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Auschwitz: Remnants of Sunlight

Posted by E on January 27, 2015

Auschwitz photos birkenau camp pics girl krystina

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

  1. 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

and suddenly,

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

I wait

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.

 

 

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