Dachau today

André Fournier, who died last year, was a medical doctor, former Resistance fighter and one of the last French concentration camp survivors. Arrested in 1943 as a young medical student for his involvement in the Resistance, he was deported in January 1944 to the concentration camp of Buchenwald in Germany, before being transferred to Natzweiler-Struthof and, subsequently, Dachau.

Fournier endured the dehumanising regime common to all the Nazi camps: near‑starvation, forced labour, rampant disease, physical beatings, summary executions and the ever‑present threat of imminent death.

During his arduous months in the camps, however, Fournier found a source of comfort in an unlikely place: poetry. Growing up in the 1920s and 30s, he had loved his classes in French literature and had begun to write poems at the age of nine. His practice in writing poetry stood him in good stead when he was deported to the concentration camps. To distract his mind from the horrors of internment, he composed verses in his mind.

When I met him in 2013 at his Paris club, Dr Fournier, then 93 years old, was still alert and articulate. Apologising for not speaking English (in contrast, his spoken German was good, he said with a smile), he told me about the poetry he composed in the camps and recounted the story behind the one poem that he was able to write down.

Returning to his hut one evening in Buchenwald, Fournier was horrified to find that ashes from the camp Krematorium (remains of his fellow prisoners who had died from disease) were descending on him. At that moment, he felt, he told me, that he was ‘a dead man among the dead’, and he called the poem he composed in response to the sight ‘Moriturus’ (Latin for ‘About to die’). ‘We only had very small bits and pieces of paper,’ Fournier said. ‘I found a bit of paper, and I wrote [the poem] very small.’

Camp poetry

Seventy-five years have now passed since the Nazi concentration camps were liberated. This year, commemorations are being held to mark the anniversaries of the liberation of Dachau (on 29 April 1945), Ravensbrück (29-30 April) and Mauthausen (5 May). Yet, despite the volumes of research dedicated to the concentration camps over three quarters of a century, the poems, journals and stories written by victims in the camps remain almost unknown.

Poetry, in particular, was popular with prisoners of all nationalities. Camp inmates repeated favourite poems to distract themselves from their suffering during the long hours of roll-call, when they had to remain standing outside, exposed to the elements. Clandestine sessions of singing and poetry recitation were organised in some camps, including Ravensbrück and Buchenwald. Some prisoners composed their own poems, writing them down where possible using paper and pencil they had scavenged, purloined, obtained through barter, or received as gifts from friends in the camp.

Over a hundred French-speaking prisoners across the different camps – Neungamme, Natzweiler-Struthof, Buchenwald-Dora, Dachau, Oranienburg-Sachsenhausen, Auschwitz-I and Ravensbrück – wrote poems that have survived to this day. For the most part, these writers were not published poets, but ordinary mothers and fathers, military officers and teachers, factory workers and students. Most were political prisoners, deported for their involvement in Resistance activities, but a handful of French Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz also wrote poems that have survived.

Today, poems by at least 116 French-speaking camp prisoners can be found in family collections, archives and published anthologies. Approximately 160,000 people from France were deported to concentration camps between 1942 and 1944 under the German occupation – Jews, Resistance fighters and others.

The number of those who wrote poetry and whose poems have survived is, therefore, a small proportion of the whole, yet it is an astonishing number when the harsh conditions are taken into account. Possessing anything other than the handful of objects distributed to prisoners upon their arrival in the camp – clothing, bowl and spoon – was severely punished by the camp authorities. The fact that so many prisoners managed to write and to keep their writings safe, despite all the dangers and obstacles, testifies to the importance that poetry held for them.

A neglected treasure

Why have the writings from the camps been largely overlooked both in scholarly work and in popular memory? And why should we know (and care) today that so many camp prisoners turned to poetry in their atrocious ordeal?

In part, the neglect of this poetry has to do with how trauma is conceived in the modern world. For some years, a narrow view of trauma has dominated in academic circles, framing trauma exclusively through the lens of retrospective accounts. For Cathy Caruth, author of the influential Unclaimed Experience (1996), the traumatic event is not truly confronted when it happened. Only in retrospect can the victim come to terms with the event and the ‘threat of death’ that it posed. Although it was certainly not Caruth’s intention, her theories effectively discount the value of writings from victims at the time of the traumatic events themselves.

But that’s not the only reason the poetry from the camps has been neglected. These poems often contradict preconceptions of what traumatic writings produced in hellish circumstances should look like. In many poems, the camp prisoners do describe the cruelties, physical abuse, extreme hunger and thirst, and other sufferings of camp existence.

In others, however, there is little or no mention of the camps. These poems are about love, self-sacrifice, patriotism, solidarity, personal goodness and religious faith: whatever values the prisoner was holding on to in his or her struggle to survive.

Looking for meaning

Prisoners did not write primarily to testify. Rather, they wrote to find meaning, consolation and hope in the midst of their sufferings. ‘I wrote for myself,’ Violette Maurice, a French survivor of the Nazi women’s camp, Ravensbrück, would later say. ‘I didn’t want to let myself be dehumanised.’ On Maurice’s little notebook of poems, a friend in the camps wrote, ‘La vie est belle, belle encore’ (‘Life is beautiful, beautiful still’). Another camp survivor who wrote extensively in Ravensbrück would simply say in after-years: ‘To survive, I had to write.’

Some found comfort in their ordeal by recalling home and family. In a poem dated 3 September 1944, Micheline Maurel, a schoolteacher from Toulon imprisoned in Neubrandenburg (a sub-camp of Ravensbrück), lovingly evoked the sights, sounds, perfumes and tastes of summer in Provence: the bright sunlight and the mistral, the sound of cicadas and the smell of thyme.

Maurel’s nostalgia is echoed in other prisoners’ poems. To prisoners exiled from their homeland, separated from their family and imprisoned in the bleak setting of the concentration camp, the memory of home was a beacon in the emotional darkness. To recall home and loved ones was to resist spiritually and mentally the legitimacy of the camp regime, under which the prisoner was one of a crowd of anonymous, interchangeable instruments of labour to be exploited. In poetry, prisoners remembered that a place still existed where they belonged and were loved.  

Inmates also drew on the thought of their loved ones to raise their spirits, and dozens of poems are dedicated to husbands, wives, children and sweethearts. Perhaps the most moving is one written by a French Jewish prisoner, Pierre Créange, in a work-camp in the Auschwitz-I complex. The poem is addressed to his wife, Raymonde (deported separately to Auschwitz). Pierre looks forward to life after imprisonment with his wife. ‘Never will we have been so close to each other,’ he writes. Pierre Créange died in Auschwitz. Raymonde, unbeknownst to him, had been gassed upon her arrival.

Créange’s last poem was saved by a friend and taken back to France, where for his surviving daughter and son, it remains to this day a precious souvenir of their father’s last days.

The special magic of poetry

Why was it poetry, out of all the forms of literature, that flourished in the camps?

For practical reasons, to start with. Poetry has always been valued in deprivation, partly because it only needs the human mind and voice to be created and re-created. Thanks to its regularity and its use of rhythm and rhyme, poetry is easy to recall compared to prose. From John of the Cross in the 16th century to Paul Verlaine in the 19th century, prisoners have used their time of captivity to write poetry.

Poetry is, as well, an intuitive expression of emotion, equally suited to joy and sorrow. Stephanie Dowrick writes that it is at particularly meaningful times, sacred moments, that poetry comes into its own, ‘its peculiar intensity and compression instinctively demanded’. The beauty of poetry, too, was a factor, according to testimonies by camp survivors. ‘All deportees thus deliriously wandered in poetry, in loves of yester-year,’ André Fournier remembered in a letter written to me in 2014, ‘in the beauty of things intimately engrained in us.’  

But the genius of poetry is also the fact that it can give new meaning to human lives. Poetic discourse, as the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur maintained, does not simply transmit a pre-determined reality. It is creative and transformative.

This is clearly seen with André Fournier’s poem, which is not just a description of a visceral encounter with death. Instead, the poem actually uncovers saving meaning within the experience. In one stanza, Fournier calls the bright white ashes falling from the sky, ‘manna’. I asked him why he had chosen that metaphor.

‘It’s a manna because they are – not saints – but they have been transfigured by death,’ Fournier replied. ‘So it’s a manna, in other words something beneficial.’

Through poetry, Fournier identified something salvific in the horrific sight he witnessed that evening in Buchenwald. He was not alone in finding spiritual meaning in death by means of poetry. Other camp inmates acclaimed their dead comrades as martyrs for France, or imagined the rising ashes from the Krematorium as a sign of their souls’ ascent into heaven.

Even when salvific meaning was difficult to find, the simple act of writing poetry helped prisoners to continue their struggle for survival. Poetry, John Burnside suggests in The Music of Time, might even be described as ‘an act of hope’. The mere creation of a poem was an act of resistance, too, against the Nazis’ attempts to dehumanise their victims, as Gary D. Mole has pointed out in his 2002 study of French poetry in the camps, Beyond the Limit-Experience. Writing a poem drew on the interior resources (enfeebled though they might be) of memory, intellect and will.

Something about poetry makes it capable of thriving under tyranny and oppression. Aleksandr Kushner, a modern Russian poet who managed to have his poems published at a time of strict Soviet censorship in the late 1960s despite the highly transgressive message these writings contained, has argued that poetry eludes the clumsy grasp of the ideological mindset. ‘The nets of ideology,’ Kushner writes, ‘are not woven finely enough to catch it (it slips through the holes); it lives by its own rules.’ He concludes: ‘Poetry is freedom.’ If poetry was precious to camp inmates, in part it was because they found freedom in it.

Not by bread alone …

Nowadays, poetry is often considered an arcane art-form of little relevance to the reality of life. But the hunger for poetry among prisoners, who often guarded their poems as carefully as they did their bread rations, shows how far this is from the truth. For them, poetry truly was, to use Mary Oliver’s words, ‘something as necessary as bread in the pockets.’

As we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the camps, the consolation that so many camp prisoners found in poetry should not be forgotten. The desire that he and his fellow prisoners felt to put their sufferings into words, André Fournier told me, was ‘the only good that remained to them.’ Their stories remind us of the perennial value of poetry.

Poetry can uncover redemptive meaning in suffering. It can help us to remember where we come from and where we hope to be in the future. Not least, it can become a small icon of beauty and hope in the most hopeless of circumstances.

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Belle Marie Joseph: Born in Canberra, I have loved French since an early age. I studied it at the Australian National University and completed an exchange to Grenoble in 2009. I taught French at ANU from...