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Anthony Hecht’s “The Book of Yolek” tells the story of a young Jewish boy named Yolek, a fictional representation of a young boy who died during the Holocaust. The vivid imagery employed by Hecht creates a multifaceted universe that highlights the grueling nature of the Holocaust, while simultaneously comparing the Holocaust to the routine events of normal life. The poem starts by discussing the simple pleasures of daily activities, such as outdoor walks and home-cooked meals. With such pleasant, comforting language, the reader begins to feel relaxed with the beauty of life that Hecht describes. Suddenly, the sestina takes a dark yet captivating turn, in which long walks in nature are interrupted by inhumane marches to the camp. Meals of grilled brook trout become small meals of bread and soup, cut short by the marching of Nazi soldiers. These powerful descriptions of happiness and despair, placed strategically throughout the poem to act as each other’s opposites, create a powerful, moving sestina. With Hecht’s masterful use of overwhelming contrast and repetition, the poem’s joyous tone quickly deteriorates into cynicism, pronounced with his growing disillusionment for humanity. The fluid dynamic of the juxtaposed descriptions of Yolek’s life emphasizes the unsettled feeling towards humanity for letting the Holocaust be neutralized from their subconscious. Additionally, the deep repetition of words such as “camp,” “meal,” and walk,” throughout the entirety of the poem places inescapable pressure on readers to remember the Holocaust for the rest of their lives.
The poem’s focus on remembrance is highlighted by Hecht’s particular choice of pronouns. Hecht begins by drawing out the image of a sunny day, right after a large meal of grilled trout. As the poem progresses, we are exposed to harsh images of the Holocaust and Yolek’s tragic death. Hecht says, “Wherever you are, Yolek will be there too…prepare to receive him in your home some day” (64). Here, we can see that the pronouns “you” and “your” are employed by Hecht throughout the poem, from the first stanza to the last stanza. By using the pronoun “your,” Hecht gives the readers a place in his sestina; he sets the tone by focusing primarily on “you,” the reader. His usage of the pronoun “your” indicates the overarching goal of the sestina: to put pressure on humanity to remember the Holocaust and never let another genocide take place. By addressing the readers themselves at many points throughout the sestina, he is constantly reiterating who his intended audience is: humanity. When Hecht says, “Prepare to receive him in your home some day,” he carries a cynical attitude towards humanity, condemning people for disregarding the Holocaust and not actively remembering it in their daily lives. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “prepared” is a verb meaning “make something ready for use.” Hecht urges people to make their homes ready for use because the day will come in which Yolek will arrive, and it will be our duty to remember the legacy of what Yolek stands for: all those who died in the Holocaust. Speaking directly to the readers indicates that Hecht has a message he is trying to convey, and that it is our responsibility to listen.
Now that the targeted audience has been established, we can begin to delve into the contrasting imagery seen throughout the poem. As the poem begins, we are taken on a journey through a day filled with peace and comfort. Hecht incorporates lucid descriptions such as “walks down the fern trail,” the “deep bronze glories of declining day,” and “bonfires at summer camp” to draw upon the sensuousness of life before the Holocaust. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “glory” is a noun meaning “magnificence, great beauty.” The notion of a magnificent bronze sky accompanied by bonfires, which “illuminate” the atmosphere, sets the sacred tone of the opening stanza. The rich descriptions of light and tranquil scenery, such as walks down a fern trail, display how easy life is and sets the reader in a comfortable, happy mindset. Additionally, “declining day” can be used as a metaphor to illustrate that as the day is declining and the skies are becoming darker, there is still bronze colors in the sky and bonfires, which give light to the darkness. This can be interpreted as a life in which even when there is darkness, such as tragic events and negativity, you have a stable support system to bring the lightness back into your life.
We are presented with a similar setting of peace in stanza two, but now Hecht is asking us to recall a peaceful memory from our own childhoods. Hecht says, “You remember, peacefully, an earlier day…remember a quite specific meal…that summer you got lost on a nature walk” (64). According to Oxford English Dictionary, “remember” is a verb meaning “be able to bring one’s mind an awareness of someone or something that one has seen, known, or experienced in the past.” The repetition of the word “remember” combined with Hecht’s use of the pronoun “your” displays that the purpose of the second stanza is to evoke memories in the readers, and have them specifically recall youthful, happy memories. Walks on the fern trail became “nature walks” and grilled brook trout became a “quite specific meal.” There is a gap in descriptive detail from the first stanza to the second stanza that allows readers to fill in their own version of a comfort meal. When the fern trail becomes a nature walk, the reader is able to form a more specific memory of any walk they have taken, not necessarily down a fern trail. This gives the poem a humanistic component, physically tying the readers into the journey of the poem. This powerful form of memory recall places readers in a joyous moment, where they recall some of their greatest memories from childhood, when life was simple, serene, and free from harm.
The sestina takes a dramatic shift in stanza three. It begins by setting a date, “the fifth of August, 1942,” which is the year that World War II was at its peak in Nazi Germany. By changing the temporal schema of the poem, readers are forced to stop thinking about the happy thoughts from their childhoods and shift their focus to this exact moment in time. It seems that Hecht does this strategically because he first asks readers to recall memories from their childhoods, and after guiding them through a peaceful memory, he cuts the memory short by directing their attention to another point in time. The vivid contrast between the happy childhood memories and August 5th, 1942 creates a stark parallel between the previous stanzas and the following stanzas. Hecht says, “Cutting short the meal of bread and soup, lining them up to walk in close formation off to a special camp” (64). Walks down the fern trail turn into organized marches led by Nazi Soldiers. Summer camp with bonfires and grilled brook trout turn into a concentration camp with electric fences, Nazi soldiers, and suffering. The repetition of the words “camp,” “walk,” and “meal” are used for the first time in a negative, destructive light. These three words in particular were given much attention in the first two stanzas as being the root of joy and comfort, with summer camp, nature walks, and delicious meals. However, the closeness of these repetitions and their overwhelming contrast to each other deftly accentuates the horror in the poem by transforming the words before our eyes.
Hecht does a revolutionary job of incorporating contrast with repetition to create a meaningful piece of literature. However, he does so in a way that makes the reader feel as if they are also present at the camp. When Hecht is describing the concentration camp, his tone remains calm and directed, rather than graphic and accusatory. Hecht says, “The electric fences, the numerical tattoo, the quite extraordinary heat of the day” (64). He highlights the grueling and depressing nature of the concentration camp by using sensory clues to create a more robust image in the mind of the readers. He says, “The smell of smoke, and the loudspeakers of the camp” (64). Incorporating descriptive olfactory and auditory imagery serves to give readers a complete mental picture of what the concentration camp was like. As opposed to simply telling readers about the horrors of the camp, Hecht incorporates various senses into the poem in order to give readers a multifaceted approach to thinking about the Holocaust. When he does this, readers are able to create their own mental picture of the camp based on the contextual clues provided. Readers are able to connect with the poem more efficiently because Hecht gives them the chance to form their own perspective on what the camp was like. Although Hecht could have used more explicit language, he chooses to let the flowing contrast of the repetitive words and the evocative imagery set the emotional tone for the readers.
Moving from the cheerful tone found in the first two stanzas to the successive third stanza, in which the Holocaust is first introduced, readers are able to feel the effects of the Holocaust at a deeper level. The opening two stanzas, which describe the epitome of a joyous life, are suddenly interjected by the dark nature of the concentration camps. The bold contrast gives readers no foreshadowing into the darkness that is coming, since readers are still encompassed in the childhood memory component of the second stanza. Due to the progression into the subsequent stanzas relatively quickly and without warning, it forces readers to continue reading, despite the harsh and painful content. This progression through the poem, set up so strategically and suddenly, can potentially serve as a metaphor for the goal of the sestina. It encompasses the philosophy that no matter what people do to neutralize the tragic memories of the Holocaust, they can’t escape their fates, just as Yolek and the other 11 million victims of the Holocaust couldn’t escape theirs. Hecht says, “Far off or same at home, you will remember, helplessly, that day” (64). This formidable line shows that you could be anywhere in the world, even in the comfort of your own home, and you would have to remember the Holocaust. According to Oxford English Dictionary, “helpless” is an adjective meaning “unable to defend oneself or to act without help.” Hecht’s use of the word “helplessly” illustrates that readers won’t be able to fend off the thoughts of the Holocaust after reading the sestina, as they will now be equipped with a multifaceted perspective that includes intimate memories and lucid imagery. There will be a relentless recall of information that readers will continue to go through for eternity.
By the end of the emotional roller coaster that readers take whilst embarking on this poem, they will not be able to forget the tragic events that occurred in the Holocaust. Hecht seems to take on a cynical view of humanity, reprimanding the human race for turning a blind eye to the Holocaust. Hecht begins stanza four by posing an open-ended question to the readers: “How often have you thought about the camp?” (64). He then gives a partial response to his question, discussing how Yolek and the rest of the children were made to leave their homes and march in shambles to the concentration camp. The partial response that Hecht gives let readers bridge the gap with their own emotions about letting the Holocaust, and the legacy of all who perished, be forgotten. In addition to asking the readers to recall their own childhood memories, Hecht also expects that readers will be able to bridge their own reasons for not actively remembering the Holocaust, and take steps to become more mindful people. This reflects Hecht’s non-accusatory tone, in which he lets the readers figure out their emotions on their own, rather than simply lecturing them for their ignorance. This stanza is poetic mastery, where Hecht is able to draw out a judgement towards humanity in a way that allows readers to form their own conclusion and self-critique their ignorance of this tragic period in our history.
Albeit a more conversational poem rather than an accusatory one, Hecht does remind his readers that if we do forget about the Holocaust, we run the risk of letting another genocide occur. In stanza five, Hecht says, “We’re approaching August again. It will drive home the regular torments of that camp Yolek was sent to” (64). This adds another layer of temporal value to the poem. We progress from our childhood memories, to August 5, 1942, and then to present day. When Hecht says that August will drive home the regular torments of the camp, he is implying that just as August approaches every year, there is also the chance of another genocide occurring. By using the term “regular,” which means routine, we can see Hecht’s fear of reliving a genocide even in the present-day. The only way for us to stop the cycle is to actively advocate against genocide and be mindful of the signs that a genocide is approaching. In addition to eliciting the thought of a future genocide, Hecht also uses the month of August as a way of reminding humanity that August rolls around every year and it is critical to remember the burden of the Holocaust for years to come.
Hecht uses many masterful techniques in order to ensure that his poem makes a lasting impression on readers. In addition to all the aforementioned ways Hecht is able to accomplish his mission, the implantation of a fictional character in the poem facilitates a personal and emotional connection to the Holocaust. The reader has followed Yolek’s journey through four stanzas and facilitated an intimate connection with him. Hecht says, “Yolek who wasn’t a day over five years old…was sent to his small, unfinished, meal…though they killed him in the camp they sent to” (64). When we are first exposed to Yolek, we are told that he is no older than the tender age of five. Because Hecht tells us his age, we infer that he is a young, innocent child, who has never harmed anyone and we immediately feel deep compassion for his unfortunate situation. We then follow his journey to when he is taken to the concentration camp and in a way, we experience those sights and smells with Yolek. After getting more invested in Yolek’s journey throughout the poem, we carry deep hope that Yolek will be one of the lucky survivors but, to our dismay, the second line in the last stanza reveals that Yolek has been killed in the concentration camp. This unfortunate outcome, combined with the close relationship formed between the readers and Yolek, induces a pain-stricken ending in which Hecht hopes will encourage humanity to never forget about these lost lives. When people are personally impacted by a tragic event, such as Yolek’s death, those memories can remain ingrained in them forever.
In the last stanza, Hecht says, “Prepare to receive him in your home someday…he will walk in as you’re sitting down to a meal” (64). This stanza further exemplifies the meaningful impact Yolek and the Holocaust itself will have on the readers. Hecht indicates that Yolek will walk in as you’re sitting down to a meal, which can be analyzed from multiple perspectives. Yolek lost his life during the Holocaust and as humans, we must do our part to cherish his memory and carry on his legacy, along with the other millions of people who perished during the Holocaust. Therefore, it is our duty to welcome Yolek into our homes, as a tribute of condolence since Yolek was taken from his home so abruptly and forcefully. By receiving Yolek in our homes, we are committed to thinking about and remembering the Holocaust, even in our safe spaces. We must accept that when we’re sitting down for meals, Yolek’s spirit will join us and interrupt our meals. I believe Hecht wanted this “interruption” to come in the form of remembering the Holocaust as we take every bite of food, and remembering that simply having food and eating is a privilege. Having Yolek interrupt us as we’re sitting down to a meal is also symbolic of Hecht’s message that simple activities such as eating, being around family, and going on nature walks are all advantages that we shouldn’t take for granted, because they can be interrupted by violence and destruction in the blink of an eye. In essence, remembering the debt pain that the Holocaust inflicted on so many people and families is the debt that humanity owes to the millions of people who were tortured and killed. Additionally, remembering the Holocaust is a useful tool in ensuring that another mass genocide doesn’t take place.
“The Book of Yolek” is a dark yet captivating poem about how our peaceful lives can change, ever so abruptly, and we have little control over our ultimate fate. However, what we do have control over is how we choose to honor those who have perished before us. Hecht introduces Yolek as a way to remind his readers that there are millions of people who mercilessly died in the Holocaust and it is our duty to remember them and the tragic events of World War II. Not only is remembrance important in honoring those who were not able to live out their legacies, like Yolek, it is also an important tool in preventing future genocides. When we are able to think critically about genocide, we can prevent it from occurring by recognizing the signs. Coincidentally, the reference to the possibility of future genocide is haunting, as it indicates that there is a possibility for humans to regenerate this inhumane, vicious mass extinction. Hecht’s poem does a masterful job of acknowledging these concerns while also placing a heavy emphasis on the remembrance of the Holocaust. He does so by using overwhelming contrast in his repetitions and taking the reader on a journey from childhood, to the era of the Holocaust, all the way to present day. Incorporating the different time scales makes the poem flow in a chronological way, adding a temporal component to the poem that gives the reader more context and perspective. Hecht’s way of illustrating the complexities of post-Holocaust remembrance while maintaining an articulate, non-accusatory tone with his readers is masterful artwork. “The Book of Yolek” is able to transgress the minds of all who read it and make a lasting memory that will ensure that the Holocaust will never be forgotten
“glory, noun.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2016. Web. 17 December 2016.Hecht, Anthony. “The Book of Yolek.” The Making of a Poem. Ed. Mark Strand and Evean Boland. New York. W.W. Norton and Company, Inc, 2000. 64. Print.“helpless, verb.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2016. Web. 17 December 2016.“prepared, noun.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2016. Web. 17 December 2016.“remember, verb.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2016. Web. 17 December 2016.
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