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Westport poet digs deep into the Holocaust…in search of his lost Jewish identity

By Cindy Mindell

 

WESTPORT – Poet Stephen Herz has referred to himself as a Jewish version of a Greek chorus, using his poems to illustrate and comment on the experiences of Holocaust survivor Anita Schorr. Both Herz and Schorr live in Westport.

In a larger sense, he is a late-in-life witness to the Holocaust, an event that unfolded far away during his years growing up in an assimilated Jewish family in Chicago, and kept out of dinner-table conversations.

That early, vague awareness of Nazi terror finally surfaced decades later in the first of many poems devoted to the Holocaust. Now 85, the award-winning poet has just published Marked: Poems of the Holocaust (NYQ Books).

Steven Herz

Steven Herz

Herz left Chicago for New York in 1952. Five years later, he took a long trip through Europe, discovering the grave of his great-grandfather in Oppenheim, Germany, but little evidence of the Holocaust. He returned to New York in 1958, during a recession, but landed a job as a reporter in the New York Times promotion department. While interviewing a subject in Westport, he found a house to rent and left his Queens apartment for the Connecticut shore.

Herz left the Times in the early ‘60s and joined the Doyle Dane Bernbach ad agency as a copywriter, assigned to the account of the just-arrived Volkswagen. Even on trips to the German production plants, he was largely unaware of the Holocaust. Twenty years later, after receiving awards for his ads – “My print advertising copy was, I guess, my poetry,” he says – and teaching at the School of Visual Arts in New York, he became creative director of an ad agency that counted Newsweek among its clients.

That’s where Herz first ventured into poetry-writing. In 1985, Newsweek took out a full-page ad commemorating the 40th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. Herz went home that day and wrote a poem about the tragedy.

He visited Europe and traveled throughout Germany “and I couldn’t tell that there had been a Holocaust,” he says. After visiting the graves of his grandfather and great-grandfather, he started writing poems. “I realized that poetry can speak history and in a very consistent way,” he says. “That was a wonderful discovery for me so I realized that I shouldn’t shy away from history.”

Herz retired from the Times and attended Southern Connecticut State University to work on a Master’s degree. While there, he was mentored by professor and acclaimed poet Vivian Shipley. For one assignment, Shipley asked the class to write a poem about Thanksgiving.

“I’m not a survivor, but I give an American view of what was happening here in 1938,” says Herz of the resulting poem, “Thanksgiving: 1938.” “I can remember my grandfather talking about Hitler.”

He then wrote a poem about Anne Frank, “You Were Fifteen That Day.”

“I was tormented by her life and death, and I realized I was born the same year as Anne, 1929,” he says. “And I recall thinking, ‘What was I doing knocking around high school with a big black H on my chest that said Football, while Anne was wearing a yellow star that said Jood and was forced into hiding and deported to Auschwitz and to her death in Bergen-Belsen?’ I realized that if my grandfather hadn’t come from Germany in the 19th century, where would I be? So I decided to write a poem on what would have been Anne’s 65th birthday, June 12, 1994.”

The poem was published and Herz kept writing, his poems appearing in several literary journals and magazines. He studied under poet Thomas Lux at Sarah Lawrence College and took courses at the New School in New York City. He published two chapbooks and a book, Whatever You Can Carry (Barnwood Press, 2003). In a review, Lux wrote, “Not since Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz have I read a book so precise, so powerful, so terrifying.” Whatever You Can Carry is in the archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Organized into six sections, the poems – a collection of earlier works and new writing – follow the chronological progression of the Holocaust and its aftermath, from the 1933 book-burnings in Germany to Herz’s visit to Auschwitz in 2013.

Organized into six sections, the poems – a collection of earlier works and new writing – follow the chronological progression of the Holocaust and its aftermath, from the 1933 book-burnings in Germany to Herz’s visit to Auschwitz in 2013.

Along the way, Herz received the New England Poetry Club’s Daniel Varoujan Award. In 2009, he was invited to read a selection from Night by Elie Wiesel at a 92nd Street Y event marking Wiesel’s 80th birthday. Herz earned his degree and traveled to Poland with two of his professors, visiting all the major Holocaust-era killing centers. Back in the U.S., he deepened his research. He spent several weeks at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and became involved in Child Holocaust Survivors of Connecticut. There, he learned the stories of several survivors, among them Schorr, who often speaks at area schools about her experiences and invited Herz to read his poetry at her presentations.

Herz wrote a poem based on Schorr’s experiences, “Marked,” which gives the new book its title. Organized into six sections, the poems – a collection of earlier works and new writing – follow the chronological progression of the Holocaust and its aftermath, from the 1933 book-burnings in Germany to the poet’s visit to Auschwitz in 2013.

The poems echo the unfolding horror, terror and despair of those years, told in many voices, both human and inanimate. The doomed passengers aboard the S.S. Saint Louis, the Jewish crematorium worker, the Einsatzgruppen sergeant tell the story side-by-side with a poster on the Belzec concentration camp arrival platform, a recipe from a collection by women prisoners at Terezin, a photograph of Jewish children just before deportation from Westerbork to Auschwitz.

Herz’s poetry has been used as an educational tool in many classrooms. Gail Ostrow, adjunct professor of English at Fairfield University, selected Marked for her course, “Literature of the Holocaust: The War against the Jews, 1933-1945.”

In the four years she has taught the elective, Ostrow has used Whatever You Can Carry and invited Herz to do a reading in the classroom. By outlining the chronology of the Holocaust, Marked serves as the historical and emotional infrastructure for the course, with special value because of its post-Holocaust section – a period not discussed in many educational resources, Ostrow says.

Ostrow will supplement each section with a film or book, tracing the progression from suffering to questions of morality to empathy, and finally to forgiveness and redemption.

“Throughout the course, the students traditionally keep asking why,” Ostrow says. “One of the answers is that there is no why to the Holocaust. I tell them that we can talk about what, who, and when, but in matters of what human beings do to each other, there is no why.”

Herz’s book comes a year before the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. “I don’t think I’ve been very introspective about my writing the Shoah; I just do it,” he says. “I always remember what a well-known poet told me: ‘You don’t choose your subjects, they choose you.’ And the Holocaust, for whatever reason, had chosen me.”

While he has been writing about the Holocaust for 25 years – 206 connected poems in all, or “one long poem,” as he calls his work – Herz is able to explore such difficult terrain by writing about other subjects as well.

“What also probably has kept me writing all these years was the response I was getting from my readings [and books],” he says. “I’m wondering if my obsession with writing these Holocaust poems though these many years now might have something to do with my somehow searching for my lost Jewish identity.”

While the Holocaust may be beyond reason and comprehension, Herz keeps writing in the hope that his poems will help keep the memory of the Holocaust alive.

For more information: books.nyq.org/author/stephenherz.

Comments? email cindym@jewishledger.com.

 

Lament
An excerpt from the book Marked
by Stephen Herz

We went as ash to the fields
for fertilizer: we went as ash

to the pond for fill: we went as ash
under the boots of the SS for gravel:

we went as ash and there was nobody
to say Kaddish for us: nobody

but ourselves. In Auschwitz
the guidebook comes in five languages

but it cannot remember our names.

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