Auschwitz and the perversion of football

WH: I’m not sure, and I’m not sure if this answers your question. But I have a new book coming out this fall [2008]. It’s called A Poetics of Hiroshima. Most of it, three-quarters of the book’s poems, are Holocaust poems, and then there are some Hiroshima and “bomb” pieces. And what my theme is this time, and I face it fully maybe for the first time, is that art truly has to do with this collision between beauty and atrocity. So even writing a poem like “Parity” I’m trying to create something on the page that I care for, something of rhythmical intensity, something of imagistic interest and even beauty. And at the same time, lurking in the background, there is this idea of the absolute horror that’s going on, so that it can seem almost obscene to be pursuing art.

Raul Hilberg, the famous scholar who wrote The Destruction of the European Jews—three big volumes—also has a newer book called The Politics of Memory. He talks about writing The Destruction of the European Jews and drafting it when he was a graduate student at Columbia and he was working in his parents’ apartment. While he was constructing that book, which is kind of a ground zero for Holocaust history, he was listening to classical music, for example, Beethoven symphonies. And he was trying to construct his book, his study, as though it were a symphony.

So he very early on faced the idea that, yes, this is what we do, even while we are responding to the darkest history of the human race. I say in one poem, “Here is where God’s darkness grew darkest.” Even while we’re responding to that, we have this other urge to create something meaningful and something beautiful, even if it’s darkly beautiful. And we know of course from the camps that people too were trying to make paintings and make poems. There’s a lot of literature that comes out of that.

… I have a German family background. My father got here in 1934. I think it was 1934 and [he] met my mother here as they were both born in Germany. But his two brothers died on the German side. My wife’s father was a student at Tübingen. When he was given credit for getting rid of Jewish professors there he drew the attention of Dr. [Joseph] Goebbels, who called him up to Berlin. He was one of 50 regular participants at Goebbels’s news conferences for years. So there is that German background in me that drew me toward it.

But it’s that history. Still I read book after book, and I find myself just shaking my head saying, “Could this have happened? How could this have happened, that so-called civilized people of my blood did to others what they did?” Susan Sontag says that the Holocaust is opaque. We can’t see into it, we can’t finally see through it. And for me this is a good thing to keep in mind so that I don’t freeze myself into any positions about how this kind of aberrant behavior, this sickness, this psychotic behavior could have occurred.

GG: You said you had been to one of the camps, Bergen-Belsen. One of your volumes is titled Erika, which is the type of heather or vegetation that now covers the ground. I wonder how much of that atmosphere, seeing a camp environment, was important in your creative work. Was it necessary physically to see one of the camps at some point?

WH: I don’t know if it was necessary, because I seem to throw my mind—although really this is impossible—into these other scenes as I read these books. I still remember being at Bergen-Belsen that day. And what I really remember, and I don’t think I’ve talked about this before, is that night at home I drafted an essay about the visit to Bergen-Belsen. It became the essay “Erika.” But in early drafts I said it’s important for me not to change a word. But then as time went by I did improve its various redundancies and clumsinesses and I inserted other things, so I could not resist trying to make the essay into a work of art.

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