Void and Voice: Notes from Poland

Two years ago I traveled to Poland. In a sense I was traveling backward in both time and space, making the reverse trip my grandfather had made 93 years before, when as a young teenager, he left his small town and worked his way as a tailor across Europe.


Two years ago I traveled to Poland. In a sense I was traveling backward in both time and space, making the reverse trip my grandfather had made 93 years before, when as a young teenager, he left his small town and worked his way as a tailor across Europe. Traveling from country to country, it took him two years to save steerage. He sailed from England and arrived in Toronto in the winter of 1904. Unable at first to find work at his trade, he spent his first Canadian winter doing the most Canadian thing of all—shoveling snow. The sidewalks then were wooden: I can see horse buns steaming in the snow; I can hear the crew he worked with—a melange of foreign accents.

I, on the other hand, made the reverse trip in less than a day, was served food by attractive flight attendants, my travel expenses paid for by my government s arts council. All of that, plus the mere fact that I existed, that my parents were not part of an ash heap, points to the indisputable wisdom of my grandfather in leaving a continent for which he had nothing but contempt. “Europe is a sewer,” he would say; then, thinking of his new country, he would ruefully add, “but who knows you here?”

I had received a grant to do research in Russia on the poet Osip Mandelstam, and it seemed to me a good opportunity to stop en route in Poland and visit the places my grandparents had come from. I had a wish to see with my own eyes where they had once lived and where those they had left behind had been murdered. A morbid wish? Difficult to say. A people’s grave, especially if it is ones own people, is a very special place in one’s psychic map. Yet what was this impulse to actually see it, having already watched so much film footage and read so many books on the subject? Wasn’t that enough? People once made pilgrimages to sacred places; living in a century godless and violent, where we are suspicious of good but maintain a strong belief in the persistence of evil, the numinous for us has shifted from saints’ shrines to scenes of destruction. Or perhaps we have a predisposition to the effects of loss. As for me, I have always found ruins more moving than buildings that are intact. The Wailing Wall, for instance, would not be half as powerful a symbol if its other three walls were still standing.

Through chance and circumstance, I have traveled to many countries, more than I would have chosen, since most are a disappointment. After a time, being a tourist becomes merely an exercise, an accumulating of numerous dates and sites. It can be difficult to maintain an imaginative connection to a foreign place, and I have often had the uneasy realization that the book I was reading on the tour bus was more interesting than the tour, which is another way of saying that mind travel is usually superior to the geographical kind.

Yet Poland was a country that did not disappoint me, mainly because I had a mission and because there is a multitude of ghosts there. It is a double country, a land of two worlds—the living and the dead. In Warsaw, a cluster of gray apartment buildings sits on the site of the old Jewish ghetto, and near a park with swings is a red brick wall left from the war, pock-marked from mortar and bullets. A restaurant advertises “Jewish-style soup.” A theater group is producing a Yiddish comedy translated into Polish. The rebuilding that has gone on in Warsaw since the war, unlike that in German cities, has not been an attempt to expunge the past. In Poland, the past is always intruding on the present. We each carry within us our personal, racial and cultural histories. The point at which those pasts collide with our contemporary existence may serve as the point of illumination. For a poet, it is often the point of poetic tension. Since the poet is a sound engineer, one who mixes the voices of living with those of the dead, Poland, for me at least, served as a poetic catalyst.


I had seen so much black-and-white footage of World War II that I was shocked to arrive in a sunny, bright Warsaw. The Warsaw of my mind would be gray, overcast, with people scurrying furtively through twisted streets, in and out of narrow, dilapidated houses. An expressionist nightmare, a poor man’s Caligari. The narrow streets were mostly gone, replaced by wide, Stalinist avenues; where there had once been claustrophobic tenements rich in personality, there were now impersonal, homogeneous, Soviet-style concrete hulls used for factories, hotels, office or apartment buildings, all indistinguishable from one another.

In the oldest part of the city, they are painstakingly rebuilding Old Town from photographs, some extant blueprints and memory. It is a futile gesture. For the new lacks the patina that accumulates on the old and gives it flavor, and the small, brightly colored shops there remind one of the fake foreign-country sections at Disney World. There is an organic geological aspect to cities, created by time and the erosion from soles and tires, that cannot be simulated.

One of the few green, shaded and beautiful spots in the city is an old Jewish cemetery on the border of what was once the ghetto. The tombstones are dark and brooding, with their chiseled, Hebrew hieroglyphs. Every cemetery has its own personality, oddly akin to the actual lives of its denizens. Take the graveyards of British soldiers you come across in Madras or Khartoum or Singapore. All the regimented crosses, as if those military souls were still marching. Or the small Presbyterian cemeteries in rural Ontario, with plenty of space between each modest stone, as if breathing room were still a priority for those farmers and their wives. Here, by contrast, is a ghetto within what had once been a ghetto. The stones are so close they almost touch. They lean this way and that, like crooked teeth. The density is both oppressive and stimulating. Oppressive because of the weight of so much stone, so much gravity, sadness and heaviness; stimulating because of the cultural anarchy here, the social mulch. Different centuries are next to one another, as are different personalities—an administrator next to a musician, a mystical rabbi next to a rationalist philosopher, a young girl next to a prostitute—the odd juxtapositions that conjure for a moment the enormous diversity of that community.

Of course these are the more fortunate buried here, having died before the Catastrophe. Their presence reminds us of the greater absence just beyond the gate of this burial ground. For those who lived to suffer in the Warsaw ghetto are not buried here. Some are in mass, anonymous graves, lime-filled so as to prevent the spread of typhus; many others, like those young resistance fighters commemorated by a statue in this cemetery, are beneath the brick and asphalt of the hideous apartments you can see from the gate. Yet the vast majority of those half-million inhabitants who were forced to survive in an area 1 ½ square miles and surrounded by a wall crowned with barbed wire and broken glass are not buried anywhere. Treblinka is less than a two-hour drive from here.


At the entrance to the Jewish cemetery is the statue of a bald, slender man in an overcoat. It is of Janusz Korczak; he is walking, holding a small child whose arms are wrapped about his neck, her cheek pressed to his face. He is leading another child by the hand. Other children follow behind. A type of Peter Pan, I think, and cannot prevent myself from making a morbid joke about the Never-Never Land he is leading them to.

Korczak was a double man living in a double city. This is attested to firstly by the Polishness of his adopted name; he was born Henryk Goldszmit and was Jewish. He was a medical doctor, educator and author who ran a famous orphanage on Krochmalna Street. He wrote widely-read child psychology texts with titles like “The Child’s Right to Respect.” His children’s novel, “King Matt the First,” was as famous in Eastern Europe as “Peter Pan” in the Anglo-Saxon world. In a regular 15-minute program on Polish radio, he appeared as the Old Doctor, giving advice to those suffering from physical or psychological problems. Polish reaction to him was ambivalent. In 1936 anti-Semites forced him off the air, claiming a Jew should not shape the minds of Catholic children. In the following year, the Polish Academy of Literature awarded him the Golden Laurel for his literary achievements. This mixed reaction followed him to the train that would take him and his children to the death camp.

When the Germans began liquidating the ghetto and ordered his orphanage evacuated, Korczak led a procession of 200 children to the waiting freight cars. Refusing last-minute offers from Catholic admirers of help to escape, he said, “You do not leave a sick child alone in the night.” An eyewitness to the procession, one Nachum Remba, whose report was preserved in the secret archives of the ghetto, tells us, “All of the children had formed ranks in rows of four, with Korczak at their head, his eyes lifted to the sky, holding two children by their small hands … even the police stood still and saluted. When the Germans saw Korczak, they asked, ‘Who is this man?’”

Other eyewitnesses tell us that as the procession passed the Children’s Hospital, heading toward Karmelicka Street, Poles could be heard shouting, “Goodbye, good riddance, Jews!” All who witnessed the event report that Korczak maintained his composure.

The grass around Korczak’s statue is overgrown, unkempt with large weeds, as if Polish reaction to him were still ambivalent. From where the statue is situated, you gaze out beyond the gates of the cemetery at the chipped, discolored Warsaw tenements. A woman in a torn cotton dress hangs laundry near a rusted swing set. A patch of dried grass here and there. Two abandoned, gray-brick buildings with shattered windows. The scene beyond the cemetery seems so sterile, so lifeless, that one feels with certainty that there is more going on within the gates, on those cracked and brooding headstones, than without.


I did not want to like the Polish people. Though there were examples of heroism and altruism among them, in general their treatment of the Jews seemed to prohibit any liking. But the truth is, I did like them. I found them hospitable, tenacious, at times intense and passionate, and indolent in a rebellious sort of way. In some way I saw them as the Italians of Eastern Europe, though far more depressed and, perhaps, complex. Like the Italians, they were at heart anarchists. They despised their former masters—the Soviets—and were suspicious of their own leaders.

It was a suspicion born out of the ravages of their own tragic history and struck me as an especially healthy attitude. Yet there was something disturbing and dangerous about them, too. They drink too much, and when they are drunk, do not become joyous but temperamental and at times violent. My sense was that civilization sits uneasily with them, and that when released from it, there is anger at having been repressed and perhaps guilt at having been freed. In his book “Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition,” the poet Czeslaw Milosz states that the Pole “wears a corset … After a certain amount of alcohol, it bursts open revealing a chaos that is not often met with in European countries.” Milosz explains that this corset is a social one, that the Pole’s problem is one of duty toward the collective (i.e., church, nation, class). In his chapter entitled “Catholic Education,” Milosz intuits that Poles are badly christened: “Religion is rarely an inner experience … most often it is a collection of taboos grounded in habit and tribal prejudices.” Christian ethics then remain tied to social identifications—hence the Pole’s shifting attitude toward the Jew, depending on whether he perceives him as part of his society or an outsider, the latter being the usual case.

Yet despite all of this, one realizes that the Poles could never have organized an annihilation like the one that was carried out. Firstly, they are too anarchistic to organize on that scale, and secondly, they could not sustain such evil over so long a period of time. One can imagine flare-ups, drunken murders, sporadic pogroms, but not railway networks, tattooing, bagging human ashes for use as fertilizer.

There was another factor that made it difficult for me to dislike the Poles: I had a tremendous admiration for their literature. At least their modern literature. I know nothing of their classical writings. But from the moment I read the poems of Zbignief Herbert, Milosz, Szymborska, the stories of Borowski, the novels of Konwicki, I felt I had encountered an important literature, one which spoke in a voice that contended honestly with the struggles of the human spirit in the wake of the annihilation.

One other factor. On an internal flight from Warsaw to Krakow, I read an article in the Polish airline’s Lot magazine about a family of seven who had been shot in their farmyard as punishment for hiding Jews. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to judge those who were given a choice to act or to remain silent when to act could mean certain death. The Jews, as victims, were given no such choice: All were slated for death. In the ghetto however, a different choice was created: to die passively, under the illusion that there would be a moment of respite, or die fighting, fully aware of the enemy’s intent and therefore beyond illusion.


Museums are curious institutions. The word actually means “house of the muses” but no artist, to my knowledge, ever founded one. They are the creations of those with power and wealth. People live and create; afterward, someone places the manifestations in a house for future generations to ponder. What one feels in a museum is wonder mixed with the pleasure of the survivor, for what one sees is most often dead. Not only are the animals and humans dead, but so are the species or, in the case of humans, the civilizations they belonged to: their crafts, weapons, costumes and jewelry, all in the realm of the dead, while those viewing are in the realm of the living. Museums are civilization s mausoleums; perhaps they serve to assuage our collective guilt over those we have lived beyond, or alternately, help us feel superior to them and confirm our belief in newness and progress. It must be noted that Ptolemy I, one of Alexander the Great’s generals who seized Egypt in the late 300s B.C., founded the first museum at Alexandria. One imagines he filled it with items from his conquest. It is also worth noting that his museum became a university.

The Museum of the Jewish People and their Artifacts in Warsaw is in an old house on three levels, small and poorly lit. The “artifact” section is on the main floor, but there are very few artifacts—only a small number of enlarged photographs of Warsaw’s great synagogues before the war. The exhibit on the second floor is much more interesting. A number of enlarged edicts and posters from the German Occupation, warning, threatening, prohibiting. There are anti-Semitic artifacts on display which were used by the S.S.: an ashtray in the shape of a pig with a man’s feet jutting out of the mouth and the caricature of a Jew’s head sticking out the pig’s anus. There is the enlarged photo of a Polish peasant woman who had been caught harboring Jews, surrounded with S.S. and with a sign on her chest that reads, “I am the louse-loving bitch. Consider me dead.”

On the walls are grainy photographs of young resistance fighters—men and women who fought in the ghetto. And the dates of their brief lives. The eldest, Abraham Diamant (astonishingly the same name as my maternal grandfather), 1900-1943; and the youngest, Eliezer Blones, 1930-1943. And other photos: a man in flames leaping from a burning building; the haggard fighters, arms upraised, being marched out by the smiling (why are they always smiling?) German soldiers. But I go back to the photos of the ghetto fighters. Some of those faces could have been found in my high school graduation yearbook. This brings me closer to the event, for had I been born a decade earlier, had my grandfathers not left Poland, I would most likely have been among those herded to the Umschlagplatz, the station which now bears the memorial names of a handful of the masses who were shipped out. Or—and I prefer to think of myself this way—I may have died throwing Molotov cocktails at the helmeted soldiers.

The museum is open for a few hours each morning. I am the only one in attendance. The entire time I am there, a tape is playing; I am struck by one particular song—a female voice singing in Yiddish. My knowledge of Yiddish is very sparse, but a woman whom I will meet on my way out who helps administer the museum explains to me that it is a song that a Partisan of the ghetto wrote a short time before its destruction. In it a woman addresses her infant:

Child, if you survive

O, if you survive

You will only understand the meaning of this

When you listen to the silence.


On the day I plan to visit Auschwitz, something in me resists going. Even the phrase “visit Auschwitz” seems to me absurd, as if it were like visiting a friend. A better term might be experience or contend with. To stand at the place of great evil.

An extremely hot June day. After making my way to the railroad station in Krakow, I am told I was given the wrong information at my hotel about train departures. The next train to Oswiecim (the Polish name for Auschwitz) is not until 1: 30—a three-hour wait. I use this information as an excuse to leave, telling myself it was not meant for me to go.

But as I leave the station, a taxi driver approaches and asks if I would like to go to Auschwitz. “Two hours there and then, if you wish, down the road to Birkenau.” The man speaks fairly good English (I discover later that he lived for two years in Philadelphia). He is short, dark-skinned, soft-spoken and carries the genuine air of solemnity befitting a ferryman into the land of ghosts. At that moment I see him as my appointed intermediary, sent to ensure my getting to Auschwitz. How had he known that that was where I was planning to go, or is Auschwitz the only place a tourist would go by train from Krakow? In any event, his intervention provides a sense of destiny. For the next three days, this taxi driver whose name is Kazimier Olesiak, or “Kaz,” as he likes to be called, drives me to all the places I wish to see, acting as an intelligent and sensitive guide and translator. From the start he seems to be aware of the seriousness of my visit; most probably he has served this role as Charon before.

Once we pass the enormous steel mills and factories on the outskirts of Krakow, we enter farm country, field after field of what Kaz calls “yellow carpets”—acres of flax. Gentle, sloping hills, spotted cows, blue sky. Did the victims see, through the cracks in the boxcars, these colors of a children’s primer on their way to the camps? I know that it would have been more appropriate to travel this route by train, but I am glad I didn’t; being in a car distances me somewhat from the experience and allows me to bear my confrontation with history.


Before touring Auschwitz you enter an auditorium to view a film. The day I am there, the hall is filled almost entirely with Polish schoolchildren; aside from them and me, there is a contingent of about 25 Germans. The film we are shown is less graphic than most I have seen, perhaps because many of the visitors here are children. I am surprised by the lack of any mention of Jews in the film, an omission that is continued throughout Auschwitz. The Poles have treated Auschwitz as primarily a Polish tragedy, which in part it was, and the schoolchildren are there to have their nationalist sentiments bolstered. But by not emphasizing the fact that Jews were the primary targets, official Poland makes obvious its anti-Semitic policy.

Each country that lost people has been given a barrack to convert into a sort of pavilion honoring the dead with photos, mementos, testimonials. There is one for Italy, one for France, for Russia. But none has been given to Israel, which would be the country to represent Jews. The official reason given is that Poland does not have diplomatic relations with Israel. But such official reasons rarely fool people.

As I walk through the barracks-turned-pavilions, I have two responses: one, that I am sickened by the thought of what occurred here; the other, however, is disrespectful, namely, that I am in a theme park. And what is the theme? Inhumanity, Death, Evil? To the credit of the Poles, they have not, like the Germans, prettified or overly cleaned up the camps. Still, any sort of organizing has the effect of a hand coming afterward to mitigate the rawness of the original horror. The prosthetic limbs, shoes, toothbrushes, combs, eyeglasses, women’s hair must have been ghastly to come upon by the liberators, but labeled in display bins behind glass, their shock value is reduced. I fear this is another museum, another safe tribute to the dead. Or perhaps I have seen so many photographs of these objects that I am immune to their sadness. This is the most discomforting thought of all, that this place has become a cliché.

Yet if I do not find the horror I expected, I find unexpected, ghastly ironies. In the display of luggage where each suitcase carries the name of its owner and place of origin, I pick out the following three: a Marie Kafka, Prague; an M. Frank, Amsterdam; a J. Freud, Vienna. Which reminds me that it wasn’t only humans that were swallowed here but an entire culture whose particular dynamism was largely the result of its relationship with the gentile world that surrounded it. “Without the Jews it would be boring,” many Polish intellectuals, even those anti-Semitic, claimed before the war. Is Europe a less vital place now that it has rid itself of its Jews, its Kafkas, Franks, and Freuds?

Those suitcases and those names—was that an ironic joke played by some cultured curator here? Or prophecy? Later in the day, as I enter the gas chamber and crematorium, I will note the initials K.S. scratched over the chamber entrance and wonder at my believing the day is my day, the visit, my visit, as if the historical muse had been anticipating me. Which is perhaps a projection of the necessary ego-centricity every author sometimes possesses, believing he or she alone has been chosen.


I see something else at Auschwitz that impresses me very much. It is a map that was found on an S.S. officer who worked here. The map is of Europe, and it is exceptional because Oswiecim, which is really a small town, is depicted as gigantic, a major center, while Rhodes, Riga, Minsk, Paris and Amsterdam have been reduced to pinpoints. The map is saying that the hub of the new world order is Auschwitz; that is the new capital, and all roads lead there. Or another way of perceiving it is Auschwitz as a huge mouth swallowing the world. Ultimately it is not a true geographical map but rather a picture of a state of mind.

Yet not only the perpetrators but the prisoners too saw Auschwitz as a world. Or an inverted, ironic version of the world. Geographical place names were given to areas and peoples in the camp. Canada was the area where goods taken from those about to be gassed were stored, since in those prisoners’ minds, Canada was, perhaps rightly, associated with riches; Mexico referred to the poor, hastily built barracks where 15,000 Hungarian women were housed in intolerable conditions. A Muslim was one who appeared sick, weak, depressed and near death. Irony is a way of coping with the harshness or absurdity of the real. It is also a form of rebellion through language.

In Auschwitz the real was the business of death, or death as a business. Firstly, only those prisoners deemed fit enough to work escaped the initial selection. In the ultimate exploitation, those prisoners were fed next to nothing and worked until they dropped dead. They were disposable work units. Whether killed immediately or after months of grueling labor, their bodies were used for commercial purposes: fertilizer, soap, hair woven into material, etc. Those companies which bid on contracts to build the camps and supply the gas were not shady fly-by-nighters but most often large, reputable German firms.

With the Industrial Revolution, humans saw their fellow humans as machines, capable of working long hours with little pay. It would be a diminishment of the enormity of Auschwitz to say this was the prime motivation behind its inhumanity. There is something far more feral about the sadism and cruelty that was acted out. Yet just as the geographical place names prisoners gave it linked it to the real world, so too did its business logic. It is fair to say that the depersonalization and dehumanization inherent in the modern industrial society was carried to its ultimate there. Whether that in itself provides a criticism of our society or whether it simply means that anything taken to extremes can produce such evil is for the reader to decide.


A few years ago, at a conference for teachers of the Holocaust, I heard a survivor, the novelist Arnost Lustig, talk about his experience in Auschwitz. He reported that one day he was standing by the wire fence, when suddenly, in the women’s camp, he saw a long line of running, naked, female figures. They were being hurried along by the male guards cracking whips. Lustig had been separated from his mother upon arrival at the camp; not hearing from her or of her since then, he had assumed she was dead. He told us that watching those naked women running under the whips made him feel glad she had perished. It was a long line of women. To his horror he saw that the last face, the very last face in the line, was indeed that of his mother. She had survived to suffer this.

Lustig told a number of stories illustrating situations where there was no acceptable ethical response. The point he wished to make was that absolutely nothing he had learned as a student—from the teachings of Moses, Jesus, Buddha or from those of Plato and Socrates—could in any way help him with the daily dilemmas of survival in the camp. It was as if he had to invent a new self each day to live out that day. If none of the great teachers of civilization could help him there, the question arises: Was Auschwitz a product of our civilization or antithetical to it? Or both?


One kilometer down the road from Auschwitz is Birkenau. Here are the infamous railroad entrance I have seen in so many films and photographs, and the endless lines of barracks that stretch without end. Auschwitz had the feeling of being enclosed, contained, while this place seems infinite.

I am the only visitor. The schoolchildren are not brought here, it seems, nor are the German tourists. I can understand why. This is not a theme park. There are no exhibits or pavilions here. Not a thing has been touched since the war ended. Weeds, broken barracks, and the shattered stacks of the crematoria. Here the ghosts thrive, unlike at Auschwitz, where they are crowded out by so many tourists and displays. Even if you don’t see the ghosts, you can sense them in the unbroken silence of this place. For if Auschwitz is a world with geographical names, this place is cosmic, posing questions that are metaphysical.

A ghost is really an absence that reminds us of a presence—a lost presence. It is an absence that draws us in and asks us to speak for it. Withdrawal is an important theme in Jewish religious thought. The prophet Isaiah cries out in anguish, “Truly Thou art a God Who hides Himself,” while the later Cabbalists theorize that God s withdrawal from the world leaves a void which asks to be filled through creation. A voice to fill the void. Poetry as it relates to loss.

But what sort of voice can fill this void, I wonder, staring at the ruins of this camp, which seem to go on and on. Is silence the appropriate response to this great silence, as some have suggested? I do not believe so. Yet the problem of how to find the appropriate tone to respond to this silence is a difficult one. For this is neither the silence of a living forest nor that of a cemetery.

And I wonder, too, whether there is such a thing as true silence—for a human being, that is. Perhaps when we speak of silence, we are only distinguishing between inward and outward speaking. There is a prayer one finds in Kierkegaard s journal: “Father in Heaven, it is indeed only the moment of silence in the inwardness of speaking with one another.” For who standing here could not be speaking with himself? Or with the ghosts who have their own underground language?


The night after my visit to Auschwitz, I lie in my hotel room, reading. In the room next to mine, two couples, very drunk, are arguing. I have never encountered as many drunken people as here in Poland. I find this unsettling. There is something unknown and potentially explosive about a drunk. Most drink after dark, but many can also be seen stumbling through the streets all hours of the day, where they carry on self-chastening monologues; they occasionally shake a fist or wave a hand in resigned disgust at a passer-by. This is the dark, dismal, self-hating side of the Polish soul.

Those few Polish Jews who survived the Shoah (a term preferable to Holocaust since it is Hebrew and means annihilation)and did not immigrate, returned to their towns and villages, many to be murdered, incredibly, in pogroms after the war.

As recently as 1984, the Polish government, to help fend off criticism of itself, was able to actively promote Jew-hatred—in a nation where there were virtually no Jews left. The curious phenomenon of Jew-hatred in countries where there are only phantoms: in Austria, Poland, Ukraine. The Jew as an idea, a mythological being, a projection. Representing what? The greedy capitalist? The zealous communist? The Christ-killer? The Christ-denier?

Although this anti-Semitic campaign had been going on for months, the Toronto Star chose to headline the story on its front page on December 23 of that year. Given the history of Jewish-Christian relations, I couldn’t help but wonder at the timing.

I believe it was George Steiner who said that a person does not really know what it means to be a Jew until he or she is the parent of a Jew. Every Jewish parent who looks at photos of the children in the Warsaw ghetto sees the faces of his or her own children. This is what is meant by living history. The Star’s account of renewed anti-Semitism in Poland, and its timing, produced an unease in me that resulted in the following poem, which I wrote the next night, Christmas Eve. It is titled, simply, “December 24”:

Silent night, our furnace whirrs. On my way to bed I stop

outside my daughter’s door,

her breath

the rhythm of a small sea.

Outside, stars

burn like splinters of ice,

smoke out of chimneys

coils through the mute

and endless dark

I will wait another moment


for my daughter’s breath

before I turn out the light.

I am glad that I chose an indirect and, as it happened, universal way to express the dis-ease I was feeling those cold, December days. It can speak to many people. The words furnace, chimneys, smoke, mute, and the phrase endless dark all arise naturally in the poem— nothing is forced—but for me each of those words possesses a second significance. Silent night carries for me a special irony, and between each line, I can hear the whispers of the phantom children.


The book I was reading as I lay in my hotel room was Primo Levi’s haunting novel, “If Not Now, When,” the story of Jewish partisans fighting in the countryside of W.W. II Poland.

My trip to Poland had, so far, a prophetic air to it, from the recognition of the photos of the partisan fighters in Warsaw to my initials scratched over the chamber door. I had in fact seen my double, who exists in time past. He is the one who might have been here. Borges, in his “Book of Imaginary Beings,” tells us that to meet one’s double, in most cultures, is ominous; however, “To the Jews the appearance of one’s double was not an omen of imminent death. On the contrary, it was proof of having attained prophetic powers.”

Prophecy—traveling backward to dream forward. As I was falling off to sleep, I read those pages in Levi’s book that describe a partisan raid against German soldiers on the outskirts of the Polish town of Chmielnik. Of all the thousands of small Polish towns, to mention the one I had planned to visit the next morning, the town of my maternal grandfather, seemed astonishing. An example of Jung’s synchronicity, a term that always conjures for me the image of two clocks running into one another: time from the past colliding with time that is or will be. It seemed I was still being led, that some revelation was at hand.


Chmielnik is north of Krakow and south of Kielce. Before the war it had a large Jewish community of some 12,000. When you enter the town, you are in its central square; on one side is a park and garden, on the other, a church. The other sides are lined with shuttered shops. In the doorways, women with scarves, silver-capped teeth.

Inside the church, darkness broken by splashes of silver, red velvet, a mass of lit, finger-thin candles. There must be a grade school in the back or basement, because before entering I see children playing outside and a young priest in a black cassock shouting after them.

There is a portrait of Jesus here, with blond hair and blue eyes. I have always been struck by how Jesus takes on the physical characteristics of the people among whom he is residing. In a small, Italian church he resembles a Sicilian laborer; in a church in Mexico, he has the dark, passionate eyes of Zapata. But seeing him here with Slavic features and upturned, blue, beseeching eyes makes me feel there is something not right. He seems so cut off from his Semitic roots, just as the people are cut off from theirs. He is a Jesus removed from the complexities of history, divorced from his origins; he has the face of a simple-minded nationalist, with no heaviness in his eyes.

There are books and books filled with testimony, speculation, and socio-political factors, as well as economic-historical ones attempting to explain the reasons for anti-Semitism. But I am not standing in this ghost town for any explanations. Rather, an image: the Slavic face of Jesus the Jew. Considering what was done to his own people in that very square upon which his church stands, one wonders at the arrogance that could commandeer such an appropriation.

While I am in the church, Kaz is able to locate one of the town elders. He is wearing a navy-blue cap, poorly fitted jacket and pants. He tells us about the history of the town. I ask if he remembers the Diamond family, my mother’s maiden name. Yes, he points to the place they lived: an apartment on top of a corner shop. I ask if he was here during the war. He tells me the Germans strictly divided the town between Poles and Jews. The Jews were not free to move. I ask him what happened to the Jews, and he tells me it was not his business to know. He is not being mean. He is an old man with rotten teeth wondering what bad luck on this hot June day has brought this better-dressed foreigner to awaken sleeping phantoms. I ask him again, and he tells me that a number were shot in the town; the rest were placed on trains to the camps.

Around the corner from the square is the synagogue. It is much larger than I expected. In that pre-war community of 12,000, there were few disbelievers.

The building has not been touched since the day the war ended. Its windows are boarded; some weeds grow from its gray brick. It sits there, frozen in time. Its very inertness makes it so imposing.

The old man explains the town is waiting to save the funds to renovate the synagogue. I ask what they are going to turn it into: apartments, a factory, a warehouse? No, you misunderstand, he says. What they wish to do is restore it to its original splendor.

I know that this is not true. Yet it is incredible to me that they have not torn the building down. The town is actually expanding, the population slightly larger than before the war. But there is no one here who would make use of its synagogue. Perhaps they have left the synagogue standing because they are superstitious and do not wish to disturb or enrage the ghosts. What is superstition? A backward glance of guilt and shame? Again, the Pole’s ambivalence toward the Jew, whether living or dead.

Behind the synagogue is the smaller building that once served as the school. Children would have played outside there—a scene like the one I just saw at the church, except the black-garbed shouter would have been a rabbi rather than a priest. Now the Jewish school is used as a day-care center.

The old man leads me to the Jewish cemetery on top of a small hill behind the synagogue. There is a sign: “No dumping of refuse. This is holy ground.” Without the sign no one would think this is a cemetery. It is a green, open field; there is one solitary tombstone leaning at a 45-degree angle. I ask why there are no other tombstones; the old man is candid and tells me that over the years the stones were taken by the townsfolk for building purposes. I look down from the hill at the small, post-war houses and wonder what veranda has my ancestor’s name on it, face down toward the dark. I wonder too why they have left just one stone. To remind themselves that this is a cemetery? To make themselves feel that they are not completely immoral?


I am 12 or 13, sitting one evening in our den. A documentary begins on television—the piled bodies, the gaping oven doors— images that divide a life into a before and an after. I recall my mother nervously wondering if maybe I shouldn’t watch it and my father countering, Why not? As he put it, I should know what happened.

Shocking images. Yet there is something second-hand about film footage, whereas that squat, ghostly building baking in the June heat was a rough confirmation I could run my hand along—literally a touchstone. Mandelstam, the poet whose Petersburg I would be traveling to after this, also had an interest in buildings. His first book was titled “Stone.” Staring at the awesome structure of Notre Dame Cathedral, he predicted that he too would “produce beauty from cruel weight.” That was early in his career, early in the century, before Stalin’s secret police, and the poet was referring to the weight of tradition, structure. Later on, persecuted by the regime, he would have revised it to the “cruel weight” of history and totalitarianism. Out of that, he too would produce great poems. Though he was a Russian poet raised in Petersburg, Mandelstam had been born in Warsaw. It is an irony of 20th-century history that, had his family never moved, his fate in one sense would have been tragically similar, for he also perished in a camp (the only difference being that it was one of Stalin’s rather than Hitler’s).


I conclude with a footnote. Upon my return to Canada, I published a poem based on my visit to the Chmielnik cemetery, posing the same question I pose above: Why had the populace left one headstone standing? It seems the uncanniness of my entire adventure had followed me home, for the son-in-law of a former resident of Chmielnik telephoned to say that he had read my poem and had the answer to the mystery of the single stone. He told me that his father-in-law had survived the war and returned to the town afterward searching for fellow survivors. He found the cemetery completely desecrated; those stones not taken had been smashed to pieces. To counteract the void, he had a new stone placed at the grave of his father. In 1988 he returned and found it gone and had another put up.

I can report that in 1996 it was still there.

About the Author

Kenneth Sherman

Kenneth Sherman was born and raised in Toronto. He has published several books of poetry, including “Clusters” and “Words for Elephant Man.” He presently teaches in the creative writing department at York University.

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