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).

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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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