Thursday, March 20, 2014
My father spent 4 years as a slave laborer in Nazi Germany. He was a prisoner in Buchenwald and its sub camps. He worked in its factories and its field. He plowed, shovelled, and scrambled through bricks looking for dead Germans. He did the work the Germans told him to do.
When the war ended, he was 25 years old, weighed 75 pounds, and had only one eye. He had seen men die singly and in large numbers. He had seen them hanged, shot, castrated, beaten to death with clubs, and left to stand in the snow till they fell to their knees and died.
I often think about what he must have thought about it all, the long years, the hunger and suffering. Here's a poem that tries to get at that.
Night in the Labor Camp
Through the nearest window
my father stares at the sky and thinks
of his dead father and mother,
his dead sister and brother,
his dead aunt and dead uncle,
his dead friend Jashu, and the boy
whose name he didn’t know
who died in his arms, and all
the others who wait for him
like the first light of the sun
and the work he has to do
when the sun wakes him.
He hates no one, not God,
not the dead who come to him,
not the Germans who caught him,
not even himself for being alive.
He is a man held together
with stitches he has laced himself.
—appeared in Echoes of Tattered Tongues, reprinted in the journal War, Literature, and the Arts
Today, at George Washington High School here in Danville, I did a poetry reading about my mom and her experiences as a slave laborer in Nazi Germany. Here's one of the poems I read, from my book Echoes of Tattered Tongues.
What the War Taught Her
My mother learned that sex is bad,
Men are worthless, it is always cold
And there is never enough to eat.
She learned that if you are stupid
With your hands you will not survive
The winter even if you survive the fall.
She learned that only the young survive
The camps. The old are left in piles
Like worthless paper, and babies
Are scarce like chickens and bread.
She learned that the world is a broken place
Where no birds sing, and even angels
Cannot bear the sorrows God gives them.
She learned that you don't pray
Your enemies will not torment you.
You only pray that they will not kill you.
The photo above is a still taken from Siege, a documentary by Julien Bryan about the fall of Warsaw.