Wednesday, May 12, 2010


I dreamed that Cecilia and a friend of hers were up on a high tower, waving to me from the top window. Cecilia shouted, with happy excitement, "I found a place in Poland with no trace of the war! Here, in Zielona Gora!"

Somehow I was in California, and yet I could see Cecilia up in the highest window and hear her call to me across those thousands of miles. How happy she was to have made this astonishing discovery: a place in Poland unstained by WWII.

Zielona Gora is a town in Silesia; the name means "Green Mountain." I knew the name well, but had never been there. I woke up and googled the town, the dream beating within me like a little green heart of hope. Yes, there was the tower! Alas, soon enough I found what looked like a war memorial, similar to countless others, though rather humble. In terms of quantity, this town was apparently relatively unstained by war. 

Pondering the dream, I thought that maybe the name of the town, dormant in me for decades, turned up because not long ago I saw the movie "Greenberg" (i.e. green mountain). In it, the protagonist says, "It's not just that youth is wasted on the young. It's worse than that: life is wasted on people." It does indeed seem wasted if we consider that here we are in the twenty-first century, enjoying the marvels of technology, and yet war is still a barbarous daily fact. Nor is anyone optimistic enough to predict that a hundred years from now (two hundred? three hundred?) humanity will finally be morally advanced enough to desist from waging war.

Still, I can't imagine that camps like Auschwitz would ever come into existence again. Sometimes I think in despair that no, we have not progressed an inch; Homer could write about us. Then I think that in Europe at least there won't be another Auschwitz. Bosnia almost defeated that hope. But it didn't have that scale, no, and the world did, ultimately, react to stop the genocide. Genocide somewhere in Africa remains another story. But let us rejoice in the thought: No more Auschwitz. Never again. Not in Europe, and eventually -- maybe as soon as a century or two from now -- nowhere.  

Moral progress is slow, but it happens. 

Below is one of my poems based on a family story.

Auschwitz, 1944

November drizzle and the dread of winter –
through the secret mail,
a post from my grandfather
to my grandmother, on the women’s side
of the electric wire:
I am in a special barracks.
They give us almost no food.

It was an experiment in starvation:
ten men, seventy and over, were chosen,
bathed, dressed in clean white nightgowns,
then led, a small squad of elderly ghosts,
to a separate barracks: they were to lie in bed,
getting only a little soup.

Their kapo weighed them in the morning
and at night. The doctor came by once a day
to check the progress and update his graph,
the downward curve that would stop;
the scientific question was when.

The idea was benign euthanasia
for the old, no longer useful to the Reich:
they were to die
hygienically, in clean nightgowns.

Now all would depend on luck.
Shivering in the dark of dawn,
my grandmother waited
in front of the electric wire.
Nearby, spasmodically twisted, hung
the body of someone who during the night
chose the final route of escape.

At last my grandfather’s muffled voice:
Veronka, I’m here
She took the rag-tied bundle
hidden in her clothes –
one serving of the dry gray bread –
her own untouched ration –
and a few biscuits from a Red-Cross parcel –
and with all her will,
more than her famished strength,
threw it over the fence.

He caught it. She turned around
and found herself eye to eye
with a German woman kapo.

The kapo hit her across the face:
I could have you hanged!
In the pause between life and death,
the kapo stared at the starving
woman who’d just thrown food
to someone else –
suddenly turned
and quickly walked away.

That evening one man’s weight
failed to go down. The doctor found
this subject’s curve did not fit,
had flattened out, instead of smoothly
going downward.

Three more times my grandmother managed
to throw some food over the wire.
More and more the subject’s weight
deviated from the curve.
Science tells me what to do,
the doctor declared, and crossed
the abnormal subject off the record.
My grandfather was discharged,
still in his nightgown.

Soon he drilled with the other
inmates in his block: a hundred men
were to lift their striped caps,
all exactly at the same time:
in winter, a general was to visit the camp.

Mütze-e-en ab! the guard chanted out,
then raged, “One moron in the second row
was late!” They’d try again: Mütze-e-en –
someone was early. It was a ritual
performance: the drawn-out
syllable of suspense, the terminal bark,
the inevitable failure. They trained
every day, sometimes for two hours,
wooden camp shoes sinking
into the greasy Auschwitz mud:
Mütze-e-en ab!

The Russians entered at the end of January.
The general never arrived.

~ Oriana


No comments:

Post a Comment