This is the question I’ve been asked over a hundred times since arriving to Warsaw in 2006 from the States, and I’m afraid I’ve never given a suitable reply. Sometimes I give the ironic answer and speak of better job opportunities. As an English teacher, this is not terribly ironic, but rather pragmatic. A private international school in Poland has many advantages over the American public school I left. Sometimes I give the romantic answer and wax on about the cobblestone walks of Europe, its café culture, the vitality and depth of its people. Sometimes I sense a trusted ear and mention a divorce in my mid-30’s, a nagging restlessness that could only be resolved in travel abroad.
But the real reason I came to Poland can only be mouthed to a discreet audience. Those sensitive to the word pogrom. Those with a compulsion for unkempt cemeteries and Friday evening chants. And those who perceive violins played from rooftops and lift their heads to see no player.
Within that audience, the brow creases: you came to Poland because you’re Jewish? If I was part of a 14th century caravan fleeing persecution in Teutonic and Gallic lands, this question would make historical sense. But to leave the promised land of America for Poland in the 21st century makes little. However, I’ve always been touched by a line of thought voiced by Walt Whitman:
Clear and sweet is my soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul.
Lack one lacks both, and the unseen is proved by the seen,
Till that becomes unseen and receives proof in its turn.
So it goes there is a specter haunting Europe (again!) and its presence requires visible coincidence. The many who walk the Polish terrain may not perceive the footprints joining theirs, those made by a millennium of Jewish existence. But those prints are clear and sweet, as is the absence of a people making them. That absence, due the inapproachable term “holocaust”, began to itch under my skin as the material pleasures of America spoiled. So it goes, pursuing an exact answer to the title question, I came to Poland for the holocaust. The brow releases, the belly sighs.
I’ve been living in Warsaw for ten years. In that time, I’ve made acquaintance with the synagogue on Twarda but my attendance to services has never taken shape. My search for Jewish identity has never been fulfilled in the company of Jews, rather with Goyim. And most significantly here, the school children I teach in Kabaty. It is there my grafting into Polish society is most natural and least like a memorial service. My students are very much alive and do not need prodding to bring up the “Jewish question”. It is through them that I’ve learned this question to be eternal, with no material solution.
“Mr. Krasner, what is a Jew?”
“Mr. Krasner, is it true that the Jews are secretly ruling the world?
“Mr. Krasner, why are Jews so good at business?”
“Mr. Krasner, why are you not good at business?”
“Mr. Krasner, is it true that all Jews are smart?”
“Mr. Krasner, if Jews are so smart, how did they manage to get almost all themselves killed?”
“Mr. Krasner, why did your family leave Russia?”
“Mr. Krasner, is it true that Jews killed Christian babies for their blood?”
“Mr. Krasner, why do Jews wear so much black?
“Mr. Krasner, do you celebrate Christmas?”
“Mr. Krasner, if your mother is not Jewish, can you still be Jewish?”
“Mr. Krasner, you’re not Jewish?! Why are we having this conversation?”
“Mr. Krasner, why did the holocaust happen?”
“Mr. Krasner, why do so many people hate the Jews?”
“Mr. Krasner, do you feel safe here?”
“Mr. Krasner, why did you come back to Poland?”
Aha—my students’ last question addresses the original: why did I come back to Poland? It assumes I lived here before. So it must be this is where I’m from. And disregard that my family emigrated from Odessa a century ago. It is not one branch of family I’m tracing. It is the collective Ashkenazi existence, which like a veined tarpaulin stretched across Europe with heaviest sag in Poland, a tarp within a tarp, with prominent rents in Kraków, Łódź, Lublin, Lesko, Łańcut, Zamość, Tarnów, Włodawa, Białystok, Kock, Tykocin, Warsaw.
Warsaw. It made sense. I was after all rebuilding my life from the rubble. And if one is tuned to the unvoiced voices, does not Warsaw speak loudest and piercingly clear? Warsaw smolders the romantic’s suffering. This cry I must have heard when making gestures of courtship to the vague Old World. Odd that it should have made itself tangible in the form of a faxed contract.
Now, if my questioner is unsatisfied, annoyed, or simple minded, and requires a concrete answer to this new question, why did I come back to Poland, I just deadpan, “for the holocaust”. Isn’t it obvious? Can you avoid this monolith and live here in peace? No, an American Jew comes to Poland not merely to teach English and make contact with the Diaspora, but to explore as well the Shoah—and come to terms.
Now comes the time when the thing most alive in my life, my students, and that most dead, the holocaust, came to meet. It happened as the result of another question:
“Mr. Krasner, can you take us some place we can learn something?”
The question was sprung by Ola, a scowling faced girl who sat in the back corner.
“Like where? A museum?”
“No, that’s like school. Somewhere real. A city, a beautiful thriving city.”
“Like New York!” a second student cried out.
“I know,” I finally jumped in. “How about Auschwitz?!”
“You want something real? You want to learn something?”
“We get the holocaust everyday in our books,” a student moaned. This was Artur, a wiry and sardonic boy.
“Haven’t you seen the whiteboards?” he continued. “They’re always Hitler, Hitler, Hitler. Hitler this, Hitler that.”
“Sometimes it’s Stalin.”
“Great…take us to Siberia.”
“Auschwitz is closer. Listen,” I said, “you want to learn something. It doesn’t seem like you’re learning anything from holocaust in your books. It happened in your backyard. How many have been?”
“Really? And how many have seen films like Schindler’s List?”
Over half the class.
“So you get the holocaust everyday in books. And you get it sometimes in film. But you’ve never experienced it in reality.”
“How can we experience it?”
“I don’t know. We can’t. But it happened in reality, on real land, in real buildings and chambers and we can experience that. Aren’t you interested in how regular people could construct such a living hell? It’s not a horror film.”
“It’s better to leave it as a horror film,” Ola said. “We’ll never understand how it happened.”
“Maybe the point is not to understand.”
A series of moans.
“And both sides too. The killing and the being killed, both are human. Don’t you want to be human beings?”
“We are human beings.”
“I’m not so sure.”
“Mr. Krasner, I don’t understand,” another student interjected. This was Marta, a wizened 14 year old with shocks of blond hair. “You want to take us to Auschwitz to become more human?”
“Well, yes. If we ignore Auschwitz, if we just say forget it, it’s not mine, we become less human. Living in the present means also stepping into the past.”
“Like walking through the old Warsaw ghetto, aware that the radio building near Prózna was a bunker during the Warsaw Uprising. That Plac Grzybowska was a Jewish marketplace. That Hala Mirowska, where they sell flowers, was the sight of a world fair and also a Gestapo prison. When we set our feet into the past, our consciousness grows.”
“I want to go.”
I can’t remember who said it first.
“I have a grandparent who died there,” Marta broke in.
“Yea, but I don’t know the story. It’s my great grandmother I think.”
“Was she Jewish?”
“Polish. She could have been Jewish. Who knows. We have a picture of her in uniform.”
“I have a grandfather who survived.” This was Mateusz, a boy who practiced hip hop steps between classes.
“You did? Did you ever meet him?”
“No, he died before I was born. I just heard about him.”
“What do you know?”
“Not much. My parents call him a hero. I should get the story.“
“You should. There are many stories we should know. They’re out there waiting to be heard. That’s how the past asks to be part of the present. The present is much larger than we imagine.”
The class was thinking.
“I’ve got some books we can read in preparation.“
“Noooo! You said we’re going to experience the holocaust.”
“I wouldn’t be a very good teacher if I didn’t believe in the experience of books. I’ve got some good ones in mind. A graphic novel actually.”
“A graphic novel?”
“A comic book. Lots of pictures. Is that acceptable?”
“And some poems.”
“Just leave it to me.”
The book I chose was Art Spiegelman’s Maus. We preceded the reading by comparing photos of the holocaust with equivalent cartoonist drawings. The images were iconic: prisoners in their bed-sheet uniforms, gaunt and waif-like behind barbed wire; heaps of human corpses; Hitler at the rostrum, virulent and wide-eyed; the cattle wagons; the roundups; the selections. And most affecting, a Nazi soldier firing a rifle point blank at a mother who cradles her child in an enveloping embrace. The photo is blurred and the backdrop barren. Its rectangular frame can be folded down the middle, so on one half we have man’s sadistic cruelty, and on the other a mother’s instinctual love. How can the human character have the potential for such extreme contradiction? How are we at once killers and protectors of the innocent? Lions and lambs?
Marta, my gangly Wiccan, said the answer was in the photograph: we are just men and women.
“Violence has been bred in men since we lived in caves,” she said. “Giving life and nurturing the young are instincts for women.”
Her comment simplified things a great deal.
“There were plenty of examples of murder by women during the holocaust. You think just men pointed them out on the streets?”
“That’s not the same as pointing a rifle into a mother’s head.”
“Why? In both cases someone’s dead.”
“Could you pull the trigger though? That’s man’s specialty.”
“I could pull it.”
“I’m not saying women aren’t culpable. Or violent. But they’ve got the best teachers in the world in men.”
“A female tiger will defend her cub better than a male.”
“Oh, tigers. I didn’t know we were talking about tigers.”
“Whatever,” Ola relented.
“And to settle this argument you two women will fight?”
“Yea, yea,” the boys hollered. “Fight!”
“Ok, enough. I think a point has been made.”
“I know,” Artur joked. “Women are just as violent as men, as long as they’re fighting other women.”
Marta laughed. Ola rolled her eyes.
“I don’t want to make this about gender,” I said. “The point is we don’t know exactly how any of us would respond during the holocaust. Once it became acceptable to round up and kill Jews, every person’s nature was tested and exposed. This is a central theme in Maus.”
I had students form logs of “holocaustic” acts found in the book, ranging from the laudable to despicable: a prisoner earns extra food by giving English lessons and exchanges some for a uniform that will fit his friend better; Nazi soldiers liquidate a Jewish community by taking the crying children by their feet and bashing them like baseball bats into a brick wall; a Polish woman risks her life by hiding Jews in her cellar; another takes up a Jew’s residence after the war, and when the owner returns, having survived Auschwitz, has him hanged in the barn.
Spiegelman’s creative act leavened man’s mixed flour of violence and compassion. In writing and drawing his father’s story, he became intimate with every last detail of the Nazi death factory. He also had to face the portrait of his father as a miser and racist. He had to resuscitate his mother’s suicide, and the blame he placed on her for sentencing him to his own camp. He gave life to all this negative energy. And this was a teaching I wished to pass on to my students.
“There is a karma to the holocaust and a danger in stepping into its swirl,” I said in our final lesson. “But it’s a danger we must face if we are to deepen our own nature. At root in that nature, regardless of our capacity to love and hate, is our capacity to create. Maus affirms life. In it, the holocaust is a life giver.”
I wasn’t finished with this exercise in creative transformation though. I had one more task for the students. This I saved upon entry to the camp.
30 students joined the trip. The date was late May, when school begins to loosen its grip on students, much as a cocoon can no longer withstand the wriggling energy of the butterfly. After a sleepy bus ride through the hillsides of southern Poland, we arrived at Oświęcim. The students perked up at the camp entrance signs.
“We’re here guys,” one said.
They rubbed their eyes and straightened up. Once parked, the group collected sheepishly underneath two trees outside the main building while I secured our tour. When I returned, I brought them together. They shook loose from their casual demeanors. Speaking and hearing my voice in turns, reckoning myself an unfit authority at the gates of Auschwitz, I asked them to try and remember that the holocaust was an experience, not a place, and for most people who entered these gates, their last experience.
“It’s with those people that we can open up to while we walk the grounds today,” I said. “Or perhaps that is the effort—to make a connection between us and them, between now and then.”
I pulled a slip of paper from my pocket. The poem I had in my hand was one we read in my 9th grade class. It was by Tadeusz Różewicz. My students recognized it. But to hear it at the gates of the camp, amongst birdsong and pungent trees, was quite a different thing than from within four walls.
Forget about us
Forget our generation
Live like humans
Plants and stones
We envied dogs
I’d rather be a rat
I told her then
I’d rather not be
I’d rather sleep
And wake when war is over
She said her eyes shut
Don’t enquire about our youth
When I read this poem in the confines of the classroom, most of my students were of the opinion that the speaker was right. We should live our lives and not be burdened by someone else’s sorrow. What good can come of it? What can we do for them? Mateusz’s grandfather, or great-grandfather, did not speak of the war. He did not want to burden his children with those memories. He did not want to darken their sun. And yet we come to Auschwitz in droves, the scene of humanity’s great eclipse. Was it only ghoulish fascination?
I dropped a pile of red envelopes into the dirt.
“Inside each envelope is a poem. These were written from children interred at Terezin, a camp outside of Prague. The camps may be different, but the experiences were kin.”
I had the students select a poem at random and emphasized that it was written from someone much like them—a teenager who had life inside and ahead, much as they do now, but due a twist of fate had that life squeezed til it wasn’t life anymore.
“Still, the child wrote poems,” I said, “and they seem magical spells now. These poems were voiced to be heard. And so you have the following task: to keep your poem with you, to find a quiet place somewhere within the gates, to sit alone and read your message. In this way, time travels. This person living then, his or her soul, is preserved in this red envelope. When you open it, it becomes part of yours. There is no separation between us and them. Really.”
Each student was eager to reach for an envelope. Many had to be restrained from opening them immediately. In fact, about five minutes later, still waiting for our tour to commence, I watched helplessly as a group of students sat on the benches and tore into their envelopes like Christmas gifts, reading the poems in a cursory manner and trading them. My first reaction was to govern their actions, to make this an enforced task. You must be alone! But how quickly I had forgotten my own maturity at the age of 15. Would I have had the courage to sit adrift my clique and share a private moment with this dead soul? Would I be able to process the teacher’s instruction that the soul is living? That it is in fact me?! I returned to my less grave self. Let them be. Maybe by focusing so much on them, I was ignoring my own reception of the dead souls….
“Yea?” I was approached by Gosia, a bouncy straw haired girl, one of my more silly students.
“There’s one poem left. I accidentally chose two. Do you want it?” She handed me the envelope.
“I opened it. But I didn’t read it.”
She pranced off to be with her friends. Our tour guide came at this time and made to greet us. I tucked the poem away in my pocket, eager to read my message later in the day.
We collected outside the infamous “Arbeit Mach Frei” gates amongst a few other swarms. I noted the irony of these groups, all conforming to their own language and ethnicity. Our guide was a slightly built woman. She spoke with a tinge of weariness, occasionally veering into indignation, and led us skillfully through the cell blocks, avoiding those with overflow. In the first block, my students were shown displays of camp uniforms as well as confiscated prayer shawls. They observed the kapo’s quarters, the washroom, prisoners’ bunks, and intimate drawings of the happenings within each room. Gosia commented that the drawings were like Art Spiegleman’s cartoons, more affecting than photographs. In the hallway, we witnessed the wall of photographs taken of prisoners as a sign of registration. So much for Gosia’s comment. She was glued before them. We learned that the Nazis could not maintain this depth of accounting throughout the war and abandoned the photos for tattooed numbers. Marta approached me with a flickering light.
“So my great grandmother is here somewhere.”
She inspected the grid of photos but it was impossible not to get stuck on one expression, then another. How long is proper to address each? The rows unwound like wallpaper. After a while I had to dim my attention, glance at a forehead here, lips there. The features blurred, the stacking of individuals overwhelmed. I had to dilute their personalities, their hints, their genealogy. By the wall’s end, with students filing out into the light, we were meeting the photos in passing, much like the accountants who made them.
Marta remained a long time searching.
It was hot in the May sun. We had to squint our collective eyes while standing before each cell block. We made it to the torture chambers, where prisoners only had enough room to stand, and in some cases, bend over. We were given a few seconds to pause before each, then continued to plod, like cattle towards its predicted destination. We again returned to the light of day and in the direct sun viewed the execution wall. Some students approached it and touched the bricks. Other tourists posed for pictures in front. Mateusz approached me.
“That’s just wrong,” he said.
“What can you do?”
“I know. It’s a historical place, like the Roman Forum.”
“It may as well be Disneyland.” He walked away confused.
In another block we were shown a wall length map with all the camps of Europe held together by interconnected arrows, the migratory paths dated and assigned numerical values. All roads led to Auschwitz, a melting pot to rival Manhattan’s Lower East Side. My analogy was affirmed by a massive urn in the room’s center, filled to the brim.
Outside the camp, the students were wilted. We had a short respite before being driven to Birkenau. I told them that this would be a good time to eat a snack. None were hungry.
In Birkenau, we gathered a second wind. Playful students raced from our buses to the iconic entry. Some took pictures of the rails’ lonely approach to the gated entrance. Inside, we noticed the contrast in space. No longer compacted into thin halls and keeping to a suburban set of roads, here we were washed over by a vast green landscape, spiked with the eerie duplication of skeletal barracks. In massive patchworks, the narrow columns of decimated chimneys stood in uniform attention, like masts to frozen ships. The neighborhood streets were replaced with wide grazing fields and a borderless avenue that split the camp into its two genders. The blocks became stables, built hastily, with cracks between the roof and walls, which our guide emphasized had tragic effects in the Polish winters. Try to imagine, she spoke, close to 200 people sharing this room. Many with infections, typhus, lice, wearing the same underwear as from the day they were dropped off. Try to imagine the kind of person you would become.
Artur stood next to me. He turned to me in confidence.
“You’d be a rat,” he whispered.
We returned to the wide avenue and marched to where a cattle car remained as a goad to memory. Here was the selection point, made more queer by a displayed photo of a Nazi Lieutenant, at this exact spot, assessing with passive eye the feeble line of subjects who stood before him. His hand was pointed to his right. Our guide gave resonance to the acuity of suffering those people experienced on this ground, at this moment, having just lost their homes, their trusted family bonds stretched and torn, having survived days on end in the windowless, waterless, and airless wagons, with no succor for the wild anxieties taking hold their brains, all the while in some cases having to remain sane for the little ones at their knees. Then released, then groping for air, then restoring for a brevity a sense of life, only to be prodded forward to another station and judged fit to live or die. To the left, prolonged labor until starvation or sudden death. To the right, perhaps more generously, immediate strangulation in gas. So here families, joints already tested beyond natural limits, were torn as limbs from a heifer on the slaughterhouse floor. Our guide did not impart all this. She was spare in her details.
“So this is where Vladek and Anja stood,” Gosia said, thinking of Maus.
“And you remember how Vladek got a job fixing roofs so he could be closer to Anja and speak to her?”
“Yes, over there somewhere.”
“It’s impossible to imagine,” she said. “There’s nothing left.”
Our guide rousted us a final time and led us on to the blown up crematoria. We walked sluggishly up the condemned road, mostly unclustered. Artur, walking with his head to the ground, caught up to my pace. He wanted to say something.
“Mr. Krasner,” he started, “I’m worried. I don’t feel anything.” He spoke with an indifference both cynical and self critical.
“Yea, I get that.”
“What am I supposed to feel? Sadness, guilt? Revenge, compassion, what?”
“Maybe all of it. Maybe nothing.”
“Great,” he said with a sigh of nihilism.
“It’s hard to feel,” I added.
“So am I a bad person or something? I mean, torture chambers, execution walls, horse stables. It’s like ideas stacked on top of one another. I don’t sense what was actually here. It needs to happen again.”
“Don’t say that.”
“Why, it’s true. It will keep happening again and again because people can’t feel.”
“You’re a wise boy Artur. Have you read your poem?”
“Not yet. I’m waiting for a proper moment. I’m going to read it alone.”
“Maybe we can talk more later then. We can talk more about it.”
We walked some paces in silence.
“Mr. Krasner?” he rejoined to better finish. “You know, there are kids texting their friends and playing games on their iPhones. I’m sure they feel a lot.”
I just gestured. Who knows.
At the edge of the camp, seated in a long row by crematoria 1, our guide gave us some final words, heartfelt, resigned and ethical. She was about 40 years old, a mother and resident of Oświęcim. She thanked everyone for coming and asked if there were any questions. Marcin, a brash 11th grader, asked what it was like to live in Oświęcim.
“Very hard,” the guide said. “This is our legacy. Sometimes you want to ignore it, move on. Then another survivor visits the community and shares his or her story, adding more details, and the history becomes more real and human. It’s something that must be pieced together.”
“And what happens when the survivors stop coming?” Marcin asked. “Will you still continue?”
“That’s a difficult question. It’s like passing a gravesite on the side of the highway. When the families of those buried have all moved away or no longer live, it’s just a collection of stones. Nobody visits and the stories vanish. But this is not just any gravesite. It’s cliché perhaps and you’ve all heard it by now. If you forget the past, you’re bound to repeat it. This is something we can never repeat.”
Marcin relented further questioning. Artur’s expression was blank, here and somewhere else. All the students were gazing into different directions. Some gave the guide their earnest attention, others held their hair and dipped their torsos into bent knees.
“It’s important you came,” she continued. “And I’ll still be doing this, likely throughout my life. I don’t know how many generations it will last.”
We thanked her and watched her go on her way. Many students rolled onto their backs. The air between us loosened. The regular cliques formed, students standing and creating shadows for the others. We became sociable and eager for lighthearted conversation. The red envelopes came out. With the exception of a few students, the students read their poems shoulder to shoulder, passing the sheets on as soon as finished. But something was happening.
A congenial boy named Antoni was curled on his back, his head in another student’s lap, his iPhone out shielding their eyes from the sun. I came closer and saw that he was typing a lyrical response to his poem. He read his lines enthusiastically, inventing as he spoke. The iPhone went around the circle and Antoni perpetuated his rhymes aloud.
Marcin handed me his poem with a casual air:
The wind sings songs of far away
Just look to heaven
And think about the violets
Now it’s time.
“I can’t imagine it,” he said. “She was hearing gunshots.” I took the poem from him and looked it over.
“Time for what?” I asked.
“For death. What else? The wind sings songs from far away. Look to heaven. Think of violets. It’s time.”
“Maybe it’s time for something brighter? An escape?”
“You’re too romantic Mr. Krasner. It’s time for death. That’s all that was here.”
“It seems. But she was here and she had a soul. She did not speak of death, even if that’s what time it was. She spoke of things alive. She made a call. She was bigger than death.”
“I’m not so sure. Death was bigger than her. She could not escape it.”
“None of us can Marcin,” I said. “Anyway, she’s here now.” I gave him the paper back. He had more to say, but nothing came out.
“Maybe,” he said.
I continued moving through the groups. I passed Sebastian, a 16 year old who qualified as the class Goth. He wore obscene t-shirts and had a talent for writing grotesque stories. But under his scowl, he was tender. I asked him about his poem.
“What poem?” he said in his monotone.
“The one in your pocket.”
“Oh, I’m waiting. Too many people.”
“I don’t understand why anyone would write a poem in these circumstances. It makes no sense.”
“But they did. So it has to make sense. It wasn’t a school assignment.”
“How do you know? Maybe it was.”
“Well, they did form schools in Terezin so maybe it was.”
“That still doesn’t explain how they wrote them. Nor what’s inside them. I don’t think any of these sound like assignments.”
“Maybe,” he said with his surface glum.
“So you’ll let me know what you think about it?”
“Think about what?”
A few paces away I found Marta still holding her poem and working with it. Marta did not have to be given context to the writing of poems, even in dire circumstances. She was a poet herself and loved difficult verses, though she pretended a stoic temper. She passed me her paper.
“Read it,” she commanded.
The poor thing stands there vainly
Vainly he strains his voice
Perhaps he’ll die
Then you can say
How beautiful the world is today
“Beautiful, he says beautiful,” she said as if working out a problem. Then she sighed. “It’s amazing.”
I studied the fragment. At first I was disappointed Marta received the shortest and seemingly simplest poem of the lot. I was hoping she’d receive one of the more gifted poets, Fanta Bass or Hanus Hachenburg. The latter wrote poems that could serve as anthems. Interestingly enough, the greatest poem of Hachenburg was received by the student with the meekest English skills, Chen, a girl from China.
“Why do you say?” I asked.
“Well, it’s obvious isn’t it? He goes from death, his actual death, and a miserable one at that, to beauty in one breath. That’s rare.”
“And in your world, given all your comforts, where is beauty?”
“It’s with death.”
“Aha,” I smirked with recognition of Marta’s wit.
“That’s a bit tragic Marta. But perhaps I’m not understanding you.”
“You’re never understanding me,” she sighed playing a familiar game. “Beauty is only perceived, only truly perceived, in death. In the loss of a flower’s petals, the breaking of a heart. The setting of the sun. Or the—”
“The sun also rises you know.”
“That’s not beauty.”
“What is it?”
“Aha.” I paused. “So, you like the poem?”
“Of course I do,” she sighed, snatched the paper back and walked away.
At last I found Artur, returning from his chosen spot under a tree. His expression was of the same family as Sebastian and Marta’s. Cool, dismissive, smart-ass, hiding something.
“So?” I greeted him.
“Too soon to talk more?”
He passed me his paper. It was from Fanta Bass.
The rose, the rose
How marvelously sweet it smells
The scent wafts far over the countryside
This rose, this rose.
The sweet familiar scent
Drifts over sorrowful fields
Already it withers
The rose, the rose
The rose is already faded
The scent it dies
That wonderful fragrance
That wonderful rose….
“Yea, he’s a poet,” I said. “You like it?”
“The rose, the rose….” he mimicked. “Always roses. Wasn’t anything else here, like sunflowers, or tulips, or poplars? Or grass? Nobody writes poems about grass.”
“So you don’t like it?”
“It doesn’t really matter if I like it. He’s gone, like that rose. What does he care if I liked his poem?”
“That’s true. It’s not about liking. Did you feel it?”
“You and your questions! You’re always teaching Mr. Krasner. Do I feel it? Yes I feel…no I don’t feel it. I mean, it’s just words.”
“Come on Artur, that’s a cop-out. I love you are just words too. But you can tell when they mean something.”
“I think it’s a sweet poem. He’s obviously sensitive. The rose is a metaphor for himself. A sweet thing, a fragile thing.”
“Uh-huh, nice analysis. This isn’t class remember. The rose is very real. It’s not words.”
“It’s not words and it is words.”
“Did you feel it?”
“I don’t know. I have to think about it.” He laughed at his paradox. “Okay, okay, I felt it. I felt something! Okay? Happy?”
“You’re a difficult one Artur. But I think you feel most of anyone here. I wouldn’t lose hope.”
We returned to the group. I couldn’t resist my urge to connect with all my students. Maybe this was a defense against my own uncomfortable emotions. At funerals I often find myself telling jokes, like I was confused by the invitation and thought I was at a wedding. Death, when it is not ours, as it always isn’t, has a riddled way of communicating itself. In me, it serves to tighten the bonds I have at that moment. Like bolts. Don’t let me go! And yet, to go seeking death, as it seems I have done, to move to Poland for the holocaust, what then could this mean? What instinct is at work here?
They were moving on without me. I remained behind, seated on the hard stone of the holocaust memorial. I pulled out the red envelope left for me by Gosia. “It’s time,” I quipped to myself. I realized that the exercise drawn up for them was really for me.
“Time for what?” I wondered….
Here was my message, given to me by Eva Pickova, a 14 year old student from Prague:
The ghetto knows a different fear today
Close in its grip, Death wields an icy scythe
An evil, sickness spreads a terror in its wake
The victims of its shadow weep and writhe.
Today a father’s heartbeat tells his fright
And mothers bend their heads into their hands
Now children choke and die with typhus
A bitter tax is taken from their bands.
My heart beats inside my breast
While friends depart for other worlds
Perhaps it’s better—who can say?
Than watching this, to die this way?
No—my God! We want to live!
Not watch our numbers whither away.
We want to have a better world
We want to work—we must not die today!
I held the poem for a long while. Just a girl. Just a 14 year old girl. She was beautiful for sure. Did her death make it so? That would be tragic. Or was she still alive, these words of hers mouthed in mine? What is our relationship? I rather not answer, nor ask any more. I was crying.
I kept my head up. I gazed at the sky above Oświęcim. I could glimpse my students in small figures. I recognized them. They were mine. But they were moving further and further away. Almost shadows. To let them go? To let it go? To let it all go? The holocaust? The pogroms? The annihilation? Fanta Bass? Eva Pickova? Poland? The Pale? The shtetl dream of a fiddler dancing precariously on a roof? One can’t keep everything in his heart. It’ll explode.
Feeling is a problem.
I sat a moment longer. The last of my students was making her way down the rails. It was Marta. I could only see her wild blond locks and tip-toeing frame. She danced lightly on those rails, out of the sky, and on through the gates.
I was happy.
I was ready to go home.