Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Day My Mother Felt Good


The Day My Mother Felt Good

Monday she’d been crying a lot
thinking she’d never walk again.

It was the Jerry Lewis Telethon
that did it to her, listening to him
talk about the kids who can’t walk.
She felt he was talking about her.
My mom, just one of Jerry’s kids.

She cried a lot. But then Tuesday,
the therapist got her up and walking,
twice, up and down the corridor
almost to the front door, and she felt
maybe everything would be better.

On the phone that night my mom
was happy and wanted to talk.
She’d seen a new doctor, a woman
named Winston, and she liked her.

My Mom joked about the doc’s name,
saying, “Winston tastes good like a
cigarette should,” like in the old ads.
And the doctor told my mother
the blood thinning medicine
she was taking was working,
and soon they’d be sending her
for tests to see if the blood clots
in both her legs have vanished.

So all and all, that Tuesday night
my mom was feeling pretty good.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

My Mother's Dreams in Wartime

My Mother's Dreams in Wartime

The world burns before our eyes,
and the smell of everything red
is on our skin.
We wait in line for bread
that never comes. We speak
to strangers thinking they will
tell us where our lives are.
We pray in the barracks
and the fields for the miracle
of hope.


My mother survived more than 2 years in various labor and concentration camps in Germany.  She never thought she would.

Much of the writing in my book Echoes of Tattered Tongues describe her struggle to keep going.  

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A German Soldier Urinates in a Bus

He stood up and braced himself against a crate and unbuttoned his trousers. He had to relieve himself, and this was a good place. Even though it was cold in the bus, he could smell that other men had done the same thing here, and for the same reason. It was safe in the bus.
So he urinated on some smashed boards from one of the wooden rifle crates. He watched the yellow piss shoot from his body and darken the gray wood. And for a few seconds, the stream of hot piss steamed as it rushed out of him and hit the cold boards. It felt good to be urinating and not have to worry about being shot.
When he finished, he shook himself the way his father taught him, and then he buttoned up and slung his Musset bag over his shoulder and lifted his rifle and started moving toward the shattered window he had entered through last night.
A dead man lay there now, half in the bus and half outside. Shrapnel must have killed him; his torso was split and mangled like it was hit by a giant hammer. It must have happened a while ago. The blood was ice already; his dark, frozen intestines covered with snow.
Hans looked at the dead man’s face to see if it was anyone he knew. It wasn’t. He climbed over the body and made his way out of the bus. 
from my novel Road of Bones  -- to be published in this year by Cervena Barva Press.
Other excerpts are available online: The German and Village of Cold Houses.   

Friday, October 10, 2014


When my mother was dying, she insisted for a long time that she could beat death.

She had survived the murder of her family by the nazis, years in concentration camps, living from hand to mouth in America, an alcoholic husband suffering from PTSD, two cancers, arthritis that crippled her body, a bad heart that would sometimes simply stop, and a lot more.

She had hope. She was up front about it. If you asked her what kept her alive, she’d tell you.


I didn’t know where it came from but she had it. She didn’t believe in God, didn’t believe in others, didn’t believe in any philosophy. They were all worthless, one of her favorite words.

There was nothing that kept her tied to life accept her sense that there was some good thing that could happen and turn it all around. This kept her going for 5 years when she was dying and alone.

And then it left her.

One day I called her and she said, “Johnny, I don’t have hope anymore.”
It was gone, gone because she knew that there were no more miracles that could keep her alive.

But then five brutal years later, it came back, at the very end of her life.

At 83 she had a stroke that left her paralyzed over 85% of her body. She couldn’t move her hands or feet, couldn’t eat, couldn’t move her lips to speak.

The doctor said there was no hope for recovery. She would just get worse.

In the hospital, I asked her if she wanted me to take her off life support.

She struggled to speak, and when the word finally came out, it was “No.”

And what did I do?

I went home and wrote a poem:


Hope is kind.

Hope is a door and a window.

Hope is the silly neighbor child we ignore when we are children ourselves.

Hope is the lesson learned too late.

Hope is friday and sunday morning.

Hope is a train going so fast that not even time can catch it.

Hope is the brother of sorrow, the sister of grief.

Hope is soft cows in a distant pasture of grass. 

Hope is our mother. 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Village of Cold Houses -- an Excerpt from Road of Bones

Road of Bones:  That's the title of my forthcoming novel (Červená Barva Press) about two German lovers separated by war.  It's set in Berlin and the Russian Front during one cold week in January of 1945.  The main characters are Hans, a soldier, and Magda, a widow and his lover.

Hans is a fictional representation of the German soldiers who killed my mom's family in 1942.

I wanted to write about him so I could better understand what happened to my grandmother and my aunt and my aunt's baby.

WIPs -- an online journal that offers excerpts from novels in progress -- has published a chapter from late in the Road of Bones, along with an interview in which I talk about writing the book, my motivation and the problems finding a publisher.

Please take a look.

Here's the interview:

An early chapter of the novel entitled "The German" was published by Ontario Review.  

I've posted that chapter here at Lightning and Ashes.  Just click HERE.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

BE•HOLD: A Performance Film

I first heard about Janet R. Kirchheimer and her project to make BE*HOLD, a documentary focusing on poetry dealing with the Holocaust, this last summer.  I was immediately interested in the focus of this work and the possibilities that it raised for understanding how people respond to the Holocaust and how they respond to writing and art about the Holocaust.  As I've given poetry readings about my parents' experiences as Polish slave laborers, I've often felt that poetry has the ability to communicate the meaning and experience of the terrible things that happened like no other medium.

I asked Janet to write about her project so that I could post it here.

After you read it, please take a look at the progress reel for the documentary.  Just click HERE, and when asked for the password, type in the word: perform

Janet R. Kirchheimer

Writing the Holocaust Through Film

My parents are eating dinner in a Jerusalem hotel. Their waiter asks where they live. My mother tells him, “America.” The waiter says, “You should come to live in Israel because it’s home.” My father tells him, “Home is anywhere they let you in.”

Born in a small town in Southern Germany, my father hid, along with his parents, older sister and younger brother, in the basement of their home during Kristallnacht. The next morning, on November 10, 1938, he was ordered to report to town hall. Along with nine other men, he was arrested and sent to Dachau.  He was sixteen years old. My mother, also born in Germany, was six years old when she was backed up against a wall at school in 1936. Her classmates threw rocks at her because she refused to say “Heil Hitler.” Her parents got her out to a Jewish girls’ orphanage in Amsterdam, the Israelitisch Meijesweeshuis. She was one of one hundred and four girls.  Four survived.  My mother came to America with her parents and an older sister.  In 1942, my father’s parents, sister and brother were deported to Westerbork, and then to Auschwitz and killed upon arrival. 

I consider myself lucky.  My parents answered all my questions about the Shoah and what happened to their families.  Some of my friends told me their parents refused. I don’t make any judgments.  When I was a child, I remember visiting a friend of my father who was from his hometown.  They would stand off in a corner speaking about the Shoah in low voices, and would stop when I came by.  But I wanted to know.  In my teens, I asked what happened.  My father and I made lists of the transports of Jews from his town.  We talked about Kristallnacht and Dachau; about the watercress his mother planted each spring near the house and used as a border around the Kartoffel salat (potato salad); how his younger brother wrote in one of his last letters, “with God’s help, we will get to America.”  My mother sang me “The Song of Lorelei” one night at the kitchen table; she told me she had to come back into Germany from Holland in 1937 to get her visa from the American Consulate and that she only spoke Dutch and could barely communicate with her mother; how her mother threw out her gold and silver jewelry from the window of a train after the Nazi Government ordered Jews to turn it in, saving only her wedding ring; and her father who walked home in the blizzard of ’47, collapsed and died in her mother’s arms.

Holding these stories for years, I took a poetry workshop and began writing.  I didn’t stop for over fifteen years.  In 2007, my book, How to Spot One of Us, was published.  I’ve given many readings and taught using my book at a wide variety of venues.  Each time I speak in a school, I am asked by a student why it is important to remember the Holocaust, an event that happened so long ago.  I tell them because, “We still keep killing each other.”  I use my family stories and poetry as a springboard for a discussion about the Shoah and current genocides.

Writer and child survivor Aharon Appelfeld stated, “After the death of the last witnesses, the remembrance of the Holocaust must not be entrusted to historians alone.  Now comes the hour of artistic creation.”  I met film director RichardKroehling at a conference.  We discussed our mutual love of poetry and, within a few weeks, we decided to make BE•HOLD.  The film presents poetry written by survivors, their descendants, and Jews and non-Jews grappling with the Shoah and its aftereffects. Presented by poets, survivors, actors and people from all walks of life, BE•HOLD creates a deep well of voices responding to evil. We want to make BE•HOLD to honor the murdered, the survivors and those who rose up against the Nazis. The team making the film is Richard Kroehling who directed “A. Einstein: How I See the World” for PBS The American Masters Series, and cinematographer Lisa Rinzler, a multi-award winning cinematographer, and I am producer. 
Jane Hirschfield wrote, “Poetry’s work is the clarification and magnification of being,” and Robert Altman said, “Filmmaking is a chance to live many lifetimes.   BE•HOLD brings the viewer into the lives of the poets and the performers.  Richard and I believe that the language of poetry and the language of cinema can be brought together for profound and powerful results.  During each filming, we watched poetry and cinema collide and recorded what happened.  Each time something unexpected happened, and it was magical to see it unfold.  Each poem has its own visual island. Capturing a wide range of experiences, viewers’ lives will resonate with the poet’s, allowing them to engage with history through a vibrant and contemporary lens. In BE•HOLD, language becomes a character. The film is designed as a poetic anthology like Wim Wender’s dance anthology film “Pina.” Viewers will follow each performer into a time when good and evil, life and death walked the razor’s edge. It is our hope that new personal meanings for the audience will emerge out of the juxtaposition of the poems, the unique approach to each piece, the performances, cinematography, music and uses of sound and silence.

 Wilfred Owen wrote of his WWI poetry: “My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity. Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn.” When the survivors are gone, we will need new ways to ensure Holocaust memory for future generations.  BE•HOLD will be a living legacy, and an innovative way to remember in a world still rife with genocide. The film imparts the ongoing relevance of the Shoah: that the past is not simply in the past, but rather a vital part of the present and future.  

 BE•HOLD is being incubated at Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. We are forming an Advisory Board for the film. Advisors are poets Mary Stewart Hammond and Edward Hirsch, as well as Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, Chairman Emeritus of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.  Our progress reel features renowned spoken word poet Taylor Mali, Pulitzer Prize nominated poet Cornelius Eady, and me, along with my mother. Please note that it has not been fine edited yet. The password for the video is:   perform

We recently received a challenge grant.  If we raise $15,000, we will receive another $10,000 which will enable us to go into production.  We’ve raised half so far, and are accepting contributions to meet this challenge. Donations can be made by clicking on the link below and filling out the section that says “Special Purpose and Dedication” with BEHOLD.  All contributions are tax deductible.  Just click HERE.

 If you’d like to learn more about the film or become part of the team, please be in contact on the BE•HOLD Facebook page or by email at

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Life Story

Margarita Georgiadis, risking_enchantment

Life Story
He was born in a refugee camp in Germany in 1945.
He was 1 pound 8 ounces. 
He was a leaf of grass. He was lovely.
He was born dreaming his mother’s dream
of flying like a robin through the sky
and eating everything
that was pure and good and golden.
And then he smashed into a wall
and was dead, and the nurses
wrapped him up and put him
in the grave with all of the others.

My poem and the image by Margarita Georgiadis are from a series of poems and images published by EIL--escape into life.  To see those poems and the images, just click here.  

War: An Update

I saw an article at the NY Review of Books Blog about whether or not war is coming.  The piece is called "Birds of War" by Christopher Benfey.

He got me thinking.

It seems to me it's an odd question because there is always war coming.  

I was born in 1948 in a UN camp for refugees of WWII.  I came to the US in 1951.  The first job my mom got was working in a factory making walkie-talkies for the GIs fighting in Korea.  From 1963 to 1975, my father and I argued about the war in Vietnam.  

After I started teaching American Lit in 1980, I had students who were veterans of the little wars we fought in Panama and Grenada and Colombia and Iraq.  In 2001, I advised students who were being called up to fight in the war against terror.  

I'm retired from teaching now, but still teach a war stories class online for my old university.
About half the students are veterans of the wars we've been fighting since 2001.  

I expect their daughters and sons will see as much war as I've seen.

Here’s a poem I wrote about it years ago—right after the start of the second Iraq War:

The War Poets

They’re all alike

They tell you
about the bodies
like bundles of rags

the splintered trees

the blood so red
no words can nail it down

You hear it
in Stephen Crane
in Hemingway
in Thucidyes

Remember the butterfly
in All’s Quiet
on the Western Front?

Sure you do

Vonnegut’s soldier
in Slaughterhouse-5
asking “Why me?”

Yeah, that too

You’ve heard it
all before

Every word

And you’ll hear it again
or your son will
or your daughter will


The poem originally appeared in the journal Two Review