The Arty Semite

Walter Hess, Poet of Survival

By Jake Marmer

  • Print
  • Share Share

As far as Holocaust poetry goes, in general I stand with Adorno: it is barbaric. The subject’s too loaded, too heavy and too sacred to approach with crafted words. Yet, having picked up Walter Hess’s collection of poems, “Jew’s Harp,” I was swept away by the depth of its lyricism, gentleness, and sheer beauty.

Hess left Germany as late as 1940 and lost his grandparents in Terezin. So it is a core experience expressed in his collection, and yet, it is not all that’s there. While the first few poems address the Shoah directly, there are others that linger on books, nature and family. Particularly enthralling are the poems of grandfatherhood. Following the collection’s initial pieces, each of these is endowed with sense of quiet, miraculous pleasure derived from, well, life.

Here is one of the earlier works in the collection:

Opa — The Old Synagogue

The house in which we bowed toward the door

L’cho Daudi

Where carpets softly caught our sweets

L’cho Daudi

I want it back

L’cho Daudi

though others own it now.

Hewn stone, I marvel yet,

square as the adze could make it;

the songs of morning, evening, night;

the sacrifices at their proper hour

were shot while trying to escape

L’cho Daudi

The house

wherein you celebrated sacrifices

is now another’s

the stones tooled to a solid beauty

hard like a tower

L’cho Daudi

can’t have it back,

must sing in other places now,

L’cho Daudi.

Notice how each instance of the refrain “L’cho Daudi” means something else: first the image of the Shabbat hymn itself and the bow that goes with it; then the form of the song is evoked, where “L’cho Daudi” is the repetition that follows the verses; next, it is already the song’s experience that poet is referencing — and missing. Over the following three repetitions, the refrain transforms into a painful memory, an expression of identity, and finally — survival. The line “where carpets softly caught our sweets” may be the most endearing description of the synagogue I’ve ever encountered — perfectly visual and specific and full of childhood longing and beauty. It helps to know that “opa” is German for “grandpa,” and the synagogue described in the poem is the one where Hess’s grandfather was the rabbi.

Here are a few other poems from Hess’s collection:

Stephanie’s Question

“Suppose you weren’t here, Would I be here?

Suppose that like your Opa you had…?”

A shadow slickered down her face, a fear

That stopped. She then edged closer to my side

and took my hand as if to solace me.

He held my hand when I was Stephie’s age.

Praise and instruction in our step, we walked

a rhythm like the singing of a page

of psalms in Shul. Call and response. We talked.

he held my hand and solaced me.

Dear Steph, Survivors have no other task

than being who and what they are. You ask

what you already know. You are where you are meant to be.

Your very question solaced me.

Walking Zoe to Sleep

How to negotiate transitions

from wake to sleep, from sleep

to waking is the trick. Position’s

determining. And that’s a truth that’s deep

embossed in cheek and shoulder, bone and flesh.

I now remember how to look and keep

alert to that loud crabbing in the creche.

And long before, the fine high chirping trill,

the threshing arms, the bouncing legs; so fresh

the tunes, so long forgot. And then the thrill,

when bending down with arms outstretched, to see

returning arms stretched out again. The will

goes numb. The daughter says, She’s got to sleep.

Thinks, Sometimes Dad’s more trouble than he’s worth.

He’s here to play and not to help. My deep

experience held somewhat cheap. Despite the dearth

of confidence Zoe’s head now joins my shoulder.

We stately step as if Antaeus joining earth.

A look aslant. We tread parquet. I hold her.

We weave in dance to Artie Shaw.

Beguines begin; we wander farther, yonder,

where donkeys serenade, stars dust and glow;

deep purple moons chantez les bas, oh, sweet

and lovely…the cheek of night bends gray and low,

Lids founder, crease, enfold those eyes so black and blessed.

She’s out. And daughter’s scoffing too is put to rest.

In April

praise, praise in an evil world

the Hallel sung

it sings the dark,

light unannounced,

hears daunting sirens

on Columbus

refuses to compete,


when cops or engines

warble blocks away

Mostly, among the brownstones,

I hear the sparrows.

Their morning roar below the eaves


among the tense and hardly sleeping

the chafe of sidewalks’ mica glints.

Who is this singer then, of dew,

who turns the new moon into song,

its heart

the flute and flutter of its throat,

who sings the hook beaked kestrel


high above the Reservoir

whose pure and uninflected nigun


praise upon praise

into the baffled beauty of the light,

its liquid changes on the text

Praise upon praise.

I may yet be his congregant.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Poetry, Holocaust Poetry, Walter Hess

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.