Henia and Ilona Karmel grew up in a cultured bourgeois family in Kraków. Photos show them together, always touching: an arm around the shoulders, a hand clasped. In one from 1938 Ilona, wearing a polka-dotted top and flowers in her hair that almost obscure the braid tied around her head, kisses Henia on the cheek, a full-on “come here, you” kiss that Henia responds to with a frozen smile that combines pleasure at the experience with irritation at the camera.
I don’t know enough about them to say that they lived with an “us against the world” mentality—Henia remains a complete mystery; this remembrance offers insight into Ilona—but I can certainly say they went through an awful lot together. In 1940, the sisters, 18 and 14, travelled with their parents to eastern Poland, now held by the Soviet Union, in search of relatives who might take them in. But their mother, Mita, got cold feet, saying she would rather be killed by the Germans than saved by the Russians. (Regrettably prophetic.) In the end, she got her wish.) The family returned to Kraków, which meant German rule but also familiar faces. One of these would prove to be consequential. One day Henia ran into Leon Wolfe, a young man with whom she had begun a short, intense relationship at a resort in the Tatra mountains the year before; before long they were together again. When the Germans established the ghetto in early 1941, Leon insisted they move to a nearby village; Henia persuaded her family to join them. For a short time, life seemed about to improve—Henia and Leon were able to get married in June 1941—but the idyll didn’t last. The Karmels were forced out of the village, lived for a time in the forest and then on a farm where they narrowly escaped death after being mistaken for partisans (only the last-minute intervention of a relative in the local Jewish Council saved them), before making the difficult decision to split up. Leon accompanied the women back to Kraków; the girls’ father, Hirsch, went elsewhere. (Unclear where or why, but Ilona blamed herself for her father’s decision for the rest of her life. All that is known of Hirsch Karmel after that moment is that he was murdered at Treblinka.)
In the ghetto, Leon and Henia worked at a paper company, Mita nursed typhus patients, and fifteen-year-old Ilona joined a Zionist resistance movement, gathering information and passing messages. In March 1943 all four were sent to Plaszow, the camp depicted in Schindler’s List, which had been built on the grounds of a Jewish cemetery. (If you’ve seen the film, you might remember the car taking Commandant Amon Goeth to his villa along a road paved with headstones.) After a few months, the family underwent another separation. The sisters and their mother were sent, away from Leon, to a forced labour camp at Skarzysko-Kamienna. There the Germans had taken over an existing ammunitions plant, which they contracted out to a company called HASAG. Mostly the factory produced bullets, but one section—where the Karmels ended up—made underwater mines. These were filled with picric acid, a terrible chemical that poisoned many of the workers after turning their skin yellow.
Yet Skarzysko-Kamienna, like all camps, especially forced labour camps, was also a site of resistance—sometimes political but more often cultural. Prisoners prayed, danced, drew, and sang. The Karmel sisters began writing poetry, using bits of paper and pencil stubs slipped to them by a non-Jewish worker. In the summer of 1944, as the Germans began to retreat from the Red Army, the Karmels were shipped to another HASAG factory, a satellite camp in the Buchenwald system. The poems accompanied them, sewn into the hem of their clothing. (In later years survivors would remember the girls reciting their texts.) The poems were still there when, along with thousands of other prisoners, Ilona and Henia were sent on a forced march through the forests and fields of Germany in the catastrophic final days of the war. Along the way many prisoners died, killed by shooting, hunger, disease, or exhaustion. Some were deliberately run over by tanks and left for dead. This was the fate of the Karmels. As the woman lay in a pile of victims, the dead mingled with the nearly-dead, Henia saw a cousin march by in another set of prisoners. She managed to hand off the poems, begging the woman to pass them on to Leon, who would surely return to Kraków if he had survived. The next day—the last day of the war in Europe—the Karmels were rescued and taken to a field hospital. The women were barely alive, so badly had they been mutilated. Henia and Ilona each lost a leg; their mother did not survive.
Eventually the sisters were taken to a proper hospital in Leipzig, though given how ruinous conditions were in Germany at the end of the war, care was erratic, even dangerous. Henia and Ilona lay there for six months. Amazingly, Leon had survived the war (how I do not know, but I’m sure his story is equally remarkable) and duly returned to Kraków. More amazingly, he met the cousin who had been entrusted with the poems. Most amazingly of all, word of a memorial service held for the girls in late September (Leon, convinced they were still alive, had given only grudging consent) reached Leipzig. A man who knew the Karmels sent word to a refugee commission, which sent a telegram to Leon (still extant), who drove the 500 dangerous miles to Leipzig to be reunited with the Karmels in a scene that I imagine was similar to the emotional one depicted at the end of Art Spiegelman’s Maus.
Although they had survived, the sisters were in poor health and badly needed reconstructive surgery. Leon desperately searched for help. Back in Kraków he happened to meet a Swedish naval officer attached to the Red Cross. After learning of their predicament, the man, who was on the point of returning to Sweden, promised to arrange visas. In the final amazing turn of the story, he kept his word and before long the sisters were in Stockholm, where they found themselves in one of the best rehabilitation facilities in the world.
In 1948, Henia and Leon immigrated to New York. Ilona, whose injuries had been more serious, remained behind, but joined them the following year. She enrolled at Radcliffe, met her future husband Francis Zucker, a philosopher and physicist, and even moved with him to Germany for a number of years during which she worked at an orphanage and wrote the novel that would make her name, An Estate of Memory. Later the couple returned to the US; Ilona taught writing at MIT for years. Henia wrote two novels herself and many short stories. The poems were forgotten, although they had in fact been published by a Polish organization in New York in 1947 under the title Song Behind Barbed Wire.
After Ilona’s death in 2000 the manuscript passed to the poet Fanny Howe, a longtime friend of Ilona’s, who began the process of bringing the poems into English. As she notes in her introduction to a volume called A Wall of Two—from which I have taken these biographical details—the task grew into a complex creative endeavor. Translators Arie A. Galles and Warren Nieschłuchowski rendered the texts into English; Howe selected her favourites and adapted them, aiming to remain true to the originals while also shaping them for more powerful effect. The Karmels, she observes, were young and living in conditions of extreme duress when they wrote these texts, which she describes as awkward and unpolished. The versification drew on a culture that was being destroyed along with the writers; Howe sought to make the poems more modern, never adding but cutting repetition and avoiding poems “that used high and archaic language.” She sent her versions back to the translators whose comments inspired her final versions. A bold but also fraught strategy, which risks implying that the sisters did not quite know what they were doing. Leon Wolfe, who gave his blessing to the project, suggests something similar when he writes that “the essence [Howe] conveyed was truer than the original poems.”
Howe argues that the art made in the camps took two forms: it either looked back to the lost world of its makers or it depicted their new one. In making her selections, Howe concentrated on the latter. She gets a little high-flown explaining this decision, explaining that she avoided using the word “death” because it is “the end of language.” (I’m reminded of Poe’s remark that grammar can do what reason cannot, allowing us to write the impossible sentence “I am dead.”) But Howe has earned our good will: her project is a great success. Her versions are generous and generative. In an afterword, she considers three of the poems, comparing her adaptations to the originals. In each case, hers is indeed more powerful.
That’s especially true of my favourite poem, “Procession,” written by Henia. (The sisters later decided that Henia was the better poet and Ilona the better prose writer; although I’ve yet to read their prose, I agree about Henia as poet.)
By Henia Karmel, translated by Arie A. Galles, adapted by Fanny Howe
Two marched by
in striped prison garb
then two more in rags.
After them came four
Their bodies jerked up
comically at the night sky.
Half-naked with broken legs.
A frozen cadaver and then
just beside the prison gate
came four more stretchers.
One pressed a blood-soaked cloth
across his face.
The parade went on
while we watched in dread.
The rag man on the litter was dying.
And at the end, four from a nightmare
lugged on their heavy shoulders
a bundled body.
They couldn’t cope and let it drop.
It screamed in its own blood.
“Procession,” a word that doesn’t appear in the poem, connotes something more stately, more subdued, and, aptly, more funereal, than a word that does, the ironic “parade.” A procession is solemn. (I’m reminded of Woolf’s “procession of the sons of educated men” from Three Guineas, her passionate condemnation of masculinity, violence, and fascism, that is, the things the Karmels would suffer.) But the title puzzles me, because I don’t think this is a solemn poem. It is more terrible than that. At first it seems flatly descriptive: here is a typical camp scene, probably from the end of the day, when the work details would return to barracks. It is observed by some unknown group, a “we” presumably comprised of other inmates, though as readers we too watch the scene in dread. But as it goes on, the poem becomes less observational and more expressionist. More hallucinatory. More pointed. The final, terrible image, in particular, belies the affectlessness of the opening. (Of course, any Holocaust representation is bound to show horror as inextricable from description.)
In some sense “Procession”—preceded by no article, neither definite or indefinite, as if the event described here were unending or, worse, coterminous with the world—is an account. I mean this literally. It counts victims. Two, then two, then four (although these, on stretchers, must surely be carried by others), then one, then four more, then a final four that carry one. Eighteen in all. In Hebrew, eighteen is lucky; it shares a name with the word for “life.” But there is more than easy irony here. The eighteen are a mix of the living and the dead. And they aren’t just eighteen, either. They must be accompanied by some shadowy, unknown carriers, to say nothing of the numberless, observing “we.” Perhaps Karmel is offering her own account, in order to challenge the counting that prisoners suffered each evening, the nightly roll call that sometimes went on for hours.
That challenge mingles precision with confusion, which befits the world of the Lager, which was at once regimented and chaotic. A similar, but even more consequential blurring concerns the relationship between the living and the dead. Are the bodies on the stretchers alive or dead? Presumably alive, otherwise why would the speaker describe a cadaver in the next lines? (Unless the difference is that one is frozen and the others aren’t, yet. What, incidentally, is the difference between a “cadaver” and a “corpse,” which is the word I would expect in this context? Will this cadaver be used for some kind of experiment? Does cadaver connote death more fully than “corpse”? Or does it imply, via its future utility, something less completely dead?) But if those stretchered bodies aren’t dead, how alive are they? “Their bodies jerked up/comically at the night sky”: the phrase “jerked up” is, to me, really strange. Presumably this is an adjective phrase not an action—it’s not that the bodies are convulsing (right?), but that their limbs, perhaps, are akimbo. This gruesome scene is made even worse, in my opinion, by that distressing adverb “comically,” which intimates the onlookers the speaker hasn’t yet referred to. After all, someone has to find their state comical. But what the hell does that mean? Are the bodies funny? Surely only despairingly so. But maybe we shouldn’t foreclose the possibility of humour so quickly. We wouldn’t want to enforce our pious sense of how the experience should be understood.
Besides, the poem soon leaves humour far behind. Horror is coming soon enough for those onlookers. Their distance from the procession only increases as the poem ends. What they see is awful. “The rag man” is dying; note the difference between this description, which seems to speak to his essence, and the more idiomatic “the man in rags.” Howe’s choice of “litter” is inspired. We can’t help but hear the implications of waste—in keeping with the language of the perpetrators, which routinely called the victims Figuren (puppets), Stücke (pieces) or Schmatte (rags).
And then comes the worst part, the final horror, the “four from a nightmare.” (Again, the implication is that these figures are themselves fundamentally nightmarish, although the reference is most likely to their situation.) Is the “bundled body” dead or alive? Dropped, it “scream[s] in its own blood.” So that means alive, right? It screamed in its own blood. This vivid, terrible expression makes me think of someone screaming through a mouthful of blood, though I admit I’m influenced by the earlier image of another victim pressing “a blood-soaked cloth/across his face.” (That “across” subtly implies the face itself is bloody, some injury more devastating than the one the more idiomatic “to” would suggest.) But screaming in the blood is hard to imagine. If the victim is not in fact gurgling from a bloodied mouth—and could they really be screaming if their mouth were so full?—then maybe the description is metaphorical. (Even if yes, this poem is remarkable at evoking bodily pain.) Maybe to scream in the blood is to scream inside? From the depths of one’s being? How would the onlookers know, though? The end of “Procession” seems less psychological than existential. Beyond an individual who suffers at least twice-over—in addition to their initial injuries they are dropped by their fellows—this final line offers a howl of despair, pain, and abandonment. One that is decidedly not universal, but perhaps the unhappy fate of all the camp’s victims.
Descriptions and judgments. Living and dead bodies. Physical and psychological pain. Observers and participants. “Procession” makes us wonder whether any of these oppositions stand. Fanny Howe has done English speakers a service bringing it and the other poems collected in A Wall of Two to our ears. I hope they will find many readers.