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which took effect in 1951.
Most of what we know of Lemkin’s ideas and efforts is based on his writings in English. His prose writings in Yiddish and Polish have only recently come to light, and his Hebrew poetry had long been presumed lost. We were therefore surprised to discover this poem hiding in the pages of an old Israeli newspaper. In a prefatory note to the poem, which was published in 1957 in Al HaMishmar, a newspaper sponsored by the left-wing Zionist faction Hashomer Hatzair, Lemkin said that “the world had begun to forget the great crime against the Jews.” In response, he turned not to law or history, but to literature.
Lemkin’s poem takes the form of a classic Hebrew lamentation over the tragic losses suffered by the Jewish people, whose names had been blotted out by their persecutors. (We’ve republished the full poem, and posted our own translation.) In language echoing the Israelite prophets, medieval Ashkenazic liturgical elegies, and the modern Hebrew poet Haim Nahman Bialik, Lemkin evokes the classic imagery of the ruined Jewish cityscape. In his verse, dogs and pigs defile half-buried Jewish bones as a terrible silence reigns in the empty streets. Like Bialik’s Kishinev in pre–World War I Russia and Isaiah’s Jerusalem millennia before, the ransacked, desolate city symbolizes the vanquished Jewish people, who, to paraphrase Isaiah, live on only in the form of “a sign and a remembrance.”
Lemkin’s anguished text also explains why the world had already begun to forget the Holocaust. Genocide represents more than a large-scale physical assault on human bodies, he suggests; it is also an attack on the very existence of minority cultures. In a genocide, books are burned and memories are extinguished. Lemkin describes a silent piano and a muted violin, whose owners have been disappeared and whose songs will never be heard again. “In the school, where you once taught,” he wrote, “Your gifted student will be punished, / For praising your name.”