Get up, schweinerei, my father says, waking us late.
And at dinner, my dyadya, talking drunk and loud,
says that he and my dedushka guarded railroads
in the war. For the Germans. The railroads are old,
but this country is new: not the Soviet Union, I ask?,
not wanting to know. Barely breathing: the world,
hard, atrocious, and cruel, falls into place.
And Babushka? Babushka worked at the railroad, too.
(I feel her hard hands braiding my hair, the stern lips
mouthing: zhid). I remember my mother, seeking salvation
at her grave, saying (but lying): “I once opened a gate.”
The world falls into place. What was on those rails? Who?
And what did their guards do? Somehow I knew, I always knew.
Tonight, I hear my mother’s reedy voice simper, singing,
Nach jeden Dezember ihr kommt ein Mai. Her home of
gemutlichkeit, comfort without joy. Her love for the
German tongue; how often she said “There were good
Germans, too.” As Ukrainians, save the martyred few,
they were gvardia, collaborators, too. Did they have a
choice? Starvation in the kolkhoz, bodies lying, dying
in the streets, and only the Germans, said my mother,
protested Stalin’s rape and collectivization of the
Ukraine. How much victim? How much volunteer?
Did my mama, my papa, my dyadya,my baba, my
dyedushka commit atrocities in the war?
In Kalinivka, the mass graves; my family was there.
In Prymsl, deported Jews; my family was there.
In the Harz Mountains, Northhausen and Dora-Mittelbau;
my family was there. What other families? Who survived,
and why? (There was no crematorium in Dora, my mother
lied.) In the face of starvation, of death, of Stalin’s camps,
tell me, you, well-fed and safe, judging me and mine: is there
complicity when there is no choice? (Was there choice?)
The stories, the lacunae, the lies. Now I know why I always felt
like a Jew. O, Adonai, why? Why these origins for me, why no
orisons for me? The dead are dead, but not within me, my
holocaust today, forever my bread.
This poem appeared in The Common Online.