My eyes starve on words
I don't understand: ARBEIT MACHT FREI
furled in metal above the gothic gate.
A sign on a black and white
turnpike post screams Halt.
Cobblestone roads track
toward a cypress horizon,
brick buildings on both sides
plain as New England factories.
Nothing sinister except spikes
daggered on the bottom of the gate,
and the postcard's German script,
white on a black border: Auschwitz.
"What irony," the card explains
in Polish, German and English,
"everything in the camp served death,
not freedom." My angelic student
from Norway travels with her class,
writes "you are in my thoughts,"
and I can't understand
how she knows
I am a Jew.
Middle-aged and buzzed
we circle the birthday cake
and the fires I must blow out,
a moment disturbed
by a friend's whisper:
What is your greatest fear?
And in the dark we respond like sheep:
failure, poverty, injury to our children,
and with that word
the candles shiver.
Only videos for our daughter,
half Jew, half Mennonite,
who does not witness murder
or dismemberment on the nightly news.
Lying in a hammock,
deep in the innocent shade of maples,
she absorbs her books:
The Diary of Anne Frank,
The Devil's Arithmetic.
Thirteen years old and a holocaust library
she studies like a girl
learning to lip-synch a song.
At dinner, she tells us the children hid
in slop, died from dysentery,
asks the age Auschwitz girls began their periods.
At a lakeside resort in the Black Forest
I am a man who does not speak
the language. Rowboats on the lake,
pale bodies near shore,
laughter, Coke and bratwurst
covering the picnic tables, and I remember
summer at the beach where I learned to swim,
a lifeguard guiding me to deep water,
his hand gentle under my belly
launching me toward the float.
blasts from a loudspeaker
and suddenly I am the Jew
someone wants to drown.
Mark Levy and I go one on one
as if the season is on the line,
elbows flying when he shoves me from behind.
I peel myself from the ground
perplexed by the blood on my hands,
and a word I've never uttered and can't define
that flies from my mouth like a bayonet:
You stupid f-ing Kike!
His fist slams my chest
and echoes like a boxcar door,
my sudden pain and breathlessness
as surprising as the blow of his words:
No one calls me that,
not even one of us.
Thunder pounds the Capital Beltway and I sob
in rhythm with the wipers,
tears commuting like rain on the windshield.
An old European woman's voice
like my grandmother Pearl's
tells a story in tones flat as the numbers
tattooed on her wrist:
the forced march, her father dead in a ditch,
then her mother and sister, the way she kept moving
her bleeding feet. And when she returned to the camp,
stripped, retching blood, clubbed to her knees,
she opened her eyes
over a single red strawberry,
a ruby on God's hand,
growing through the crack in a concrete step.
Just before the basketball playoffs
a friend badgers me to shift allegiances.
But I remain loyal.
I detest his team's centers,
two white men with shaved heads.
Oh yeah, he laughs,
those guys look like Gestapo.
Deep in the walled city's center
between the gelato shop and frame store,
the Museum of Torture stands
filled with barbed wire belts,
thumb screws, drowning benches,
racks, and a solid oak electric chair
complete with authentic leather straps.
Outside, for the comfort and relaxation
of the visitors, a small courtyard
beckons with a patch of grass,
blinding green after the dark torture rooms.
I wander aimless as a tourist
to a small cottage in the garden's corner,
a gas chamber replica,
and standing there are three German men
dressed American in Reeboks and Levi's.
We strain to read
a description of cyanide gas,
how the quick breath of torture
lasts only an instant,
and all I smell is the honeysuckle vine
clenched to the wall like a thousand fists.
Read more of Dr. Berlin's work.