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.           
“On September 1, 1939,
when war broke out,
I locked myself in the bathroom
and wouldn’t come out.
I was crying; I knew
my world was ending.

“We had a good life in Warsaw.
My father owned a business;
we kept two servants;
my sister and I went to private schools.

“After one week the city was bombarded
from morning to night.
Warsaw was beautiful,
and it was completely destroyed.

“No one knew at first
of Hitler and Stalin’s secret pact.
Soon the city was reorganized
and the ghetto set up.

“Young Jews were going to Russia.
Before the ghetto was closed,
my fiancé and I escaped
across the green border to the East.

“It wasn’t so easy.
He was very smart at arranging things
and on the black market bought me
an original birth certificate
of a person my age
who’d been taken to Siberia.

“I spoke excellent Polish
because we’d spoken Polish at home.
He and I lived in the suburbs of a city
that was Judenrein.
I looked Jewish but he didn’t.
He had blond hair and blue eyes.
“One day he left in the morning
and didn’t come back.
I still don’t know what happened to him.
The Germans picked him up.
They killed people for nothing.
With men, it was simple,
‘Pull down your pants.’

“My parents perished
in the Warsaw Ghetto.
My sister died with her daughter
in a terrible concentration camp.
She couldn’t think like a person
after her husband died
in the Army in the short war.

“He was wounded at the front
and brought to a hospital in Warsaw.
The Germans used poisoned bullets.
His wounds weren’t mortal,
but infections developed.

“My second husband
saw his wife and daughter
killed before his eyes.
There are things you don’t talk about
or understand.
Until the end of his life
he screamed in his sleep
and I would hold him.
He was a good husband,
a good father, a good man.

“For a year and a half,
until the end of the war,
I survived on my own without means,
with no family or home.
I had a twenty dollar bill
to buy my life if I were arrested.
No one knew I existed.
I believe I was fated to live;
I don’t know why.

“Truman is my favorite president
because he let us in the U.S. after the war.
In New York I found my cousin.
She took me into her bedroom
and showed me her photo albums.
‘Take what you want,’ she said.
Can you imagine what it meant to me
to have a picture of my parents?”