The victory days is approaching. Many celebrate this day as the day Fascism was beaten. The horrors of the Second World War must never be forgotten. But can we really comprehend the awfulness of those years? Is it enough to learn about them from history books? Very often, we understand the dreadful statistics, but people are not numbers. The true realization of what war is comes to us when we bring ourselves face-to-face with individual lives and destinies. With that thought in mind, we have reviewed for you five different writings: two books by poets, two by novelists, and a diary from World War II. All of the authors had personal experiences in the war that they interpolated in their writings, which makes them very powerful and often overwhelming.
Paul Celan was a Romanian poet and writer. He was born in a Jewish family that used the German language at home, but Celan grew up speaking Romanian, Russian, French, and Yiddish. In his essays, he wrote about the horrors of the Holocaust and how it affected his art:
There is only one thing that remains accessible to us, that remains close to us, that is certain and safe, despite all the terrible defeats: language. Yes, language. Despite everything. But still, language had to suffer its own failure, through the unimaginable weight and difficulties, through a thousand hours of darkness created in the speeches of killers. But it came through. It didn’t give us words of explanation for what happened, but it came through. It came through and was reborn, sadly enriched with a horrible experience.
Celan is best known for his poem The Fugue of Death. Using symbolic language, the poet created an eery atmosphere of the concentration camp, from a Jewish perspective:
[…]Black milk of daybreak we drink it at nightfall
we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night
we drink it and drink it
we are digging a grave in the sky it is ample to lie there […]
In 1970, Celan committed suicide by drowning himself in the River Seine. Many biographers have expressed the opinion that the poet committed suicide because he was unable to live with the terrible images of the Holocaust. In addition to that, Celan felt irrational guilt because he outlived his entire family. Also, he felt guilty for not convincing his family to flee the country. He remained recognized as one of the most important poets during and after World War II. Celan is remembered by his quote: There is no such reason a poet would give up writing poetry, even if he is a Jew and his language is German.
Another great poet, Keith Douglas, gained recognition because of his poetry during World War II. Sadly, he was killed in action during the invasion of Normandy. Douglas wrote about the destructive forces in the human race and just how easy it seems to be to take a life. In his poem How to kill, he addresses this problem and cannot find the answer to the most important question: why is there violence, why do wars happen? The act of killing seems like a breeze, which is incomprehensible:
[…] And look, has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh. This sorcery
I do. Being damned, I am amused
to see the centre of love diffused
and the wave of love travel into vacancy.
How easy it is to make a ghost. […]
In another great poem titled Simplify me when I’m dead, Douglas gives us a whole different perspective. By all means – we are all just humans. When you see and experience the horrors of war, you start to perceive things differently. All of your everyday worries now seem insignificant. You understand what matters. In the poem, Douglas says:
[…] Remember me when I am dead
and simplify me when I’m dead.
A different war experience comes to us from Joseph Heller, who served in the 12th Air Force in World War II, which was a great inspiration for his novel Catch-22. Heller speaks unforgettably about the absurdity of the world and how crucially illogical it is. In the focus of the story is Captain John Yossarian, a World War II bombardier who tries to escape his war duty by staying in a hospital. As the story unfolds, readers will start to realize that none of the characters actually know what they are fighting for. The absurdity of war is shown through divided roles, but Heller shows that even in the darkest moments, a human being is capable of laughter. This particular sense of humor will show you a different, but infrequently explored, side of the war. This black humor is obviously essential because people need to laugh in order to cope with reality. After the moments of levity, the weight of the war crashes down on them even more heavily, which makes you as a reader empathize and realize how it felt to be a part of that historical moment. Killing another human being made every soldier less human, but it was all a part of the business. Nevertheless, this side of war is rarely mentioned:
“They’re trying to kill me,” Yossarian told him calmly.
“No one’s trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried.
“Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked.
“They’re shooting at everyone,” Clevinger answered. “They’re trying to kill everyone.”
“And what difference does that make?”
Anne Frank is one of the most discussed Jewish victims of World War II. Her Diary of a Young Girl is a precious testimony of her experience during the war years, when she was in hiding during the German occupation of The Netherlands. Her writings show incredible humanity and serenity, which is a proof how people stick together during horrible times. Anne was only a little girl at the time, but showed incredible maturity and hope:
How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.
Thanks to technology, you can visit and explore the house in which Anne Frank lived. This is truly a unique and unsettling experience.
The Naked and the Dead is a novel written by Norman Mailer, the American writer, journalist, film-maker, and political activist. He served in the South Pacific during World War II and wrote about the war in the aforementioned novel. This book draws attention to individual destinies during the war and their personal perceptions about it. The novel takes place on a fictional island in the South Pacific and is completely inspired by the author’s experience. War divides people, but it also brings them together in their troubles. When the characters are introduced to one another, they are forced to cooperate because they all listen to orders from above. They all share a common fear: the possibility of dying. Innocent people die because of the political decisions of others. An incredibly strong message can be found in the novel:
Tolstoy teaches us that compassion is of value and enriches our life only when compassion is severe, which is to say when we can perceive everything that is good and bad about a character but are still able to feel that the sum of us as human beings is probably a little more good than awful. In any case, good or bad, it reminds us that life is like a gladiators’ arena for the soul and so we can feel strengthened by those who endure, and feel awe and pity for those who do not.
War means rationalization of violence. War means a special, organized system, a unique state where violence is not only allowed but also desirable. War imposes horrible brutality as something that is normal. In the time of peace, you answer before the law if you commit an act of violence. In war time, you get medals for it. War implies an inversion of morality and ethics, sick dehumanization, and turning people’s lives into statistics. War is acts of violence by many parties, with a specific goal to force the enemy to submit to their will. It is a political instrument. It cannot be justified. These five writings can help you to understand the mechanics of war and to face our global shame: our history and our failure as a human race – World War II and all the other wars that have happened and happen today.
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