Today is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. I’ve thought for a long time about what I might be able to write, about what I could say to both honour and preserve the memory of such terror coming to an end. Do I write about the time when I was once surrounded by neo-Nazis and Holocaust revisionists who wove a network of neo-fascists across Europe, Canada, America and South America?
Do I write about old Steve Bendersky, who was like a beloved uncle to me when I was a child and whose arm bore the faded blue numbers that I once seriously contemplated tattooing onto my own wrist? Whose Shabbat candles I inherited after his death and which I still light every Friday evening?
Do I write about discovering my Jewish roots, and how my family tree research has come to an abrupt halt as I realize that it’s very likely most of my father’s relatives perished in the war?
If I started to write about the heartache that Auschwitz represents both to me and to Jews as a population, along with the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of gays and lesbians, gypsies and political prisoners in WW2, I would probably just sit here, start crying and be unable to stop, much less write a single word. So instead, I want to talk about my own memories of the concentration camp.
I visited Auschwitz once, during the summer of 2001, the year after I graduated university and worked as an English teacher in South Korea. Instead of doing something respectable like paying off my defaulted student loans, I decided that I had to journey back to eastern Europe that summer – I had to track down for myself the roots of the hatred that had surrounded my early life.
I took these photos at Auschwitz-Birkenau and I wrote this long poem, Remnants of Sunlight, which I published in my first poetry book. Today, on the 70th anniversary of the WW2 genocide that represents the worst of humanity, I can’t think of a better way to commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz than to republish this poem that is so close to my heart here, on my own blog.
Many of the verses and imagery encompassed here were scribbled while I stood there, in the empty barracks of Birkenau – it was a sunny, beautiful day, in contrast to the horror that surrounded me. The planks underneath my feet snapped and crackled as I walked among the barracks, amid the three-tiered bunk slots, touching the worn, rain-soaked wood that had once let in the cold, bitter winter winds that killed thousands of malnourished prisoners.
I listened to the frogs and crickets singing through the knee-high grass, and imagined that the lush, verdant greenery of my surroundings had sprouted up from the ashes and crumbling bones of countless nameless victims. I felt the great big emptiness of those awful barracks corrode through my entire being and leave a huge, empty hole in my soul.
And then I wrote this poem.
REMNANTS OF SUNLIGHT
- BARBED ROOTS
Last night, my fate made an unannounced appearance.
She presented herself for dinner uncombed,
long hair spreading like a silver service set
upon my Hungarian lace and Polish linen.
Her lips made the sound of a struck match
and then she dissolved like the flame
folded between napkins and candlelight,
in clotted ink behind all the spice jars,
I discovered a journey –
A pilgrimage of crumbling pages
with scribbles and margins ripped
and a big part missing,
the part about how, one evening in August
my return is inevitable.
The coarse grains of history
have become threads between my fingers
as I hold my father’s funeral suit in preparation
and the smell of mothballs finds another fragrance
of yellowed books, copper and sulphur
lingering soft as the light of opals
and the mouldy cellar smell of a dead grandmother
chemical powders and twisted letters
weave like high country roads on my tongue;
the sound of predestination
is the hush of waist-high grass among barracks
and the ribbit of frogs leaping
out of a pond of ashes
right after graduation I know I must find him –
breathe in the last days of my father’s essence,
find out his ending
I have to revisit the house where my grandmother lived
locate the little girl who was my sister, now missing
the boulders that rained upon my childhood
must be swept out
from the floorboards of this house
that I have carried on my back
for more than twenty years
The dark house of my memories
where my father who disappeared breathes
the house that nightly perches on my eyelids
and ropes my hair down through the pillow
into the black earth of a country
I left when I was ten
I arrange to fly from Toronto to Paris one-way
then train onward to eastern Europe
Unfolding in the silence pressed among suitcases
packed with blossoms
brittle like paper, like blouses
in the centre of the Black Forest
weeds protrude through the planks underneath
and I smell the sun and the moon being burned
I inherited the wire
my hair grows twisted like that, all black
charred like Romany wagons
and muddy villages
the same colour as the evening branches I reach toward
through the smeared window
of the Krakow-Budapest train
Brushing my fingertips against the corrosion of metal railings
I feel the echo of locomotives flowing through them,
the breathing of doves perched on wooden fences.
I pick up little white stones shaped like petals
and a fire is burning in my palms
2. KRAKOW, 5762
Two hours before you catch
the connecting train
in the middle of nowhere
the birds sing louder, gravel paves the horizon.
Two hours to put down your backpack and breathe in
the smell of corn and sleepless kilometres
lingering like murmuring chords
Shadows of firs line your closed eyelashes
pad riverbeds and uncombed hair
an unlit street, a colour
splashing over your shoulder
a bridge rail glinting in the sun
you arch, the metal between your fingers
rocking in your palm
a rocks skips across the shallow surface below
emerging on the shore
in the stubble of raspberries and grass against trees
like a bell, your mouth
opens to echo the air
swallowing another voice that breaks out
like a burning rash, over autumns without hours
and railroads that glint in the afternoon sun
shadows juxtapose across your forehead
cloth is reduced to threads, even-numbered and silent
and the direction of the winds commands
the distant vapour of wheat to start an insurrection
your two hands on the railing testify unknowingly
by virtue of their existence
about the arid landscape and the sharpness of language,
the language of grandmothers in old photos
and numbered suitcases in dark rooms;
a language you don’t even speak
of a place you don’t even know –
letters, epitaphs, barometers
are the only coordinates left
in this geography of asphalt.
III. THE HIVE
The old woman with the glassy green brooches
today forgot to pencil in her brows
not that it makes any difference;
her eyelids still sag under the thick black India ink
but she doesn’t stop writing –
If I am dead, who will write these verses for you?
Now enters the smell of white chrysanthemum
carrying the musk of narrow wardrobes
and yellowed newspapers rustling underneath.
Outside the open window, bees are humming;
sunshine dust gathers languorous and heavy –
a few slender rays spread like fingers
across my rumpled blue bedspread.
From this high window I can see the entire city
how pretty Wawel castle is, how loud the wail
of the dying trumpeter across Rynek Glowny Square
and how empty of voices
although on another frequency that only stray animals make out
pressed between the dying weed and cobblestones
there is singing
no matter how many hot the day, she remains cold
papery like a delicate leaf in the morning rain
and still here, through the sunshine and foliage
climbing over the windowsill
the fingertips of ghosts continue to cling from the edge
in every vacant place, on every park bench
there is a hollowness that becomes testament,
then turns into voice
and the voice speaks the names – all of them
every one of them
Darting through my black hair
Auschwitz’s bees search for their stolen honey
buzzing through tall cannibal grass
buzzing in and out of the barracks
Don’t touch, don’t search my soul,
she leaves me a folded message on the table
not on such a beautiful day
so hot, so full of brightness
when the circumference of summer
becomes a fragile eggshell
with its yolk missing
IV. AT SUNRISE THE FORGOTTEN WILL WEEP
At sunrise the forgotten will weep
big tears of stone.
So heavy their tears,
they will roll down hills as great boulders
and smash into the grey buildings that had crushed
the beating hearts of the nameless
such great rocks will fall – thick like rain in the valleys
and the forgotten will once again weep
So wet will their tears be
that they will moisten the earth
and make it easier for fingers to dig out
fathers and grandmothers
brushing the dirt from their clothes
picking up suitcases, ready to come home
So hot the sunrise will be
that it will dry the blood on their faces
and clear a sadness fringed with eyelashes
It will call them by name
reacquainting them with the heat of the loved
with the sensation that somebody remembered
the names and the dreams they once carried
folded like secret letters
in the depths of their shirt pockets
V. FAR FROM THE APPLE ORCHARD
In my classroom in downtown Seoul, the windows are always open with voices.
Little kids squeal and climb up my back; we sing about the dog named Bingo
eat kimchi together for lunch, the heat of searing Korean spices
wafting away that other smell of smoke
On vacation in Beijing I climb the Great Wall through stinging air,
running up the steps as fast as I can, like a Tibetan mountain goat
trying to reach the heights of Tibetan mountain-dwellers
where the North wind rages so loudly, it silences everything
A year later, along the Ponte Vecchio in Florence,
I listen as Michelangelo would have, to the sound of hammer and chisel
drifting across the Arno. Here, the clang of iron is an invocation of beauty,
not the screech of a train coming to a stop, the crash of gates closing
Then, on the bus to Mombassa, along the bright coast
women with round syllables and laughter
sing a song of bronze bracelets and colourful khangas
So far from the dark, endless woods where songs turn to screams
where the faces of locals are stout and red
as though stained by the blood underneath their feet.
As far down as Cusco I feel the breath of cliffs on my back,
The spit of hot springs at Aguas Calientes. Up the trail to Macchu Picchu
I smell chickens in the alpine air: wild fowl, wet feathers, muddy paths.
I am like an apple, there are five parts to me –
seed, core, meat, skin, and stem.
Like an apple, I leave parts of myself everywhere.
I am the shell of a seed eaten up by villages of rock and dirt along the Danube –
swept along rivers rampaging out of their beds
there is nothing left but my war –
a forest of wolves.
The shaman anoints my forehead with red liquid.
His hands smell of fermented herbs, berries, cocoa leaves, leather.
You are a bird that refuses to feed or to fly/
but there is something in you which will not die.
My ears pick up the noise of the jungle, rushing water and tall blades of grass.
The heat inside the enclosed hut makes my body sticky;
The air is viscous and green with thunderstorms.
This may well be the first time I can see /
this strength that has always evaded me
the will of a body to survive in spite of itself –
a drowning rat clawing out of its own frailty.
How much determination is required to breathe?
There are certain things a body will do with or without approval;
(take in air, for example).
A body will fight for survival.
A body will survive pogroms, refugee camps, beatings
while the mind, just a seed raw and torn from its shell
stays wrapped in a peel of green apple skin
around a tea cup glazed with a Spanish windmill,
the last one of a set.