Tuesday, April 21, 2009

"I Was Not There" by Karen Gershon: A Poem for Yom Hashoah

When I taught high school English, I always liked trying to find ways of bringing in different types of literature within our very traditional curriculum. In honor of Yom Hashoah, the Jewish day of Holocaust remembrance, I brought in "I Was Not There" by Karen Gershon, a Jewish author who left Nazi Germany as child on the Kindertransport. Unfortunately, her parents were not able to escape. "I Was Not There," like many of Gershon's other works, addresses the issue of survival and the horror and burden that comes with survivor's guilt.

The poem is powerful, not only for its language, which is in turns evocative and straightforward, but also for the sense of inevitability and sadness that comes when reading the poem out loud. It is almost impossible to read this poem without feeling the weight that comes with surviving a situation while knowing that your loved ones have not survived.

This sense of weight, guilt, and inevitability is also emphasized by the poem's lack of punctuation. Besides the dashes used in the first and final stanzas, the poem is completely without punctuation. When reading it, there are no set pauses and thus no time for the reader (or the listen) to have a chance to absorb the story that is unfolding. Instead the poem and the speaker are relentless in telling the story in its entirety.

What is also notable in this poem is that the speaker repeatedly tries to justify her absence and how her presence would have made no difference in her parents' fate. However, just as the dashes and the lack of punctuation indicate, she (or he) almost immediately rejects such justifications.

This poem makes a profound partner with the other works on the Holocaust and the Kindertransport. Diane Samuels's play Kindertransport addresses many of the same themes Gershon does. Like Gershon's poem, Samuels's work refuses to give the story a neat and tidy ending, and both question what happens to the ones who leave and those who are left behind.