On the Meaning of the Poems
from the Women's Concentration Camp Ravensbrück

By Constanze Jaiser

Why were poems written in the concentration camp?

This question sounds simple and yet the circumstance that poems could be written in such a place at all is confusing. In order to arrive at the answers to these questions, a closer look must be given to the circumstances leading their creation as well as to those involved in their authority as eye witnesses. The artist Pat Binder's virtual presentation of the poems and other creative evidence follows this premise.

At least 1200 poems were written in the women's concentration camp Ravensbrück during its existence - from 1939 to 1945. We know of at least 130 women from more than fifteen nations imprisoned in Ravensbrück who were active as poets. Many of them wrote the occasional poem. Many others created comprehensive works. The authorship in the concentration camp played a minor role in this. The authors made their words available to others; they were expressing "what everyone felt." The texts were passed along from person to person verbally, fellow inmates managed to find scraps of paper and pencil stubs, had them translated into other languages, hid the scraps in their clogs or on their persons and smuggled the texts out of the camp.

When were poems written?

Often the inducement to write was a single person who should be given pleasure or comfort, who should be remembered. Life in the concentration camp; the death of women close to one; the worries about children, men, friends and relatives; the longing for home - all were reasons to capture pain, sorrow and longing in rhymed words. There was also the distraction from everyday life in a concentration camp that was essential for survival - a life consisting of endless hours of standing at attention for role call, forced labor, fear of sickness and death and a helplessness in the face of others' suffering. Poems were often written during work and role call as well as before falling asleep. The words were repeated until they committed themselves to memory. They were passed on to someone else, or even recited and sung on secretly organized cultural evenings in the barracks.

Rhyming to Remember

Forever present was the dissociation from the realities of camp threatening to swallow the individuals whole, and in turn the acknowledgement of one's own existence as a person. Sought for was the expression of one's own experience as well as mutual exchange. The composers wanted to leave behind a trace of themselves in the hearts of others, one that would endure beyond their own probable death. The communicative intention in versifying extended itself into the desire to lend the dead a voice and to produce evidence for posterity. The poem, as it were, becomes the vessel of a living existence in which the memory of those still alive as well as those already dead are recalled and preserved for the future.

Naming With Symbols - Capturing in Closed Form

For reasons of form and content, the poem is especially suitable for describing experiences suffered. For one, content can be better retained in short, rhythmic, mostly rhyming form. The oral status, owing to the exceedingly difficult conditions for writing and existing in concentration camps, often resulted in simple forms and images. And yet, the poem makes it possible to "push together" the camp world and the non-camp world, a description of contrary experiences which can no longer be brought into a causal structure by the self. That which is incompatible in one's own existence could temporarily be bridged and given expression - for example in the symbolization of nature visible in both worlds. Through the poem's unique dialogue form it was also possible to momentarily get in touch with one's self again and, in turn, to perceive one's neighbor. This requires an enormous amount of courage: to stop and look, to become aware of one's own destruction and to attest crimes unbearable in their nature. However, at the same time, the poem facilitates a countermovement essential for survival on the basis of its rhythmic structure similar to human breathing as well as on the basis of its tendency toward prayerlike, magical invocation. The designated is captured, as it were, in a poem and thereby - in the act of writing poetry and of speaking comprehension - is repulsed. Belief always speaks through this act to man's basic ability to invoke.

Poetical Evidence as Living Visualization

The individual as represented in the poem can only gain entrance to the memory through the process of testifying, which requires another party to be listening. Taken from the sphere of death that characterized life in the concentration camp, these rhymes and prayerlike invocations were written down on pieces of paper. They are - as the poet Paul Celan expressed in his famous Meridian speech - to be received like 'messages in a bottle'. As puzzling messages of an (incomprehensible) longing, they are on their way to being heard one day. Their message must be actively pieced together, must be visualized sensually despite the insurmountable strangeness. Even the passages opened by Pat Binder move consciously within this irreconcilable paradox - and basically any reception would have to come to terms with it. At the end of this visualization is never a liberation - not then and certainly not now - but rather an abyss that can no longer be crossed creatively or scholarly. The act of testifying, which can only occur with the participation of a listener, takes place rather in a constantly new and attentive turn. Its only meaning consists of retrieving the poem's call "constantly from an 'already-no-more' into a 'still-here'" to make "immediacy and nearness" possible. ("The Meridian," Paul Celan, Collected Prose, trans. Rosmarie Waldrop; Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1986; p. 49). By making visible those who cry out and by lending a voice to those who are no longer capable of speaking, a commemoration is fulfilled that inevitably only has to remain a work-in-progress.

Constanze Jaiser
August 2000
Translation: Rebeccah Blum

Voices from Ravensbrück   © Pat Binder