To Terezin and back
Here's the text of a talk I gave at the launch of Jack Ross's latest book last night in the pristine surroundings of Massey University's Albany campus. I'm hoping Brett Cross will run it as a review in the upcoming 35th issue of brief. Get your own submissions in soon.
To Terezin is the first book Jack Ross has published with Massey University Press, and the first book he has published this year. We're halfway through 2007, so the poet laurete of Mairangi Bay has got his work cut out if he's going to match the heroic feats of 2006, when not two, not three, but four volumes with his name on the spine hit bookshelves around New Zealand. Jack's one of those writers who could never be happy leaving behind one or two slender books on the shelf of a library - he wants a whole shelf, or perhaps a whole wing of the library, all to himself. He's been turning out poems, short stories, novellas, novels, anthologies, reviews, essays and the odd piece of soft porn for more than a decade now, and his scribblings are beginning to get some of the critical acclaim they have long deserved.
Compared to some of Jack's earlier books, like the wonderfully messy first novel Nights with Giordano Bruno, To Terezin has relatively modest proportions. It runs to ninety pages, and brings together a sequence of taut, almost haiku-like poems, some stark but somehow lyrical photos, and a cycle of prose meditations called 'The Golem'. Despite its relatively small size, I think To Terezin is perhaps the most ambitious book Jack has produced. It is ambitious because it dares to deal with a subject - the Holocaust perpetrated by Nazism in Europe - that most of us tend to avoid thinking, let alone writing about.
Jack's book was written at the beginning of 2005, afer he returned from a sojourn in the Czech Republic that included a visit to the park and museum that have been established at Terezin. In the eighteenth century a large fort was built on the site,
and during World War Two the Nazis turned it into a ghetto cum transit camp that housed Jews who were on their way to death camps like Auschwitz and Dachau. Thirty-three thousand Jews died in the camp itself, from hunger and disease.
The short, carefully controlled poems in the first half of To Terezin deal directly with Jack's trip through the Czech Republic and Terezin. The little essays that make up the second half of the volume are much more relaxed and discursive; they spend time discussing subjects with no obvious relation to Terezin, like Oprah Winfrey's book club or the perils of pseudonyms. Eventually, though, Jack's thought refocuses on Terezin, and we realise that the terrible events there have clouded all of his digressions.
This isn't the first time that Jack has written about fascism and its victims. Jack's first book was a translation of the Fascist Cantos written in Italian by the demented American poet Ezra Pound while he was working for the doomed regime of Benito Mussollini. Jack has also translated some of the poems of Paul Celan, the German-speaking Romanian Jew who survived the Holocaust until 1970, when he drowned himself in the Seine.
Jack's writing about fascism and the Holocaust flies in the face of a certain reticence which many New Zealanders tend to show about these subjects. We don't like to dwell on the things that went on in faraway places with ugly, alien names like Auschwitz, Dacahau, and Belsen. If we talk about such things, then we like to make it clear that they happened a long time in the past, on the other side of the world. We'll go to see a film like Schindler's List, but many of us don't like it when the word Holocaust is moved about in time or space. When Tariana Turia argued that Maori had suffered a Holocaust at the hands of Pakeha in the nineteenth century, phones at talkback stations across the country rang off the hook. Human rights camaigners who use the 'H' word to describe the situation in Darfur right now are criticised for hyperbole.
Jack comments on our reluctance to discuss the Holocaust in one of the essays in To Terezin:
as I writer...I have to poke my nose. If one could feel sure that it really was all in the past, that such things could never recur, then it would be easier to leave it alone. It's not all in the past, though. It's now...children starve in the Congo and the bodies pile up in Iraq.
Of course, talking about fascism and its victims is not in itself a virtue. It's a strange fact that, despite the reticence Ive been describing, few words have been more abused, more reduced in meaning than 'fascist' and 'Nazi'. The worst regime and greatest crime of the twentieth century have been turned into a rhetorical football by opportunistc politicians and lazy journalists. This week, wasting time on the internet, I saw Hugo Chavez described as 'a new Hitler', and Education Ministry officials in New Zealand called 'food Nazis', because they've announced plans to substitute cauliflower for minced pie in our school canteens.
Ultimately, the misuse of Nazism and the Holocaust for cheap rhetorical purposes parrallels the reticence about both subjects which is also a feature of our culture. Those who avoid the subjects and those who trivialise them share a contempt for the real history of the Second World War and the Holocaust. Both, in their own way, contribute to the climate of forgetfulness that To Terezin attacks:
under the sign
ARBEIT MACHT FREI
Five Gestapo officers
ARBEIT MACHT FREI
a cringing dog
Jack himself is well aware of the danger of misusing his subject matter. At one point in To Terezin he calls himself a voyeur, and wonders whether he should ever have visited the site of so much irredeemable misery. Throughout the book Jack is aware of his own status as an outsider, a man separated from the Jews of Terezin by language and culture as well as history. The poems in To Terezin refuse to generalise, to say more than Jack sees. Their crisp, carefully truncated lines flash images in front of our eyes - we see the inscription on the grave of Robert Desnos, the drawings of dead children, Czechs wandering like ghosts through the old fortress - but he refuses to diminish the power of these images by making them into symbols or examples in some general argument or explanation. It is up to the reader to work on connecting the images and impressions, and developing his or her own response to Terezin.
When he does reflect on what he sees, near the end of To Terezin, Jack eschews the temptation to empathise too easily with the victims of the Holocaust. He does not pretend to comprehend the enormity of their suffering, or to have access to all their thoughts and feelings. He recognises that we can only a grasp a part of the truth of Terezin by accepting that the whole is beyond us.
In To Terezin, then, Jack Ross is able to challenge the reticence many of us feel about the Holocaust, without trivialising or otherwise debasing the subject. His book is distinguished by humility as well as ambition.