Mother’s Day Poem
I remember my mother, her old house,
the miracle of her love, her fingers
on my cheek brushing away the night,
the world coming home for breakfast,
her eyes asking if I’d been on the road
for long and was the traffic heavy.
Nothing speaks of love like her kindness,
not the birds swirling in the mountains
nor starlight in the trees. Nothing speaks
of hope like her silent prayers for me
in the morning before school or the bread
and soup she placed before me at night.
Some people seek comfort in a priest,
the way he washes his hands in holy water,
raises his chin to drink the wine. But it’s mothers
who divide the loaves and fishes, collect
the crumbs, sweep the floor, and find lost coins.
One day they’ll call us home for the last supper.
To read more about my mom and her life please click on the following: a blog I did called Remembering my Mother
. It contains links to a number of my posts about her.
72 years ago today, Adolf Hitler committed suicide. Some historians say he killed himself with a cyanide capsule, others say he shot himself first.
My mother didn't know how he killed himself, and she didn't much care.
She was happy that he did it.
She had never met him, but she had felt his fist across her face, his whip across her back. She was taken to Germany as a Polish slave laborer after watching her mother, her sister Genja, and Genja's baby daughter murdered. My mom escaped by jumping through the window and escaping into a forest. The Nazis caught her pretty soon after that.
My mother didn't talk much about what happened to her and her family. When I was a kid, I thought her silence came from annoyance with my questions about the war. Later, I realized that she didn't talk about her experiences because she wanted to protect me from the terrible things that happened, even though I was a grown man and a teacher.
Here's a poem I wrote about what Hitler did to my mom and her family.My Mother was 19
Soldiers from nowhere
came to my mom’s farm
killed her sister Genja’s baby
with their heels
shot her momma too
One time in the neck
then for kicks in the face
lots of times
They saw my mother
they didn’t care
she was a virgin
dressed in a blue dress
with tiny white flowers
They raped her
so she couldn’t stand up
couldn’t lie down
They broke her teeth
when they shoved
the blue dress
in her mouth
If they had a camera
they would’ve taken her picture
and sent it to her
That’s the kind they were
Years later she said:
Let me tell you,
God doesn’t give
you any favors
He doesn’t say
now you’ve seen
this bad thing
and tomorrow you’ll see
this good thing
and when you see it
you’ll be smiling
The poem appears in my book about my parents, Echoes of Tattered Tongues
The photo was taken by my wife Linda in 1979 or so. From left to right in the back row, it's my dad, my mom, my sister Donnna, her daughter Denise, and me. In the front row are my sister's daughters Kathie and Cheryl.
If you want to read one of my poems about Hitler's Suicide Day, you can click on this link
I can commemorate the Holocaust, but I can't do much more. I can't imagine it, I can't describe it, I can't understand it.
My parents weren't Jews. They weren't in the Holocaust. They were Polish Catholics who were taken to Germany to work as slave laborers in the concentration camps there. My dad spent four and a half years in Buchenwald, and my mom spent more than two years in a number of camps around Magdeburg. They suffered terribly, and they saw terrible things done to the people they loved. My mother's family was decimated. Her mother, her sister, and her sister's baby were killed outright by the Germans. My mother's two aunts were taken to Auschwitz with their Jewish husbands and died there.
I remember asking my mother once if she could explain to me what she felt in the worst month of her worst year in the slave labor camps in Germany. All she could say was, "you weren't there."
I wasn't there.
I've spent much of my life writing about the things that happened to my parents in the slave labor camps and reading about what happened in those camps and in the German death camps in Poland where so many Jews died, and still I will never be able to understand or comprehend what happened to the Jews in the Holocaust.
I went to Auschwitz in 1990 with my wife Linda and our daughter Lillian. We walked around, took pictures, tried to imagine what had happened there. We couldn't. We were just tourists.
I wrote a poem about it:Tourists in Auschwitz
It’s a gray drizzly day
but still we take pictures:
Here we are by the mountain of shoes.
Here we are by a statue of people
working to death
pulling a cart full of stones.
Here we are by the wall where they shot
the rabbis and the priests
and the school children
and the trouble makers.
We walk around some too
but we see no one.
Later, we will have dinner
in the cafeteria at Auschwitz.
We will eat off aluminum plates
with aluminum knives and forks.
The beans will be hard,
and the bread will be tasteless.
But for right now, we take more pictures:
Here we are by the mountain of empty suitcases.
Here we are in front of the big ovens.
Here we are by the gate with the famous slogan.
Here we are in front of the pond
where the water is still gray from the ashes
the Germans dumped.
My friend the writer Christina Sanantonio and I have been having a conversation about writing about loss. It’s a conversation fueled in part by the suicide of the novelist David Foster Wallace back in 2008. She wrote me a long letter about how we use or don’t use language to talk about loss, and about how hard it is to write about loss. One of the things in her letter that really resonated with me was something she said about one of my favorite writers, Primo Levi, the Holocaust survivor and author of Survival in Auschwitz, who, like Wallace, apparently took his own life. Primo Levi frequently talked about the frustration of trying to write about loss and suffering, especially the loss and suffering he and so many others experienced in the Nazi camps. He felt we needed a new kind of language to talk about what happened there. Christina wrote that we ache for a language that doesn’t exist. I’ve spent the last 35 years trying to find words to describe what happened to my Polish-Catholic parents in the German concentration and slave labor camps and what those experiences make me feel. I write about this event or that image; and no matter how powerful the original event described by my mother or father I can’t really describe it, explain it, bring it out of the past. I can’t bring it out of memory into this life. Instead, I’m left pushing around some words, trying to make myself feel what I felt the first time I heard that story when I was a child. Sometimes I think I almost succeed, but most of the time I know I’m not even close. For me the poems that work best are the ones with my parents’ actual words in them. Those words are the real thing. In my poem “Here’s What My Mother Won’t Talk About,” my mother refuses to tell me anything about the murder of her mother and her sister and her sister’s baby and her own rape. All she will say to me is “If they give you bread, you eat it. If they beat you, you run.” Likewise in my poem “The Work My Father Did in Germany,” my dad tells me what he said to the German guards who tormented and beat him and blinded him, “Please, sirs, don’t ever tell your children what you’ve done to me today.” There are bits and pieces of their words scattered throughout my poems, and when I read these words out loud my parents are there with me. I’m again a kid listening to my dad tell me about the day he saw a German soldier cut off a woman’s breast or listening to my mom tell me about the perfect house she lived in in the perfect woods in eastern Poland before the Germans came. My parents’ words are a kind of magic for me. But how do I convey this magic to other people? I think sometimes that all I can do is read my poems out loud and show people how the poems affect me. I guess what happens then is that my words become like my parents’ words. I become my father and mother for that moment in the poem. Sometimes, I think, this touches people, conveys the magic to them. I’ve seen this happen at some of the poetry readings I’ve given. A person stands up at the end of the reading when I invite questions, and he doesn’t say anything. He just stands there. I don’t know if the person even has a question. Maybe he just wants to show how much he feels my parents’ lives; or maybe the loss I talk about somehow reminds him of a loss he experienced and couldn’t talk about and still can’t talk about. For me one of the central images of the Bible is the image of the Tower of Babel. It represents in my eyes the moment when humanity became trapped in language that would not communicate what we needed to communicate. It was a second fall from grace. Our lives became chained to a language that doesn’t convey what we feel or what we mean. Although we have this deep need to say what we feel, we often can’t explain it to ourselves or to other people. Sometimes our words fail us and sometimes other people fail us. They can’t bring themselves to listen to our stories of loss. It’s hard to take on that burden. When my father was dying, he told me a story about a Lithuanian friend of his in Buchenwald Concentration Camp who had made love to a German woman and contracted VD. He came to my father and asked him what should he do. My father said, “Go to the river and drown yourself.” His friend thought my dad was joking, and he went to another friend who told him, “Tell the Germans what you did.” My father’s friend did that, and the soldiers killed the woman; and then they beat my father’s friend, castrated him and killed him. Fifty years after his friend’s death, when my father was telling me this story, he still didn’t know what he could have said to his friend to save him from what happened. No matter how hard it is to tell someone something, no matter how hard it is to get beyond the Babel we’re caught up in, I think we need to try. Will it change the world? Make anything different? Better?
The Ovens at Auschwitz
"Three hundred and sixty corpses every half hour, which was all the time it took to reduce human flesh to ashes, made 720 per hour, or 17,280 corpses per twenty-four hour shift.
And the ovens, with murderous efficiency, functioned day and night.
However, one must also take into account the death pits, which could destroy another 8,000 cadavers a day.
In round numbers, about 24,000 corpses were handled each day. An admirable production record—one that speaks well for German industry."
-- from Five Chimneys: A Woman Survivor's True Story of Auschwitz by Olga Lengyel
Here's a poem of mine about the men who burned the corpses at Auschwitz :-
The Bakers of Auschwitz
We hear in this oven
this scented room
the sighs of dough
a confection of worldly
advice, a jelly
of dreams, the light
of these souls
in a hurricane
a marzipan of
human form and spirit
spreading a marmalade
soft hair thighs
in ribbons and foiled paper
that will feed us
in the sewers of Stalingrad
the streets of Tripoli Benghazi
their Jew eyes
liquid sugar their Jew teeth
without cheeks their Jew tummies
so pure so thin so fine
hurry my children my church
a feast a wealth
a delicious legato
a slow wind of notes
Essen essen essen
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