Holocaust Resurfacing

  • Ron Charach
    Forgetting the Holocaust. Frontenac House
  • Jacquie Buncel
    Turning the Corner at Dusk. Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd.
Reviewed by Ilana Finkleman

Jacquie Buncel’s Turning the Corner at Dusk is a collection of poetry that reflects the burden of second-generation Holocaust-survivor identity in an accessible and, at times, emotionally raw and visceral manner. Buncel’s work is personal and confessional; her poetry reveals the potentially paralyzing effects of second-generation trauma and the challenging journey of working through it. Her collection is structured into three complementary and progressive sections that build on each other in order to provide a sense of working towards renewal. Yet, throughout Turning the Corner, Buncel’s deep preoccupation with trauma resurfaces in a variety of images, jolting and destabilizing the process.

In the first section, Buncel focuses on her father’s return journey to his hometown of Prešov, Slovakia, forty-eight years after being forcibly expelled by the Nazis. She reveals how the spirit of her family is still rooted in Prešov, despite the destructive force of the Holocaust. In “Return,” she illustrates her father’s deep-felt belonging to his hometown; in “Discovering,” she relays how her grandfather’s engraved initials remain visible on her father’s childhood home; and in “The River,” the River Sečkov revives her father’s adolescent stories. As her father is committed to silence over the details of his Holocaust experience, Buncel confesses that she relies on her imagination to fill in the silence. In poems such as “Trains” and “Hiding,” she shifts from the present into scenes of deportation and Nazi-inflicted terror, allowing the past to intrude into the present and drawing attention to the inescapability of her traumatic history.

Following the first selection of poems set mainly in Prešov, Buncel’s focus shifts to defining her role as second-generation survivor and her life as partner and mother of two children. Poems such as “Therapy” reveal her inability to dissociate from the Holocaust: “Slipping in deeper / At the back of my head / Flies, stench / Skulls with gold fillings extracted.” Yet these pockets of despair are juxtaposed with the possibility for renewal. In “Children of Holocaust Survivors,” the second generation is cast as memory bearers who resist the erasure of their parents’ and grandparents’ traditions. Upon the birth of her first daughter, Buncel displays a refreshing sense of contentment, renewal, and hope. Still, ever present is her concern that she will transmit her trauma to her children: “Let them escape my Holocaust past.” In “Divining,” the final poem of her collection, with the support of her partner, she excavates (through poetry?) the source of her pain and is hopeful for the future.

Ron Charach focuses less directly on the Holocaust than does Buncel; he demonstrates how contemporary Canadian life is nuanced by the lingering presence of the Holocaust. Charach’s poems focus on a humanist and often-anecdotal engagement with Jewish culture and tradition, locality and place, his professional relationships as psychiatrist, and his role as poet. Yet, in many of his poems, through metaphor or peripherally, the Holocaust resurfaces, illustrating its ever-present haunting. For example, “Cancer of the Vulva” offers a sad and intimate portrait of a patient whose medically performed genital mutilation has left her sexless, reminiscent of Nazi experimentation. And “Tattoos” questions the contemporary cultural value of marking one’s body with ink, leaving the reader to extend the comparison to prisoners numbered in concentration camps. Charach seamlessly interweaves Holocaust signifiers into personal episodes so that their intrusion becomes almost subconscious. Thus, he attests to the Holocaust’s presence even amidst the act of Forgetting the Holocaust and attempting to carry on life in contemporary Canada. In “For the Polish Poets,” Charach writes, “If history isn’t over until its effects are gone, / God knows this story isn’t done.” His collection of poetry is positioned as an exploration of the resurfacing of the Holocaust in contemporary Canadian consciousness.

Charach’s poetry is complex and detailed, straddling the personal and the universal. Through his well-tuned storytelling, he reveals a diverse cast of characters who share different relationships to the Holocaust. Characters he meets in childhood include his melancholic Holocaust-survivor choir- master and the bombastic Turkish Jew, Joe Bendit. French Holocaust survivor Jacques in Caesarea is a figure of resistance and self-assurance, while Dov and Daouda Feltzner, the Israeli/Palestinian couple, share an electric idealism and love that is enough to “reshape the world.”

Turning the Corner at Dusk and Forgetting the Holocaust probe differently at the resurfacing of the Holocaust in contemporary consciousness. Buncel and Charach offer illustrations of the tentative process of exposing trauma, demonstrating the precarious balance between past Holocaust trauma and future life.

This review “Holocaust Resurfacing” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 216 (Spring 2013): 155-56.

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