by Howard Debs (Palm Beach Gardens, FL)
“How does one mourn for six million people who died? How many candles does one light? How many prayers does one recite? Do we know how to remember the victims, their solitude, their helplessness? They left us without a trace, and we are their trace.” — Elie Weisel
In the mid-80s I was privileged to experience “The Precious Legacy,” an exhibit then touring the United States consisting of a selection of Jewish artifacts from the collection of the Jewish Museum in Prague. (As it happens, Prague is very close to home, my ancestral home, actually. My paternal grandfather came to America from Riga, Latvia in 1886.)
One of my areas of special poetic interest is ekphrastic poetry, a form which takes its inspiration from pictorial and other artwork. The artifacts in the collection were silent witnesses from the time, and I realized that I could give them a voice, and, in this way, let them speak for themselves through me — a bold but plausible idea.
I contacted Jakub Hauser, the curator of the vast photographic collection of the Jewish Museum, and presented my idea. I asked if the museum would grant permission for me to select and use a number of archival photographs from the collection for a series of poetic statements about them. The museum agreed.
My intent was to explicate and illustrate the indomitable spirit for good juxtaposed by the inevitable potential for evil — what in Hebrew is called yetzer hatov/yetzer hara, “good inclination”/”evil inclination.”
I chose Terezin as the focus of the work, as the camp has become associated with the spiritual resistance of the Shoah. Thirty-three thousand perished at Terezin. In all, some 140,000 Jews were transferred to Terezin, of which nearly 90,000 were ultimately sent to points further east and to almost certain death. Fifteen thousand children passed through Terezin. Approximately 90 percent of these children perished in death camps.
Here’s one of the poems that I wrote after viewing the collection and with which I began my journey to bear witness:
The Suitcase to Terezin
Josef Ernst is the name on the suitcase.
What can we know from a suitcase?
285 is the number the Nazis assigned to him
for purposes of his transport to Terezin that
day on the train identified as AAw,
and so from lists that were kept
we know he was taken away on the
3rd of August, 1942 from
Horomeritz a quaint Prague village the name
of which appears on the suitcase, his captors
being meticulous about the details of such things
as this and from such records we know Josef Ernst
born 24 June 1900 was liberated from Terezin,
he survived the Holocaust this we know, he had
a life after Terezin and surely now he rests in peace,
we can but hope that he forgave the human race.
For some 30 plus years, I’ve searched for a way to continue bearing witness to the Holocaust, and feel blessed to have written such a poem and to have founded the New Voices Project as a way to help others bear witness, as well.
Howard Debs is the founder of the NewVoicesProject newvoicesproject.org. He received a University of Colorado Poetry Prize at age 19. After spending the past fifty plus years in the field of communications, with recognitions including a Distinguished Achievement Award from the Educational Press Association of America, he resumed his creative pursuits. Finalist and recipient 28th Annual 2015 Anna Davidson Rosenberg Poetry Awards, his essays, fiction, and poetry appear internationally in numerous publications. His photography will be found in select publications, including in Rattle online as “Ekphrastic Challenge” artist and guest editor. His book Gallery: A Collection of Pictures and Words, is the recipient of a 2017 Best Book Award and 2018 Book Excellence Award. His chapbook Political is the winner of the 2021 American Writing Awards in poetry. He is co-editor with Matthew Silverman of New Voices: Contemporary Writers Confronting the Holocaust and is listed in the Poets & Writers Directory.
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Note: This story is based in part on Howard’s essay, The Poetry of Bearing Witness, which he wrote about creating the New Voices Project for Krista Tippett’s On Being Project. https://onbeing.org/blog/the-poetry-of-bearing-witness/
His poem series, “Terezin: Trilogy Of Names,” was originally published in China Grove Literary Journal, Vol.3, and is partially reprinted here with permission of the author. Name and information are from the database of Terezin Initiative Institute entries for Shoah victims and survivors.