Becoming God’s Sparks of Light: Poems Born in Bergen-Belsen
BOOK REVIEW: Poems Born in Bergen-Belsen by Menachem Z. Rosensaft, the Jewish son of Holocaust survivors, is a poetic journey of descent and ascent that confronts God in the very heart of the Holocaust.
Around the world, human beings — Catholics included — have experienced a crisis of faith in trying to come to terms with God’s permissiveness or silence in the face of enormous suffering. If God truly exists, why does he allow his children to suffer catastrophe? If God is all-powerful and good, why does he not intervene to save them from human evil?
Menachem Z. Rosensaft, the son of Auschwitz survivors and associate executive vice president and general counsel for the World Jewish Congress, grapples with these questions in his latest book, Poems Born in Bergen-Belsen, which takes readers on a journey of descent and ascent through the ashes and ghosts of the Holocaust. If there is anyone with a right to demand “Where was God?” in the midst of unimaginable horror, it is the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and their descendants.
As Rosensaft writes, “The miracle / after god did not respond / to cries from the depths / of auschwitz / is that jews / continue to pray / despite auschwitz.”
Rosensaft has grappled with these questions through poetry composed over decades. Like the title of his book of poetry, Rosensaft was literally born in the displaced-persons camp of Bergen-Belsen (adjacent to the concentration camp of the same name) in 1948. His own older brother, a boy of 5 1/2 years old, who “used to laugh, used to play, used to sing, used to have tomorrows,” was murdered by the Nazis in the Auschwitz-Birkenau gas chamber. The Shoah is deeply personal, and Rosensaft has spent a lifetime reflecting on it, particularly the question of where God is in all this evil.
Rosensaft draws from the Jewish tradition’s own insight: If we are to maintain faith in God, we must confront God directly with his permissiveness and silence with the full emotional force of our humanity. Furthermore, the burden is on God, not ourselves, to make known to us why he acted or did not act in the face of evil. In fact, putting that onus on God may actually start to reveal to us “Where is God?” in the midst of unimaginable suffering. In Poems Born in Bergen-Belsen, we see the spiritual journey in poetry that Rosensaft would draw together in a sermon for his Park Avenue Synagogue — insights that Pope Francis would praise as “the only possible hermeneutic interpretation” for God’s presence in the Holocaust.
At the outset of the book, Rosensaft makes readers confront seriously their own lives and what they have done with that life with his own near-death experience. Before we depart on this journey into what Elie Wiesel (a Holocaust survivor and Rosensaft’s mentor) called “the kingdom of night,” we are placed in Rosensaft’s family, “apart yet together” during the COVID-19 lockdown, united through digital screens. And this becomes the point of departure for an interior journey with Rosensaft that not even Dante could have imagined for his Inferno: the haunted, unnatural landscape of ashes, cold, fire, darkness, gray and ghosts of the Holocaust, where we (along with Rosensaft) must confront hard truths and God himself in the midst of them.
With a passion reminiscent of Dylan Thomas’s poetry, Rosensaft confronts God with the full force of human emotion — in sadness, anger, fury, defiance and desolation, Rosensaft evokes in this poetry the tradition of the Psalms’ raw and emotional conversation with God, while inverting the common expectation of certain Psalms people read for comfort. In Psalm 13, Post-Auschwitz, he cries out, “You hid Your face / ignored Your world / while flesh-fueled flames pierced the sky / ashes not dew covered Your mornings / dying children saw Your back / did not hear Your Voice.”
Again, Rosensaft challenges God by pointing to the pious Jews who prayed Psalm 23, but at Auschwitz they found “no green pastures / no still waters / only blood-drenched / rat-infested / mud … shadows walking / through the valley of death / Adonai’s fog-wrapped house / forever.”
But perhaps the most heart-rending challenge to God is: How will he answer for the murder of little Benjamin, and a million other children like him, by the clean-shaven, highly educated, even churchgoing men who could quote Goethe, enjoy Mozart and kill millions with Zyklon-B?
Another poem directs the question at Jesus Christ himself: How will you answer for a thousand years of anti-Jewish hatred by the members of your own body that culminated in this unimaginable inhumanity? As another poem illustrates, there were “too few” heroes numbered against far too many who “looked away” as the Jews were betrayed and “led away” to their killers.
Rosensaft again does not spare us with offering up any kind of response on behalf of God, or even Jesus Christ, to all these horrors — whether we are Jews or Catholics, Rosensaft keeps focused on the reality that we cannot do all the talking if we’re serious about having a healthy relationship with God. This insight does not come from Rosensaft. It is found ultimately in the Book of Job, where God ultimately has to sweep away Job’s comforters who are desperate to justify God in the midst of Job’s suffering so God can speak directly to Job. And if we stop trying to put words in God’s mouth and listen closely, as Rosensaft’s poetry (and Job) illustrates, we may eventually get glimpses of what God has to say — but only if we confront God with raw honesty and refuse to give up the conversation.
Rosensaft’s poem Miserere: Psalm 55 in Counterpoint gives us that glimpse of where he will come to understand the answer of God’s presence in the midst of evil. Rosensaft gives us this poem about the Messiah in the Holocaust:
“The Messiah / real, fake, imagined / and his father / both pale, both bearded, both frail / were immediately recognized as / racially impure / by an efficient Aryan prototype / who knew his catechism.”
Here, the theological differences between Catholics and Jews about the Messiah’s identity melt away in a profound common theological truth: God and his Anointed One are also murdered in 6 million men, women and children of the Holocaust. For Catholics, the haunting image of Jesus Christ and God the Father in the gas chamber summons up Christ’s word of judgment in Matthew 25: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
Rosensaft makes clear that he is Jewish — in case this were ever a question due to his respectful engagement of Jesus, Mary and Christianity, he makes that clear for his audience — and naturally his poetry comes from that vantage point. But his poetry makes enough room for Catholics to meditate on, with our own theological perspectives, precisely because it is fundamentally rooted in the ancient Jewish tradition the Catholic Church is indebted to. And he draws us into our common humanity. In a particularly heart-rending poem about the Madonna on Golgotha, Rosensaft cuts swiftly through 2,000 years of theological commentary and debate about what Mary sees in that moment to remind us she’s a mother: “she only sees her son.” In a subtle way, the poem evokes the indescribable grief of Jewish mothers having lost their children to state-sponsored killing across 2,000 years.
In Rosensaft’s sermon on the Holocaust that Pope Francis found so moving, Rosensaft puts the question: “What if God was very much there during the Holocaust, but not with the killers, with the forces that inflicted the Holocaust on humankind? What if he was in fact alongside and within the victims, those who perished and those who survived?”
That insight starts to emerge as we begin the slow ascent from the “kingdom of night” in Rosensaft’s poetry. He writes in one poem about the children who have inherited the legacy of the Holocaust, “Ours is also the rainbow / in us the storm meets sunlight / to create new colors / as we add defiant sparks / to an eternal fire.” In another poem in memory of his mother, Rosensaft writes, “blessed is the soul / that emerged / from Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen / to create hope / not tears / to teach life / not sorrow.”
Poems Born in Bergen-Belsen gives us the “gift of tears” to see the answer to the question “Where is God?” in the midst of suffering is found in us. Like the poet, we can see God dancing, mourning and never desiring illness or death, but we are the ones that God counts on to be part of his answer about where his presence is to be found in the world, whether it is the homeless child or the human family struck by another genocide. Only by remonstrating with God, and putting upon God the responsibility to justify his silence or permissiveness in the face of tremendous evil, do we open ourselves to be the answer God would speak to the world.
POEMS BORN IN BERGEN-BELSEN
By Menachem Z. Rosensaft
Kelsay Books, 2021
122 pages, $18.50
To order: Amazon.com