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The Holocaust in Nazi Germany was, in its most basic roots, the mass murder of millions of the Jewish population within Germany, and all countries conquered by Germany for the duration of World War Two. While the main figures behind this mass execution had no doubt in the valor of this act, the actual executioner’s faced internal struggles coming to grasp with their duty. While Germany had been an anti-semitic country for a large part of its history, the fact remained that these executioners were killing the people that they had lived next to for their whole lives. As a result of this guilt, the common Nazi in charge of executing the Jewish people would be forced to commence in a complete transformation in order to come to terms with the job that they were completing. Maxine Kumin with her poem, “Woodchucks,” aptly represents the transformation, of contrition to gratification, a Nazi soldier experienced while executing a seemingly innumerable amount of Jews through the use of various literary devices including, allusions, imagery, and, diction. Kumin utilizes allusions in multiple areas to set the scene for a World War two environment, making the comprehension of her final point in the poem increasingly apparent.
The first use of these allusions comes within the first two line of the poem with her reference to the “knockout bomb”, pushing her audience to remember the fire bombings used by the American military on various japanese cities. Similar to the poem, the fire bombings did not achieve the goal the military hoped to accomplish, a parallel to the farmer who attempted to gas the woodchucks with cyanide with no avail. This made the American military feel that it was acceptable to use a weapon of much more brutality and little to no humanity, a direct comparison to the farmer immediately deciding that the rifle was his only option in the scenario. Within the same stanza Kumin goes on to draw similarities from the woodchucks and the Jews inside Nazi Germany by detailing their ability to escape with “they had a sub-sub-basement out of range”. The stories of multiple Holocaust victims had spread by the time of the writing of this poem, especially to poets within America. The most prominent of these stories included the ones of those who hid in attics, floorboards, and basements, exactly what the woodchucks are said to be hiding within. This creates the second alignment of both the Farmer’s and Nazi Soldier’s views when confronted with the task of killing what was deemed as “pests.” The view that Jews were not people, but just irritants, that the Nazi Soldier so desperately wants to see, in order to be relinquished of the guilt obtained from these mass murderings, is clearly represented within this comparison.
Kumin delves further into the resemblance between Nazi Soldiers and the farmer, with her final allusion to World War two, within the final line of the poem, with a direct comparison to the Nazi tactic, “gassed underground the quiet Nazi way”, which puts the idea of a Nazi soldier directly into the mind of the audience. By using this allusion in the final line Kumine pushes the audience into her goal with her poem through the use of the word Nazi allowing for the reader to make the connection and understand the journey of a Nazi executioner. Kumine future describes the journey through her use of imagery when speaking of the killing of the woodchucks. Kumin applies a various uses of imagery to depict the mindset of a soldier, revealing that they could indeed understand that they were killing humans, not just animals.
Kumin makes the woodchucks seem vividly real by intensely the visual aspect of the second woodchuck to getting shot “She Flip flopped in the air and fell, her needle teeth still hooked in a leaf of early Swiss chard”. By authentically describing the woodchucks appearance Kumin relates the psyche of the soldier when executing countless jewish people, to the one of the farmer with incredibly realistic depictions that illustrate how aware of the killings the Nazi soldiers were. Kumin then produces the scene of the farmer overflowing with anticipation to kill the last woodchuck with “I dream I sight along the barrel in my sleep.” By implanting this image into the audience’s mind Kumin relays the transformation that both the soldier, and the farmer, undergo, first one of hesitation, with the use of a “merciful” execution method, to a feeling of excitement to end the final woodchuck’s life themself. This accurate comparison between the soldier and farmer shows the transformation to the two, initially hoping to retain some sort humanity after these killings, to budding with enthusiasm to end another woodchucks life. Kumin continues to depict this near metamorphosis by her utilization of diction to represent the farmer’s enthusiasm to commit these acts.
Kumin utilizes diction to represent the eagerness that the Nazi executioner begins to obtain when going through the process of ending the lives of their countless victims. The farmer, once decided on using their rifle describes the situation as “righteously thrilling”, revealing the fact that the farmer, that had once felt guilt of the killing, had now shifted to glee, in the fact that they would be able to kill these defenseless woodchucks. Initially the Nazi soldier would feel guilt and hesitation for the killing that they would have to impose on the jewish people, they convert to one of self convinced virtue. The soldier now goes from a feeling of guilt to one of integrity in the same acts as he had committed, convincing himself that what was previously vile, was now, not only moral, but necessary. Kumin then goes on to describe the killing of the mother woodchuck, in the farmers viewpoint, when stating “I dropped the mother”. By using the word “dropped” the farmer describes his lack of guilt for this killing but instead, a feeling of exhilaration, making the murder seem like a duty that had to be completed, all the while seeing the humanity in the woodchuck in the process. The Soldier feels the same way when killing the jew, wherein they now see the murder as not only a killing, but a duty that bring delight the the soldier himself. Kumin, use of various diction helps paint the picture of a once guilty soldier now proud of the actions he has committed. For any the vast majority of the average population the idea of committing a mass murder is nearly incomprehensible. Due to this fact, the orders to commit this act, placed on various Nazi Soldiers, was virtually impossible without the overbearing amount of guilt that would arise from the fulfillment of these orders. While the anti-semitism, and the vast amount of problems within Nazi Germany helped the soldiers carry out this task, the reality remains that no killing is easy, especially when upon a defenseless people.
Maxine Kumin utilizes a multitude of literary devices including, allusion, imagery, and, diction, to accurately represent the transformation, of contrition to gratification, that a Nazi Soldier underwent when killing countless jewish citizens in her poem “Woodchucks.”
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