HOW I CAME TO WRITE CURSE XXII (“On September 1, 1939...”)
As I wrote in my guest blog last week, some of the individual poems in Blessings and Curses are about me, and some are about other people whose stories impressed themselves on me. In the case of Curse XXII (“On September 1, 1939...”), the poem came as a pure gift from a Holocaust survivor who told me her story. Ms. E (the initial is invented) was in her nineties when I was asked to interview her through my job for a not-for-profit agency that serves the elderly. I arranged to visit her apartment one evening in early summer after work. Like most of the other ladies I interviewed, she was a widow living on her own in a neat one-bedroom apartment. First we sat down at a card table where she plied me with cookies and fruit, and then I pulled out my Palm with the folding keyboard and took notes as she spoke.
Taller than average, slender, with thick white hair cut in a bang across her forehead and lively dark eyes, she expressed herself fluently in accented English. She had been widowed twice: her first husband was murdered in the Holocaust; the second was a survivor like herself. With her second husband, she had one son, who was her mainstay, and two grandchildren on whom she doted, both in college.
She proudly showed me the framed photographs of her family, starting with the grandchildren and moving backwards in time. The last photograph she showed me became part of the poem.
“No matter how many books or movies about the Holocaust one has read or seen, it is impossible to understand what it was like to survive it,” she claimed. She was born and raised in Poland, and for the duration of the war, she lived in hiding under an assumed name. “I was taught to tell the truth always,” she declared, “and it does something to your psyche to live a lie. You have to be careful to remember what you say. It’s harder than you think. Sometimes, when I think of what I survived, I can’t believe I did it.”
Her story affected me strongly. Instead of going home when I left her apartment, I went to nearby Riverside Park. It was a beautiful summer evening. I sat down on a park bench. The peaceful green park enveloped me, and the poem poured out of me—her words in my voice. When the poem was accepted by the literary journal, Earth’s Daughter’s, I asked her permission to publish it and received her blessing.
“We had a good life in Warsaw.
“After one week the city was bombarded
“No one knew at first
“Young Jews were going to Russia.
“It wasn’t so easy.
“I spoke excellent Polish
“My parents perished
“He was wounded at the front
“My second husband
“For a year and a half,
“Truman is my favorite president