This essay will be analysing and contrasting two poems relating to the Auschwitz concentration camp during WWII and how it diversely affected Jews.
The first poem is ‘Night over Birkenau,’ a first hand experience poem written by Tadeusz Borowski to display the daily lives of Jewish prisoners in concentration camps and ‘Earrings,’ a second generation poem by Annette Bialik Harchik, written to inform readers how Jewish women were imprisoned whilst exploring aspects such as the racial discrimination by Nazi Germans in the Auschwitz concentration camp.
By exploring these aspects it seems that the poems are written to give a voice to the deceased Jews who have died without having the chance to inform the world about the inhumane crimes inflict upon them deceitfully.
From the start of ‘Night over Birkenau’ readers are given a clear insight to the poem’s setting, hence the title ‘Night over Birkenau.’ This gives readers the sense of insecurity as a setting in the night is likely to be more vile.
This is then reinforced in, “Again the grim sky closes.” ‘Grim’ gives readers a sense of horror; and ‘sky closes’ evidently proves that the prisoners are captivated in this horror, it is inescapable. ‘Again’ reinforces that it is cyclic, constant and never ending within their hearts.
The Jews’ feeling of horror is initially derived from the horrifying methods used by the Nazi Germans to exterminate them. These were methods such as the crematorium, “and the eyes of the crematorium blaze.” The word ‘blaze’ allows readers to interpret the intensity and aggressiveness of the flame but it is the use of personification in ‘eyes’ which emphasises the intensity of the heat as the eyes symbolise the shape of an igniting red and blue flame.
The personification allows readers to interpret how slow the Nazi Germans have made the length of the termination process, as the eyes represent a quality of live humans. They were burnt alive which emphasises the agony that Jews had to go through. Just to die in the end.
All this gives us a like comparison of hell. In my opinion, the Germans in the poem possess a character equivalent God’s, shown by their possessiveness over a wide nation, and, how they wiped them easily because of their ignorant, unjustified hate.
There is further reference to the ‘eyes’ later in the poem which can effectively be linked to stanza four where Borowski refers to the eyes and the poison on the same line, “my eyes are poisoned from sleep.” This reinforces the idea that the prisoners were tortured in the methods of death used as poison takes a long time to distil in the body, slowly working its way through the body resulting in the victim left in agony. Alternatively, the reference to the ‘eyes’ made in the above quotes can mean that the Germans’ crimes were being watched and would not go without being known to the world (hence how we now know). The use of ‘eyes’ shows that they are being watched more widely than simply saying ‘eye’.
Imagery of nature’s deceitful and unwilling characteristic is similarly portrayed in ‘Earrings.’
At the end of the poem, we are similarly shown how nature trying to contribute to the Germans’ crimes.
This is shown on the ending stanza of the poem. Harchik does this by describing the holes dug in which the camp prisoners’ corpses to be buried in, “The empty holes,” and, on the next line they are described as ‘grown shut.’ This is a very effective way to use language, it emphasises nature’s attempt to stop the finding of the Jews’ corpses after the massacre. This is shown by the use of oxymoron to emphasise how the holes that the Germans have dug to mass bury the prisoners’ corpses is veiled by grass growing over the burial sites eventually levelling off with the rest of the earth.
The idea of nature’s conceal of the Germans’ crimes is similarly portrayed in ‘Night over Birkenau.’ “Fog descends over Birkenau.” ‘Descends’ allows readers to see the slow approach of the ‘fog’ covering all signs of reality. The use of ‘fog’ allows readers to interpret the spreading of loss and confusion on its progression. The fog concealing Birkenau can symbolise the ignorance of the outside world. They were blinded by mere fog which the Germans used as a temporary veil to their crimes. The world’s ignorance is shown by the way the outside world did not have a basic outlook of what was actually happening inside this typical, yet deceitful looking camp.
Day be day, the tension of: hunger;sickness and fear accumulated within the prisoners. Even their feet were not put to rest. But, instead, they had to wear wooden shoes. A source of pain and can sometimes prove fatal. And with all this people in the Auschwitz camp were losing sanity. They were afraid of dying. Not just dying; but not being found again. Borowski cleverly presents the loss of sanity to readers by the theme of astronomy, “blue Orion- lost among the stars.” For one, a setting in outer space is very effective as it reinforces the same theme as the night, as space, likewise, is pitch black. The real reason to why Borowski used this quote is because the Orion is visible to everyone, all around the world. Yet, historically, because of the business (and lack of care) the world gave no attention to the crimes which were happening.
Physical loss is shown in ‘Earrings’ in stanza four. On the first line, Harchik shows readers how atrocious her mother’s physical condition is once she left her ‘earrings’ from the last stanza, “Under her wavy white hair.” The use of ‘white’ emphasises the dramatic change in physical attributes that happen within a character – this emphasises how much the camp prisoners must have been worked out. The use of the alliteration, ‘Wavy white,’ gives a double impact and meaning to the ageing idea, as similarly ‘wavy’ hair is often degraded in quality and is the last stage of hair ‘development’ within a person thus it is a characteristic of an ageing person.
Fear is heavily referred to in ‘Night over Birkenau.’ It was the initial reason to why people in concentration camps lost sanity. This fear of death and humiliation had a huge psychological impact on the prisoners. Which, with the deprivation of food and water, depression and over working – it could only get worse.
The first stanza describes the potential threat which the camp prisoners are facing, and this is done in very simple and deeply understood language, “Like a crouching beast over the camp.” The word ‘beast’ is used to portray a grim character which will do anything possible to harness its goal. This fear is further reinforced because a ‘beast’ also possesses a savage, daunting appearance. But fear is shown when
Borowski uses the word ‘crouching,’ to show that prisoners lived under threat as the Nazi Germans have the potential to take you. Just like the beast. The use of enjambment helps to reinforce the beast’s potential tokill by the use of death imagery, “The moon sets pale as a corpse.” The colour of the moon is comparable to ‘corpse.’ The aftermath of death. Alternatively this can show fear by the way that prisoners could not look up to the sky for hope but misery.
At the beginning of stanza two, Borowski shows readers the lack of defence prisoners had and their vulnerability to the Nazi Germans in, “And like a shield abandoned in battle.” The use of ‘shield;’ ‘abandoned’ and ‘abandoned’ in his simile allows readers to see the situation the Jews were in. They could not retaliate, as, without a shield, they could not defend themselves enough to make it a fair battle. They were betrayed; and their only chance of survival was by following their enemies’ instructions until their fates are decided.
This quote can link with, “Lead foot crushing my chest.” ‘Lead’ is a metallic element, and without the ‘shield’ mentioned earlier, prisoners were not able to defend themselves against the metallic ‘crush’ attack style inflicted by the Nazis’ boots, making them resign for the humiliation. We can see this by the way the poet chooses to describe all images of fear and death figuratively to personify how they were mislead to the ‘gate of hell’, “The transports growl in darkness.” Borowski chooses to use ‘transports’ instead of simply saying ‘transport,’ to emphasise the abnormal amount of train activity in the camp. The fear is further reinforced by the use of onomatopoeia, ‘growl’ which can be linked to animal imagery of the beast in stanza one.
The purposeful play of plurals is used similarly in stanza 4 to convey a different meaning, “Like God’s judgement on the corpse of the earth.” This only refers to one thing ‘corpse,’ instead of saying ‘corpses’ – this is done to show that the Jews’ unity. They all went through the same experience and they all die in the same place, they were all equal in such a tragedy.
Fear is presented in a differently in ‘Earrings.’ Harchik identifies her family’s name on the first line; instead of keeping anonymous as Borowski does in his poem. This shows us that the intention of the poet was to speak out to give a voice to the Jewish women almost 45 years after the mass termination of the Jews in her poem published in 1989 with other similar poems speaking about Jewish women in the Auschwitz camp. The way in which the Jewish generation suddenly arises from its dormant state in decades shows how survivors were afflicted with fear from the experience they had to go through.
‘Earrings’ shows speaks out by, first of all, giving her family’s name, with the basis of the poem coming first hand from her mother’s perspective but is also based around other Jewish women, the general picture. In comparison to ‘Night over Brikenau,’ ‘Earrings’ surround itself around a more factual and authoritative theme thus it is less emotional. Readers are shown the poem’s factual content by Harchik’s straightforward language, which is effective and to the point, “stripped, shorn and tattooed.” Straightforward and to the point.
Loss is presented in both poems. But, in ‘Earrings’ Harchik shows the readers the loss by deprivation of vital things to Jewish girls, such as culture.
“Ears pierced in infancy;
adorned in string
golden hoops for girlhood;
diamond studs for marriage.”
Harchik shows the loss of identity and culture by the way that people, without her earrings, would not be able to differentiate whether she is married or not – they lost their identity. And the importance is shown by the clever use of semi-colons to emphasise how each step and every step was equal in importance and must be conducted in a woman’s lifetime and the deaths of Jewish children shows the deprivation that is caused by the Germans.
Harchik explores the aspect of death in the concentration camp. This is shown in stanza three to show the death toll of the prisoner’s using the earrings as a symbol of their identity:
“leaving behind her—earrings
in a huge glittering pile of jewelry.”
The word ‘huge’ emphasises the sheer amount of women imprisoned as they have all left their belongings in the pile. Harchik uses the word ‘leave’ to show the that her mother left her possessions with her intention – which reinforces the deceitfulness of the Nazi Germans as they lied and told the Jews that they were only going in for a ‘shower,’ when, in fact they were to be inhaled with toxic gas.
‘Glittering’ shows that the jewellery was new and polished – in other words, it was to give an impression. This can be referred historically to the way Jews were deceived into a wrong destination, the total opposite of what they have been told. A destination in which there minds would never dwell on. Alternatively, ‘glittering’ can suggest the speed at which everything is happening, which is very fast. Whilst the pile of jewellery is ‘huge,’ it is still ‘glittering’ to emphasise the activity of women leaving their possessions and never coming back out.
Both poems portray the same sense of unity between the Jews making them ‘one’. This is shown in a simpler and more effective form in ‘Earrings’ because the link of unity between the Jewish women was also a link of culture as all the women carried at least earrings. Harchik shows us this by using the world ‘pile’ in, “in a huge glittering pile of jewelry.” ‘Pile’ suggests the disorganization in the camp – which reinforces the idea how everything in the camp was going at extreme speed. But, it is this ‘pile’ which suggests the equality that all the Jews had – every person’s possessions was mixed in a huge pile with other cheaper or more expensive items. There is a huge range of who’s this jewlerry may belong to whether it was a poor or a rich person. All that really mattered was that these people were Jewish.
In ‘Night over Birkenau,’ Borowski displays the aspect of humiliation in a discreet way to emphasises his feelings. A clear example of this humiliation is shown in stanza three. Humiliation is shown here when the Nazi Germans stamped their shoes on the prisoners to show how their dominance over them as they are the ‘Arian race’ and how Jews were inferior in comparison to them. “This lead foot crushing my chest.”The use of words like ‘crushing’ is effective, it does not simply say ‘stamping’ but goes into a higher level of complexity to relate it to make it deadlier to emphasise that the Germans were never lenient with the camp prisoners. This can subtlety linked with the previous line of the Stanza ‘Breath rattles’, which is a sound of suffocation as the Germans crushed the prisoner’s chest.
From this, we can deduce how Jews were racially ridiculed as soon as they entered the camp. They were not only humiliated but seized in a deadly way which is reinforced in the enjambment, “is the silence of three million dead.” This is what almost all Jews had to go through; regardless of who they were in the other world: the world were they had their own names.
Prisoners humiliation is portrayed in ‘Earrings.’ Harchik guides readers through it in a chronological format where commas identify the pause between every step, “my mother was stripped,shorn,tattooed.” Harchik uses a continuous 3 line enjambment to show the speed at which everything is happening. Once prisoners are off the train they must do what the Nazi Germans tell them without a pause. The personal reference to her mother will make readers more sympathetic towards the situation since a mother is a character of significance. Prisoners were treated barbarically like a herd of sheep.
We can see this by the way they had to follow all orders given to them, just like the sheep would do to the farmer without a halt. What is even more humiliating, is the way that the womens’ heads were shaven off completely, ‘shorn.’ This is done to remove any environmental variation between them. They could not be themselves – they were almost clones of each other serving the Germans. They were not easily differentiable and in some cases it was non-deferential between a man and a woman. And this mark of identity is shown by the way they were ‘tattooed’ – almost a sign from the Germans of their permanency in the camp. This shows the how some prisoners were even humiliated by their simple, indirect thoughts.
There is also an effective use of alliteration in both ‘Night over Birkenau’ and ‘Earrings.’ Both of the poems use alliteration to convey both both the onomatopoeic meaning and a hidden historical inference. In ‘Night over Birkenau,’ alliteration is used to show death “It’s steamy stifling.” This refers to the sound of a snake ‘Ss’, which is an example of animal imagery with the intention to bring death. The use of ‘steam’ emphasises the intensity of temperature whilst ‘stifling’ reinforces the idea of the Germans’ control. Despite the ‘living’ conditions they are in – they are forced to live through it. The punchy full-stop is used to show an end to the life of prisoners who chose to give up than live under control.
Alliteration is similarly used in ‘Earrings’ to show the camp’s treatment towards prisoners “My mother was stripped,shorn.” The alliterate use of ‘Ss’ is used here again, ‘striped,shorn.’ The main use of alliteration here is because of its historical reference. ‘SS’ stood for ‘Schutzstaffel’, a major Nazi military organisation run by Adolph Hitler during World War 2 – this organization was primarily responsible for the crimes for the crimes against humanity, thus was the major inflict of pain and suffering to the Jews. Onomatopoeia is used in ‘shorn’ and when read gives a ‘Shhh’, a sound of sheering – which reinforces that the women prisoners’ heads were shaved off.
Reference to religion in poetry helped prisoners to keep sane during very demanding times. With the prisoners’ loss of identity, culture and even their name there would only be one thing in which they can truly embrace in their hearts without the feeling of a threat, which is religion.
In ‘Night over Birkenau’ religious issues are raised and introduced in the first stanza to set an instant scene of terror, “Grim sky closes circling like a vulture over the dead silence.” The idea of the sky ‘circling’ in vulture like motions, in Jewish scriptures is a sign to determine the Day of Judgement. They felt that this was the end of the Jewish spurt. And indeed; it was the ‘Day of Judgement’ for them – this was the Nazi Germans’ intention. To wipe out all Jews from existence. Alternatively, the quote can be used to show the death by animal imagery. The Nazi Germans are seen as the ‘vulture’, circling around its prey, the Jews. This simile further emphasises the vulnerability of the prisoners. Borowski chooses a vulture to show how strongly patrolled the prisoners were. Whilst they may think that they are safe – they are still watched cautiously by the Nazi Germans.
On stanza three, readers are evidently shown the death. Not figuratively but statistically. “Is the silence of three million dead.”
Furthermore, these quotes can link us as to how Borowski consciously gives evidence to the silence in the camp emphasising the Jews fearfulness speak. Silence is shown when Borowski coherently uses death imagery and death implies silence – this is evident by the poet in the fourth stanza, “like a vulture over the dead silence;” and this is reinforced by “Is the silence of three million dead.”
In comparison with ‘Earrings,’ there is no involvement of religion.’Earrings’ concentrates on culture and identity.
‘Night over Birkenau’ is structured chronologically. The first stanza gives readers an insight to the poem’s setting including the thematic information to give the reader an idea as to what the poem is about.
The first two lines of the second stanza progress to tell the reader about the emotions that the people felt; including their loss which is an effective follow-up from stanza one’s description of the night, the last two lines of stanza two show us the feelings of the people on the way to enter the camp, ‘The transports growl in darkness.’
Stanza three concentrates on the suffering and humiliation that the camp prisoners went through. The image of death is effectively shown throughout this stanza and there is an effective use of punctuation to reinforce death and tension, ‘It’s steamy, stifling. Sleep is a stone.’ Contracted form is used to reinforce the idea of ‘stifling’ as it can be used to show the suffocation and lack of space the prisoners had. The full-stop at the end of ‘steamy, stifling.’ can be used to show an end of life to some prisoners. The obvious idea of death is shown at the end, ‘is the silence of three million dead.’
Stanza four is cyclic to stanza one and gives the repetition of night, ‘Night, night without end. No dawn comes.’ The repetition of the night shows us the routine of the prisoners’ daily life in the camp but an alternative interpretation would be that the prisoners did not have hope, and hence ‘No dawn comes.’ Dawn is the opposite of night, thus it must mean hope and the dawn not coming reinforced the idea that hope did not come.
Also, notice how there is a consistency in the number of lines in each stanza – this can also show how there was the same daily routine in the camp, Borowski makes everything in the poem repetitious just to show the number of times these crimes have happened without the world knowing – the prisoners did not have a voice. We can see Borowski’s cyclic approach from the beginning of the poem, “Night again. Again the grim sky closes.” The use of repetition, ‘again,’ reinforces the idea of routine and the tediousness of camp life. This is also effective when the poem is actually being read as ‘again’ is repeated twice.
This is similarly portrayed in the ‘Earrings.’ Both poems follow the same gradual chronology – birth to death. This is slightly different in ‘Earrings.’ Harchik does not set a scene but ironically shows us the earrings as being a part of the prisoners’ life, it was a sign of hope for them. Harchik instead uses ‘tabbing’ structure to separate the ‘earrings’ away from the poem to similarly show the lack of hope but it is now shown ironically in comparison to ‘Night over Birkenau’ as the object of hope is now away rather than the object of misery being within the text. This can be interpreted to show how far away it was for the prisoners to be heard by the rest of the world and the lack of voice they received.
‘Earrings’ is a personal second generation poem and therefore the language nor the structure did not touch on sensitive issues that the Jewish generation in general felt, but bases it on what Annette Harchik’s mother. The ‘tabbing’ structure is heavily relied on by the poet to describe what it was before and after the entrance in the camp. The first stanza talks about her own family’s perspective and we notice how it consists of 3 lines to show that it has a lower priority in comparison with stanza 2 which gives background information relating to all the women in the camp and thus given four lines.
The third stanza is the biggest with the factual content of what has happened to her mother, ‘my mother was stripped.’ Although Harchik bases this on the mother, she does go forward to give the idea on the wider perspective of what has happened to the people on the last line of stanza three, ‘in a huge glittering pile of jewelry.’ The enjambment used from the last line follow on from ‘earrings’, the symbol of the people – this is effective use of the enjambment because it links very well to the ‘huge glittering pile,’ which again evidently shows that a wide number of people were involved.
Punctuation in ‘Earrings’ is less intense than ‘Night over Birkenau’. Harchik uses punctuation to separate different thing in the camp in a ‘step to step’ format, “mother was stripped, shorn, and tattooed.” Notice how there is a comma between every step that her mother has to go through, this is effective to the reader as they have to ‘pause’ between every step. This can also be interpreted to show the sheer humiliation that the camp prisoners had to go through – the pause emphasises that the prisoners had to stand there waiting for the next step to be conducted right in-front of crowds upon crowds of other, humiliated people.
Lack of hope is similar between both ‘Earrings’ and ‘Night over Birkenau,’ both poems repeat the ‘symbol’ which is bringing misery or ironically in ‘Earrings,’ hope. In ‘Earrings,’ we witness the presence of the word ‘earrings’ in the first stanza to start the poem and the third stanza where the conflict is being described, once again the ‘tabbing’ structure between the text and ‘earrings’ emphasises that there is a lack of hope; which is similarly show in ‘Night over Birkenau’ but with the text to show the lingering presence of evil..
From studying these poems. I can evidently see that Borowski is a poet who has went through a lot of pain and agony before having the courage to show the world exactly what happened to Jewish prisoners during WW2. This is shown in his poem by the coherent references to methods of deaths, torture and disturbing images. We can learn from the poem, and his character is that living through demanding times – like a concentration camps can totally change one’s state of mind – and this is why Borowski has a coherent reference to death imagery – to feel like he’s not the only one.
But even with all this, it was amazingly hard to escape the camp, but even harder to escape the mental scars which the camp’s life has subsided within him; resulting in an arousal of his suicidal feelings, and hence this mental disturbance caused him to commit suicide at the mere age of 28 despite being freed from the camp. Both poems allow us to relate to the massacres that have occurred during World War II to the Jews, as both flow progressively in a structured order. ‘Earrings’ has successfully explored the identity, culture and humiliation aspect in stanza three, whilst on the other hand, ‘Night over Birkenau’ heavily related to the fear and the death.
In my opinion, the poet is trying to show readers that nothing exceeds humiliation, loss of culture and identity. And hence why Harchik after many years after the Holocaust she merely goes into the aspect of death but instead comments on the humiliation, loss of identity and culture. Her determination to inform the world is evident in her poetry. Her determination to tell the world about the Germans’ crimes gained her credaince to publish ‘Earrings’ in “Blood to remember” a 21st century version of the original ‘Earrings’ with a wider use of structure to further convey the loss of people.
Personally, I preferred studying ‘Night over Birkenau’ as Borowski conveys his meaning to readers in a very vivid way. It is very inspiring and makes me think about how horrible it must have been to be in such a demanding situation. ‘Night over Birkenau’ allowed me to see how the world can be very deceitful to obtain and help who it wants and the constant repetition to the silence allowed me to think about how can the outside world not pay any attention to anyone. Not even a threatened nation fore coming the plague of World War 2’s plagued war-zone.