Exploring Shoah pain through poetry

AS a young boy, Anthony Levin grew up listening to his grandparents’ harrowing stories of survival in the Nazi death camps.

But instead of recoiling from the horror, he faced it head on. Now the 29-year-old lawyer has published a volume of poetry, House of the Collective Unconcious, exploring his feelings of grief as a third-generation descendant.

I recently had the chance to interview him for a story in the Australian Jewish News, and  was gripped by his story. Levin’s grandmother, Olga Horak, was transported to Auschwitz in 1944, and later sent on a death march to Bergen-Belsen where she was eventually liberated. She was the sole survivor from her family.

Almost 70 years on, she refuses to forget and volunteers at the Sydney Jewish Museum, sharing her story. Obviously, it has had a strong impact on her grandson and just goes to show how the Holocaust continues to have far-reaching effects on subsequent generations.

Here is an excerpt from my meeting with Levin:

Me: Please tell me about your new volume of poetry, House of the Collective Unconscious.

AnthonyHouse of the Collective Unconsciousdeals with intergenerational trauma and the conscious/unconscious affects of living close to survivors — in a corporeal and emotional sense, while being historically distant from the event. The collection offers mere

Anthony Levin

fragments of story which linger in memory and change as they are transmitted. I tried, in part, to touch the various nerve endings of grief and loss to which I had inured myself. There are elements of rage and reparation, and of course, the complex relationship between food and narrative is a strong theme. But ultimately, I think poetry is a meditative practice, and I don’t mean to be too prescriptive about any of this.

Me: You are also a third-generation descendant. Your grandparents, Olga Horak and John Horak, were survivors. Please describe what your experience was like as the grandson of survivors?

Anthony: Well, I suppose I only realised recently that my nascent and raw familiarity with horror wasn’t normal, although it was completely normalised for me. I can’t really recall not knowing about death camps and Musselmanner — although it’s only now that I have the framework to partly understand it. My sister and I used to laugh that we spent most weekends listening to stories of murder, near-death or escape, and watching countless Holocaust documentaries, as if on loop. It’s no surprise that I looked over my shoulder when I walked down dark hallways in my own house; or that I thought that if I left my arms atop the covers in the night, they would be chopped off. I sweated through many Sydney summers because of that fear – tucked under unnecessary blankets.

But my grandparents were also extremely tender and loving. I have many fond memories. And strangely, I never recoiled from the stories. I was transfixed. It helped that my grandfather was a cracking storyteller with a wicked sense of humour. And I think I was lucky to be born with an excess of fortitude or empathy or something ineffable which steeled me against anything more serious than being scared of the dark.

Me: Where did the inspiration come from to write this book?

Anthony: I have to say, I never really sat down to write this collection – at least not at the beginning. If it’s a poet’s prerogative to sound mystical, then I’d have to say that much of the work came from somewhere else. Sometimes I’d be walking through a Holocaust Museum – in the UK, in the US – and a poem would arrive almost fully formed. Ironically (or not), much of my scribbling happened on trains. I look back at some of the work and I’m not really sure how I wrote it. The one thoroughly conducive and conscious step I took was to plan a month’s research to visit major Holocaust Museums in America. But the process began long before I walked into the archive.

Me: Has exploring the differences between the second and third generation of descendants become a personal mission?

Anthony: I suppose it has become one. My guiding principle was partly, to dig. This is my archaeology. As I go deeper I can only hope, in my own way, to restore the faces of the lost. To reanimate the ghostly images of my inheritance – and to give that inheritance a voice.

But this work also forms part of a broader mission – to begin to bridge the spaces between local histories of suffering, to transcend identity politics, and reveal our common spiritual nature. My intuitive position is that the essential difference between the second and third generations, as the emerging psychological literature suggests, is that the third generation negotiates their inheritance of the Holocaust narrative, as opposed to being simply displaced by it.

When I travelled to Auschwitz-Birkenau with a group from Leeds, I felt very frustrated by some of the responses. People were still asking questions like “How could this happen to Us?” – as if History hadn’t repeated itself in Rwanda, Srebrenica, Darfur and the DRC. This is completely facile. Who is “Us” if not every single human?

One trait which distinguishes the third generation is their willingness to see behind historical contingencies – to witness global atrocity regardless of the shade or affiliation of the victim. The third generation seems capable of complimenting their duty to remember with a duty to speak out wherever human dignity – the right to speak – is threatened.

Anthony Levin will launch the volume at Berkelouw Books in Paddington on January 6 at 7pm.