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Imagination: Blessed Be, Cursed Be

17-02-2010

The newest publication from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum is a Polish version of Błogosławiona bądź wyobraźnio - przeklęta bądź. Wspomnienia 'Stamtąd' (Imagination: Blessed Be, Cursed Be: Reminscences from There) by former Auschwitz prisoner Batsheva Dagan, who was born in Łódź. In the introduction to this collection of poems, Batsheva Dagan writes that surviving Auschwitz is hard to describe in prose. She wanted to convey her experiences to her readers, and felt that this would be easier through poetry. She wrote the poems after the Holocaust, at moments when the memories overwhelmed her.

Batsheva Dagan’s verse is a very realistic and intimate record of a teenage girl’s camp experiences. There are descriptions of the shock of camp reality and the prevailing violence, as in “Pierwszy policzek” [The first slap in the face]; she also, however, includes very personal approaches to the female body, of a kind seldom found in camp poems. These works have such titles as "Osiem na jednej pryczy" [Eight in a bunk], "Między setkami nagich kobiet" [Among hundreds of naked women], "Życie z robactwem" [Life with vermin], "Zupa do mycia włosów" [Soup for washing hair], "Modlitwa przy wychodzeniu z toalety" [A prayer before coming out of the toilet], and “Gotowanie w latrynie" [Cooking in the latrine].

The poems also speak about the constant need to escape from the reality of the camp into the world of the imagination, as in “Błogosławiona bądź wyobraźnio – przeklęta bądź!” [Imagination: blessed be, cursed be], where we read:

Yet at times
I managed to float away
and draw near to
a different, lovely, and better world.

The poetry relates specific events like a chronicle in “Ostatnia noc w komando «Kanada» w Auschwitz, 18 stycznia 1945 roku” [The last night in the Kanada kommando in Auschwitz, January 18, 1945], describing her last night in Auschwitz. She was assigned to effacing the evidence of crimes, in a group of women ordered to burn suitcases that had belonged to people murdered in the gas chambers.

Attention, comes the order — burn all the suitcases!
burn every name, every trace!
erase what happened here!Prague, Bratislava,

Paris, Berlin,
Brussels, Ostrava,
cities and towns
addresses, addresses,
first and last names
burn them!
check that nothing remains,
no witness to the people
whose voices fell silent here.

However, the sudden evacuation order interrupts the work, and the women are forced into columns and leave the camp in a death march, before riding in open train cars to Ravensbrück.

Form ranks! The end is near!
Stop burning the suitcases now!
In the distance, rifle shots,
the dull thud of cannon.
Echoes of the anticipated soothing noise — like the singing of the soul, a song of consolation...
the effacing of the evidence did not succeed.

At the end of the poem, she formulates an appeal to the future:

Yet today, years later,
the mute witnesses remain — suitcases and chests
with names and addresses — not all of them.
Those that remain
are preserved in a museum
in glass display cases.
A warning to the future.
A shout that could not be stifled.

Aside from the poems, this slender volume also contains several works from Birkenau that Dagan committed to memory, such as the poem “Mądrość pchły” [The wisdom of a flea] by Zosia Szpigielman, who was sent to the gas chamber and died there after selection in 1943. Despite all the best efforts, the authors of other verses, like “Tajemnica publiczna” [Open secret] or “Alfabet Oświęcimski” [An Auschwitz alphabet], remain anonymous.

The works in this volume by Batsheva Dagan represent an effort to break the taboo over the intimate theme of the female body, and attempt, as eyewitness accounts, to confront the Auschwitz past and serve as warnings to future generations.

The original Hebrew version of Błogosławiona bądź wyobraźnio - przeklęta bądź! Wspomnienia „Stamtąd" appeared in 1997.

About the author

Batsheva Dagan was born in Łódź as Izabella Rubinstein on September 8, 1925. After the Germans entered her hometown, she escaped to Radom with her parents and siblings. In the Radom ghetto, she joined the clandestine Hashomer Hatzair youth organization. One of her assignments was to travel to the Warsaw ghetto and smuggle the underground newspaper Pod Prąd [Against the current] back to Radom.

She escaped from the Radom ghetto in 1942 and traveled to Germany on false papers. Several months later, she was arrested and sent to Auschwitz, where she remained until January 1945, when she was evacuated with other prisoners to Ravensbrück, and later to Malchow. British troops liberated her on May 2, 1945. She then moved to Palestine, where she and her husband Paul took the surname Dagan.

She worked as a kindergarten teacher and later as a psychologist and lecturer in a teacher’s college. She developed psychological and educational methods to help teach children and young people about the Shoah, and wrote material used in Holocaust education for the young.

LIFE WITH VERMIN

Bedbugs and lice,
flies and fleas
covered my body
and left their mark.

Without soap
or other means of washing
I had to fight them constantly
and stopped finding them repulsive.

I learned to live in peace with them,
despite the way they attacked me at every movement.
The value of their life equaled the value of mine.
What a mockery of my torments.

Batszewa Dagan: Błogosławiona bądź wyobraźnio - przeklęta bądź. Wspomnienia 'Stamtąd'
Published by Państwowe Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau, Oświęcim 2009
Translated by Agata Paluszek and Batszewa Dagan
Illustrated by Jakub Guterman
88 pp., 21 x 14 cm., paperback.
ISBN: 978-83-60210-99-4

Imagination: Blessed Be, Cursed Be: Reminscences from There by Batsheva Dagan
Imagination:...
One of the illustrations by Jakub Guterman
One of the...