Poetry of the Holocaust ~  LIT 216
Dr. Jonathan Alexander
Office, Parker Center, 319-F (Office hours TBA)
609-894-9311 or 856-222-9311 (x1123)
E-mail: jalexander@bcc.edu
Online syllabus: http://staff.bcc.edu/faculty_websites/jalexand/216syl-3.htm

Required texts:
1—Holocaust Poetry, ed. Hilda Schiff (1995)
2—Collected Poems, Primo Levi (poetry handout provided; access Levi biography online)

For a good introduction to this field of study, I suggest perusing the online article “The Poetry of the Holocaust” written by Karen Russell, Sara Leushke, Natasha Sweeting, and Jennifer Rosser.  http://cghs.dade.k12.fl.us/ib_holocaust2001/Ghettoes/education_culture/poetry_of_the_holocaust.htm

Throughout the course, you will be accessing various sites on the Internet to experience first-hand survivor testimonies, view photographs, and read additional details about important Holocaust-related information.

Learning Objectives ~ At the end of LIT 216, you should be able to:

  1. Write effectively on the historical, cultural, and social contexts of the production of poetry of the Holocaust
  2. Recognize the relationships among issues of identity, uses of metaphor and the looming sense of silence in this poetry
  3. Demonstrate the understanding that otherwise familiar aspects of theme, symbolism and authorial intention are viewed differently from any other type of writing
  4. Analyze poets’ struggle to regain an individual identity, communal awareness, and an overall sense of control over representation
  5. Articulate why so few people recognize the immediacy of images portrayed in Holocaust poetry
  6. Communicate your opinions regarding tolerance, diversity, and any lessons that may be learned from such experiences

Students will only reach the stated objectives by fulfilling each of the scheduled assignments listed in the table below.

ttendance: If the student is to profit from any course, he or she must attend class on a consistent basis.

Students must attend all classes for the full duration of each session. Should you need to miss a class for observance of religious holidays, jury duty, military duty, bereavement, or illness, you must notify the instructor by telephone or e-mail prior to or within 24 hours after the class. Without such communication, students forfeit the right to make up missed work. If such communication is made, students will be permitted to make up missed work at the beginning of the following class meeting. It is, therefore, the student’s responsibility to read the syllabus and be prepared for current as well as missed assignments.

Entering class late or leaving class early (without prior authorization) is considered disrespectful and will not be tolerated.

Academic Etiquette: Students will respect themselves, their peers and their instructors by considering the following:

Cell phones must be kept on silent. No calls are to be made or received during class. If you are expecting an important call during the class meeting time, notify me prior to class and quietly excuse yourself if the call is received. No text-messaging or game-playing will be tolerated.

While in the computer lab, students are permitted to access personal information only until the class session begins. No personal work (including e-mail, surfing, or any class assignments) may be conducted on the computers while our class is in session. Such behavior is disrespectful and such students will be excused from the class meeting without exception.

Students who wish to use the restrooms may do so by quietly leaving and re-entering the room. If a student believes he or she will require an absence of more than a few minutes, it is his responsibility to notify me accordingly.

Communication: Many means of communication are available to the student including telephone, e-mail and mailbox.

If you leave a message on my office voice-mail, please remember to speak clearly and provide your name, course information, and phone number if you request a return call.

If you contact me via e-mail, always include your FULL NAME AND CLASS SECTION in the subject line. Too often students forget to sign e-mail or have e-mail addresses without obvious identifiers. If you do not include your name and class in the subject line, I will not open the message.

Students who send me e-mail and do not receive a reply of any kind within 48 hours should assume it was never received. Such e-mails should be resent. I do not mind receiving redundant messages if you are unsure whether your message was transmitted (though I may only reply to one). If your message doesn’t present itself as urgent, I may reply quickly and briefly and ask to get back to you before long.

Students who send e-mails containing attachments must save these documents with one of the following extensions: DOC, DOCX, TXT, WPS, or RTF.

The box on my office door (Parker 319-F) is for students to submit documents of any kind. If you choose to slide documents under my door, you take the risk of having it accidentally swept up by housekeeping. Always follow-up with an e-mail or phone call.

Class Assignments:

All work written and submitted should utilize standard rules of grammar, sentence organization, paragraph organization, and diction.

All formal papers are to be typed, titled, double spaced, stapled, and carefully proofread.

All assignments are due on the date specified on the syllabus without exception. Assignments which are not submitted during the class session they are due will be penalized 15% for each subsequent day they are late.

If a student presents reasonable justification for an absence, such an absence does not allow for more time to complete assignments. When a student is absent the day an assignment is due, he or she must submit the assignment as an attachment via e-mail on or before the date it is due.

Since students are provided with all assignments and deadlines on the first day of the semester, excuses such as “crashed computers,” “misplaced data,” “misplaced disks,” or “empty printer ink cartridges” will not be accepted. All computer work should be saved twice (hard drive and floppy/flash).

Plagiarism will not be tolerated under any circumstances. Be aware that plagiarism includes (but is not limited to) copying someone else’s words without crediting the source; paraphrasing someone else’s words without crediting the source; using someone else’s ideas without crediting the source (even if rephrased in your own words); using facts not universally known which are obtained from a source without crediting the source; asking someone else to write your paper, either in whole or in part; or obtaining a paper or portion thereof by any means and submitting it as an original document. The penalty for plagiarism is failure of the assignment and potentially failure of the course (at the instructor’s discretion), and it may result in suspension or expulsion from the College (at the discretion of the Student Affairs Committee). Please refer to the BCC Student Handbook for additional information regarding College regulations and the handling of plagiarism.

List of Assignments:

JOURNAL RESPONSES: (To be completed prior to the assigned class meeting): Students will be expected to respond in writing to all scheduled assignments. Listed below each assigned reading on the syllabus are questions for further thought. After reading each assignment, write a complete response for each set of questions (minimum 100 words total). Students can expect to share their responses randomly in class (according to an assigned code) and have them checked periodically. If students cannot produce up-to-date, completed journal responses, points will be deducted.

POETIC EXPLICATION ESSAYS: Students are responsible for writing four 1000-word poetic explications on poems chosen from the list below (handout at end of syllabus). It is expected that brief references should also be made to at least two previously-discussed poems from class.
“Refugee Blues,” Auden, (p. 12-13)                                        “Harbach 1944,” Pilinsky (p. 48-49)
“Treblinka,” Hamburger (p. 56)                                                           “Babii Yar,” Yevtushenko (p. 92-94)
“The Sun of Auschwitz,” Borowski (p. 119)                           “Race,” Gershon (p. 161)

MIDTERM EXAM: Students will take an objective exam covering a selection of the poems discussed in class, information from any documentary videos viewed, and information from the various websites listed in the syllabus. More information about this exam will be provided as the date nears.

FINAL EXAM: Students will take an objective exam covering a selection of the poems discussed near the end of the course. More information about this exam will be provided as the date nears.

Graded Assignments

Due Date




























100 pts




Final Percentages

Letter Grade

88.5 - 100


87.5 - 88


79.5 - 87


77.5 - 79


74.5 - 77


69.5 - 74


0 - 69


NOTE: Students are also strongly recommended to participate in this semester’s trip to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, which is scheduled for SATURDAY, OCTOBER 11, 2008. More information will follow about possible extra credit assignments.

Session 1:__________ 9-2
Course introduction; discussion of syllabus and assignments


Session 2:__________ 9-4
VIDEO: The Nazis, A Warning From History


Session 3:__________ 9-9
“The Shoemaker’s Wife”, Lotte Kramer (7)

Journal Questions: What details of the poem suggest that the trips the woman makes with her mended shoes are not known to her husband? What role do the sons play in forwarding the poem’s intended message? Who or what do the sons represent? Why is the theme of “suspicion” important in this poem? Why are the woman’s eyes referred to as “sad postmarks”?

See also: The Boycott of Jewish Businesses (http://www.ushmm.org/outreach/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007693)

Testimony: Hanne Hirsch Liebmann describes harassment and anti-Jewish sentiment in Germany (http://www.ushmm.org/lcmedia/viewer/wlc/testimony.php?RefId=HLB0050F)


“The Burning of the Books,” Bertolt Brecht (8)

Journal Questions: What is ironic about the “letter” the writer sends “to those in power”? Why does he insist “Burn me!”? What would it mean for him to be included? What would it mean to be excluded?

See also: German University Book Burnings (http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/article.php?lang=en&ModuleId=10005852)


Session 4:__________ 9-11

“First They Came For the Jews,” Pastor Martin Niemoller (9)

Journal Questions: What message of duty or responsibility is the poem portraying? At what time in your life did you speak out against intolerance, prejudice or bigotry? When can you remember not doing or saying something you later thought you should have? Investigate the Good Samaritan Law and argue how or why it might relate to this poem.

See also: The Parable of the Good Samaritan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Good_Samaritan)

and The Bystander Effect (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bystander_intervention)


“A Footnote Extended,” Dannie Abse (10)

Journal Questions: Why is it significant that Friedell changed his name and converted his religion? What is the symbolism of the “wax apples” and “paper flowers” with respect to the character of Friedell? Why is it fitting that he is ultimately seen in a “bachelor room?” Whom does he think he’s killing? Comment on the apparent identity crisis experienced by Friedell. Make an argument for how the character of Friedell might be a metaphor for Hitler himself.

See also: Psychiatric delusion (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delusion)


Session 5:__________ 9-14

 “How Can I See You, Love,” David Vogel (14)

Journal Questions: What does the “deep night” represent and why has it “fallen silently on the world”? What does it mean figuratively to be lead “between the nights”? How does the speaker relate his actions to those of his father? What does “prayer” represent for the speaker and his experiences? How might religion and/or spirituality play a role in the speaker’s experiences?


“1940,” Bertolt Brecht (17)

Journal Questions: What is the significance that the speaker didn’t know these “friends” yesterday? What does the “small door” represent? Why is it significant that the speaker flees “fellow countrymen” as opposed to an enemy?

See also: Righteous Among the Nations (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Righteous_among_the_nations)


Session 6:__________ 9-16

 “The Red Cross Telegram,” Lotte Kramer (18)

Journal Questions: Comment on the Biblical allusions to calvary and its connection to the gas chamber? Why is it significant that the speaker “did not grasp” the substance of the telegram? Comment on the fact that the second stanza is a question but ends in a period. What makes the speaker’s despair “silent” and “dark”? What role does “singing” play for the speaker? Define “requiem” and describe its significance in this poem.


“The German Frontier at Basel: 1942 & 1992,” Hilda Schiff (19)

Journal Questions: What makes the speaker initially feel so certain about the result of his plans? What role does preparation play in stanza two? What role does luck play? Comment on the contradictions mentioned in stanza three. What constitutes the “invisible line” and “unguarded signpost” of stanza four? How do the final three lines relate to 1942 and 1992 similarly and differently?

Testimony: Barbara Marton Farkas describes deportation from Hungary to Auschwitz (http://www.ushmm.org/lcmedia/viewer/wlc/testimony.php?RefId=BFD0527F)


Session 7:__________ 9-18

 “He Was Lucky,” Anna Swirszczynska (21)

Journal Questions: What effect does the present verb tense have on the poem? Comment on the sterile, limited, matter-of-fact style of the narrative. What do the books represent to the man? Why does the man get hit in the face? Why does the narrative end with the reference to the books? Define the word “luck.” What makes someone lucky or unlucky? In this case, what makes the man “lucky”?


“I Saw My Father Drowning,” David Vogel (22)

Journal Questions: How is water used metaphorically? What does it mean that the speaker is “now [his own] father”? Comment on the apparent contradiction that the speaker can claim to have “no one” in line 17 and then suggest that he’s “happy” in line 18. Why is the “black cradle of night” soothing to him? How is the poem similar to and different from Vogel’s first poem on page 14?


Session 8:__________ 9-21

“There is a Last, Solitary Coach,” David Vogel (23)

Journal Questions: Why is it ironic that the speaker suggests they hurry to catch the coach? How are the girls characterized in stanza two? What qualities are they meant to exhibit? What about the “pink children” of stanza three and the “men” of stanza four? If they all “got on calmly,” what is the poem saying about resisting or fighting to stay alive? Why does the speaker seemingly give in at the end?


“Elegy,” Antoni Slonimski (26)

Journal Questions: What is the significance of “[sweeping] away the footprints”? Describe the value of the dual identities expressed in stanza four (“the cobbler was a poet,” etc.).

See also: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/article.php?lang=en&ModuleId=10005188)


Session 9:__________ 9-23

“A Cartload of Shoes,” Abraham Sutzkever (27)

Journal Questions: What is the significance of directing the speech to shoes without feet? Why does the speaker say that he “should not ask” the questions he has, but then he does? What is symbolic of the focus on a child and a bride? Define the word “din” and describe its significance in the poem.

See also: USHMM collection of shoes from Majdanek (http://www.defenselink.mil/dodcmsshare/newsstoryPhoto/2001-03/hrs_200103164e.jpg)


“How?” Abraham Sutzkever (29)

Journal Questions: Why is it significant that the lock is “jammed” rather than simply locked? What does the key represent for the newly liberated? Why are the eyes of the liberated individual “estranged”? Define “keening” and explain why it is an appropriate word for this passage. Define the terms “survival” and “survivor.” What makes someone a “survivor” and what does it mean to “survive?”

See also: Liberation of the Camps (http://www.ushmm.org/outreach/liberati.htm)


Session 10:__________ 9-25

“How They Killed My Grandmother,” Boris Slutsky (30)

Journal Questions: What effect does the matter-of-fact tone have on the telling of this narrative compared to Swirszczynska’s poem on page 21? Explain the importance of the speaker’s use of the word “decided” to describe the actions of the Germans. What do the second line and the last line have in common with regards to the tone of the narrative? Define “boche” and describe its significance in this poem.

See also: German Invasion of the Soviet Union (http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/article.php?lang=en&ModuleId=10007182)


“Never Shall I Forget,” Elie Wiesel (42)

Journal Questions: What is the significance of the “one long night” for the speaker? How has the speaker’s faith been “consumed”? How did the speaker’s experiences result in the “[murder]” of his God? Why, for the speaker, would the immortality of the existence of God be considered a condemnation rather than a blessing?

See also: Lawrence Langer and Durational Time (opening paragraph … http://www.psychotherapy.net/article/Family_Therapy_Catastrophic_Illness)




Session 11:__________ 9-28


“Testimony,” Dan Pagis (43)

Journal Questions: Who is the “they” referred to in line 1? Why does the speaker claim to be made by a “different creator”? For what reason does the speaker apologize? Whom is he forgiving and for what?


“Be Seeing You,” Vasko Popa (45)

Journal Questions: Why do the individuals in this poem smile at each other “like conspirators”? What is the conspiracy? What does the whispering represent? What were the “old ways” which have bee “given up”? How might this poem relate to the “unspoken language” shared by twins?

See also: Twins and Unspoken Language (http://www.geocities.com/Augusta/Links/6708/cpt203/assignment11/Articles.html)


Session 12:__________ 9-30

“Night Over Birkenau,” Tadeusz Borowski (55)

Journal Questions: What is the metaphoric significance of the “shield [being] abandoned in battle” rather than having it lost, broken or stolen? What does the “lead foot” represent?

See also: The Sonderkommando (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sonderkommando)

Testimony: Miso (Michael) Vogel describes the crematoria at Auschwitz-Birkenau (http://www.ushmm.org/lcmedia/viewer/wlc/testimony.php?RefId=MVC0111M)


“Shipment to Majdanek,” Ephraim Fogel (57)

Journal Questions: Describe the significance of the categories listed in this poem. Why have certain individuals been included in this transport: surgeons, Czechs, Spaniards? Comment on the change in tone leading to the final line.

See also: The Majdanek Extermination Camp (http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/article.php?lang=en&ModuleId=10007298)

Testimony: Abraham Lewent describes father’s death at Majdanek (http://www.ushmm.org/lcmedia/viewer/wlc/testimony.php?RefId=ALD0259M)


Session 13:__________10-2

VIDEO: Stanley Milgram’s Obedience Study

Session 14:__________ 10-5

“A Girl of Six from the Ghetto Begging in Smolna Street in 1942” Jerzy Ficowski (61)

Journal Questions: What is the significance of the “two stars of David”—the six-pointed star of Israel—in the girl’s eyes “quite by chance”? Why is it significant that her words are “hunchbacked”? Comment on the irony of her “silence” having an “accent.” What is the significance of the three-part division of the poem?

See also: The Polish Ghetto of Bialystok (http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/article.php?lang=en&ModuleId=10005170)


“5.8.1942: In Memory of Janusz Korczak,” Jerzy Ficowski (62)

Journal Questions: Research the mythological allusion to “Charon” and argue why it is a fitting reference for this poemabout Korczak. Why does the speaker continue to remind or admit what he doesn’t know because he wasn’t there?

See also: The Life of Janusz Korczak (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janusz_Korczak)


Session 15:__________ 10-7

“Massacre of the Boys,” Tadeusz Rozewicz (70)

Journal Questions: What is the significance of line 2? Comment on the poet’s unconventional use of punctuation and capitalization and how it contributes to the poem’s theme. What is the significance of the items stuffed into the boys’ pockets?


“Pigtail,” Tadeusz Rozewicz (71)

Journal Questions: What is the significance of the “pins and side combs” in the hair? Why does the speaker make reference to the “naughty boys” at the end of the poem?

See also: Museum at Auschwitz (http://www.rudyfoto.com/hol/au-hair.html)


Session 16:__________ 10-9

“Magda Goebbels,” W.D. Snodgrass (74)

Journal Questions: What is meant by “going on in error” in stanza four? What does she mean by being hardened “against the chill / voice of a world of lies”? Comment on the nursery rhyme tone of the poem compared to its substance.

See also: Magda Goebbels’ Biography (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magda_Goebbels)


“Both Your Mothers,” Jerzy Ficowski (83)

Journal Questions: What makes the Torah—the first five books of the Old Testament—“futile”? What makes the mother who abandoned the child “happily incomplete”? What is meant by being “washed of orphanhood”?

Testimony: Hetty d'Ancona Deleeuwe describes difficulties of going into hiding (http://www.ushmm.org/lcmedia/viewer/wlc/testimony.php?RefId=HDP0203F)


Session 17:__________ 10-12

“1980,” Abraham Sutzkever (85)

Journal Questions: What is meant by being a “twin to self”? What is the significance of the milk and bread given to the speaker being “thick at the edge”?


“I Did Not Manage To Save,” Jerzy Ficowski (86)

Journal Questions: What is significant about the word “manage”? How can the speaker “wander around cemeteries which are not there”? Explain how he runs when the things to which he runs seem impossible. Comment on the tense shift after the second stanza.

See also: Survivor Guilt in Holocaust Survivors and Their Children (http://www.holocaust-trc.org/glbsurv.htm)


Session 18:__________ 10-14

“History and Reality,” Stephen Spender (89)

Journal Questions: Consider the following quote by Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” How are this quote and the poem’s epigram by Simone Weil appropriate for the poem? Why would the survivor in this poem feel “envy” in section II, stanza three? Comment on the woman’s attempt to force an association with Holocaust victims. What is meant by “intense imaginings” from section IV?


“Archive Film Material,” Ruth Fainlight (109)

Journal Questions: Comment on the difference between what is real and what is imagined. What is the significance of the flowers changing into men? Why are the men’s heads turning?


Session 19:__________ 10-16

“Leave Us,” Tadeusz Rozewicz (116)

Journal Questions: Why does the speaker command us to forget him? What would this accomplish for him? For us? Why would that enable us to “live like humans”? How can the phrase “leave us” have two different yet equally poignant connotations?


“Farewell to Maria,” Tadeusz Borowski (120)

Journal Questions: Why does the speaker want Maria—Borowski’s wartime fiancée—not to come back to him? What is he trying to accomplish and avoid? Why has his “love burned away”? What effect does the speaker’s reference to “acting” and “fiction” have as metaphors in this poem? How do these metaphors relate to Stephen Spender’s “History and Reality” (Page 90, section II, stanza two)?


Session 20:__________ 10-19

“My Mother’s Friend,” Lily Brett (123)

Journal Questions: What does it mean to “share the war” with someone? Is this different from simply experiencing the same thing? Describe the relationship between the mother and the friend. What impact does it have that the friend, as important as she seems, remains nameless? How do you feel about the friend knowing that she apparently took her own life?


“I, the Survivor,” Bertolt Brecht (127)

Journal Questions: How does “luck” relate similarly and differently to the luck portrayed in “The German Frontier” (p. 19) and “He Was Lucky” (p. 21)? Why is it significant that the information in this poem takes place in the speaker’s dreams? Why is the word “of” in line three such an important element to understanding the feelings of the speaker? What is it that the speaker really hated? For this speaker, what does it mean to be the “fittest”?


Session 21:__________ 10-21


“The Return,” Tadeusz Rozewicz (128)

Journal Questions: How does the fear of inexpressibility in this poem (stanzas four and eight) relate to that of “The Red Cross Telegram” (p. 18)? How can “mother” and “father” be taken as a symbol of earth and God? What is the significance of the “muddy shoes”? Why does the speaker “answer … rudely”? Why does he want to be left alone?


“I Was Not There,” Karen Gershon (133)

Journal Questions: Where in the poem does the speaker claim one thing then correct herself, trying to be genuine and honest? How does the survivor’s guilt expressed in this poem compare with that of “I Did Not Manage To Save” (p. 86) and “I, the Survivor” (p. 127)? How does the last stanza on page 134 present an ironic desire to free the speaker from liability and then to ultimately take responsibility?


Session 22:__________ 10-23

“When It Happened,” Hilda Schiff (135)

Journal Questions: Describe how the progress of stanzas include increasing degrees of the speaker’s recognition of what was going on? How do these changing degrees of recognition seem to impact her sense of self?


“I Keep Forgetting,” Lily Brett (138)

Journal Questions: How can forgetting be both accidental and purposeful for the speaker? What is significant of the statistics recalled about people (5.8 and 7.2)? What is really meant by forgetting “over and over again”? What does the speaker think about her ability to remember what she can? Why is the last stanza likely meant to be ironic?


Session 23:__________ 10-26

“Leaving You,” Lily Brett (140)

Journal Questions: What does the speaker mean that it was her mother’s war? Comment on the things the speaker “thought” she knew and could relate to. What is meant by “leaving” the mother in the last stanza? Why is this so troublesome for the speaker?


“The Survivor,” Tadeusz Rozewicz (157)

Journal Questions: Compare the posthumous speaking voice of this poem with that of Nelly Sachs on page 67. How can “love and hate” and the other word pairs mentioned in stanza two be considered “empty synonyms” if they’re actually antonyms (opposites)? What impact do words and their meanings seem to have on the speaker? How can order and structure again be something the speaker is able to recognize if he exists in a world where things like the Holocaust can happen?


Session 24:__________ 10-28

“In The Midst of Life,” Tadeusz Rozewicz (158)

Journal Questions: What purpose does the childlike “naming” have for the speaker and where/how is this evidenced in the poem? How does the last stanza on page 160 serve as a shift? What impact does this shift seem to have on the speaker?


“Written in Pencil in the Sealed Freightcar,” Dan Pagis (180)

Journal Questions: Consider the act of metawriting—writing about writing, or writing that brings attention to itself—and interpret the impact of this abrupt, “unended” poem. Explain the significance of the Biblical allusions to Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel? What do these people have to do with prisoners on a train bound for an extermination camp?


Session 25:__________ 10-30

“Who Am I?” Dietrich Bonhoeffer (182)

Journal Questions: What is the difference between how the speaker feels about himself and how he thinks others see him? How does this apparent difference of opinion impact him? Is the speaker actually trying to “put on a face,” or is he naturally—or unconsciously—giving off a different character than he thinks? Despite the speaker’s apparent identity crisis, what remains constant for him? How does this compare to Elie Wiesel on page 42? How does Bonhoeffer’s speaker relate to “Egon Friedman” on page 10?


“Experiments With God,” Karen Gershon (188)

Journal Questions: Why is this poem and its statements considered by the poet an “experiment”? What scientific truth is the experimenter trying to uncover or validate? How does the tone shift drastically between the stanzas? How does the final statement implicate God in the Holocaust? What degree of responsibility does this speaker assign to God and how does this relate to Wiesel (42) and Bonhoeffer (182)?


Session 26:__________ 11-2



The remaining readings are found in The Collected Poems of Primo Levi


Session 27:__________ 11-4

VIDEO: Primo


Session 28:__________ 11-6

“Buna” (5)

Journal Questions: How is the monotony and regularity of time illustrated in the poem? What value of self is represented in the speaker’s “companion”? How is the companion’s cause illustrated as hopeless? Compare elements of this poem to Bonhoeffer (182), Ficowski (61) and Sutzkever (29).

See also: A chemistry laboratory in the Buna synthetic-rubber works (http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/media_ph.php?lang=en&ModuleId=10005475&MediaId=2394)

Testimony: Norbert Wollheim describes forced labor at the Buna works (http://www.ushmm.org/lcmedia/viewer/wlc/testimony.php?RefId=NWB0680M)


“Singing” (6)

Journal Questions: How does this poem represent a form of escape? What is the difference between what exists and what seems to be? Describe the speaker’s reference to the inexpressibility of experiences. Compare the meta-writing within this poem to Pagis’ (Schiff 43, 180). Compare the knowns and unknowns to Rozewicz (Schiff 157, 158).


Session 29:__________ 11-9

“Reveille” (10)

Journal Questions: Describe the shift that occurs between stanzas and how this shift is affected by the passage of time. Comment on the three priorities these individuals hoped to accomplish and how they relate to overall survival. The command “wstawac” meant “rise”; how does this detail affect the speaker differently in each stanza?


“Monday” (11)

Journal Questions: Comment on the metaphors of a train and a horse and how they may relate figuratively to an imprisoned individual. What is the poem saying about adherence to schedules, voiced expression, vision and mortality?


Session 30:__________ 11-11

“11 February 1946” (16)

Journal Questions: What does this poem say about the relationship between man and God? What does it say about life and mortality? What is it that the speaker “hadn’t finished yet”?


“Avigliana” (19)

Journal Questions: Considering that the title refers to a municipality in Levi’s hometown of Turin, Italy, how does the poem illustrate the apparent ignorant or uncompassionate society to the suffering of the individual? Comment on the use of the nightingale as a symbol and why it is significant. Compare these references to singing with those on page 6.


Session 31:__________ 11-13


“Epitaph” (21)

Journal Questions: Comment on the posthumous voice here and how it compares to that of Sachs’ “A Dead Child Speaks” (Schiff 67). Why does this speaker seem so desperate to be heard? What do the first two lines of stanza two tell us about the speaker? What does the speaker “beg” for and what does this tell us about how the world seems to be going? How does this poem relate to Rozewicz’s “Leave Us” (Schiff 116)?


“In The Beginning” (27)

Journal Questions: How does the poem blend the seemingly contradictory elements of Biblical creationism and scientific evolution? What qualifies as the “reverse catastrophe”? Describe the ironies developed in the poem’s second half. Compare the meta-writing of the poem’s final line with that of Pagis’ “Written in Pencil…” (Schiff 180).


Session 32:__________ 11-16

 “The Black Stars” (29)

Journal Questions: Using the metaphor of a black hole, what does the poem say about order and disorder in the universe, and how does this relate to individual lives? Comment on the heavy negative imagery and its effect on the poem’s theme. What might the speaker be implying about God’s role in human happiness and suffering?


“Pliny” (33)

Journal Questions: How does Pliny’s desire to investigate the miracle of Vesuvius’ eruption—and to subsequently return and report the information—compare to the poet’s experiences in the Holocaust and his own need to tell his story? What words used by Pliny (or the characteristics of his experiences) tell us about his expectations and priorities? What role do “books” play for Pliny and Levi? What do each hope to accomplish?


Session 33:__________ 11-18

 “The Girl-Child of Pompei” (34)

Journal Questions: Comment on the three historically-significant “girls” used as metaphors through this poem (victims of Pompei, the Holocaust, and Hiroshima). How does each contribute something to the discussion of the value of life? What references are made to God and fate and why are these important? Considering the 1978 date of composition, what might the speaker really be saying in the final four lines, and to whom is he likely saying it?


“Dark Band” (43)

Journal Questions: How are ants used in this poem as a metaphor for the poet’s Holocaust experiences? How might the ants represent the Jewish people in general? Comment on the elements of meta-writing and how they are similar to the end of “In the Beginning” (27). What is the significance of the poet’s interrupting his own creative process? What effect does it have on your reading of this poem about ants?


Session 34:__________ 11-20

“Voices” (46)

Journal Questions: Identify the various obstacles to communication illustrated in the poem’s first six lines. What does each type of “word” in lines 14-16 contribute to this desire for communication?


“Unfinished Business” (47)

Journal Questions: Consider that this resignation letter doubles as a suicide note. Break down the major “job” references and how they correlate to “life.” What does the speaker say about interpersonal relationships and communication, serving others’ needs, creating and following plans and outlines, and leaving a legacy of oneself for future generations?


Session 35:__________ 11-23

“Old Mole” (54)

Journal Questions: What does Levi’s mole have in common with Sutzkever’s (Schiff 29)? How are they different? What does the mole illustrate about being flexible, able to compromise, and able to recognize one’s skills and limitations? What is the significance of the references to sensory impulses in lines 7-8? Comment on the shift that occurs at line 19 and how it references current and past life experiences.


“The Work” (56)

Journal Questions: What elements of this poem are similar to “Unfinished Business” (47)? What elements are different? How does the poet relate his words to the pen that writes them? What role do order and harmony play for this writer? What does the poem suggest about the process of revision and completion of a written work? Comment on the final two lines and the poignant connection made between author and work. What might this have to do with the Holocaust survivor?


Session 36:__________ 11-30

VIDEO: The Last Days (part one)


Session 37:__________ 12-2

VIDEO: The Last Days (part two)


Session 38:__________ 12-4

“A Mouse” (57)

Journal Questions: Comment on how the mouse may represent the speaker’s conscience. How does the speaker feel about the mouse’s presence? What does the mouse suggest to the speaker about time? What does the speaker conclude? Is the next-to-last line meant to be sarcastic or sincere?


“Agave” (59)

Journal Questions: Research the agave plant and comment on why it is a fitting metaphor for this poem. How does this plants particular existence relate to Holocaust survivors? What role does language play? How is mortality characterized? What seems to be the plant’s sole life ambition? How does this correlate to Levi?


Session 39:__________ 12-7

 “Pearl Oyster” (60)

Journal Questions: Comment on the oyster’s tone of voice. What explains this quality of speech? How does the oyster relate itself to humans? How does the oyster deal with difficulties and how might this relate to survival of the Holocaust? What does this poem imply about prejudice and ignorance?


“The Snail” (61)

Journal Questions: What are the similarities and differences between this snail and the oyster on the previous page? How does the snail deal with obstacles compared to the ants of page 43?


Session 40:__________ 12-9

 “A Profession” (62)

Journal Questions: Comment on the speaker’s approach to the task of writing. What is his priority? What are his obstacles? What are his triumphs and failures? What does he / does he not control? What is the significance of the apparent reference to classic Greece and academia at the end of the poem? What does this poem have in common with “The Work” (56)? What are the differences?


“The Survivor” (64)

Journal Questions: What does the epigram (from Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”) have to do with this or earlier poems by Levi? Why might it be considered a fitting inscription for his entire body of work? Compare this speaker’s attitude toward survival with Brecht’s “I, The Survivor” (Schiff 127). How are the speakers similar and different? Which seems more troubled by his survival?


Session 41:__________ 12-11


“To My Friends” (92)

Journal Questions: What relationship does the speaker establish between himself and each of the following: relatives, friends before the war, survivors of the Holocaust, victims, students? How does he feel about the task of speaking this speech? Does he think he’s reached a goal or does he suggest an endless and impossible set of tasks? What value does the final seasonal metaphor have?


“Almanac” (98)

Journal Questions: What is an almanac and why is it a poignant title for this poem? What relationship does the speaker recognize between himself, his experiences and the surrounding world? How does this scientist ultimately seem to feel about the order of the universe and the events within? How does he feel about humanity and its chances for peace?


Session 42:__________ 12-14





A good poem is like a puzzle—the most fascinating part is studying the individual pieces carefully and then putting them back together to see how beautifully the whole thing fits together. A poem can have a number of different “pieces” that you need to look at closely in order to complete the poetic “puzzle.” This sheet explains one way to attempt an explication of a poem, by examining each “piece” of the poem separately. (An “explication” is simply an explanation of how all the elements in a poem work together to achieve the total meaning and effect.)

  Examine the situation in the poem:

  • Does the poem tell a story? Is it a narrative poem? If so, what events occur?
  • Does the poem express an emotion or describe a mood?
  • Poetic voice: Who is the speaker? Is the poet speaking to the reader directly or is the poem told through a fictional “persona?” To whom is he speaking? Can you trust the speaker?
  • Tone: What is the speaker’s attitude toward the subject of the poem? What sort of tone of voice seems to be appropriate for reading the poem out loud? What words, images, or ideas give you a clue to the tone?

Examine the structure of the poem:

  • Form: Look at the number of lines, their length, their arrangement on the page. How does the form relate to the content? Is it a traditional form (e.g. sonnet, limerick) or “free form”? Why do you think the poet chose that form for his poem?
  • Movement: How does the poem develop? Are the images and ideas developed chronologically, by cause and effect, by free association? Does the poem circle back to where it started, or is the movement from one attitude to a different attitude (e.g. from despair to hope)?
  • Syntax: How many sentences are in the poem? Are the sentences simple or complicated? Are the verbs in front of the nouns instead of in the usual “noun, verb” order? Why?
  • Punctuation: What kind of punctuation is in the poem? Does the punctuation always coincide with the end of a poetic line? If so, this is called an end-stopped line. If there is no punctuation at the end of a line and the thought continues into the next line, this is called enjambement. Is there any punctuation in the middle of a line? Why do you think the poet would want you to pause halfway through the line?
  • Title: What does the title mean? How does it relate to the poem itself? How might the title be interpreted differently after reading the poem from before?

Examine the language of the poem:

  • Diction or Word Choice: Is the language colloquial, formal, simple, unusual?
  • Do you know what all the words mean? If not, look them up.
  • What moods or attitudes are associated with words that stand out for you?
  • Allusions: Are there any allusions (references) to something outside the poem, such as events or people from history, mythology, or religion?
  • Imagery: Look at the figurative language of the poem—metaphors, similes, analogies, personification. How do these images add to the meaning of the poem or intensify the effect of the poem?

Examine the musical devices in the poem:

  • Rhyme scheme: Does the rhyme occur in a regular pattern, or irregularly? Is the effect formal, satisfying, musical, funny, disconcerting?
  • Rhythm or meter: In most languages, there is a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a word or words in a sentence. In poetry, the variation of stressed and unstressed syllables and words has a rhythmic effect. What is the tonal effect of the rhythm here?
  • Other “sound effects”: alliteration, assonance, consonance, repetition. What tonal effect do they have here?
  • Has the poem created a change in mood for you—or a change in attitude? How have the technical elements helped the poet create this effect? How does the poem fittingly represent the time period in which it was created? On the other hand, how might it be seen as either archaic or forward-thinking?