‘A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto’ by Czeslaw Milosz provides a vivid description of the Warsaw Ghetto demolished by Germans in May 1943. It was the year that saw the ruthless killing of men at the hands of other men. Blood was spilling everywhere, what remained was the pale bodies of the deceased. This was the picture of the Warsaw Ghetto during the “evacuation of humanity” mission was at the peak. Nazis created such a ghetto and destroyed it too. The process is what readers can see in Czeslaw Milosz’s poem.
‘A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto’ by Czeslaw Milosz depicts the condition of the Warsaw Ghetto after the Germans demolished it. In the first two stanzas, the poet describes how the ghetto was destroyed. In the third stanza, the poet talks about a “guardian mole” that is somehow finding its way in between the corpses. The following stanza captures an ironic reference to the mole as a “Patriarch”. And in the final stanza, it becomes clear from whose perspective the poet picturizes the whole plot of the poem. The person is a “Jew of the New Testament” who appears as a survivor of the holocaust. After seeing such a heinous scene, he feels himself a sinner. The picture of the innocent men from his community lying in front of him makes him feel as if he is one of the “helpers of death”.
You can read the full poem here.
‘A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto’ by Czeslaw Milosz contains a total of five stanzas having uneven line lengths. The first three stanzas have seven lines in each. Whereas the fourth stanza has four lines and the fifth stanza has five lines in it. There isn’t any specific rhyme scheme in the poem. However, there are some instances of slant rhymes in the poem. Apart from that, it is a free verse poem not following any strict pattern as the subject it talks about neither has a rhythm of life. It is all about destruction and demolition. Lastly, the absence of internal rhyming of lines makes it a blank verse poem too. In this way, the structure of the poem successfully upholds the theme of the poem.
‘A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto’ by Czeslaw Milosz makes use of several literary devices and those devices heighten the tragic effect in the poem. At first, there is an alliteration in “Bees build” in the first line. There are some other instances where the poet uses this device again to maintain the flow of the lines. Repetitions are also there in this poem. Likewise, there is an anaphora in the third and fourth lines of the first stanza. There is a metonymy in “silks”. The poet uses personification in the last two lines of the first stanza.
In the second stanza, the “honeycomb of lungs” is a metaphor. There is consonance in “Fiber, fabrics”. However, in using “earth” in the sixth line the poet intends a synecdoche. Apart from that, in the next stanza, there is a metaphor in “the guardian mole”. In the fourth stanza, the poet uses a simile in the line, “He has swollen eyelids, like a Patriarch”. In the same stanza, “the great book of the species” is a metaphor referring to the books that glorify human beings. Here, the poet also intends an irony. Moreover, in the final stanza, the poet uses an allusion to the “second coming of Jesus”.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
Bees build around red liver,
Ants build around black bone.
Poof! Phosphorescent fire from yellow walls
Engulfs animal and human hair.
‘A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto’ by Czeslaw Milosz presents how the ghetto was destroyed in the first two stanzas. The poet makes use of vivid imagery to describe the scene of destruction in his poem. Primarily, the reference to the “bees” and “ants” in the first two lines of each stanza, contains the present condition of the ghetto and the rest of the lines collectively present what went before it.
Bees build around the honeycomb of lungs,
Ants build around white bone.
Now there is only the earth, sandy, trodden down,
With one leafless tree.
Likewise, in the first stanza, the poet refers to the organs of the deceased that were lying everywhere after the holocaust. Thereafter, the poet describes how Germans destroyed their homes and all their belongings. In the end, they put fire to their houses that engulfed not only jews but also every creature living around them.
Similarly, in the second stanza, the poet throes light into the process of destruction. At last, the image of the “leafless tree” standing on the sandy and “trodden down” ground presents the climax of the plot.
Slowly, boring a tunnel, a guardian mole makes his way,
With a small red lamp fastened to his forehead.
Bees build around a red trace.
Ants build around the place left by my body.
In the third stanza, Czeslaw Milosz presents a satirical image of a mole finding its way through the dead bodies. The poet describes it as being the “guardian spirit” of the place. As the creature has no eyes to visualize what happened around it, it can’t understand it naturally. The poet intends an irony here for those men who took their eyes from this horrid scene of history and moved on. They are like the mole. Though they are physically capable of seeing, they are, in reality, blind.
I am afraid, so afraid of the guardian mole.
Reading the great book of the species.
In the last line of this stanza, “Ants build around the place left by my body”, it becomes clear that the narrator is a survivor of the holocaust. However, in the next stanza, the poet uses another irony and refers to the mole as a “Patriarch”. So, the mole is not a redeemer in this scenario. This mole is a metaphor for the hypocrites who read “the great book of the species” and in reality remain passive after visualizing the scene.
What will I tell him, I, a Jew of the New Testament,
In the final stanza, the speaker directly speaks in the poem. The scene has an immense impact on his mind. That’s why he thinks of himself as “uncircumcised” and “helpers of death”. Moreover, the speaker is so broken at heart that he can’t think of the meaning of his existence. The life he has still left on earth appears as a curse that he has to bear till his death.
‘A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto’ by Czeslaw Milosz presents a dark chapter of Nazi Germany. The poem talks about the Warsaw Ghetto, known as the “Jewish Residential District in Warsaw”, which was the largest ghetto during World War II. German government established it in November 1940. In May 1943 after the Warsaw Ghetto uprisings, the government demolished it. As a result, more than 300,000 jews were killed and 92,000 died of starvation and other diseases. In this poem, the poet describes how the ghetto was destroyed and its aftermath from the perspective of a lone survivor of the holocaust.
‘A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto’ by Czeslaw Milosz is a poem that centers on the theme of the holocaust and its aftermath. Here is a list of a few holocaust poems that are similar to Milosz’s poem.
- September Song by Geoffrey Hill – In this poem, Geoffrey Hill refers to the tragic death of a child in the holocaust.
- Fear by Eva Picková – Here, Eva Picková talks about her fear of the ruthlessness of the Nazis.
- The Butterfly by Pavel Friedmann – In this poem, Pavel Friedmann describes his experience of living in a concentration camp.
- The Survivor by Primo Levi – Here, Primo Levi presents a similar perspective that the narrator of Czeslaw Milosz’s narrator expresses in the poem.
You can read about 9 Famous Holocaust Poems here.