My poems emerge, more often than not uninvited, insisting that I listen and give them life, insisting, often relentlessly, that I forge them into an autonomous existence outside myself.
“do you know who I am?/ and if not/do you know who I was?/ and if not/why do you know me?”
My poems define and explain who I am and who I was, because if our present day self is to be authentic, it inevitably is a consequence, however tortured, of our past.
I cannot pinpoint the exact moment when I first began expressing myself in the genre of poetry, but I am reasonably certain that my doing so was connected to my reading, or rereading, Dylan Thomas. The Welsh poet intrigued me with his ability to capture emotions rooted simultaneously in anger and pain. His “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” conveyed the anguish inherent in remembering a child killed in the German Blitz air attacks on London during World War II. Reading the lines, “Never until the mankind making,” “Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter,” and “The majesty and burning of the child’s death” inexorably forced me to think of the children murdered in the Holocaust whose death and burning in gas chambers and crematoria were anything but majestic.
Again and again, I returned to this one poem until, decades later, I crystallized my reactions to it in two poems of my own. “whom should I forgive?/ why should I forgive?/ how can I forgive?” I wrote in “A Refusal to Forgive the Death, by Gas, of a Child in Birkenau.” And in “oh yes, I too refuse to mourn,” I made the direct connection between Thomas’ dead child and the more than one million murdered Jewish children “cast into immortality/of mankind’s making” at Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec, Majdanek, and so many other horrific places:
“unlike London’s daughter/they did not feel the flames/that faded them as black clouds/into the synagogue of heaven/child souls”
These children haunt me; in particular, the image of one child haunts me, and I never want him to leave my consciousness. Again and again, I have looked at a framed photograph of a little boy with dark hair, sharp, intelligent eyes, and a serious demeanor looking straight ahead into the lens, seemingly through the lens. My mother rarely spoke about my brother, but I am certain that she looked at this picture every day of her life. It wasn’t until I read the manuscript of her memoir shortly before she died that I found out about her last moments with her child. It was the night of August 3rd, 1943. My mother, her parents, her husband, her son, and her sister had arrived at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp after a harrowing journey from their hometown of Sosnowiec in a cattle car.
“We were guarded by SS men and women,” she wrote. “One SS man was standing in front of the people and he started the selection. With a single movement of his finger, he was sending some people to the right and some to the left… Men were separated from women. People with children were sent to one side, and young people were separated from older looking ones. No one was allowed to go from one group to the other. Our 5 1/2‑year-old son went with his father. Something that will haunt me to the end of my days occurred during those first moments. As we were separated, our son turned to me and asked, ‘Mommy, are we going to live or die?’ I didn’t answer this question.”
My brother’s death and his absence in my life have been a recurring presence in my poems. Since my mother’s death in 1997, he has existed inside of me. I see his face in my mind, try to imagine his voice, his fear as the gas chamber doors slammed shut, his final tears. If I were to forget him, he would disappear.
In “oh yes, I too refuse to mourn,” I wrote:
“he was born/I was born/our mothers hugged us/years apart/we turned one/then two, then four/then five/but he was never six years old/never was called to the Torah/never kissed a girl/never studied Ecclesiastes or Kierkegaard/never read Buber or Kafka/or even The Little Prince”
These children haunt me; in particular, the image of one child haunts me, and I never want him to leave my consciousness.
And in “Psalm 121 On Fire,” I addressed God on his behalf, and mine:
“black eyes search for yesterday/above beyond walls/above beyond imagined hills/search for human divine help/promised shelter … while atonal melodies bereft of life/ascend from their depth/through charred skeletal trees/and one more five-year-old soul/shatters unprotected/into flames raging up/toward Your sky/Your stars/Your forever”
“Midnight Hallucinations” was inspired by another photograph. It is of my grandfather standing outside a house, a window behind him. His beard is white, his eyes are piercing. He is wearing a black hat and coat. On his left arm is a white armband. Sometime before the liquidation of the Będzin ghetto, the Germans apparently wanted to document the ghetto. My grandfather was standing in the street and was captured on film. After the war, the film was found somewhere in Będzin. Someone who saw it recognized my grandfather, and knew that my father was in the Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons camp. Two frames of the film were cut out and sent to my father who had the image enlarged and framed.
And so it was that I grew up with this photograph of my grandfather hanging in my room. I always thought that maybe he was looking directly at me, the grandchild he knew he would never see, and that in this one gaze he was trying to teach me everything he wanted me to know.
“ghost children paint/black butterflies/against burning flowers/as my grandfather’s eyes/transcend eternity/to remind me why/I bear his name”
My poems allow me to at least try to confront God in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Without meaning to be either presumptuous or sacrilegious, I focused on certain Biblical evocations in the context of what we know to have been the gruesome reality of the mid-twentieth century. Many of us are familiar, perhaps all too familiar, with Psalm 23, a standard at funerals. “A psalm of David. Adonai is my shepherd; I shall not want … Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for You are with me.” In the psalm, God makes us lie down in green pastures and spreads a table for us in the presence of our enemies, anointing our heads with oil. “Only goodness and lovingkindness shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in Adonai’s house forever.”
How can we reconcile these words with the agony endured by Jews, as well as Roma and others, in the Nazi death and concentration camps?
These questions led me to conceive of an alternate version in “Psalm XXIII at Auschwitz:”
“a psalm to the emptiness/no shepherd/only foes/no festive table/only bitter soup/moldy bread/no green pastures … he is always hungry/she is always cold/their heads anointed/by blows/shadows walking/through the valley of death/Adonai’s fog-wrapped house/forever”
At the same time, I cannot write only about the past, or be oblivious to present-day suffering. Nor do I feel or relate to only Jewish anguish and pain during the Shoah. My father taught me that all children are equal, regardless of their religion or nationality. Thus, I wrote: “the messiah will not come/God will not leave Her seclusion/until Jerusalem’s bearded/rabbis imams priests/teach daily that each/Jewish child/Palestinian child/is created with one/only one/always the same/divine spark”
My poems are also my way of reflecting on the miracles and beauty of life. After our daughter, Jodi, was born, I wrote: “voiceless melodies drift forgotten/through their fog-imbued vacuum/of invisible sparks/above God’s eternal twilight/only to be heard/transcending heaven/at the birth of a child”
And in “Hallie and Jacob,” written for and about our grandchildren, I wondered: “perhaps my parents kissed you/like they once kissed me/like my mother kissed your mother/before sending you/to become who you are/to become who you will be”
My poems allow me to at least try to confront God in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Without meaning to be either presumptuous or sacrilegious, I focused on certain Biblical evocations.
For me, writing poetry requires mental compartmentalization. This was made clear to me in my first class at Columbia Law School. It was late summer of 1976, and I had come there after receiving an M.A. in creative writing, specifically poetry, from Johns Hopkins, and a second M.A. in modern European history from Columbia. I was certain that these two graduate degrees would be the cornerstones of my intellectual development as a lawyer. Professor John M. Kernochan, who would become one of my favorite professors at the law school, told us in no uncertain terms that poetry was incompatible with good legal writing. He was right, of course. My poems perforce consist of and reflect emotions, intangible images, and escapes into imaginary landscapes that take on a fleeting reality before fading away. These are decidedly undesirable elements for legal briefs or persuasive historical essays.
And so, I spent the past several decades expressing myself on two tracks: one rigorously fact-based, and the other giving me the freedom to find refuge in images and shadows that take me on journeys inside myself.
My writing is deeply influenced by my interaction with others. First and foremost, my parents, who remain my role models; Jeanie, my love, my best friend, my inspiration, and my sounding board; our children Jodi and Mike and grandchildren Hallie and Jacob who make me feel that I am far younger than I am, and who inspire me every single day; Jeanie’s parents Lilly and Sam Bloch whose war-time experiences as, respectively, a hidden child and a partisan, complemented my parents’ imprisonment at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen; my teacher and mentor Elie Wiesel, who taught me that words can and should become burning scars; Professor Elliott Coleman, director of The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, who gave me the confidence to discover and develop my poetic voice; and friends, colleagues, and students too numerous to list. Each enriched my understanding of the human condition immeasurably, and I am thankful to them all.
I owe a special debt of gratitude to Ambassador Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, for whom I have worked in several capacities for most of the past quarter century. He has allowed and enabled me to make many trips, pilgrimages as it were, over the years to the sites where, in another phrase inspired by Dylan Thomas, death now has its dominion. Auschwitz and Birkenau, my birthplace of Bergen-Belsen, my parents’ hometowns, the Czeladź Jewish cemetery where my grandmother is buried. Many of my poems are rooted in these and other locations, and I am quite certain that their spirits and ghosts, including my brother’s, would not have emerged to me as they did had I not been physically present there to meet and absorb them.
Menachem Z. Rosensaft is General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress, and editor of The World Jewish Congress, 1936 – 2016 (World Jewish Congress, 2017).