Monday, November 14, 2011
(Omega IV by Morris Louis, 1912-1962,
American Abstract Expressionist painter)
The poem below was written by Primo Levi (1919-1987), an Italian chemist, writer, and poet. His many works, especially If This Is a Man, his memoir of his year at Auschwitz, examine man’s struggles to maintain his humanity in the face of great evil.
The Hebrew title of the poem below translates into “listen” or “hear.” It is the first word of a prayer in Jewish liturgy admonishing the faithful to teach their children to love God and to obey the commandments.
The poem is in three parts. The first stanza greets the readers now living in the post-Holocaust world of comfort and peace; the second describes the terror of the death camps; and the third urges us to warn future generations of the lessons of this evil so that such evil can never again take place.
You who live secure
In your warm houses
Who return at evening to find
Hot food and friendly faces:
Consider whether this is a man,
Who labors in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.
Consider whether this is a woman,
Without hair or name
With no more strength to remember
Eyes empty and womb cold
As a frog in winter.
Consider that this has been:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts
When you are in your house, when you walk on your way,
When you go to bed, when you rise.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house crumble,
Disease render you powerless,
Your offspring avert their faces from you.