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This article was automatically translated. ORIGINAL

Songs of Pain

Concentration poetry as historical testimony

Vincenzo Canto

28th February 2021

I would like to open this article by quoting two important literary figures of the modern and contemporary Italian scene. «Human memory is a wonderful but fallacious instrument». This is how Primo Levi opens 'The Drowned and the Saved', his last work published in 1986. And it is precisely with these words that I would like to respond, in advance, to all those who will ask themselves, in the face of what I am going to say, why we are still commemorating the Shoah, what is the reason that prompts us every year, for the umpteenth time, to talk about deportation, extermination camps, genocide, and Auschwitz and Dachau. There is no reason, there is no reason: it is silly to even ask about it, just as ridiculous to try to justify it. Rather, the lapidary declaration of an illustrious witness such as Levi suffices, whose conclusion is as simple and linear as it is fundamental and profound: 'remember in order to remember', and not forget, but reflect and understand how much more must happen (although this reality still seems difficult and distant today, and it is enough to look back at the hell of the refugee camps in Moria to be plunged back eighty years). Hence the need to remember not only the Shoah, but also the ease with which man's violence against man is perpetrated on a daily basis, and to always remember the importance of looking at the facts with the eyes of the world and a universal spirit. My wish for the poems that follow is that they be read with exactly this disposition, so that it may be emphasised once again how much the minds and hearts of all are united by the same material of feeling which, disentangling itself from the different languages, finds expression in the word, an almost absolute instrument. But I want Alessandro Manzoni to authoritatively reaffirm the centrality of poetry as a document and testimony on every level. And there is no more adequate definition than the one given in the famous "Lettre a M. Chauvet": «For what, finally, does history give us? Events that are, so to speak, only known from the outside; what men have done; but what they have thought, the feelings that have accompanied their decisions and their projects, their fortunate and unfortunate results, the speeches with which they have made or tried to make their passion and their will prevail over other passions or other wills, by means of which they have expressed their anger, poured out their sadness, in a word have revealed their individuality: all this and something else is passed over in silence by historians; and all this is the domain of poetry.»

The 'genre' of memory: concentration poetry

"In suffering, Poetry is a song that frees,' says Fabien Lacombe, a French journalist and Dachau survivor. Since ancient times, poetic song has always had this innate function of catharsis from passions. Purification which is, in fact, freedom, and freedom which is, in turn, independence: spiritual independence, first and foremost, from the evil that weighs down on the soul and crushes it to death, especially in a demeaning reality such as that of a concentration camp, which deprives, subtracts, to the point of reification of being, which becomes something that can be destroyed and erased. A machine-like, cold and absurd logic of which facts and figures will never be able to adequately express the signs that it engraved on the flesh of the victims who fell and survived. And it is to this instrument capable of breaking the most invisible chains that men and women, transcending their anagraphic, ethnic, cultural and religious diversity, have decided to entrust their voice: whether it be a lament of pain or a prayer of hope, a desperate cry of struggle or a sob of resignation. For freedom, it has been said: a fundamental necessity, of vital importance for a deportee who has no other way of declaring his identity, but above all his human dignity, than by drawing on his own creative force, from which to derive something that belongs to him, and that for this reason characterises him, becomes the emblem of an individuality that survives and is preserved; This is done both with the aim of responding to the basic need to "procure a way to make the days and nights go by without end" (as Agnes Sassoon, who was deported to Dachau at the age of just eleven without her parents, declared), and with the more fearless prospect of taking up the weapons "of thought and spirit" and making poetry "the ultimate form of human resistance" (these are the words of Henri Pouzol, a French poet who survived the camps). The outcome is remarkable: not only the maintenance of personal integrity, but also the acquisition of a great awareness (which Karl Röder does not fail to mention): "no power in the world can annul man as a spiritual being". But this necessity is accompanied by the other significant component, which opens up the boundaries of a perspective that is in the first instance subjective and individual towards a collectivity that looks not only at the other deportees whose voice is heard in the same way as that of the authors (the poems were in fact often recited with the intention of comforting and encouraging), but also and especially to posterity, to all subsequent generations untouched by this tragedy and, for this reason, invested with a task whose fulfilment certainly requires a further effort: duty. All these poems, these poems, are indeed a demonstration of man's ability to preserve his spiritual freedom in the most degrading realities, but their relevance is linked in the same way and with the same intensity to their testimonial value: they are (to quote Dorothea Heiser) 'the revelation of an ultimate and definitive truth, concerning human existence in the face of death, in the face of the limits of the inexpressible'. In short, one writes in order to live, and to remember and be remembered: poetic song immortalises everything, beyond time and death; what better instrument, then, to entrust eternity with the testimony of the incredible (in the literal sense of the adjective, of 'unbelievable')? Necessity and duty. Imperatives to which the detainees responded by facing all the risks of the adverse material and spiritual conditions determined by the reality of the camp. In fact, it is fundamental to pose as a fundamental awareness that it was absolutely not possible for an inmate of the lager to realise the will to write: deprived of everything, he had no right to possess anything, even the most insignificant object such as a pencil butt or a scrap of paper; nothing survived the constant searches, not even the lives of those caught red-handed hiding something forbidden, contravening the rules (Pouzol recalls: "Every word written [...] meant for its author the bunker or death"). And yet many could not help but follow, as an instinct, the vocation of writing, even defying the obsessive torture of hunger by bartering (significant is the return to this primitive form of exchange, demonstrating how violence has the capacity to cancel out all historical progress) their poor meal with material with which to write, a small but immense treasure guarded in the most varied ways: from practical solutions, dictated by the contingencies of the moment (the hiding place found "in the ceiling of the infirmary", to "the iron stretcher that held the corpses destined for the dissection chamber", according to the testimony of Arthur Haulot), to more personal solutions such as the use of a code, comprehensible only to a few initiates, or drafts decipherable only by their authors. Often, however, the circumstances of the camp were such as to totally prevent any writing practice, leaving to memory alone the burden of becoming a space for the preservation of what could have no other form than that of immaterial thought, so that it could survive until the posthumous moment of writing (which could occur even many years after Liberation, testifying to how irremediable such a serious wound was, to how deep the "trauma of survival" was, to how such writing repeated over the decades is the literary 'translation' of a life-long struggle conducted by the survivors): "'my brain became pencil and memory paper' declares the aforementioned Agnes Sassoon.

Below are the texts of two Italian deportees, very young and for this very reason closer to everyone's sensitivity.
The accompanying comments are my own elaboration, but the invitation is to approach the reading of the proposed poems individually, with an individual, intimate approach.

Mirco Giuseppe Camia: the bestiality of the lager

Originally from Milan, where he was born in 1925, he undertook his studies in Classics locally, but interrupted them in August 1944 when, aged just 19, he was arrested for belonging to a group of resistance fighters. Detained in San Vittore and deported to the Bolzano camp, he was then sent to the Flossenbürg concentration camp, from where he was sent to Kempten-Kottern, an external kommando of Dachau, a camp to which he was nevertheless taken once it had been established that he was unfit for work in the mechanical field in which he had been classified. He fell ill with petechial typhus and was hospitalised in the lazaret of the lager itself, but was freed on 29th April 1945 and treated by the Americans. He returned to Italy, where he stayed for good, and resumed and completed his studies. He died on 18th January 1997. In the course of his life he never failed, with poems and speeches, to contribute to the memory of the Shoah: in his texts the ferocity of that animal reality emerges, the reprehensible ambiguity of the figure of the 'kapo' (seen as the one who "is death / or / the privilege of living") or the sad awareness of the vanity of the 'martyrdom' of the deported (to him he will say: "you will not rise / from your ashes"). Some of his statements are also very strong, such as the following: 'I address the human being, as guilty, entirely guilty, for his tolerance of horrors, in his hypocritical opportunism towards everything that suits him, thus accepting monstrous follies and ideologies of which he should be ashamed'.

Among the poems written during the period of treatment following the liberation by the Americans is 'I am counting on you', from June 1945.
The episode framed by the verses quoted attests to a rather frequent scene in the concentration camps: that of the 'count', the roll call that the Nazi gendarmes used to carry out every day, forcing the deportees to line up in front of them, urged on by their ferociously shouted orders. And if "the accounts did not add up", as Camia says in his poem, the reaction of the jailers could only be harsh and the only way to calm things down was to punish the person responsible, or someone else who could pay for him. The uniqueness of Camia's poetic tale lies in the bestiality through which he 'filters' the description of the episode, transliterating places and figures into the ferinity of animal reality, where every law ceases to exist in favour of the sole principle of 'the strongest'. Since there are no 'languages' other than that of the 'executioner' and the 'victim' (as the author himself declares in the poem 'The Kapo'), the dynamics certainly cannot be different from those active among the beasts: thus, in an interesting assimilation of the violence of the commands given by soldiers and officers to the "barking / of rabid dogs", in Camia's vision the Nazis become ferocious shepherd dogs engaged in vehemently taming the terrified crowd of deportees who, by consequent analogy, dress themselves in the skins of the frightened flock, at the mercy of the most blind aggression. Only "burnt flesh / calmed the barking", and only with "one sheep less" can the flock re-enter "the fold": in short, only the price of blood, only violent, provoked death, satisfies the violence of these beast-men. The writing of Camia's poetry, especially in his early texts, is clearly influenced by that of Ungaretti (the definitive edition of his debut collection, 'L'allegria', one of the author's most famous, dates from the 1930s-40s): Like the latter, the young poet also uses short, broken verses that trace a fragmentary course, translating the obsessiveness of his own tragic memories through figures of sound (especially alliteration); A particular insistence, from this point of view, is to be found in closed and sombre vowels (the 'o' and the 'u') and hard and harsh consonants (the velar 'c/g', the labial 'p/b', the dental 't', the 'm' and the 'z') often in pairs of remarkable sonority ('gr/cr/tr/pr/br' and the double 'bb/cc/gg'). Finally, the semantic importance given to the interstrophic white spaces is significant and entirely Hungarian, used here by Camia as if to open up voids in which to make the brutality of those abominably 'human' snarls resound.

Nevio Vitelli: the weeping of a distant son

Born in Fiume in 1928, in 1944 - when he was only sixteen - he emigrated to Germany, from which he tried to return in September of the same year. Without any permission or authorisation, he was stopped and, found to be in possession of anti-Nazi propaganda material, arrested and deported to Dachau, where he remained until Liberation. During the period of hospitalisation in the camp lazaret, Vitelli shared a room with Camia who, with regard to this meeting, recalled: 'We had little conversation, the essentials of suffering, nothing more... Absolutely nothing about our future: where was this future of ours? We were deeply and gravely wounded in the depths of ourselves, of our souls. [...] It was the memories of so much that had opened up the wounds we carried in our souls, which nothing and no one could ever heal. Wounds even deeper than those that marked and weakened our bodies'. They shared the same experience, but did not meet the same future fate: Nevio, who was very ill, returned to Italy in 1945 and, after an uninterrupted series of hospital stays, died on 28 May 1948, at the age of just twenty. The only text Vitelli produced in his short life, 'La mia ombra a Dachau', written during his stay in the camp hospital (May 1945), is known to us thanks to the efforts of Camia who, after receiving it from Nevio's parents following his death, kept it for over forty years before publishing it. He would say of this poem: 'It contains everything: the martyrdom of detention and the elegy of Liberty. The sublime memory of the greatest earthly love, maternal love, the sacredness of faith, and something else that is outside the mentality and thought of youth, the suffering in man: "forgiveness"!

The opening stanza focuses on the body and its dominant reality: in a reality where man is reified by violence, the 'word' - in itself a typically human manifestation - gives way to the body, to the 'thing'; it is the body that 'speaks', that expresses what words can no longer. The voice of the poetic song no longer originates from the mind, nor even from the heart: it is the sound of the flexing of a violated body, of its tortured flesh. Like the wounded animal, which displays its suffering without articulating a word, so the deportee of a lager.

This is followed by the terrible and distressing portrait of this body, this offended 'thing', a grey presence in an equally terrible scenario. The description is based on a few hues, cold and dark, in a blatant impressionism, in an immediacy that shocks: the badly shaved head, the sunken eyes, the skin stained with blood (and, therefore, with violence); the field, barely immortalised in the profiles of the barracks and in the twisted features of the barbed wire. Images, in short, of a son that no mother would ever want to see.

The questions of the following verses open the third stanza in the full tenderness of a young man who is still a little child, in need of the warm closeness of his mother, especially when she is far away, when she becomes an essential necessity surrounded by hopeless pain. And like that child still awake inside him, that 'bad boy' who, having made a mistake, does not understand its value and it is up to the parent to help him in his education, so is the young author now: a 'grown-up child', he asks his mother what the fault - misunderstood and unknowable - that led him to that punishment is. But this time she is not there and does not answer: so the question becomes a supplication, a sobbing 'song' that resounds empty, unanswered, "inconclusive and vain".

Everything has changed, even the evening and its thoughts: it is no longer a time for 'taking stock' of what happened during the day that has just ended, but is now rather a preparation for tomorrow. Hence the paradox: one does not have the strength to think about the future (because, on the other hand, a deportee immediately stops believing in his existence: there is no future, there cannot be), but the mind is nevertheless projected towards tomorrow, in an instinctive turning to the next day led by uncertainty that can become violence, terror, perhaps even death. The future no longer has a broad outlook, but is all focused on what will come next, and one does not know it: one will try to bear it.

And yet (we are in the close) hope does not die: it burns with splendour, indeed it resounds vividly in that "music" of light made up of "the throbbing of stars", pulsating with the intensity of a living heart, of blood that still flows in the veins, that warms the bodies of "the living", of those who will survive, of those who will come and live after the survivors, because that of life is an eternal cycle over which mortal man has no absolute power. However, that same light is now nothing more than 'sun dust': compromised by the incredulity of so much suffering, it becomes an opaque halo that illuminates nothing but is extinguished at its very origin.

Sources and References

The texts cited, together with information about the concentration camp and the testimony of the deportees, are taken from the book "La mia ombra a Dachau", edited by Dorothea Heiser, Italian ed. Mursia, 1997. The passage by Primo Levi is taken from "I sommersi e i salvati", published by Einaudi, 1991. The passage by Alessandro Manzoni is taken from "Lettre a M. Chauvet", 1823.

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