No matter how much we enlarge it,
that photograph snapped by a German soldier
of my grandmother in Lida, 1916,
remains perfectly clear. Her eyes
register her cold measure
of the soldier who could decide
to shoot her instead of her
picture if that
was his hobby
instead of photography.
This is what war
is like – I taste her fear
even though I’m seeing her
now from the eyes
of the oppressor.
And I know the shame of both.
—Karen Alkalay-Gut ©
What brought the Israeli poet, Karen Alkalay-Gut, to post this on FaceBook, about the poem above?
Sepia: The poem is about 1916—there were no Nazis back then. By writing the poem about this scene I am doing what the German soldier is doing—taking advantage of the person in a helpless situation without their permission. That’s what the poem is about. Anyone who sees politics in this poem is paranoid. But if some people were hurt by this poem, especially because it was in a place so honorably perpetuating the memories of such persecuted people, I do apologize. —Karen Alkalay-Gut
A controversy led to this statement, of course, based on misreading the poem. The misreading, though, mattered because of the context of where the people that Alkalay-Gut mentions “were hurt by this poem” encountered the poem. The poem appeared in the exhibit “Flashes of Memory – Photography during the Holocaust,” at Yad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center (Jerusalem, Israel). Although the photograph from the poem came from 1916, and the year appears in the poem, the context suggested to others that it was about a NAZI soldier. And rather than understand that Alkalay-Gut recognized that her own gaze at the helpless Lida, her grandmother, in the 1916 photo formed a kind of oppression (related to something called scopophilia in critical theory), viewers/readers saw in it a criticism of Israel that likened Israelis to NAZIs.
One might agree that a reasonable reading of the poem could be that those who benefit from military oppression are like the soldier who oppresses with his camera in the poem. The soldier had the choice to use a camera or a gun, and that those privileged to be in the class benefitting from soldiers’ guns also have a choice to use cameras or (let others) use a gun. The poet could be seeing her gaze as privileged and potentially oppressive (of her grandmother / grandmother’s memory, of others held at camera-gun point). But the soldier in the poem came from WWI, not from the Holocaust, and that is not a minor distinction.
Another distinction that matters is that Karen Alkalay-Gut lost her family during the Holocaust. She recognized that the hurt that could occur from encountering this poem in this context could be genuine and deep. She responded, as quoted in Israel HaYom newspaper:
“It’s a personal poem, I write from the heart, and it’s not a political poem, despite the fact that there are many ways to read a poem—and it could be read in such a way,” she explained.
“If this poem is hurtful to someone, then it should be removed from the exhibit. I did not mean to offend anyone, heaven forbid. I lost all my family in the Holocaust, and if it offends someone then I have no right to say something else,” she said.
“I think Yad Vashem needs to handle the matter, and if it appears to someone as political and insensitive – the poem must be removed from the exhibit,” she reiterated. —Israel HaYom
The poem cannot reasonably be read, on its own merits, as comparing Israel to NAZIs. It could be seen as being critical of oppression and military violence. It could be seen as drawing a parallel between the WWI soldier and the poet. On its own merits, yes. The context, however, created a different reading than the poem by itself would. And Israel does not appear in the poem, except if you know Alkalay-Gut is an Israeli living in Tel Aviv.
This is a strong poem, by a strong poet. She does write from the heart, as she says, but she also writes with a sense of justice. This poem is about justice in a very personal way—her grandmother is a victim of the soldier, as the speaker in the poem implies (the presumption is that he is exercising his power over her), and a victim of the poet looking at the photo, many decades later, when the grandmother can no longer say, “No. That is not for you to see. It is private.”