Sunday, May 16, 2010


My grandmother Veronika, 1945, 
first ID photo after Auschwitz


1. Black Soup

My grandmother, a goose in her lap,
strokes the white bird,
strokes the long neck,
and when the goose is calm,
she calmly cuts its throat,

draining the blood
into a blue washbasin.
She makes the sweet, heavy
black soup. Apple slices
float, half-moons.

Her wide sleeves winnow
the feathered air.
woopoo-tzoopoo, she sings.
She pokes my arm

as if testing a cake:
This child is too skinny, she sighs.
I sit on top of her feet,
telling her to walk,
to take me somewhere.

skins of baked apples crack,
ooze tears of sugary sap.
Rosaries of mushrooms
dry over the stove,
shrink into pieces of dark wing.

2. Only the Horse

The Raba River spits up white,
drowning the cool green of spruce,
slow crescents of the Carpathians.
Poplars taper to silver. Wind,

then a stillness. The first drops.
The driver unrolls the roof.
The rain grows heavy, knocking,
trying to enter from all sides.

The driver heaves himself inside: 
The horse knows the way.
The river boulders knock,
the carriage rocks like an ark.

And all is found: the rain, the road,
the Raba hissing in stone bed;
the driver silent, the hooves a clock,
the horse a steady brown rhythm.

A village past the river willows;
the sunken bell of vespers.
The horse stops. Ribbons of steam
curl off his flanks.

Rain hushes to a prayer
along the dripping leaves.
The dorozhka disappears
into the wet-shining green.

Only the horse knows the way,
the horse in a halo of steam,
hooves ticking on the wooden bridge
for a hundred years.

3. Ghost Forest

Woolly threads of conifer breath
rise, tiny bent souls.
on the slopes, a ghost forest –

strangled spruce, green only at the top.
Underneath, gray sticks,
upturned bony hands.

No one enters –
you’ll get scratched,
slip on the needles and fall. No

blueberries or wild strawberries
here – a forest of nothing.
Still I press into that thicket,

squeeze between spindly trunks,
until like a starving tree
I stand in the inner dusk.

Beyond, bird calls of meadows.
Sunlight beads the bowed
tips of grass;

grandmother weaves for me
crowns of white clover.
What gray hunger draws me

past the smiling green
into the ghost forest –
As if there weren’t already

too many dead –
As if those with no faces said,
If you cannot win, endure.

4. My Grandmother's Laughter

One day in the street my grandmother
stops before another grandmother.
Both stammer: “It’s you – you – in Auschwitz – ”

Turning to me: “She and I shared
the same blanket. Every night she said,
‘You’ve got more than I’

and pulled, and I pulled back,
and so we’d tug across the bunk – ”
and the two grandmothers laugh.

In the middle of a crowded
sidewalk, in old women’s dusk,
widows’ browns and grays,

they are laughing like two schoolgirls –
tears rain down the cracked
winter of their cheeks.

On Piotrkovska Avenue,
on the busiest street,
they are tugging that thin blanket –

They are pulling back.

5. Praying to Saint Anthony

Pincushions and hairnets,
a mischievous spool of thread;
thimbles wobble in uneven hoops,
needles enter the secret veins of things. 

We rummage through drawers
reeking of decayed Soir de Paris
cologne and valerian drops;
the slipper-hedged dusk under the bed.

There remains the invisible world.
We kneel on the creaking floor
before the painting of a smiling monk,
a lily like a magic wand

tilting from his hand.
With a practiced zigzag,
we cross ourselves: Saint Anthony,
guide us to Grandmother’s thimble.

Again we scan
the summits of wardrobes,
horizons of floors;
the precipice behind the couch,

gritty crevasses of chairs.
Again she hides in laughter:
The devil must have covered it
with his tail.

6. Grandmother’s Theft

You’d think the pages would bleach,
she’d read them so many times –
lions run out of Christians

and Nero sicken from pearls
dissolved in purple wine.
She attends Caesar’s banquets.

descends with an oil lamp
into the catacombs’
damp dark. Quo vadis?

“Where are you going?”
she repeats like a password.
And will not return the book.


For years her eldest brother, Józef,
puzzles over the gap
in his gilded-edged volume set.

He had received private teaching,
while she, to pay for his lessons,
was taken out of school in fourth grade,

put to work in a textile factory.
About the novel, she explains:
Because he never gave me anything.

7. Wolves

We set out late, ruddy pelt of the sun
tangled in the branches.
Then the dark begins to tick,

rustle and creak, the crowns of pines 
riddled with imagined owl flight. 
A stir in the ferns, a snap.

I’m waiting for one
high note, clean blade of a knife.
And the dark is pierced –

panting, barking, an animal tumult.
Hungry bodies of the night,
they are closing in.

Yezus Marya! grandmother shouts.
Then, calmly: Stand still.
There are lights and cries,

the villagers banging gates,
calling back the dogs
they loosed from the chain.

We borrow lanterns and walk on,
wolf shadows swaying
among the shadows of pines.

8. All Souls

On All Souls’, grandmother and I
buy chrysanthemums at a bazaar.
Petals smell of the earth.
The sun grows small, a white pebble.

Hundreds of candles gentle with their glow
the sites of executions. 
On white-pebbled paths,
we walk among the graves.

She thrusts a coin into the hand
of a beggar woman wrapped
in seven black shawls:
Pray for the soul of Yakub.

Adds his last name, so God
won’t confuse him with anyone else.

9. Winter comes from the East

Winter comes from the East,
winter comes at Christmas
crows from the frozen

heart of Russia,
a black wind off the Urals.
A ruddy ring around the moon

means frost.
Moon in a fox-fur hat
brings cold, great cold.

I paint ghost roses
with my breath, lick icicles,
wade wind-tilted snowdrifts.

One night across the bright darkness,
I see a falling star.
I am young, and do not make a wish.

10. Bread and Salt

In late amber
afternoons, the streets ascended
on the scent of warm bread.

She brings home a sun-round loaf.
Under the saw-toothed knife
the crust crackles, resists;

I beg for the “heel,” I eat
the steaming, almost breathing
bread, like the flesh of the earth.


At the spa with the salt towers,
the fountain of Hansel and Gretel,
huddled under a dripping

stone umbrella. The salt towers
are five-storied pyramids, dripping brine
through a scaffolding of birch twigs.

We stroll around, breathing the salt breeze.
It’s meant to cure everything.
“Inhale!” grandmother reminds.


We watch a bride and groom
greeted at the door
with bread and salt.

Bread so you never go hungry.
Salt so you dance with
shadows, in the lucky light.

11. Stations of the Cross

“Why are there no women priests?”
She shrugs: Because men rule the world.
Like we have to listen to the Bolshevik.
We are doing Stations of the Cross.

She lingers before the Sixth Station:
Pale wisp of a girl, Veronica
presses through the jeering crowd,
the whips of snarling executioners.

She holds out her white veil to wipe
the condemned man’s face,
streaked with blood and sweat.
My grandmother Veronika

greets her patron saint.
She has seen the executioners.
Only the uniforms are different.
She does not bow her head.

In the kitchen, making beet soup
with botvinka, not wasting
the tiniest leaf, she laments:
As soon as I close my eyes,
you will never go to church.

12. God's Hearing

One evening in Auschwitz
the women in her barracks began to pray.

Their prayer grows and grows,
a chant, a hymn, a howl –
it carries far

into the searchlight-blinded,
electric wire-razored night.
The Kapo rushes in, shouting,

Not so loud!
God is not hard of hearing!

And my grandmother laughs.
Then she begins to sing:
Many have fallen

in the sleep of death,
but we have still awakened
to praise Thee,

she sings to the God of Auschwitz.
Her voice does not quiver.

         ~ Oriana


These are  marvelous, so full of love and memory and life -- the horse pulling you all through the forest in the rain, and your grandmother and her bunkmate laughing over what must have been a threadbare, vermin eaten blanket, what resilience.

Are you making books of these? Have they all been published somewhere? They are so strong, and full  of good spirit. I found them deeply refreshing.

Thank you, Ursula. Yes, the resilience -- my grandmother's strength of spirit was magnificent.

Some of the sequence has been published, but not the entire sequence. I've seen sending out my manuscript (including this sequence) to various contests, but with no success. Maybe this is not surprising, since the trend is away from the narrative, even if it's a lyrical narrative.
And I want to share these stories, these strange and magical details. If a few people can find them through this blog, it's better than nothing.


  1. Your grandmother was something else--praying to the God of Auschwitz even when so many have fallen. And laughing.

  2. She was extraordinary, and yet typical as well -- the use of humor and prayer for survival -- what else is more common . . . I think if there is a message in the life of people like my grandmother, it's that you don't give victory to the enemy. If the enemy sees your spirit is destroyed, that's his victory. You don't give him that victory.