On the Other Hand,
death: not everyone’s favorite topic
of conversation, I know, but some things
they have to be talked about, they can’t be
avoided, you’ll get used to it. We get
used to anything. Look at me: as stout
as good challah I used to be, and now:
matzoh. Open the door from this side. But
what a man I was. What arms I had. The
envy of men, desire of girls for
miles. What shoulders I had. From hoisting those
sacks of flour. Stir them around. Don’t look:
just stir. And muscles from kneading. Did I
knead. Day in, day out. In the beginning,
lying down on my pillow at night hurt,
my shoulders were so sore. I learned; you will,
too. But more bread than anyone I made,
better, cheaper. From miles they came to buy
my breads. And my ovens weren’t even so
large as these: I could afford such ovens?
Only toward the end did the fires burn
all night, so no crumbling bricks in mine. Here,
take them out this way. Now the fires will
not go out. The beasts have been sent among
us. They rob us of our children, destroy
our cattle. Cattle they never touched, let
alone destroyed. Drag this to the door: scrape
the ashes into it. Cattle — grazing,
sleeping, as if it were Shabbas. We take
the fat and burn it in the ovens: it
goes faster that way. One set of clothes we
take off, another we put on, and to
another place we carry the ashes.
Don’t worry. This is your first day: you’ll soon
forget to notice. That which remaineth
of the flesh and of the bread shall we burn
with the fire. Only better to eat the
bread, they would mind? Worse than yours my first day
was. For months I don’t see my in-laws I’m
working so hard. My wife is complaining —
all these strangers and you’re never at home —
she’s worried. My first day here, who do I
see? My wife and her parents. What do I
do? Kiss them? Cry tears of reunion? Of course
not: foolish I’ve never been. Here, work is
all we know: people we don’t recognize.
It is written: ten women shall bake in
one oven — even if they’re mussulmans,
into one oven, don’t put that many.
Otherwise, another catastrophe
like a few months ago: new helpers we
have, but does anyone teach them? Fans they
don’t turn on. Ovens they overheat. Then,
Pow. The wall explodes. Three days we don’t work.
We don’t work, we don’t eat. We don’t eat, we
bake. After, among ourselves, we agree:
Never again. From now on, we teach the
right way. Us they will not swallow up in
their wrath. Us the fire shall not devour.
Us the land of our enemies shall not
eat up. Our ashes they shall not scatter
into the wind, God willing. We are few
in number. And on the other hand, death.
Where Lightning Strikes:
Poems on The Holocaust
Where Lightning Strikes: Poems on the Holocaust
© 1980-1986, 2000-2007, 2013 by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman.
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