Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date



This excerpt from Nelly Sachs's poem "You Onlookers" could be read as support for the contention, reportedly made by Adolf Hitler during a table talk, that "The Jews invented conscience." This statement, although fascinating in itself for what it implies about Hitler's psyche and moral sense, becomes even more provocative if read in association with Marina Zwetajewa's puzzling proclamation, made famous by its appearance as an epigram to a poem by Paul Celan, that "all poets are Jews." The connection of Jews to both conscience and poetry has significant repercussions for the genre of so-called Holocaust lyric, so-called because it is necessary to distinguish, as is seldom done, between poems from the Holocaust and poems about the Holocaust. The poetry written from the midst of extremity is inscribed not only with the conditions of that context (the relentless specter of death, hunger, and suffering) but also the desire to overcome them: the combination of a longing for survival and a mission to bear witness was the most common motivation for writing. Poetry was the genre most accessible to the inmates of camps and ghettos not only because of its condensed form (a necessity in the atmosphere of lack of both time and resources in the camps) but also because of its affiliations with a set of traditions ranging from Jewish liturgical poetry, Yiddish folk song and German romantic lyric that together formed a common heritage for the majority of inmates. Poems written in the camps and ghettos between 1939 and 1945 often were made part of the group's oral lore, passing between individuals and even between camps, memorized, put to music, and transformed from a personal outburst of expression to a shared communication — the company of misery as well as encouragement to persevere by fostering a spirit of community.

Publisher Statement

Copyright © 2000, University Press of Colorado. This chapter first appeared in German Studies in the Post-Holocaust Age: The Politics of Memory, Identity, and Ethnicity.

Please note that downloads of the book chapter are for private/personal use only.

Purchase online at