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The International School for Holocaust Studies

"Your Son, Your Only One" - The Sacrifice of Isaac as a Motif in Holocaust Poetry

Teacher's Guide

By Jackie Metzger

Grades: 9 - 12

Contents:

Introduction

The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio (1590-1610; Oil on canvas; Uffizi)The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio (1590-1610; Oil on canvas; Uffizi)
Licenced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

From the earliest beginnings of Jewish history, the story of Isaac’s sacrifice has been an important element in this history and a focal point in Jewish identity. The universal power of the story is equally manifest in the spread of the monotheistic religions, for which this biblical story - in its various versions - is the bedrock of belief. It is not surprising, therefore, that poets, with their literary insights, have produced much work inspired by this story from the book of Genesis. (Gen:22:1-19)
It has been said that the wide variety of materials written during the Holocaust is a necessary anchor for our understanding of the events. This would include diaries, poetry, documentation of events, and writings of rabbis trying to explain or console their communities. The Sacrifice of Isaac certainly resonated with the suffering of the Jewish people at the time and the following words were written by Rabbi Kalonymos Shapira in October 1940, when the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto were about to be enclosed behind its walls. Even at this relatively early date, suffering was rife and this rabbi, also known as the Piacezna Rebbe, was interpreting the events in a direct linear connection with the biblical story. On the first anniversary (yahrzeit) of his son’s murder by gunfire in Warsaw, he wrote:

“The Akeidah (Binding of Isaac) was a test of the desire and intention of Abraham and Isaac. It was never actually accomplished or completed because the angel said to Abraham (Genesis 22:12) “Do not harm the lad.” For this reason, the murder of a Jew by idolaters, which as an action devoid of worshipful intention is an absolute antithesis to the Akeidah, actually consummates the Akeidah. The Akeidah was just the beginning, the expression of intent and desire, while the murder of a Jew is the conclusion of the act. Thus, the Akeidah and all the murders of Jews since are components of one event.”[1]

This perception of the sacrifice was written in October, 1940, when the Jews of Warsaw were about to be enclosed behind the walls of the ghetto. The power of this biblical story has become a prism through which much writing on the essence of Jewish existence passes and the following suggestions to teachers can be seen as an example of this. The suggestions are based on five poems, all written in Hebrew, after the Holocaust, by poets living in Israel. Each poem contributes to a varied treatment of the subject of Isaac’s sacrifice and shows how it is often used as a metaphor for the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust, even though the Holocaust itself is not mentioned directly in this selection of poems.

Rationale

The biblical story of Isaac’s sacrifice, the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel are three major pivots in discussions on Jewish identity. Each component stands independently with its own critical mass. However, when the three elements combine as they do in various ways in the following selection of five poems, a rich base is created for discussion. The more poems studied, the more varied the base for discussion. This unit assumes a basic level of knowledge in the subjects mentioned above.
The poems can be approached through the prism of Jewish identity or universal values. Teachers can also combine different strands emanating from the poems and choose to omit or alter questions for the pupils.

Lesson Procedure

The poems can be taught independently or in any combination. Studying two or more poems creates the possibility of comparing the specific angles offered by the different poets. Alternatively, the class can be divided into groups with each group working on a different poem. The results of the group work would then be discussed at the next stage by the class forum. The quotation from Sacred Fire which appears in the Introduction is the necessary connection to the Holocaust, and each poem separately can be juxtaposed to Rabbi Shapira’s interpretation with a resultant discussion.

The Poems
Heritage - Haim Gouri

The ram came last of all. And Abraham
did not know that it came to answer the
boy's question – first of his strength
when his day was on the wane.

The old man raised his head. Seeing
that it was no dream and that the angel
stood there – the knife slipped from his hand.

The boy, released from his bonds,
saw his father's back.

Isaac, as the story goes, was not
sacrificed. He lived for many years,
saw what pleasure had to offer,
until his eyesight dimmed.

But he bequeathed that hour to his offspring.
They are born with a knife in their hearts.

Note to the Teacher
The crux of the poem is arrived at in the last few lines. Here the poet suggests that all the children of the people of Israel are born with some vestige of an eternal wound, an ingrained relic from millennia of pogroms culminating in the Holocaust of the twentieth century. Is this blanket portrayal valid in the twenty-first century? Young Jews born into liberal democracies or living in the State of Israel today could posit an alternative appraisal vis a vis Gouri’s “bequest” in the last two lines, grounds for discussion.

Biographical Note.
Haim Gouri, a Hebrew poet was born in the Land of Israel in 1923. He served in the Palmach, Haganah (pre-state Defence forces) and the Israeli Defense Forces. After the Second World War he was sent to Europe, where he visited Displaced Persons’ camps. His poetry covers a broad range of subjects, some intensely personal, reflecting his experiences during the Second World War and the Israeli War of Independence.

Questions to the Pupils

  1. A bequest is usually something positive. The last two lines indicate Isaac bequeathing something negative. How do you explain this from the poem and the Story of the Sacrifice?
  2. The biblical stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob go back three thousand years. Do the last two lines of the poem effectively create a link in time, for you, from that period to the years of the Holocaust in the twentieth century? Explain your answer.
Jewish Travel 5 - Amichai

Every year our father Abraham would take his sons to Mount Moriah
The way I take my children to the Negev hills where I once had a war.
Abraham hiked around with his sons. “This is where I left
The servants behind, that’s where I tied the donkey to a tree
At the foot of the mountain, and here, right here, Isaac my son,
you asked:
Behold the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt
offering?
Then, up a little further, you asked for the second time.”
When they reached the mountaintop, they rested a bit, ate and drank,
And he showed them the thicket where the ram was caught by its horns.

After Abraham died, Isaac started taking his sons to the same place.
“Here I lifted the wood, this is where I got out of breath,
here I asked, and my father answered: God will see to the lamb
for the offering. Over there, I already knew it was me.”
And when Isaac’s eyes were dim with age, his children
Led him to that same spot on Mount Moriah, and recounted for him
All that had come to pass, all that he might have forgotten.

Note to the Teacher
Amichai’s treatment of the subject appears more lighthearted than Gouri’s in his colloquial usage of Hebrew and in the shift of focus in his poem to fathers taking their children hiking in the countryside. However a serious theme appears to take form when the reader realizes the linkage between ongoing sacrifices that perforce are the result of wars (like Israel’s War of Independence that Amichai is referring to in the second line) and the biblical Sacrifice of Isaac which was never enacted. When Abraham, Isaac and the poet are linked as three fathers who persist in showing their offspring the sites of their wars, and their near-sacrifice, the reader is being shown the idea of sacrifice and self-sacrifice in the narrative of a people echoing through the ages. The reader becomes aware of how the theme of biblical sacrifice melds into a modern version of the price entailed in forging a national Jewish identity.

Biographical Note.
Yehuda Amichai, Hebrew poet was born in Germany in 1924 and immigrated with his family to the Land of Israel in 1936. He fought in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. For many years he was a schoolteacher. He published many volumes of poetry and has been widely translated into many languages. Amichai’s poetry is highly regarded in Israel and throughout the world. He died in 2000.

Questions for the Pupils

  1. Amichai links the story of the sacrifice to his own life in one line of the poem. Identify the line and clarify the comparison he is making.
  2. The poem presents fathers taking their children to important places in their lives. How can you translate these family outings into part of the historical narrative of the Jewish people? How can you link family roots and continuity of the Jewish national narrative though this poem?
The Sacrifice - T. Carmi

Even though Isaac did not die, Scripture honors him as if he had died and his ashes had been strewn upon the alter.
MIDRASH HAGADOL[2]

Last night I dreamt that my son did not return.

He came to me and said:
When I was little and you were,
you would not tell me
the story of the binding of Isaac,
to frighten me with knife, fire, and ram.

But now you have heard her voice.
She whispered, didn’t even command –
(her hand full of voices and she
said to your forehead, to your eyes:)
is it
so?
And already you ran to the hiding-place,
drew out the knife, fire, and ram
And in a flash
Your son, your only one.

Last night I dreamt that my son did not return.
I waited for him to come home from school,
and he was late.
And when I told her,
she put her hand upon me
and I saw all the voices
he had seen.

Note to the Teacher
From his two lines of preface at the head of the poem, we are immediately immersed into the possibility of loss. This is heightened in the first line of the poem with his son’s non-return, albeit in a dream. The last verse opens again with the dream and the son’s absence. The tension generated in the poem is couched in the context of ‘the sacrifice’, and the fact that a father is worried about his son returning late from school, an everyday occurrence, takes on the heavy overtones by its linkage to the biblical version.
The theme of the dream recurs in the last verse with its repetition taking on a nightmarish quality. The female voice appearing in the second and third verse can be seen as representing the angel in the biblical story. Carmi is linking the angel’s whisper –order to the father- to the accusation of the son at the end of the second verse and the question of parental guilt hinted at in the last two lines of the poem. There is no mention of the Holocaust in Carmi’s poem. Pupils however, might choose to link the anxiety present in the poem to some existential presence of parental worry and angst in the post-Holocaust period.

Biographical Note
T. Carmi was born in New York in 1925. Uncharacteristically for American-Jewish families, Hebrew was the language spoken in the home and hence the poet’s mother tongue. In 1947, Carmi worked with Jewish war orphans in France, an experience he recorded in his writings. He settled in Palestine shortly before the outbreak of the War of Independence in 1948 and fought on the Jerusalem front during the war. T. Carmi died in 1994.

Questions for the Pupils

  1. The poet has his son visiting him in a dream. Identify the lines in which he accuses his father of something.
  2. What is the nature of the accusation?
  3. Would you use the word “guilt” in explaining the father’s emotions? Explain.
  4. Why does the poet insert the biblical story of Isaac’s binding within the context of the father’s dream? What is its function in the poem?
Isaac - Amir Gilboa

Early in the morning the sun took a walk in the forest
Together with me and with Father
And my right hand in his left.

Like lightning a knife flamed between the trees.
And I fear so the terror of my eyes facing blood on the leaves.

Father, hurry and save Isaac
And no one will be missing at lunchtime.

It is I who am being slaughtered, my son,
And my blood is already on the leaves.
And Father’s voice was stifled.
And his face pale.

And I wanted to cry out; writhing not to believe
And tearing open the eyes.
And I woke up.

And bloodless was my right hand.

Note to the Teacher
Gilboa published this poem in 1953, eight years after the end of the Second World War. The poem starts placidly, with an engaging father and son walk in the woods, accompanied by the main protagonist - the sun. This surrealistic touch with its pleasant coloring lasts through the first verse only.
The ‘heart of Jewish history and identity’ referred to in the introduction are upon us in full force in the next two lines. The knife, the flame and the blood plunge the reader into the milieu of sacrifice and Holocaust.
However the natural setting of a family lunch and the hope that all will be present has the reader swaying on a pendulum of interchanging scenarios that leave the reader between the murderous and the mundane.
Lines 8 and 12 swing us back from the biblical setting with the suggestion of transgenerational killing in a Holocaust setting. This is strengthened with the narrator waking up at the end of the poem with a ‘bloodless,’ lifeless right hand. Thus the poem concludes with helplessness and the spilling of blood. The questions of Jewish identity and faith remain open on the pendulum of time.

Biographical Note
Amir Gilboa was born in Volhinya, Ukraine in 1917. At age twenty, he arrived in Palestine as an illegal immigrant and he worked in different places including a collective settlement until he joined a Hebrew unit in the British Army during the Second World War. After demobilization in 1946, he again found himself serving in the War of Independence in 1948. Even before he immigrated in 1937, he was writing poetry in Hebrew and Gilboa developed a highly individual style of writing that broke with existing literary traditions in Israel. He died in 1984.

Questions for the Pupils

  1. Amir Gilboa’s poem starts with the biblical story of Isaac and descends into descriptions including ‘terror’, ‘slaughter’ and ‘blood’. How can one connect the Holocaust through these allusions to the biblical story?
  2. How do you understand line 8, ‘It is I who am being slaughtered, my son,’ ?
On a Night of Rain in Jerusalem - Uri Zvi Greenberg

       The few trees in the yard moan like forest trees,
       Heavy-rivered [are] the thundered clouds,
       The angels of peace [are] at the head of my children’s bed,
       In the moaning of the trees and the thickness of the rain.

5    Outside – Jerusalem: city of the father’s glorious trial,
       The binding of his son upon one of the mountains,
       The fire-from-dawn still burns on the mountain,
       The rains have not put it out: fire between the [ritual] pieces.

       “If God commands me now as He commanded
10   My ancient father – I shall surely obey,”
       My heart and my flesh sing on the night of rain;
       And the angels of peace [are] at the head of my children’s bed!

       What of glory? What is like unto this miraculous feeling
       Alive ever since the ancient dawn until now [and] toward the mountain of myrrh (Moriah)?
15  The blood of the Covenant in [this] father’s prayer-full body sings,
       Ready to make the sacrifice on the Hill of the Temple at dawn.

       Outside – Jerusalem…and the morning of God’s trees
       Cut down there by enemies in all generations…
       Heavy – rivered clouds: within them lightnings
20  And thunderings, that to me on a night of rain [are] tidings
       From the mouth of the Almighty till the end of generations.

Note to the Teacher
This poem, written in 1954, vividly illustrates the loaded, nationalistic nature of Greenberg’s poetry. The poem opens deceptively with a description of a storm outside and the poet’s children protected by angels secure in their beds. The next three verses focus on the biblical story of Abraham, Isaac and the sacrifice as a paradigm of behavior to be emulated in the here and now, if the situation so demand. The poet’s identification with the covenant in all its ramifications is total, and it is formulated in language that permits neither hesitation nor doubt. The obligatory note in the last line, linking past and future for eternity, ties the Jewish people inextricably to the Covenant and to the ultimate implications of the Sacrifice story in the Book of Genesis.

Biographical Note
Uri Zvi Greenberg was born in 1896 in Galicia and began his literary career with a volume of Yiddish poetry which he published when he was nineteen years old. He served in the Austro-Hungarian army in World War One and then immigrated to Palestine with a group of Zionist pioneers. His poetry is extremist in tone and content and informed by a messianic nationalism which draws from biblical tradition. Greenberg died in 1981.

Questions for the Pupils

  1. The locale of the poem is Jerusalem and the time-frame is the present. But Greenberg delves back with repeated references to historical contexts. What is the main aim of the poet in his time-swings?
  2. What factor stands out for you as the main sentiment in this poet’s willingness to repeat the Biblical Sacrifice in modern times?


[1] (pxxiii, Rabbi Shapira, Sacred Fire)
[2] The Midrash Hagadol or The Great Midrash is a collection of traditional stories and commentaries written in early times on the The Five Books of Moses - the Torah. It was compiled in the fourteenth century and still serves today as a major resource for Bible study.