By David Lehman
New York, NY, USA
In the yeshiva playground they were marching
chanting marching around in circles bearing pickets
bearing scrolls saying “No poems after Auschwitz! No poems
about Auschwitz!” while in the back row
the poet sat dreamily and stared out the window, hungry.
Could there be lunch after Auschwitz?
His mother did everything she could have done
but there wasn’t money enough for the necessary bribes
and her parents were deported to Riga and shot.
A woman he met at a writer’s conference
told him she was working on The Holocaust and Memory
at Yale. The question she had was this:
Are American Jews making a fetish out of the Holocaust?
Has the Holocaust become the whole of Jewish experience?
“You go to shul on Yom Kippur or Passover
and everything is the Holocaust.” I shut my eyes and hear
the old prayers made new: “Shame is real,” said Ida Noise.
Hear, O Israel. The Lord is One. I, an American, naturally preferred
a temple carved out of water and stone: the rage of a waterfall,
the melody of a brook. But back-to-nature as a strategy failed
when the phones started ringing in the woods,
and only a child would think of collecting dead leaves
and trying to paste them back on the trees. So I returned
to the city, married, settled down, had a child of my own,
pretended that I was just like anybody else.
Yet I feel as if my real life is somewhere else, I left it
back in 1938, it happened already and yet it’s still going on,
only it’s going on without me, I’m merely an observer
in a trenchcoat, and if there were some way I could enter
the newsreel of rain that is Europe, some way I could return
to the year where I left my life behind,
it would be dear enough to me, danger and all. To him,
an emissary of a foreign war, London was unreal. He wondered
which of his fellow passengers would make the attempt.
He knew now that they would try to kill him,
tomorrow if not today. How could he have been such a fool?
Herr Endlich said: “We have our ways of making a man talk.”
In the last forty-eight hours he had learned two things:
That you couldn’t escape the danger, it was all around you,
and that the person who betrays you is the one you trusted most.
The strategists in Washington couldn’t figure it out. Why in hell
were the Germans wasting fuel on trains to camps in Poland?
From Yeshiva Boys by David Lehman
(Header graphic from a painting entitled Birkenau Barracks Memorial 2 (2015) by Bruce Gendelman. Courtesy of the artist.)
David Lehman is a renowned editor, literary critic, anthologist, poet and the founder of The Best American Poetry series.