DON’T STAND BY is the title of the Holocaust Memorial Day event in the Bath Guildhall on Wednesday 27th January this year. The Chairman of Bath and North East Council, Councillor Ian Gilchrist will be speaking about the rehoming of Syrian refugees in Bath. I have been asked to read the prose poem, ‘Ark’ ( see below ) which is the opening lamentation in Report from the Judenplatz, the collection of my poems which was published in 2014 and given a full dramatised reading, directed by John Miles, at the 2014 Torbay Festival of Poetry.
The Torbay Festival Organisers scheduled a discussion session after the performance of the Nine Lamentations which together make up Report from the Judenplatz. Some people in the audience felt that ‘Ark’ was unjust to the Christian citizens of Europe who had failed to prevent their fellow Jewish citizens falling victim to the Nazi genocide. It was very interesting that many others who were committed members of Christian churches said that they found the poem’s message both harrowing and appropriate.
I had of course borrowed the metaphor of Noah’s ark from the Italian writer Primo Levi whose book The Drowned and the Saved (1986) is one of the great meditations on the indescribable horror of the Nazi concentration and extermination camps. ‘Ark’ was written as a commentary on the failure of compassion across Christian Europe during the genocide, but I also wanted it to have a wider frame of reference. When Noah’s story is stripped of its religious significance, it becomes a terrifying parable of the way human communities so readily divide populations who share space into ‘us’ and ‘them’ so that the more powerful and successful members of those communities can victimise and withhold their sympathy from those whom they can define as ‘other’ than themselves.
Ironically, as a contemporary metaphor, when I wrote and published ‘Ark’, it was the way the developing conflicts across the Middle East seemed to be based on this frightening primitive model – sunni and shia/us and them – which seemed to resonate most closely with what the poem had to say. What I could not have imagined is that my borrowed metaphor of the drowning adrift on an unforgiving sea, rejected by those who could save them, was so soon to become a harrowing literal truth which would dominate European consciousness.
Most citizens of Western Europe, however disadvantaged, are fortunate compared to homeless, suffering migrants and refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. When I read ‘Ark’ in the Guildhall next Wednesday, I will be reading it as plea that we should try to find a way to break down the thinking which allows us to define these tragic boatloads of migrants as ‘the others’, however difficult it is going to be to shelter and absorb them into our affluent, peaceful, ordered and safe societies.
This is the opening of Primo Levi’s poem ‘Schema’ which was the epigraph to his first book, If This Is a Man (1947).
You who live safe
in your warm houses,
You who find, returning in the evening,
Hot food and friendly faces:
Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud
Who does not know peace
Who fights for a scrap of bread
Who dies for a yes or a no.
DON’T STAND BY….