Dan Pagis (1930-1986), a well-regarded Israeli poet, was born in Bukovina, a German-speaking part of Romania. During World War II, he spent three years in a concentration camp in Ukraine. After escaping in 1944, the teenager made his way to Israel. Upon arrival in 1946, he abandoned his native tongue and quickly became fluent in Hebrew.
Pagis’ 1970 poetry collection, “Gilgul” (meaning: cycle, transformation) includes works in which he wrestles with the almost incomprehensible dislocations he was forced to endure during the Holocaust and its aftermath.
Among the poems in “Gilgul” is an exquisite miniature, “Written in Pencil in the Sealed Boxcar”: “Here in this transport/I Eve/With Abel my son/If you (pl.) see my older son/Cain son of Adam/Tell him that I.”
Pagis’ compression of expression astonishes me: four Hebrew words in the title, just 19 Hebrew words spread over six short lines in the body. Paradoxically, its very brevity enables the poem to contain world after world.
The most immediate world is the here-and-now horror of the Holocaust. A woman and her younger son are crowded into a sealed and stinking boxcar – more than likely on the tracks to a death camp. The woman makes a desperate attempt to make contact with her older son by scratching her 19-word plea in pencil on the boxcar’s wooden wall. She hopes against hope that someone in this transport, or in some subsequent transport, can help connect mother with son.
But, of course, the woman’s effort is futile, doomed from the start. By what twist of logic can the woman think that anybody reading the penciled note scribbled on the boxcar wall could possibly know who this “Eve” might be?
Using these same few words, Pagis also evokes the distant world of Biblical myth, naming all four members of the first family in Western civilization: Eve, Abel, Cain, Adam. Eve in the boxcar is the ultimate victim, but in asking for her older son Cain, she is also the mythic Eve, mother of the world’s first murderer: mother of Cain, who slays his younger brother Abel; Cain, the prototype of the generations of murderers who follow him; Cain, whose genes have combined and recombined to produce the world’s most efficient gang of murderers, the very Nazis who are about to murder Eve and Abel when they emerge from the boxcar.
The very title of Pagis’ poem, “Written in Pencil in the Sealed Boxcar,” links it to the majestic world of our High Holy Day liturgy. The Hebrew title begins with the word katuv (written) and ends with the word chatum (sealed). A central theme of our High Holy Day worship is that our fate for the coming year is written down tentatively on Rosh Hashanah and permanently sealed on Yom Kippur. As the Unetaneh Tokef prayer reminds us, “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed .…Who shall live, and who shall die?”
In a significant sense, Pagis’ poem is most eloquent in the words that are left unspoken, unwritten – the silent words that come after the “Tell him that I.” A silence that fills eternity. How does Eve intend to complete her sentence? What urgent message might she have for her elder son? “I am on my way to Auschwitz ... you need to hide … I am counting on you to survive so that you can preserve my memory, so that you can say Kaddish for me .…”
And Eve’s words unspoken, unwritten, in the sealed boxcar are the merest hint of all the lives cut short by the consuming flame of the Shoah.
Unlike Eve in the boxcar – and unlike millions of other silenced victims of the Holocaust – we do have the power and the freedom to finish our sentences. Yet all too often our words left unspoken rise up to accuse us of our failure to say what we ought to have said, to say what we had wanted to say … but then it was too late. Nevertheless, there are those times when fortune smiles on us, and we give voice to our deeply held feelings while there is still time.In the early fall of 2001, my father lay dying in a continuing-care facility in Maplewood, New Jersey. Though I had multiple obligations as rabbi of Temple Habonim, in Barrington, I made every effort to visit my father every two weeks during his final months.
On what turned out to be my last visit, as I was saying goodbye, I added, “See you in two weeks,” to which my father responded, in a barely audible mumble, “If I’m still here.”
Briefly stunned, I found myself unable to speak. I replied, “If not, I want you to know that I love you.”
The next time I was with my father was at his funeral.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at email@example.com.