The Poem

“Autobiography,” a poem of twenty-six lines divided into six stanzas of four or five lines apiece, requires some knowledge of Dan Pagis’s biography. Pagis, a leading Israeli poet of his generation, was born in Radautz, in Romanian Bukovina (now Russia). A Jew, he was incarcerated for three years of his early adolescence in a Nazi concentration camp. At the age of sixteen, in 1946, Pagis, like many Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, emigrated to Palestine. (The nation of Israel was officially established by the United Nations as a homeland for Jews in 1948.) His native tongue was German, and he learned Hebrew in order to assimilate into Israeli society. He began writing poetry in Hebrew in about four years; it is remarkable that he later became a preeminent poet—not to mention a respected scholar of the literature—in a language not native to him.

The first line of the poem establishes that the speaker is dead. Clearly, the poem cannot be an “autobiography” in a literal sense. When the reader considers the author’s biography, it begins to seem possible that the “I” who “died with the first blow” is collective rather than individual. The “I” in this poem symbolizes Jews murdered by the Third Reich’s diabolical “final solution” or perhaps, in a larger sense, all Jewish people who have endured persecution. The identification of the “I” with victimized Jews becomes stronger in the next stanza, in which the speaker reveals...

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Forms and Devices

Pagis uses allusions to Old Testament myth in much of his work and alludes to the story of Cain and Abel, archetypes in the Judeo-Christian tradition for the victimizer and victim, in at least two of his best-known poems, “Brothers” and “Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway Car.” Clearly, Pagis is using imagery from this archetypal murder metaphorically, and the most immediate comparison is to the Nazis’ murder of millions of Jews during the Holocaust.

The reader may well ask just how this is so clear. No details in the poem refer specifically to the Holocaust, or even World War II. Lines from stanza 3, “Our inventions were perfected. One thing led to another,/ orders were given,” contain the most direct references in the poem, and even these are oblique. Again, knowing the poet’s personal history is helpful, as is a passing familiarity with Pagis’s other work, in which the Holocaust is a persistent, although hardly omnipresent concern.

The very fact that Pagis refers to the Holocaust only indirectly—there are no swastikas, no images of crematoria—is in itself of interest. Pagis is a master of understatement, which is a form of irony; and irony is perhaps the dominant mode for serious literature written after the horrors of World War II. It is almost as if mere language were incapable of rising to the occasion of describing or paying appropriate homage to human suffering on a scale as vast as the Holocaust deserved....

(The entire section is 477 words.)