“We Are Here”

I have read quite a bit about the Holocaust. Recently I read Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt, which reported on the trial in Israel of the Nazi who was responsible for the transport of Jews to concentration camps. I also read Fugitives of the Forest by Allan Levine which profiled Jewish Partisans who fought and survived in the forests of Poland during World War II. Any reading about the Holocaust is challenging because you can’t help but be overwhelmed by the evil that was perpetrated and these two books are no exception. It is hard to wrap one’s brain around the breadth and depth of cruelty and viciousness.

            This past week offered an opportunity to look at another dimension of the Holocaust, one that reminds me that in the midst of evil, people can express their humanity, they can still be moved to affirm their faith in life by creating beauty. On Thursday evening I attended a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City that included music, song and poetry created in the ghettos and camps during the Holocaust.

            The evening was conceived of and co-produced by a friend of my brother Mark, Ira Antelis. Ira became aware of a series of songbooks published just after the war ended that memorialized music created in the camps and ghettos. He wanted it to be heard, to bring awareness to its existence. It was originally performed in a Chicago synagogue last April, and they brought it to New York to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The evening was appropriately entitled “We Are Here.” Broadway performers, renown cantors and elite musicians contributed their talents. Each piece was introduced by a prominent individual, for example David Gill, German Consul General to the United Nations, another by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of the Diocese of New York. These introductory remarks gave context: who the composer and lyricist were, some information about them was shared and where they were when they wrote the piece.

            I didn’t know what to expect of the music. One might imagine that it would be quite dark, and some of it was. But, most of it wasn’t. The music was beautiful, often hopeful, sometimes even upbeat. The lyrics could be sad, reflecting the reality of the pain and loss they suffered. But, all of the works represented acts of defiance. The Nazis may have wanted to wipe the Jewish people and culture from the face of the earth, but these artists were leaving a legacy. Perhaps it was an expression of their faith, or a need to reclaim their humanity by creating beauty in the face of ugliness.

            One particularly meaningful piece for me was the Partisan Anthem (Zog Nit Keyn Mol), “Never Say You Have Reached the Final Road, We Are Here,” which gave its name to the whole program. When we went through my in-laws’ house several years ago as it was being cleaned out in preparation for sale, I found a notebook with pages of Yiddish writing. On one of our visits with Paula and David, we hoped they could tell us what it was. It looked like it might be poetry, given its structure. They recognized it immediately. The first page were the lyrics to this song. They began to sing it. More than sixty years after they had likely last sung it, they were able to recall it. Paula, whose had lost most of her ability to make conversation because of Alzheimer’s, joined in. At the time, David provided us with a rough English translation.

            These are the lyrics (in English):

Never say you are going on your final road,
Although leadened skies block out blue days,
Our longed-for hour will yet come
Our step will beat out – we are here!

From a land of green palm trees to the white land of snow
We arrive with our pain, with our woe,
Wherever a spurt of our blood fell,
On that spot shall spurt forth our courage and our spirit.

The morning sun will brighten our day
And yesterday will disappear with our foe.
But if the sun delays to rise at dawn,
Then let this song be a password for generations to come.

This song is written with our blood, not with lead,
It is not a song of a free bird flying overhead.
Amid crumbling walls, a people sang this song,
With grenades in their hands.

So, never say the road now ends for you,
Although skies of lead block out days of blue.
Our longed-for hour will yet come –
Our step will beat out – we are here!

Lyrics by: Hirsh Glik  

Music by: Dmitri and Daniel Pokrass

            The performance of the song on Thursday night by a group of talented vocalists was stirring. It was not the only profound moment of the evening. Another song was introduced with the explanation that it originated in a cattle car to Treblinka when a man started singing a known prayer to a new melody. Somehow the melody was passed on and eventually published. Though the composer didn’t survive, the melody did. Cantor Yanky Lemmer sang it so powerfully I got goosebumps.  The prayer, Ani ma’min (Never Shall I Forget), is based on the writing of Maimonides in the 14th Century (in English, it was sung in Hebrew):

I believe with all my heart

In the coming of the Messiah,

And even though he may tarry,

I will wait each and every day

For his arrival.

I believe in the sun

Even when it is not shining.

I believe in love

Even when I do not feel it.

I believe in God

Even when He is silent.

Melody by: Adriel David Fastag

            The evening of music and song was not my only reminder of the strength of the human spirit. Another artifact found when cleaning out the Bakst house was a small spiral notebook. Each page had a separate entry, some in Russian, some in Polish, others in Yiddish. Some of the notes were accompanied by crayon drawings. It wasn’t until I brought it to YIVO a few weeks ago that we learned what it represented. It contained notes to Paula from friends at the displaced persons camp, Ranshofen, in Austria. It was created as a keepsake of the relationships established during the almost three years that Paula was at Ranshofen. I look at that notebook, even without knowing the translation and I see the spirit of teenage girls that I might have grown up with. Paula was 14 when she arrived at the DP camp, after living in the woods for 4 years. After all they had been through, they still could make fanciful, colorful, hopeful drawings. Here are some of the pages from the book:

            In sharing this, I am not minimizing the horror or suffering. It is not to shift attention away from the enormity of the loss. It is essential that we not become numb to the tragedy – or the tragedies that continue to be perpetrated by those who are evil and the many more who are indifferent. But, it is also essential to have hope. These creations, these melodies, lyrics, gestures, and notes are expressions of hope and beauty. They are remarkable.

Note: If you would like to learn more about the concert, please go to http://www.wearehereconcert.com

Letters Left Behind

Note: Every so often my thoughts are best expressed in a prose-poem – I call it that because I don’t know what else to call it. As I continue going through Aunt Clair’s stuff, this is what came to me.

Aunt Clair saved letters

Who do they belong to now that

She has passed to another dimension?

The sender? The recycling bin?

Me – her devoted niece and self-appointed family historian?

Are they private?

Can I use them in my writing?

She saved them

To what end?

Buried in a stuck drawer

Wrapped in rubber bands

Encased in baggies.

Liberated, gently unfolded

Expressions of love

From her mother who died 46 years ago,

Endearments scrawled with an unsteady hand

From her father, also long dead.

Sister, nieces and nephews

offering thanks for a thoughtful gift

updating her from college or from across the world

making amends for a misunderstanding.

Love committed to paper

Yellowing, disintegrating with my touch

Voices from long ago

Briefly heard again.

A Late Afternoon Autumn Walk

Everything was glowing.

A golden light cast

through the trees,

peeking around the clouds;

gilding leaves, grass,

the very air.

THIS is the gloaming.

Late October,

the sun low,

the air soft,

the breeze blowing through my graying, wild hair.

Red, yellow, russet, orange leaves,

shimmering against the fading blue sky.

Fallen dried leaves dancing,

scraping across the pavement.

I wanted to share the beauty,

but I was alone.

I wanted to bottle it,

for later,

when I needed it.

I couldn’t capture it, but this is the closest I could come.

Small Comfort

March 13th, in addition to marking my son’s 31st birthday, was the 15th anniversary of my father’s death. I am pleased to report that memories of Dad’s strength, intelligence and ever-present support have replaced the images that haunted me in the years immediately after his death. My thoughts of him then were of an ill, diminished person, and that was as painful as the loss itself. I am happy now to be able to call upon memories of my healthy father, but the pain of that time is still part of me. The other day I was struck by one poignant memory and wrote a prose-poem.

 

Small Comfort

 

I bring the Styrofoam cup to my lips

Breathe in the steam and scent of coffee

Take a small sip to test the temperature

The liquid warming as it travels through my system

Soothing my throat

Reaching the pit of my stomach

Grounding and calming me.

 

Sitting next to Dad

Who is shivering in a hospital bed

In the emergency room

Taken by ambulance early that morning

My strong, broad-shouldered Dad

My hero

Brought low by chronic lymphocytic leukemia

Or maybe it’s the treatment

Is it worse than the disease?

 

Doctors and nurses minister to him

Trying to figure out what’s happening

 

“You think I’ll be able to get my chemo today?”

He asks hopefully

Ever focused on moving forward,

Working toward remission or cure

Or at least more time with us

“No, Pop. Not today. Don’t worry about that now.”

 

I am grateful for the coffee

Warming my hands

Clearing my bleary brain

Settling my nerves

Small comfort

 

I post this now in the midst of the craziness and uncertainty – with a hot cup of coffee offering small comfort, but at least it is some comfort. Thinking of friends and family and wishing everyone strength and hope in this challenging time.

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Dad and me in happier, healthier times

The Path of Least Resistance

fullsizeoutput_f17Oh paperwork!!!


Letters, notices and advertisements pile up on my kitchen counter

Which electricity supplier should I use?

Is there a difference among them?



A notice of unclaimed funds arrives in my mailbox

Three phone calls placed, four completed forms submitted

Five months later, I receive a check for $2.50




Another notice arrives via email

The bank has closed an account due to minimal activity

I ignore it

Four months later, I need that account

Something to do with a trust

A visit to the bank is in my near future



Oh paperwork!!!



The La-Z-Boy in the family room invites me

I take the novel I started

Settle into the comfy chair

And disappear into 1980 Atlanta.

(For those who are curious, the novel was Silver Sparrow by Tayari
 Jones)

Who is she?

A woman stands in the middle of a room

Like a sculpture

I sit, studying her

I know her.

 

I shift seats

I study her again

I see variations, but

the image holds.

 

A chill wind blows

She shifts her stance

Bracing herself

I see her face.

 

I don’t recognize her

Who is she?

_________________________________________________

Random thoughts and observations about relationships……

I’ve been thinking about how we know the people in our lives. And, I’m wondering: do we really know them?

Often our connections are circumstantial. School, work or our children’s activities may throw us together.  Is that enough to sustain a relationship? Sometimes it is. And, how well do we get to know the person when we only interact in a certain context.

Years ago, when I was in college, I read an article in a magazine that explored friendship. I don’t remember the adjectives the author used to label the different types, but one of the ideas was that some friendships develop because of a shared experience and when that is over, so is the friendship. I think the article mentioned college friends as an example. I don’t know if that fits for me. One of the things that was true in college was that I had a lot of time to devote to those friendships. We spent hours talking and sharing insights, our histories. I share a bond with those women. As an adult, busy with work, family and the mess and responsibilities of everyday life, I don’t have the luxury of spending time in that way.

It is true, though, that some relationships don’t continue beyond the circumstances. Sometimes it could be because you move on and don’t see the person any more. Though these days with technology being what it is, that may not be a legitimate excuse. Other times it can be because the friendship isn’t that deep. If you take a class with someone and bond during it, the connection may not be strong enough to sustain it beyond that. You may try to extend the relationship, socialize beyond the classroom, and find that you just don’t have enough in common. As you get to know the person, you may find that you like them less!

It is a rare and wonderful thing when you peel back the layers of a person and find out that you like them even more.

I’ve also wondered, how many friendships can a person sustain? It takes energy to keep up. I think I may be unusual in the amount of alone time I need, to contemplate, to reflect.

And, what about family? We need to tend to those relationships, too.

With some people, you can be out of touch for months and then pick right up as if no time had passed at all.

And, then, there is the situation where you thought you knew someone and they surprise you – and not in a good way.

Sometimes I wish I didn’t think so much! Relationships, and my interior life, would be so much simpler.

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I bought this reproduction of Rodin’s The Thinker for Gary years ago because it had particular meaning to us. Columbia University had one on its campus and it was where we would meet. Given my nature, I better understand now why this sculpture resonated so much with me.

Ode to Central Park

Views of Central Park in mid-October (photos by me!)

Oh, how do I love thee?

 

I love the juxtaposition

Nature and civilization

Bird calls and sirens

Steel and glass skyscrapers and majestic ancient trees

 

Ducks and turtles paddling the reservoir

Birds swoop

Stately pre-war apartment buildings stand guard to the west

Museum mile beckons to the east

Commerce to the south

Harlem to the north

 

Flora, fauna and culture abound

Beauty in all its forms

For the taking

 

People of every age and size

Of every skin color

Of every socio-economic level

 

Running, walking

Laying in the grass

Cycling, rowing

Reclining on a park bench

 

Riding in a pedi-cab

Or a horse-drawn carriage

Planking on a pedestrian bridge

Graceful moves of tai chi on the meadow

 

Children’s laughter

So many languages

The wind in the trees

Honking horns

The rotors of a helicopter slicing the air

 

Let me count the ways.

 

 

Who Decides?

 

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His skin is mottled,

He is 94.

He stands erect,

He walks with assurance.

He says, I feel the same as I always feel.

 

Right now, I think.

He can’t imagine feeling different,

He doesn’t remember.

 

Months before, winter of 2016, hospitalized 5 times or more in Florida,

Weakened by persistent diarrhea and congestive heart failure.

We see his mortality as he lay in a hospital bed,

Grateful to have his ‘son the doctor’ by his side.

He felt his vulnerability – then, not now.

 

Summer of 2017, Saugerties, NY.

They have a full-time aide,

Living ten minutes from their daughters.

Close to their sons.

In an apartment, furnished with familiar things,

In a new community, in an unfamiliar place.

 

I arrive to take him to his doctor’s appointment,

We leave his wife, many years into Alzheimer’s, with the aide.

We step outside into the light so bright, he shields his eyes til they adjust.

He walks with purpose to the car.

Fall is in the air, he says.

Almost time to go back to Florida, he tells me

 

I start the car and drive,

I don’t respond to his comment about Florida.

What to say?

 

When was the last time he drove?

He would not be able to navigate the roads to the doctor’s office,

Or the paperwork,

Or explain his complex medical history.

 

He might understand the doctor’s instructions,

He is a compliant patient.

He has an iron will,

Which may explain his 94 years.

 

His long life brought him from the woods in Poland

Where he fought with the partisans against the Nazis,

To fight in the Russian army,

To survive by any means necessary.

To a displaced persons’ camp,

To immigrate to the United States,

To build a life.

To outlive friends and family, still bound to Paula, his children and his faith.

 

Should he and Paula go to Florida?

What is the right balance between their quality of life and their safety?

What is the right balance between David’s wishes and the peace of mind of his children?

Who decides?

Binghamton, 1977

xcourt

 

After I retired I took a writing workshop that was an awesome experience. I have written before about how liberating that class was for me. One of the assignments we were given was to write a poem in response to another work of art – a poem, a painting, song lyrics – whatever inspired us. I wrote a poem in response to “Down to You,” by Joni Mitchell. For those who aren’t familiar with it, or if you don’t remember the lyrics, here they are:

 

Everything comes and goes
Marked by lovers and styles of clothes
Things that you held high
And told yourself were true
Lost or changing as the days come down to you
Down to you
Constant stranger
You’re a kind person
You’re a cold person too
It’s down to you

You go down to the pick up station
Craving warmth and beauty
You settle for less than fascination
A few drinks later you’re not so choosy
When the closing lights strip off the shadows
On this strange new flesh you’ve found
Clutching the night to you like a fig leaf
You hurry
To the blackness
And the blankets
To lay down an impression
And your loneliness

In the morning there are lovers in the street
They look so high
You brush against a stranger
And you both apologize
Old friends seem indifferent
You must have brought that on
Old bonds have broken down
Love is gone
Ooh, love is gone
Written on your spirit this sad song
Love is gone

Everything comes and goes
Pleasure moves on too early
And trouble leaves too slow
Just when you’re thinking
You’ve finally got it made
Bad news comes knocking
At your garden gate
Knocking for you
Constant stranger
You’re a brute, you’re an angel
You can crawl, you can fly too
It’s down to you
It all comes down to you

Joni Mitchell from the album Court and Spark, 1974

 

I must have listened to that song, among many other Joni songs, hundreds of times during my college years. She was a mainstay of the soundtrack of that time in my life. This is the poem (or prose-poem) that I wrote after reflecting on that song:

 

Binghamton, 1977

It is a Binghamton kind of night.

The air so cold it hurts.

The sky is clear, pinpricks of light shine against the velvet blackness.

I am in exile.

 

My roommate’s boyfriend is visiting.

I will spend the weekend studiously avoiding my dorm room.

 

I am holding my pillow pressed against my chest, my knapsack on my back.

Waiting til 8:00 pm when I will meet a friend at her dorm room

where I will crash for the next two nights.

 

So, I wonder, where is the ‘pick up station’ that Joni sings about?

I have never found it.

Wouldn’t know how to work it, if I did.

 

She counts lovers like railroad cars.

I’ve had none.

 

But, I would like to lay down my loneliness.

I don’t think her way will work for me, though.

Can’t imagine picking up a stranger and feeling less alone.

 

Joni is right about one thing, though.

Pleasure moves on too early and trouble leaves too slow.

When I am in a tunnel, I can’t see the light.

If only the reverse were true.

When I’m in the light, I wait for a shoe to drop.

 

Right now I am clutching the night to me

And it is cold.