“Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway-Car” by Dan Pagis

Resource Kit by
Rabbi Robert Sternberg

Module Content



This kit presents resources for analyzing and interpreting a six-line Hebrew poem by Dan Pagis, an Israeli poet and Holocaust survivor. Born in 1930 in Radautz, a small town in the region known as Bukovina, which today is divided between Romania and Ukraine, Pagis survived three years in Nazi concentration camps. Shortly after liberation, he immigrated to Palestine, where he settled in Jerusalem and earned a PhD from Hebrew University. Pagis became a professor and leading scholar in the field of Medieval Hebrew literature, and he wrote and published poems—some of which addressed Holocaust themes—until his death in 1986.

In his best-known poem, “Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway-Car,” Pagis raises universal questions about how people can murder their fellow human beings, using two poetic devices: the visceral and well-known image of Jews being deported to killing centers in railway cargo wagons and the metaphor of Biblical Eve, the mother of humanity, being transported to her death along with Abel, her murdered son. The poem raises questions about human choice and human responsibility during the Holocaust.

This resource kit can be used by teachers of language arts, history, art, Judaic and Holocaust studies, sociology, and psychology in a variety of educational settings including Jewish schools and secular universities and high schools.