Auschwitz and the perversion of football

To stand there in that very ground where so much had happened. It’s unforgettable. In general the Holocaust has cast a shadow in my life. The city of Rochester has adopted Cynthia Ozick‘s The Shawl as a book that the whole city will read, and I’ll be doing two or three talks in relation to the book over the next month or two. And one of the things I’m going to emphasize is this idea that in order to understand such a book or any Holocaust fiction, say, or poetry we have to understand that the term “Holocaust survivor” is an oxymoron. Someone like Charlotte Delbo just says over and over and over again, “I’m dead, don’t you realize it? I’m dead.”

So there is that. I’ve got a poem “The Legacy” in which I mention that—basically the poem says that the more alive we are, the deader the past is and the deader the dead are. The more we empathize with and bring them up and recall them and bring them back into our memory, then the deader we are. So this is finally the legacy of this terrible history.

GG: We mention in the introductory note to the poem “Parity” that you had a couple of uncles who fought on the German side in the Second World War, and I believe perished in it, and you dedicated some poems to them. How much do you know of their background, and did you ever know them personally?

WH: I didn’t know them at all. I think I remember, when I was a boy, my father receiving the news of the deaths of his brothers. And all I heard was that one of them was a rabid Nazi, an idealist as they called them in those days, so he was glad to be doing what he did. This was Hermann Heyen, and he was shot down over Russia finally. The other one, my father said, Willy, Wilhelm, after whom I was named, was just a foot soldier who was one of the not many Germans who were killed at the beginning in Holland.

No, I never knew them or had any contact with them. My father was quiet about things regarding World War II.

GG: You had a volume earlier called The Swastika Poems. One of your earliest memories—you were born in 1940—and you still recalled swastikas, because you were from a German family, being painted—was it on your house or near the house?

WH: On the steps and on the side of the house. There was a tremendous amount of tension. I didn’t know what the swastika represented, but I knew that it sort of vibrated within the house and made everybody nervous. At that time my father was working against the Axis for Bethlehem Steel.

By the time I got to high school, I don’t think any high schools were offering German courses or anything like that.

GG: How is your connection with the sport of soccer now? You see the World Cup and occasionally a college game, the college team you played for?

WH: In fact there’s an alumni weekend coming up here, and I’ll be there and bullshit with the old ballplayers. Maybe I could tie together soccer and poetry in one thing that’s been on my mind. What has really bothered me for a long time is how, to me, dirty the sport has become when I watch it on TV or even in the college ranks. I remember being bothered many years ago watching great players like Maradona chopped down from behind and then the yellow card coming out very reluctantly, and then maybe the red card. I saw in this recent World Cup in so many matches—I can’t stand seeing some of the elbowing and some of the spikes flashing and especially the uniform pulling. It disrupts the whole finesse and the beauty of the game.

So I’ve done some thinking about this lately. The most brilliant thing anybody ever said about poetry to my mind was in Emerson’s Journal, when he says, “Form always stands in dread of power. What the devil will he do next?” So there’s always this equilibrium between form, shape, orderliness, control and, on the other hand, power or wildness or force. And in the real poem those things achieve a kind of balance, a sort of blending. And you know it when you’ve hit it, when you’ve got a forward velocity mixed in with a stasis. It’s just a feeling you can get.

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