A poem begins with a lump in your throat ~~ Robert Frost

MEMORY & COMPLICITY EXCERPT

from Memory & Complicity Eve Hoffman 2018

 

            April 2002, Paris

I stand in a line of mostly silent people

on the sidewalk beside the Memorial de la Shoah.

I am sixty years old; this is my first visit

to a Holocaust museum—that it is called

the Memorial de la Shoah makes it seem

less devastating than Holocaust Museum.

I pass thorough tall iron gates, a metal detector,

a handbag search and into a courtyard

flooded with Paris sunshine. At the opposite end,

a verdure cylinder the size of a small room,

embossed with names of concentration camps

Birkenau, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald,

Dachau, Treblinka, Theresienstadt, Auschwit.—

To my left a garden of polished ten-foot high

stone walls inscribed with names and birth years

of seventy-six thousand French Jews murdered

at the hands of the Nazis, murdered with the complicity

of the French government—

eleven thousand were children.

I caress the cool stone walls;

my fingers trace the letters and numbers.

            ~

On my walk to this place I’d stopped and read

a plaque beside the door of a school.

To the memory of the students of this school

deported from 1942 to 1944 because born Jewish

innocent victims of Nazi barbarity

with the complicity of the government of Vichy.

There were exterminated in the death camps.

390 children (who) lived in the 19th arrondisment.

9 November 2002/ We never forget them.

I understood in that moment that my mother,

American for four generations,

Jewish for centuries, was pregnant with me

as these children were being murdered.

 

How much had she known of these murders

at quickening, my first kick?

 

~

I cross the courtyard, enter a building

with a forty-five-foot white stone façade

adorned with a single star of David.

I walk down stairs into an exhibition hall—

glass cases full of photographs of strangers

who do not seem like strangers to me.

I touch the glass. My eyes settle on eyes,

cheekbones, lips, on diaries, letters, children’s drawings.

I thumb through scraps of family histories

pieced together into tidy booklets by museum archivists.

What did my mother think

as my kick grew stronger against her ribs?

Or my father, born somewhere

along the Russian/Polish border

just before the century turned—

he never mentioned the name of his birthplace,

nor why his family came to America,

never mentioned this Holocaust in Europe.

I step into a U-shaped gallery, walls formed

by three blindingly back-lit glass panels.

On each of the panels, hundreds, perhaps thousands,

of black-and-white snapshots of children—

school classes, sisters with matching bows in their hair,

boys cleaned and scrubbed for the photographer,

a naked baby lying on a blanket, staring at me.

 

My mother gave birth to me in Atlanta, Georgia,

sixteen days after the United States announced

that two million Jews had been murdered in Europe,

that five million more were in jeopardy.

My brother had just turned two.

I watch small video monitors—

naked bodies, only skin and bones are tossed into pits;

aging survivors give testimony in languages

I cannot translate but somehow understand.

I linger over cases with deportation lists,

well-worn identity cards stamped JUIF,

personal belongings—a penknife, a shirt, a dress,

a leather satchel, three faded cloth patches

each with a yellow Star of David—the patches all Jews,

including children, were required by the Nazis to wear in public.

I remember my mother telling me

that when she was pregnant with my younger brother,

someone (I don’t know who) asked her—

Why, in 1945, would you bring

another Jewish child into this world?

I stand in a closet-like room, glass walls

between me and shelf after shelf, row after row

of long, narrow, blonde wooden boxes

jammed full of hand-written cards

with names and addresses of Jews catalogued

like books in the school library of my Georgia childhood.

When I was ten years old, I watched from our car

as Klansmen crossed Mt. Vernon Road

near the Sandy Springs water tower—

single file, dressed in white hoods and full Klan regalia,

piling into the back of a large white box truck

with a pull-down back door.

I dreamed for weeks they would come

in that white truck, take me and my family away.

I walk down a few more steps into a silent,

dimly lit room—a black marble Star of David,

five or six feet in diameter, hovers horizontally

a few inches above the floor. Beneath it,

a crypt filled with ashes—ashes from the sites

of concentration camps and the Warsaw ghetto.

I walk along the stone steps that circle the crypt,

recite the ancient mourner’s prayer—

Y is-ga-dal v’yis-ka-dash sh’may ra-bo. . . .

Step by step I climb the stairs

back up into the Paris April sunshine,

pass through the tall iron gates onto rue Geoffroy-l’Asnier,

walk down a few blocks to the river Seine

where old men smoking cigarettes

sit on benches under trees beginning to leaf,

car horns beep and newspapers blow into the street.

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