Most of the time I don't think about the fact that lots of people, people all over the world & also in my own city, would like me to be dead because I am Jewish. Even my father didn't think about it most of the time, I think, & he escaped the Nazis by the skin of his teeth, leaving Berlin in 1939. This week I do remember & then every paranoid thought I've had oppressses me. Every time I've had to explain that Jews are in danger ("whatever list the blacks/gays/Puerto Ricans/ are on, the Jews are on"). Every time I think about having had no grandparents, aunts, cousins. Every time I hear more about the pogrom this week in Israel. Every time I get white with rage at the equivocation about "chickens coming home to roost" & other disgusting responses to the murder of babies. What about Danny Pearl, I want to say. Pakistan has no Jews. Antisemitism without Jews. Imagine.
This is a poem I wrote probably close to 30 years ago.
All that hate me whisper together against me,
against me do they plot my death.
My old friend—
who I trusted—
who ate my bread—
has lifted up his heel against mine.
I pick my friends according to whether they would hide me.
Once you're betrayed it's too late to choose better.
Jews like to argue
who was worst:
The French? in 1940, five million
wrote poison-pen letters
denouncing individual Jews.
No, the Austrians—Hitler, Eichmann, Waldheim. All Austrians.
No, no, the Romanians
who outraged even the Germans
when they failed to bury the bodies of those they murdered.
The war lost, some Nazis jumped into stripes and yellow star—
the Russians shot them all the same.
Some Jews survived death camps and went home
and the Poles shot them
their neighbors, the Poles
their neighbors shot them.
Why bother to shoot the dead?
After Theresienstadt is it obscene to sing?
Unseemly to be alive
when such effort was made to stomp their bones?
we Jews still here.
My dear little father ran
rather than give over his bad (gold-filled) teeth.
The Jews are historians—remember,
in every generation some rose
against us but we were saved. Who
saved us? Who saves me?
What happens to one
happens to all. If my aunt is killed, where are her bones?
Hopeful and over-obedient,
they and we, the scared and the slow,
neglected political and military science and so were
The voice of history
divides the flame of fire.
We don't conquer we merely persevere.
How long will— will the world look on?
Gnashing upon me with my teeth.
My babies, my children
it's so hard to raise
I am a Jew.
I announce this
so I won't hear what I do hear when people don't guess
so I can't be a coward, so I can't deny anything.
No way out.
When I stay silent, my bones
wax old through my roaring
all the day long.
. . . But my mother is English
doesn't that make me
half WASP shouldn't I be more
tactful? No one
wants to hear it why don't I
shut up? No one wants to hear it
and why should they
I wasn't there
they weren't there they
didn't do it.
The voice of history divides my flame from the fire.
The necromancers arouse themselves with the bones of the dead.
They warm the bones with their bodies
they insert the bones into their nostrils
they incite the bones to answer their questions
I shout at the bones until I am hoarse.
"It would have done no good to protest
they would only have turned on
this way at least we got
a case of good wine out of it
a country house
when the old owners
decided to leave the country."
The Jews have only their history.
We must remember—but why should we live
for the dead?
The irony of history divides the flames of fire.
I am cursed with memory. My life is spent with grief
and my years with sighing.
My bones are consumed.
That's all I'm trying to say.
Next time take me first,
I already know as much as I need to.
Why should I have
my friend's husband say
he couldn't believe
I am a Jew
and didn't he mean
he likes me and he doesn't like
and aren't I flattered
to be told I'm not like
aren't I flattered to be
my own person not
the product of a people half as old as time?
One must forgive one's enemies
but not before they have been hanged.
—Freud, quoting Heine
My friends think it strange
I carry three passports.
My money's in jewels, my bags are packed.
I pick the friends I pray
will hide me.
Once you're betrayed
it's too late. I am cursed
the flames divide me from my past.
[I am indebted to Susan Neiman & her book Slow Fire: Jewish Notes from Berlin for material in this work.]