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Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) 2015, with Three Poems from Where Lightning Strikes

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Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah (“Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day”), known colloquially in Israel and abroad as Yom HaShoah (“The Catastrophe,” or “Utter Destruction”) and in English as Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Holocaust Day, is observed as Israel’s day of commemoration for the approximately six million Jews and five million others who perished in the Holocaust as a result of the actions carried out by Nazi Germany with its systematic genocide of the European Jews, and for the Jewish resistance in that period, including the resistance of partisans, the members of the Underground, and the Ghetto occupants. It is held on the 27th of Nisan (April/May).

In 2015, Yom HaShoah begins at sundown on Wednesday 15 April and continues through sunset Thursday 16 April. On Thursday, in Israel, a siren stops all traffic and pedestrians for two minutes of silent meditation, reflection, and devotion at 10:00 a.m.

We must never forget what happened during the Holocaust, not only because of the large-scale persecution and execution of the European Jews, but because such hatred, intolerance, and genocide still exist today, against Jews as well as against many other groups of people. Soon, there will be no Holocaust survivors remaining to tell their own stories, so we must prevent this horrific event from becoming “distant history” by telling their stories for them, and by creating, reading, and viewing art which reminds us that “the only thing necessary for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing” (Edmund Burke).

200px-Yom_Hashoah_candle

When I first began writing about The Holocaust, I was only writing poetry, and I used syllabic line-breaks for my first Holocaust poem, “Cutthroat: A Player Who Plays For Himself,” to imitate the arbitrary and rigid nature of the Nazi regime, the concentration camps, etc., and then, when I was writing other poems, it still seemed natural  to compose the poems so that, though the lines broke rigidly according to syllable-count, the language flowed over those breaks.

The first is from the perspective of a young SS-guard at the Warsaw Ghetto, where Jews died so fast — from starvation, disease, shootings — with no place to bury them, that the bodies were piled up in the streets.

The Dead Bodies That Line The Streets

chatter and snipe at me constantly, as if I
were responsible for their being there. But I

ignore all their remonstrative and sarcastic
remarks. Favoritism or fraternization

with the enemies of the State is forbidden,
and I won’t tarnish my reputation or my

family name by giving them special privileges
that might alleviate their misery. Don’t they

deserve what’s happening to them? Didn’t they kill
our Lord and Savoiur? My best friend Kurt, though he wears

the same uniform as I, is not as cautious,
not as circumspect. Why shouldn’t we be paid to

do our job in this God-forsaken Ghetto and
be rewarded for sometimes not doing it as

well? he says before he slips behind the bricked wall
or behind the stack of bodies with his latest

protectee, a beautiful girl who hardly looks
Jewish at all. We’re much closer to the Front than

we are to home, he reminds me, buttoning his
uniform after he returns. Such things are routine

at the Front, he says, and he should know since
his brother was killed there only last spring. Sometimes,

I admit, I’m tempted when I see some lovely
girl who’d do anything for only a bit of

brown bread or a piece of sausage. I even caught
myself wondering what one of them might do for

a bite of chocolate or some cigarettes. But they
heard my innocent musings and have fastened their

rolled-back eyes on me ever since. I get angry,
threaten them, poke them with my bayonet: leave me

be, I shout. But their gaping mouths tsk tsk tsk at
me until I light up a cigarette and toss

the still-burning match onto one of their lolling
tongues. That usually silences them. These bodies

should be carted away and dumped somewhere, but Kurt
claims they’re here as a symbol to the living. As

far as I can determine, these beggars ignore
their dead. Instead, they scurry around, stealing food

from each other, trying to bribe me or one of
the other fellows, hurling themselves over the

wall or through the wire. And the dead bodies that line
the streets certainly don’t care about their living

comrades or they wouldn’t lie around spying and
gossiping to annoy me, trying to prevent

me from doing my job. The bodies that line the
streets should be hauled away and incinerated,

their ashes scattered to the heavens. Then I could
perform my duties without interference, eat

meals without tasting dust,
sleep at night without dreams.

~~~

And this, from the perspective of one of the Extermination Camps (like Auschwitz) Sonderkommando, the Jewish inmates in charge of leading the incoming victims into the gas chambers, putting their bodies into the ovens, then cleaning out the ovens. He’s a very devout man, and often quotes from the Bible, in his Yiddish dialect, as he teaches the newest member chosen by the SS to help with their “work”:

(Note: the mussulmans were what the camp inmates called the Jews who were so thin & sickly that it was obvious they were going to die any time.)

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.

~~~

Once I’d written poems from the period before the War and the Concentration Camps, and the time during those periods, from the perspectives of both the perpetrators and the victims, I knew I had to write some poems about the permanent repercussions of what the Nazis had done. This is one of those poems.

The Day the Snakes Came

We thought, at first, that we were imagining them:
that sliver of disturbed dust by the sidewalk, that

hint of damp on the kitchen floor. Then we thought they
were an aberration: the one found coiled in young

Markowitz’s bathroom sink, the other around
the apple strudel in Mrs. Polski’s icebox.

The beasts have been sent among us, said Leopold,
to rob us of our children and to destroy our

cattle. Since we knew he drank his meals, we shook our
heads and pitied his daughter Leah who came each

night to drag her father home, his arms waving like
snakes. Then others began to talk. Everywhere, there

was snake talk: It’s been pretty dry the last few years;
they’re just looking for water. Old Farmer Johnson

must have turned up a lot of rocks in his field this
spring. If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.

Some people even laughed. Then our neighbors began
slicking back their hair. Our children practiced flicking

their tongues in front of the bathroom mirrors and changed
their names to snake names. By September the snakes were

everywhere. Glistening black bodies swarmed over
the sidewalks, bubbled out of the water pipes, milled

out of morning cereal. Some tried to ignore
the snakes. They were the first to disappear. Others

argued: They don’t have any reason to hurt us.
What have we done to them? If we don’t bother them,

they won’t bother us. They were next to vanish. A
few brave ones tried to learn snake words, to untangle

the slithering black unrest. Their facility
at languages could not save them. But most of us

tried to protect ourselves. The snakes caught us any
time: when we were gathering fruit in the garden,

when we reached into the basket of knitting, when
we crawled into bed at night. Then suddenly, one

spring day, the snakes were gone. A cold wind blew in their
place. We lost most of our village to the snakes. We

heard the same from neighboring towns. The wind chilled us.
We swept the brittle carcasses out of our homes,

replanted our gardens, and tried to rebuild new,
snake-less lives. The years passed. The wind blew cold, hard words

at us: There must have been something to upset the
snakes: they only attack to protect themselves. It

could never happen here. I never saw a snake
in my life. If they were here, they weren’t in my house.

But we have taught our children about the snakes. We
teach them how to wield bats, how to ignore wispy

whispered snake charms, how to crush a snake’s head with their
heels. Because late at night we hear them, late at night

rustling feverishly around the base of the house,
their long fangs clicking, their lidless eyes watching.

~~~

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Holocaust Survivor Testimony: Urbach & Schindler, Goodkin & Wallenberg, 2014

Yom HaShoah 2014
Holocaust Remembrance

During the Holocaust, with its Nazi-sponsored, systematic persecution and genocide of the Jews, there were some people who risked their own lives to protect Jews and to save them. Sometimes, as in the case of Oskar Schindler, the subject of Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning film Schindler’s List (from Australian author Thomas Keneally’s award-winning novel Schindler’s Ark), the person is relatively well known to many of us. In other instances, such as that of Raoul Wallenberg, who disappeared during the War, most probably taken by the Nazis and executed, the people who saved Jews are not as familiar. It is then that we must rely on Survivor Testimony to learn about some of those who did risk everything to help save the European Jews.

Sol Urbach
saved by
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Oskar Schindler

Oskar Schindler

 

Sol Urbach was born in Poland in 1925. He was one of the Jews that were protected and rescued by Oskar Schindler in Cracow and then in Plaszow (from Yad Vashem Holocaust Testimonies).

Based on a true story, Schindler’s List is Steven Spielberg’s epic drama of World War II Holocaust survivors and the man who unexpectedly came to be their savior. Unrepentant womanizer and war profiteer Oskar Schindler uses Polish Jews as cheap labor to produce cookware for the Third Reich. But after witnessing the violent liquidation of the walled ghetto where the Krakow Jews have been forced to live, Schindler (Liam Neeson) slowly begins to realize the immense evil of Nazism. When his employees are sent to a work camp, they come under the terrorizing reign of sadistic Nazi Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes). With the help of his accountant, Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), Schindler creates a list of “essential” Jews. Bribing Goeth, Schindler manages to get 1,100 people released from the camp and brought to the safety of his munitions factory in Czechoslovakia. Spielberg’s glorious film is wondrously evocative, visually stunning, and emotionally stirring (from Schindler’s List website).

If you haven’t seen the film, I urge you to do so.

Vera Goodkin
saved by
Raoul Wallenberg

Raoul Wallenberg

Raoul Wallenberg

 

Vera Goodkin was born in Hradec Kralove, Czechoslovakia in 1930. Her family fled to Hungary, where after the German occupation they were protected by Raoul Wallenberg. Vera Goodkin remembers her father’s meeting with Wallenberg. (from Yad Vashem Holocaust Histories)

You can read about others who saved Jews during the Holocaust at Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations, sometimes referred to as “Righteous Gentiles,” and at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) sites, among those featured are Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg.

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Holocaust Survivor Testimony: Zanne & The Twins, 2014

Yom HaShoah
International Holocaust Memorial Day
Monday 28 April 2014

When young Israelis first began learning about the Holocaust, many of them couldn’t relate to the victims. The young generation, raised in the newly established state of Israel, among survivors, who swore “Never Again,” felt that the European Jews had been “led to the [Nazi] slaughter like lambs.” It was then that the activities of the partisans, the members of the Underground, the Resistance, and the Ghetto Uprisings were included in the teaching and remembrance of the Holocaust. Also, Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust History Museum, began collecting oral histories from the survivors, which seemed to resonate more intimately with younger people. Many of them learned, for the first time, that people their own ages had been sent to concentration camps and extermination camps like Auschwitz. Here are two of the stories.

Zanne Farbstein

Zanne Farbstein was 16 years old when she was deported with her two younger sisters to Auschwitz. While working as a slave laborer, Zanne found her father’s prayer shawl while sorting through the clothing of the prisoners who had been murdered in the camp. Zanne survived Auschwitz , and moved to Israel with her few surviving family members, where she began a new life. (from Yad Vashem)

Twin Survivors,
Iudit and Lia

Identical twin sisters Iudit Barnea and Lia Huber (nées Tchengar) were born in 1937 in the town of Şimleul Silvaniei (Szilagysomlyo), Transylvania. In 1940, Transylvania was annexed to Hungary, and in June 1942 their father Zvi was taken to a forced labor unit on the Russian front.  Miraculously, both twins survived. (from Yad Vashem)

Please join me and millions of others this Yom HaShoah, as well as the days before and after, remembering the victims, the activists, and the survivors of the Holocaust. Share their stories so that the past does not die with them. Remind others of the atrocities and the genocide of The Holocaust so that it can never happen again, anywhere. At 11:00 a.m. Monday 28 April, stand and observe the two minutes of silence in reflection and devotion.

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For a Photographic Introduction to the Holocaust, visit my Pinterest Board

Learn about The Holocaust on USHMM
(United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

For more information on the database or
to fill out Pages of Testimony, visit
Yad Vashem‘s Central Database of Shoah Victims

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, E-books, Free Books, GiveAway, History, Holocaust

Never Again: Yom HaShoah

Yom HaShoah
International Holocaust Memorial Day

We must never forget what happened during the Holocaust, not only because of the large-scale persecution and execution of the European Jews, but because such hatred, intolerance, and genocide still exist today, against Jews as well as against many other groups of people. Soon, there will be no Holocaust survivors remaining to tell their own stories, so we must prevent this horrific event from becoming “distant history” by telling their stories for them, and by creating, reading, and viewing art which reminds us that “the only thing necessary for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing” (Edmund Burke).

In honor of Yom HaShoah, in memory of my great-grandparents’ family members and all the other Jews who were killed during the Holocaust, in honor of my friend who survived Auschwitz at age 16 – Anna Brunn Ornstein – and all the other survivors of the camps, I present my novel The Kommandant’s Mistress, Revised & Expanded, 20th Anniversary Edition; and my collection of Holocaust poetry Where Lightning Strikes. Read the descriptions, see the covers, and get the links for each book below.

The Kommandant’s Mistress

The Kommandant's Mistress

Viewing the Holocaust from multiple perspectives, The Kommandant’s Mistress tells the story of a Nazi Kommandant who forces a Jewish inmate to be his “mistress” during the war; first, he tells us his version of events, and then she tells us hers.

Historical Fiction set during Holocaust & World War II
Warning: Adult Content, Violence.

The rumors spread by the Camp’s inmates, other Nazi officers, and the Kommandant’s own family insist that she was his “mistress”, but was she, voluntarily? Told from three different perspectives – that of the formerly idealistic Kommandant, the young Jewish inmate who captivates him, and the ostensibly objective historical biographies of the protagonists – this novel examines one troubling moral question over and over: if your staying alive was the only “good” during the War, if your survival was your sole purpose in this horrific world of the Concentration Camps – whether you were Nazi or Jewish – what, exactly, would you do to survive? Would you lie, cheat, steal, kill, submit?

Flashing back and forth through the narrators’ memories as they recall their time before, during, and after the War, and leading, inevitably, to their ultimate, shocking confrontation, “Szeman’s uncompromising realism and superb use of stream-of-consciousness technique make [this novel] a chilling study of evil, erotic obsession, and the will to survive” (Publishers Weekly).

Winner of the Kafka Prize for “best book of prose fiction by an American woman” (’94) and chosen as one of the New York Times Book Review‘s “Top 100 Books of the Year” (’93), the tales told by the Kommandant, his “mistress”, and their “biographer” will mesmerize and stun you, leaving you wondering, at the conclusion, which, if any, is telling the complete truth about what happened between them.

Revised & Expanded, 20th Anniversary Edition
Includes Discussion Questions & Chapter-by-Chapter Scene Index,
all hyper-linked back to text in novel.

The Kommandant's Mistress

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Read an excerpt from the novel: Chapter One, or download a free (3-chapter) Sample from Amazon [this link is to the American site: each site offers free samples].

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Where Lightning Strikes

Where Lightning Strikes: Poems on the Holocaust

Where Lightning Strikes includes all Szeman’s Holocaust poetry, from the poems featured in her Ph.D. dissertation Survivor: One Who Survives, to the original versions of “Rachel’s poems” appearing or mentioned in Szeman’s award-winning, critically acclaimed first novel The Kommandant’s Mistress.

The poems in this collection revisit the classic themes that have inspired poets for generations: love, passion, betrayal, doubt, loyalty, despair, faith, and survival — this time in the context of the period before, during, and after the Holocaust with its systematic persecution and extermination of the majority of European Jewry by the Nazi regime.

In this collection, victims are given voices. In “First Day of German Class” a young, teenaged girl unfamiliar with the Nazis and their atrocities in Germany and other Nazi-occupied territory develops a crush on the handsome and enigmatic SS Officer who passes out the yellow Stars of David they must now wear, like a brand, to identify and isolate them from the rest of the population.

In the author’s first Holocaust poem, “Cutthroat: A Player Who Plays for Himself” — excerpted in The Kommandant’s Mistress — a female inmate forced into sexual servitude by the Kommandant of the camp considers suicide as an escape from her personal bondage and from the camp, even as she alternately pities or condemns those “weak enough” to “go to the wire” (grab the electric fence), offering her own suggestions for suicide to “escape” the intolerable situation.

“Survivor: One Who Survives,” the title poem of Szeman’s dissertation, also mentioned in her first novel as one of Rachel’s poems/books, explores the life of a woman who “survived” her experiences in the camps but is having difficulty “living.”

Other disturbing yet lyrical poems trace the Holocaust from the perpetrators’ perspective. We hear Albert Speer’s musings about which “path” to take in the dramatic monologue “Learning the New Language,” in which he initially claims not to understand the “new language” that everyone in the Nazi-regime is speaking, but then begins to practice some of the words himself.

A Warsaw Ghetto guard in “The Dead Bodies That Line The Streets” bitterly complains about all the dead bodies who watch his every movement, whisper behind his back, and generally prevent him from doing his job effectively and from sleeping well.

Early, unnamed versions of Max, of The Kommandant’s Mistress, appear, isolated and morally confused in “Dead: Out of Play Though Not Necessarily Out of the Game,” where he momentarily sees an inmate as a fellow human being.

A younger SS officer finds himself disconcerted and alarmed after he is unexpectedly attracted to one of the female inmates when he sees her dancing ballet to the music floating from his office window in “White on White.”

In the camp itself, one of the Sonderkommando, who were in charge of guiding the Jews to be exterminated into the gas chambers, gives “instructions” to a new member of this chosen group on how to survive the camp, in the grim yet spiritually philosophical “On the Other Hand.” Nursery rhymes and children’s songs take on a deadly, mesmerizing meaning in the stunning, award-winning “Lager-Lieder (Camp Songs).”

The true story of Auschwitz-survivor Anna Brunn Ornstein, who was in the camp as a young girl with her mother, is transformed from Anna’s own stories and related in the disturbing yet moving poem “Sofie and Anna.”

Haunting depictions of abusers’ and survivors’ lives after the war appear in works like “Those Who Claim We Hated Them,” where the narrator insists — not always convincingly — that he, his family, and his colleagues held no contempt whatsoever for the Jews, and only did what was politically and morally required of them so that they themselves might survive the Nazi regime and the War.

In the collection’s title work, “Where Lightning Strikes,” a survivor of the camps who now holds a Professorship likens his encounter with contemporary anti-Semitism to a tree’s being struck by lightning: swift, unexpected, brutal, devastating, but terrifyingly and sadly illuminating.

Szeman’s work speaks to us with clarity and resonance. Her themes, though set, in this collection, around the Holocaust, are universal, encompassing the perpetrators’, victims’, and survivors’ perspectives equally insightfully. Though the line-breaks are syllabic — imitating the arbitrary rigidity of the Nazi persecutions as well as of the concentration camps’ operations — the language flows passionately over the artificially imposed line-breaks and formal stanzas. The poems’ many fans often state that, despite the fact that they may have been initially wary of the subject matter, they were enthralled and shaken by poetry which so clearly, simply, and memorably portrays such complex and harrowing events in human history.

Several poems were part of her dissertation, Survivor: One Who Survives (University of Cincinnati, 1986). Along with her non-Holocaust poetry collection, Love in the Time of Dinosaurs, this volume, Where Lightning Strikes, was unanimously accepted for publication by all outside readers of UKA Press in 2004.

As powerful, unsettling, and lyrical as her first novel, The Kommandant’s Mistress, these poems will take you on a compelling, chilling, and unforgettable journey into the lives, hearts, and minds of all those who were victims, perpetrators, and survivors of the Holocaust.

1st Prize (1985), 2nd Prize (1984), Grand Prize (1983) University of Cincinnati’s Elliston Prize (anonymous competition), and awarded The Isabel & Mary Neff Fellowship for Creative Writing (1984-85).

Where Lightning Strikes: Poems on the Holocaust

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Read an excerpt of  three poems, or download a free Sample from Amazon.

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