Commentaries - January 2008

Jan Karski (1914–2000), non-Jewish Polish member of the Polish underground government after the fall of Poland to the Germans, was persuaded by two Jewish leaders to make a visit to the Warsaw Ghetto. They hoped he would see the conditions there at first hand, observe closely, and be able to convey in a written report, and perhaps orally in person too, a sense of the Nazi treatment of the Jews to the allied governments, such that England and the U.S. would specifically intervene to prevent the genocide that was already underway but had plenty more destruction to do by this point.

Karski's account of his experience was published late in the war (I believe 1944 the first time). The text of it I read was translated by Zofia Lewin and Wladyslaw Bartoszewski and published in London in 1969. An excerpt has been in my Holocaust site for many years.

Karski was never able to convince the Allies to respond. He was not sure they believed him; it seems likely that they did not. Afterwards, at least into the early 1980s, he blamed himself for his inability to convey in words what he had seen sufficiently to arouse response. In Claude Lanzmann's film Shoah, at the beginning of a long interview, he breaks down as he attempts to "go back" to the time of his failure to represent. "I go back ..." he begins, stammeringly. "No, I do not go back ..." and then he falls apart. To my mind he he not struggling to remember the horrors he saw in the ghetto; his struggle is not as a witness of the Holocaust itself. His trauma is remembering his inability to describe it through the conventional language and means of international diplomacy.

Here is a brief part of his account of his experience as a witness. Here he is quoting the two Jewish leaders who, in their first meeting with him, are trying to convince him to visit the ghetto:

"We want you to tell the Polish and Allied Governments and the great leaders of the Allies that we are helpless in the face of the German criminals. We cannot defend ourselves and no one in Poland can defend us. The Polish underground authorities can save some of us, but they cannot save masses. The Germans are not trying so enslave us as they have other peoples; we are being systematically murdered."

The Zionist broke in: "That is what people do not understand. That is what is so difficult to make clear."

That is what is so difficult to make clear. That he could not "make clear" was Karski's burden then and ever afterwards. What sort of diplomatic and/or reportorial and/or personal language would have succeeded? Or was a new medium required?

The photo above was taken of Karski in 1994 at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

For more, click here.

Above is the original world wide web test pattern for the graphical interface (as opposed to text-only), dated 1994–95.

In my teaching, I was a passionate user immediately. In 1995, I wrote a short piece for a newspaper — and it was later published in an online magazine (unusual in those days) — that was essentially a negative review of a book that fretted about the then-emergent internet and its alleged destructive effect on reading. In the final paragraph of this brief essay, I wrote about what was then called "the world wide web":

"Authors and teachers have as a new tool a kind of text that can 'meander' by virtue of its form as well as its content, literally urging the reader to make choices at every turn. To the extent that we can resist the easy characterization of this mode of reading and learning as inhuman and "dictatorial" - with its anxious view of cultural authority as residing not in the individual creator of text but in the creator of the system syntax — then, I think, we will be better able to face a few of our problems as educators."

The whole essay (just a few pages long) is still available on the outmoded web site of XConnect here. The citation is XConnect ([pronounced "cross connect"], vol. 1, no. 2 (Fall 1995).

A favorite William Carlos Williams poem:

"Lines" (1921)

Leaves are graygreen,
the glass broken, bright green.

That's it. Nothing more. A slight thing, eh?

In 1999 and 2000, when I taught my English 88 course all online, I prepared a 2-minute audio recording of me and the poet Shawn Walker discussing this poem, as a way to get our students to begin to understand Williams' passion for the unnatural as a form of the natural.

The sound file is in RealAudio format: LINK

I drank milk, Mother, in my sheltered home.
I drank milk, and I ate honey-comb.
Now I'm eating goof balls, drinking rum and gall,
wine, and gin, and vodka, and wood alcohol.
Give me ten Tequilas, a jigger full of stout,
And a little lap of Pepsi before I freak out
In the reeling Jericho Bar.

That's Helen Adam and her astonishingly asocial couplets (and an unrhymed line at the end). Note my inclination to compare her to the Baroness Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven. And notice, too, that it's the bar that's reeling, no her. Nor us, lured — and in my case, charmed — by the regularity of the line.

I'll add that the move from the sad-pious (or perhaps mock-pious) address to "Mother" (cap M) to "now," a long way from shelter and maternal milk, is a device specifically reminiscent of Lorene Niedecker and also of Emily Dickinson. Although there are no goof balls in Emily, there are turns as daring and as intellectually self-destructive.

Kristin Prevallet has written: "Adam did not function well in the real world. To her, going to work was entering into a world of darkness. She did not perceive of the real world as THE real world. 'Reality' is the undesired world where diabolic humans interact and make each other's lives miserable." (It's an essay called "Helen Adam's Sweet Company" and I recommend it.)

Listen to Helen Adam read.