Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Perhaps the first question the reader confronts is why Pagis uses Cain’s murder of Abel as a metaphor for the Nazi persecution of the Jews. It may seem a startling choice: Cain murdered his brother out of jealousy because God delighted in the sacrifices of Abel but was displeased with those of Cain. Enraged, Cain killed Abel. As punishment for the first murder, God placed a mark on Cain and made him forever, in the language of the King James Old Testament, a “fugitive and vagabond.”

Pagis’s choice of metaphor becomes especially interesting when the reader considers Cain and Abel as brothers. If Cain represents the Nazis and Abel the Jews, the implication is that the Nazis and the Jews are also, at least on a metaphorical level, brothers. What Cain is not, from Abel’s point of view, is an animal, a monster, one completely alien or “other.” It is easy, perhaps, for readers to think of Nazis as inhuman, completely incomprehensible, not true human beings at all. Abel, as the speaker of this poem, does not seem to share that perspective.

It is tempting to think of the categories Jew and victim, and Nazi and victimizer, as falling at opposite ends of the spectrum of human experience; one surprise in this poem is that Pagis, himself having suffered at the hands of the Nazis, resists that impulse. The notion of a thread of commonality between the Jew and the Nazi is strengthened when the reader considers that it is Cain, in the Old...

(The entire section is 497 words.)