A few years ago, I completed seven years of work on an adaptation of poetry from Polish to English. The book, A Wall of Two, was comprised of poetry written by two young women, basically girls, inside the barbed wire of labor camps. When my task was completed I put away the originals and other pieces of writing by the two sisters, especially one of them, my friend Ilona Karmel.
Born in 1925 in Poland, she was a poet as a youth, a novelist in middle age, and a teacher later. I would say she was my mentor.
So I was surprised by the discovery of a three-page document of hers I hadn’t seen before when I was emptying out boxes of papers and letters in my attic. She had typed it herself and had made a few corrections. So why didn’t I recognize it? It seemed like a short speech she might have been asked to present before reading aloud from her novel.
To me the discovery was similar to the “message in the bottle” that Paul Celan used to describe his poetry. Her message gave me comfort, because it pulled me back from the icy knife of psychology; its authority was born from an experience.
The message was both casual and deeply thought, and its purpose was to explain why she had been compelled to write her masterpiece, An Estate of Memory.
My purpose writing this now is to share this thing of value from the twentieth century and in particular from the war that has haunted our world, from painting to film to poetry, as a collective nightmare. The experience of that time belonged to Ilona’s generation, though the residue of the experience has glowed in the structures of literature and philosophy and other arts, like pieces of shrapnel in a patient’s brain.
* * *
Like Dostoyevsky, Ilona Karmel pursued truth (without quotes) through a relentless and unfavorable account of human behavior, interrupted fleetingly by something wonderful and strange.
She wrote: “I began my novel with only one assumption; that man lives in constant tension between contradictory forces within himself, above all what I would call ‘the everyday and the Sabbath’—his awareness of himself as he is, and his longing for what he wants to become.”
Karmel and Dostoyevsky had experienced the worst in human behavior, mostly inside prisons, and were unable to forget it. Both used the common word “freedom” for the moment when an unforeseen act of self-abandonment occurs. This moment of freedom releases one from the everyday and the inevitable, and sometimes has the reckless look of suicide.
For both of them—if they failed to find a trace of that freedom in their long labors at writing and remembering—life would continue as a dazzling aftereffect of hell, a mirage of trauma, like the lightning-fast Shoah in Hiroshima.
* * *
In order to trace the path of an unselfish act through plot and character one would have to account for every troubled step around real rooms, barracks, cells, and streets. It would involve making this exceptional act inevitable in relation to one person’s character in the midst of causes and contingencies.
The everyday life of people in prison or war is not at all ordinary, and it is not science fiction. Its extreme abjectness and drudgery encourage both false claims and self-censorship. To make any gesture that transcends such a situation would be incredible.
But for such writers as these, “transcendence” was not part of the equation. Paradoxically, each wanted to take the mystery out of self-sacrifice and prove its place in human personality, while at the same time revealing it to be an unpremeditated gesture, or one act that lacks the logic of will.
Karmel’s mother, in Buchenwald, told her teenage daughters to behave well because “the world will be the world again.”
This was, I suppose, her continuing daydream: a sabbath world, slavery finished, a return to the safe social structures she had built for her children out of tradition and her own childhood.
She would never have imagined the situation that actually followed: instant communication with people around the world, speedy travel, and flashing pictures like open windows on everywhere. An inverted world turned so that the identification of a particle proves that there is no other purpose for its existence beyond its being found and named by a human mind.
* * *
At the conclusion of her essay, Karmel wrote:
Somehow halfway through the book I realized that my characters—though none of [Janusz] Korczak’s stature—were following in his footsteps. I tried to describe those steps as exactly as I could. . . . To describe this is all the book attempts to do; not to accuse or complain (the time for this has passed), nor to propound a thesis, just to describe the changes which, from the shabby origins of our love, can lead to this act and this death.
Korczak was the teacher and writer who founded an orphanage during the war in the Warsaw ghetto, and died voluntarily (the ss offered him his freedom) in Treblinka with the children.
It was the unaccountable quality of a life like his that made her weave her way through the thicket of plot in search of an explanation for it. She had witnessed, in the camps, an act of self-sacrifice on the part of a young girl that she could not forget. (A pretty blond teen who was considered superficial put herself, spontaneously and voluntarily, in place of someone else on the gallows.) And she saw smaller acts of radical kindness, none of them determined by convention but by an extreme lucidity.
Her fiction is a documentation of days as she experienced them in a particular period.
As if being constructed as a record for later historians, it’s painstaking in its accumulated detail. Shoes, foods, jewels, barracks, beds, snow, and faces. The characters are neither good nor evil but described inside folds of necessity. It would have to be this way.
The story involves a struggle to recognize the world as it is given when it is given at its worst. How do people stay sane when others, just like themselves, behave in unrecognizable ways?
* * *
I know that it took her ten years to write the novel. She was in Germany with her husband then, and working in an orphanage. She made a vow. She would write down what had happened during the war with the sole desire to salvage meaning from the facts, to rescue the integrity of the people who had struggled with their shortcomings when corralled into slavery and had, in a few cases, changed for the better. She loathed sentimentality, especially about people who endured prison camps during the war.
To redeem them from the smear of pathos by making their difficult personalities real again, and then to see what would happen, was part of her goal. In other words, to see what a human being is in relation to ethics, others.
She stripped her characters, one by one, of passively accepted values, and tested them in a world where anything was possible, even killing children.
Her purpose was more than a demand that we remember what happened.
It was a demand that we rescue meaning (what is just possible, about to be born) . . . to rescue human beings from self-loathing by reminding them of acts of charity.
She wrote in her essay: “Terrified and alone one turns to others, not out of love, just out of the desperate and self-centered need for comfort. Those are the shabby beginnings of our love. Yet gradually a transformation occurs. He who knows how to grant comfort becomes the guarantor of hope, the keeper of one’s image of oneself. . . . No ideals of self-sacrifice or courage are now at work. Just the inner necessity to defend what has become too precious to be destroyed.”
* * *
And this explains why she called the essay “Keepers of the Image.”
Those who are keepers of images are people selected to hold a precious object safe. They are entrusted with the work of protecting, say, the Emerald Buddha, the Torah, or the Virgin of Guadalupe from the onslaught of wars and plunders.
They have taken a vow to do so because of the singular nature of the image itself. The image is a representation of a secret self, the being one longs to be, the sabbath-self, the infant. The keeper’s vow sweeps aside everyday life for the sake of a distant achievement. Everyday life is both the cover for the image and the vehicle for the vow.
Often this involves a vision of something as yet uncreated.
The vow to enter the future might be addressed to a distant point outside of oneself, but its source remains tangled in the interior, like the beginning of a little cry. The cry is aimed into an infinity of air, or an ear of infinite depth, expecting to be heard somewhere by a You whom we do not know, a kind of eternal estate of memory.
The vow to protect an image is a way of transcending the days you pass through by holding something that is not yet realized in human form, holding it against you, in secret.
You might vow to stay true to someone until the end of your life. You might vow to spend your life working on a peace agreement. Or to end capital punishment. Or to finish a piece of work. You cannot vow to see something happen that you wish would happen, however. You can only vow to labor for that something. (In a sense, this is what makes revenge dependent on lies and dishonesty.)
When a person becomes the keeper of an image, it requires a vow that is strange. This is because the significance of the image is only revealed in the act of preserving it, and the vow to be the one who sustains that significance must continually endow it with attention to the exclusion of real life, the everyday passing.
For Karmel, the vow to write the record of that time, to take as long as was needed to complete the documenting, ensured her status as the keeper of an image.
* * *
In the same cardboard box, under more papers, I found handwritten notes that Karmel had made, perhaps for a class, on passages from Proust, Henry James, and Franz Rosenzweig. And then there were two pages of random observations of the sort that are found in notebooks, but in this case they were on loose sheets. They struck me as many such writings do, as having a power in their very roughness and haste.
Spontaneous writing suggests, if nothing else, a poetic way—that is, a way that includes a non-performative and non-egoistic reportage. Like the notes of Simone Weil written during her three weeks in a transit camp in Casablanca, unedited and unsolicited, these cuttings from Karmel’s thoughts help us see that she looked for meaning in every spare moment, how swiftly it comes and goes.
The very fact that she wrote poetry in Buchenwald suggests that poetry itself is a part of the mind reserved for resistance to force. Poetry doesn’t just help someone survive, it is a survivor itself: fluid, protean, as it passes through walls, and brings a particular beat to a way of thinking and being.
* * *
In other words poetry is not just a set of enjambed lines on a page. It is not just poetry.
Ideally poetry reveals the face of justice through syntax, balance, image. That is, the harmony strung between two disparate images.
It doesn’t give more to one than to another.
It is visible in all things that are unfolding and disappearing. It offers a trace of freedom. And so it is the opposite of oppressive, opinionated, controlling or controlled.
The word “image” is central. The proliferation of images showing the distance between the earth seen from miles above and the globe, its ground stained by rubbish—these images inspire ghastly fear, not just awe, because there is no particular harmony between the two. Are these the few pure remnants of the work of the twentieth century? Works of technology rather than imagination?
And another question: can we recognize ourselves?—stays with us, just as warm arms and kindness remain basic to our existence.
How can we enter the new versions of time and space without remembering that physics produced the bombs over Japan and now, having accomplished that, will take us to another drama, or trauma? This is where we stand, face to the sky, waiting for the next readjustment to our self-image. Materialized and identified, but instantly gone from past to past to past.
A leap out of one’s seemingly determined fate (an act of charity) can come from any number of experiences as the novel, An Estate of Memory, labored to prove, and this message is offered to the twentieth century as something to be treasured. More than ever, now: to believe there is something that is not simply a norm.
In a sense, when this epiphany takes place, it is a miracle. A miracle is an event that changes the meaning of things. It is like a thought that floats free of the surrounding systems and conventions, and enters, uninvited, a sentence, a stanza, a conversation, a lab result, and sends it on another path.
A miracle can be the appearance of another person rising out of an emptiness that we are beginning to accept as permanent. As Paul Celan wrote, it is
a rumbling: it is