World War Two Poetry: Songs From the Other Side of Mankind

Tadeusz Rozewicz and Paul Celan, two of the Second World War's most notable poets, sought to come to terms with art in the season of death.

Can poetry survive the apocalypse?

Tadeusz Rozewicz was convinced it cannot.“The dance of poetry came to an end during the Second World War, in concentration camps…,” he said once.

Art, he believed, was worse than an affront to human suffering; it was an outrage. He therefore considered it his duty to write “not verses but facts”, and set his sights determinedly on minimalist poetry.

Stripped of all ornamentation of metre, rhyme and even metaphor and cast in the plainest of words, his poetry presents itself ‘naked’ to the reader, as witness his ‘Leave Us Alone’:

Forget about us
about our generation
live like human beings
forget about us
we envied
plants and stones
we envied dogs
I would like to be a rat
I used to say to her
I would like not to be
I would like to fall asleep
and wake up after the war
she would say with her eyes shut
forget about us
don’t ask about our youth
leave us alone.

Rozewicz was born in 1921 in Radomsko, near Lodz in Poland and served in the underground Polish Home Army during the Second World War. His elder brother Janusz, also a poet, was part of the Polish Resistance too, and was executed by the Gestapo in 1944.

Also read: Two Poets Baptised by the Fire of History’s Greatest War

The world of Rosewicz’s poetry is bleak, desperate; his tone, as much as his diction, flat and colourless. Horror and disgust have entered its soul so completely as to render it leaden, have bled it white, so that all ordinary human values seem to merit only derision. Consider ‘Albumen’ which goes thus:

‘They  pat the sick man on the head
like a good dog
they talk to him
as to a child
touch his body
knowing looks
the sick man hears
everything understands
he bites nobody’s hand
he is so well behaved
that he’ll even believe in the angel
he swallows a raw egg
on a moonlight night
the colour of albumen
beyond the open window
translucent jasmines bloom

A young nurse
with two breasts
two hands four legs
is turning her back
the sick man gnashing his teeth
close the window please’

The somewhat precarious normality of this world is being steadily undermined by chaos and violence. Of course, his poetry, in essence, affirms the values that it sets out to deride, but it does so in a curiously self-deprecating manner. Pity and tenderness are not alien to his world, but he does not trust them for fear of sounding mawkish:

‘My little son enters
the room and says
‘you are a vulture
I am a mouse’
I put away my book
wings and claws
grow out of me
their ominous shadows
race on the walls
I am a vulture
he is a mouse
‘you are a wolf
I am a goat’
I walked around the table
and am a wolf
windowpanes gleam
like fangs
in the dark
while he runs to his mother
his head hidden in the warmth of her dress’

Rosewicz was arguably the most influential post-war Polish poet, and his impact on younger writers has been widely acknowledged. He was also an accomplished playwright (often in the genre of  theatre of the absurd), essayist and writer of short stories. He won numerous literary and artistic awards in Poland and elsewhere in Europe and was nominated for the literature Nobel more than once.

And yet, though he lived to be 92, he wrote very little after 1970, when he was only 49. Had ennui set in after years of struggle with an idiom that was so austere that it sapped his spontaneity? After all, wasn’t Polish poetry traditionally much more vigorous and lively than how Rozewicz came to shape it, so that he had to will himself into a long and lonely battle?

Be that as it may, Rozewicz stands apart in his relentless search for the meaning of life at the elemental level of living. The Second World War, the ghastliest war of all time, scarred the minds and hearts of all it touched, and Rozewicz happens to be speaking on behalf of all the War’s survivors when he says:

‘I seek a teacher and master
let him restore to me sight hearing and speech
let him once again name things and concepts
let him separate light from dark
I am twenty-four
led to slaughter
I survived.’


Paul Celan also wrote nothing beyond his 49th year – for he killed himself at that age, drowning in the Seine in Paris in April, 1970.

A German-speaking Jew born in Czernovitz, then in Romania but now part of Ukraine, he saw his parents being bundled off to a concentration camp where his father died of typhus while his mother was shot to death. Celan himself spent over two years in a forced labour camp, eventually to be freed by the Red Army. The trauma of these experiences had burnt into his sensibility, and hopelessness and distrust remained abiding themes in his poetry:

‘Black milk of daybreak we drink it at sundown
we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night
we drink and we drink it
we dig a grave in the breezes there one lies unconfined
A man lives in the house he plays with the serpents he writes
he writes when dusk falls in Germany your golden hair Margarete
he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are flashing he whistles his pack out
he whistles his Jews out in earth has them dig for a grave
he commands us strike up for the dance’

Celan’s early (from around 1945) poem ‘Death Fugue’ (‘Todesfuge’ in the German original), from where these lines were taken, remains one of the most powerful works of art to have come out of the Holocaust, indeed of the whole Second World War. The haunting refrain of the black milk – a striking image of unnaturalness, of the perverse – runs right through this poem about  the prisoners of a death camp, stubbornly mocking the Bible’s blithe invocation of ‘the land of milk and honey’.

The fugue, a contrapuntal musical form made memorable by such greats as J.S. Bach, proceeds through repetitions of the main theme at different pitches, much as the poem does here, going from an even-toned first stanza to the crescendo of the third:

He calls out jab deeper into the earth you lot you others sing now and play
he grabs at the iron in his belt he waves it his eyes are blue
jab deeper you lot with your spades others play on for the dance

The blue-eyed German ‘master’ with his dog-whistle, who plays with  snakes and writes (presumably high poetry) in the evening, makes sure that a miserable bunch of Jewish prisoners make music as they dig ‘unconfined’ graves into which they will be presently pushed themselves. The movement of the lines here is abrupt and riddling – appropriately so, for how could a world turned upside down harbour the coherent, the well-ordered? But the intensity of tone is sustained till the end:

‘Death is a master from Germany his eyes are blue
he strikes you with leaden bullets his aim is true
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
he sets his pack on to us he grants us a grave in the air
he plays with the serpents and daydreams death is a master from Germany
your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamith’

The only comment Celan permits himself on the ambition of the Nazi enterprise is crystallised in ‘and daydreams’. But he is relentless in pushing the main picture centre-stage: witness ‘he grants us a grave in the air’.

Also read: Wilfred Owen – A Poet Who Wrote the Great War’s Epitaph Even as It Was Writing His

Celan’s poems are enigmatic: the surreal mixes effortlessly in them with the paradoxical, the absurd, and with disjunctive leaps of the imagination, sometimes also with what has been identified as a variant of Jewish mysticism. But the pall of gloom hangs on nearly all of them:

You grow, as do all the forgotten.
You roll: the black hailstone of sadness
is caught by a kerchief turned white with waving goodbye.

And death is never far away from this world, whether it is ‘In Prague’, which begins thus:

That half-death
suckled big with our life,
lay around us, true as an ashen image –

or, for that matter, in ‘Alchemical’, which moves from a contemplation of silence to that of

All the names, all those
burnt with the rest. So much
ash to be blessed. So much
land won
the weightless, so weightless
of souls.

Celan also wrote in Romanian, but it was in his writing in German that his heart lay (though he chose never to live in Germany after the war), a German that, in his own words, “had to pass through a frightful muting, pass through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech”. In the end, he had to keep writing, for

A tree-
high thought
tunes in to light’s pitch: there are
still songs to be sung on the other side
of mankind.

Perhaps Paul Celan had tired of listening for songs from the other side of mankind when he chose to end his life. 

Anjan Basu freelances as a literary critic, commentator and translator. He can be reached at basuanjan52@gmail.com