Dan Pagis – Written in Pencil in the Sealed Boxcar: Timeless Hebrew Poetry of the Shoah

by Dan Utley

As Yom HaShoah approaches we find ourselves yet another year farther removed from the horrors of the last century.  As our survivors continue to depart from this world we struggle to find new ways to remember what we have not seen with our own eyes and teach new generations to have the vigilance needed for the future. Going forward we are faced with few but powerful tools in these efforts: museums, history books, and writings.

Dan Pagis (1930-1986), the Romanian born Israeli poet, lecturer, and Holocaust survivor, provided the Jewish people with timeless words reflective of his experience in the concentration camps as a child. His command of the Hebrew language and its unique blessings of biblical baggage allowed him to express the essence of holocaust terror in an ink that will never fade with time. Roughly twenty years after making aliyah in 1947, Pagis wrote the following 19-word poem that expresses a deceivingly simple yet stirring account – conveying the eternal nature of the events that befell our people.

The title bears a striking descriptive quality that is absent from the remainder of the poem. One imagines the scratched message that could have been written on the wood inside the car or on a scrap of paper trampled by many feet, left behind for the next shipment to read. The phrase’s 12 syllables carry an entire history of Jewish tradition and belief. Katuv (written) and chatum (sealed) recall images of Yom Kippur liturgy as we pray at that season to be written and sealed in the book of life.

Additionally, katuv is found often in Rabbinic texts to mean “written in scripture.” This word choice serves to embody both the weight of the situation and the strength of Jewish history and tradition. As strong as is the statement “written and sealed,” it is contrasted by the fact that this particular message is only written in pencil – the least indelible of any writing implement. Through the title Pagis conveys the nature of the people that the Nazis tried to erase.

In the poem Pagis chooses to exclude the verb l’hiyot (to be) and rather expresses the present through the emphasis and specificity of location.  Kan (here) and hazeh (this) overly emphasize the location and urgency of the time and place. The people involved in this scene are equally as important as the place. The character Eve embodies the mother of all humanity and thus her central role in this poem presents an uncomfortable conflict as John Felstiner suggests. “the Hebrew Chava embodies life itself [as her name comes from the word for life] chai.”1 Life, in the Holocaust, was taken away from our six million by none other than members of humanity. Abel, the first victim and Cain, the first murder deepen the vivid symbolism.

Adam is present in the poem only through familial reference. The word Adam, in Hebrew can be used to refer to Adam specifically, to humans in general, and to imply mortality as a living being. Unforgettably, Pagis personalizes the Jewish catastrophe while at the same time he broadens it to include the entire human family through these characters.

The close of the poem is left open through the use of aposiopesis, a sudden break in the word sequence. We are left to decide what Eve intends to tell Cain or whether the poem is intended to continue where it began, “Tell him that I [am]/ Here in this shipment.” The last line begs for an answer and searches for a meaning where none exists, reflective of the entire experience of the Shoah.

Few history books or museum visits personalize the nature of the Shoah the way Pagis’ poem does. As a Jewish people we are blessed with a language that allows us to experience this depth in meaning. If, in the coming years, we are to make do without a living record of the Holocaust we must learn to read and learn from the meaningful work of those who knew the Shoah firsthand.

1. Felstiner, John. Essay on Dan Pagis in The Modern Hebrew Poem Itself Edited by Burnshaw, S., et al.

Dan Utley is a second year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles.  In the past year he has served as student rabbi at the Wood River Jewish Community in Sun Valley, Idaho and over the summer begin as a rabbinic intern at Congregation Rodef Shalom in San Rafael, Ca. As an alumnus of URJ Goldman Union Camp Institute and NFTY in Israel, Dan is passionate about Jewish camping and youth education.  Dan and his wife Rachel, a day school educator, reside in West-LA and enjoy taking advantage of the diverse Jewish opportunities in the area.

Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah.

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4 Responses to “Dan Pagis – Written in Pencil in the Sealed Boxcar: Timeless Hebrew Poetry of the Shoah”

  1. avatar

    Would love to see more posts like this – perhaps weekly?

  2. avatar

    GREAT set of insights on a very powerful poem. In my mind, I’ve always heard the silent “[am]” at the end of the poem. To me, the rhythm of the last/first line — tagid lo she’ani kan b’mishloach hazeh — sounds like a train, picking up speed.

  3. avatar

    Wonderful post.
    The verb for “tell” in the last line (תגידו) is in the plural, which, in modern Hebrew suggests the impersonal (in English, we say, “One should tell…”). In the poem, it sounds like a request that is being made not to an individual, but to the entire human race.

  4. avatar

    She wants to voice something to Cain — the Biblical first offender of violent rage. But what really is there to say to Cain or to hateful violent rage, when sealed within a sealed railway car?

    Thank you Dan for your penetrating observations about a long-cherished poem.

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