Testimony: A Lesson in Creating Poetry
Grade Level: 9 through 12
- To analyze closely testimony from the Holocaust.
- To express in poetic form meanings the students created in their analysis.
Sunshine State Standards:
View all Sunshine State Standards
- Grades 9-12
- LA.A.1.4.4, 2.4.2
- Copies of survivor, rescuer, or liberator testimony
- calligraphy supplies or computers for the variation.
When American soldiers liberated the Nazi concentration camps in 1945, they were stunned and outraged by what they saw. Here is a reaction that was recorded at the time:Our men cried. We were a combat unit. We'd been to Anzio, to southern France, Sicily, Salermo, the Battle of the Bulge, and we'd never, never seen anything like this. In the children's cell block, the bedding, the clothing, the floors besmeared with months of dysentery. I could put my fingers around their upper arms, their ankles, so little flesh. Two hundred and fifty children. Children of prisoners. Polish children. Czechoslovakian children. I can't remember what I did after I saw the children.Barbara Helfgot-Hyett, a poet, was so impressed with remarks like these that she rearranged the words as poetry. The book that she created by this method is called In Evidence. Compare her version below of the preceding comments. What different impressions do the words make when written as prose and as poetry?
Our men cried.
We were a combat unit.
We'd been to Anzio,
to southern France,
the Battle of the Bulge,
and we'd never, ever
In the children's cell block,
the bedding, the clothing,
the floors besmeared with
dysentery. I could
put my fingers around their upper arms,
their ankles, so little flesh. Two hundred
and fifty children. Children
of prisoners. Polish children.
I can't remember
what I did
after I saw the children.
When one reads these testimonies as poetry, the words seem to grow in intensity. The same shock and heartbreak are present in both versions, but the second format somehow brings out the emotions more powerfully. Maybe this is because of the way the poet decided to break up the sentences. Notice the words that are placed at the end of lines for emphasis. Notice also the way certain phrases are emphasized because they have an entire line to themselves. Notice how the reader pauses at certain points and is forced to focus on specific words and details.
Before she began to edit the passage, Barbara Helfgott-Hyett obviously recognized that it was every bit as intense as a poem. What she did by re-shaping the words, therefore, was to release and reveal a little more of the emotional conviction that she felt within the lines. She not only responded in a creative way to writing that impressed her, but she literally analyzed it, too. Remember that by definition, analysis requires us to break something up into its basic parts; when we analyze a passage from a book, we look at the nature and function of every word or sentence within that passage.
Choose a passage about the Holocaust at least three sentences long, but no longer than five sentences altogether. Add no words of your own, except for a title. Do not abridge or paraphrase the passage you select. Decide in advance which words will matter the most in your poetic expression of the text. Will you use key words to start or end the lines? Which phrases will gain impact by standing on lines alone? Which phrases will benefit by being stretched over two or more lines? Are there any repetitions or internal relationships of words that you can showcase by creating more that one stanza?
Be sure to save all your rough drafts; that way you can explain your decisions. Practice reading your poem aloud to see the effect.
Keeping with all of the guidelines mentioned above, students may also:
- Use a computer to set the lines of their poems, carefully choosing appropriate fonts, styles, and point sizes.
- Use calligraphy pens to hand letter their poems.
Follow these links to survivor testimony.
Follow these links to liberator testimony.
Follow these links to rescuer testimony.
Submitted by: Donald J. Peet.
A Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust
Produced by the Florida Center for Instructional Technology,
College of Education, University of South Florida © 2005.