Watchword – Mark Evan Chimsky

During the Second World War, the Church in Poland hid Jewish children from the Nazis. After the war, rabbis visited Polish orphanages, and devised a secret method of searching out the Jewish children so they could be reclaimed. However, on orders of the Vatican, those who had been baptized were not released, even if their families had survived the Holocaust.

We thought he forgot all the words because he was so old.
His robe billowed like it was hanging on a clothesline
as he walked through our room of many beds, past children,
like me, whose last memory of their parents was of their hands,
pushing them away.  The candles that had been lit could not
always stand up against the wind and cold of the room,
and the walls could not keep out whatever took some of us away,
leaving gaps like the missing teeth of beggars.
The old man’s language brought us back to other rooms
and candles, whose flames did not die out.
He gazed at our faces, his eyes watchful, expectant
as if we, who had nothing, could have something to give him.
By the time he rasped the two words,

“Sh’ma Yis-ra-eil…”

a third time, we no longer heard his voice, but the voices of our parents
coming back to us, as if through many rooms,
as if they had never gone away.

And when he did not finish the prayer, we heard our own voices
saying what we had heard so long before,

“Adonai Ehloheinu…”

and the old man’s eyes burned quick, like candles
in the night of this room.
Our voices grew louder with each mysterious word, the sounds
like hands drawing us near, holding us against the cold
and the dark.

“…Adonai Eh-chad!”

Not all of us spoke, but in that moment those of us who did
found something of ourselves that had not been taken away.
And hope lived in us
and memory became bread, if only for that day.


Mark Evan Chimsky is a Portland, Maine-based poet and playwright whose poetry and essays have appeared in Kind Over Matter, Bullets into Bells, Wild Violet, The Maine Sunday Telegram, The Oakland Review, The Journal of the American Medical Association, Mississippi Review, The Cincinnati Judaica Review, and The Three Rivers Poetry Journal. His new poem “Dimmer Switch” will soon appear in The Healing Muse 22. Mark is also a recipient of the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Award as New/Emerging Poet.

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