A Vanished World
If only they'd been purely souls, saints,
or like the ditch weed thriving
against the ghetto wall, could have survived
on air and sunlight alone. You knew
from the first graffiti shrieking in the alleys,
the posters erupting on courtyard paling
and tidy storefronts, Support Equality and Peace,
Vote for Hitler, all over your beloved Berlin,
the corner bakery's window display
changed from dark loaves and sweet cakes
to what looked like antique radio
antennas, devices for measuring skulls,
sorting Gypsies from Mongrels and Jews,
Mongrels and Jews from Aryans,
your neighbors queueing up to certify pure
lineage, that already they were ghosts.
Faces framed in basement windows,
shoeless children and old men peer out at streets
they cannot enter. A cobbler idles beside
his empty bench. A young man,
homeless, carries all he owns in a paper sack.
Your ancestors, and mine, Roman,
a book of photographs I now hold in my lap.
Smuggled Leica hidden in your coat,
you shot these ordinary stories
of the vanished Jews of Warsaw, 1936.
Here, the shades of peddlars pace, out of habit,
or frail hope, behind bare stalls. Here,
a lucky porter dozes on the splintered
crate he's mule to, boots held tight against
his chest. A bearded Rabbi listens
as his student, a boy so thin he might be ten
or seventeen, makes his case for an ess tog,
an eating day, one more meal a week,
to make three. Your ancestors, and mine,
Roman, though strange even to us
in their fur hats and medieval cloaks,
their queer tongues - the Yiddish
they made of fractured Russian, German,
and Polish their only country, the ancient Hebrew
prayers they chanted, davening, the tranced
rocking and keening, mumbled or shouted
songs offered up to a nameless God
who'd never shown them favor or mercy -
marking them foreign wherever they fled.
I wanted, you write, at least to save their faces.
No photograph records the Rabbi's answer.
The caption tells us that the boy,
though promising - even there,
they spoke of promise -
could not study, that he thought only of food.
You did not photograph the Rabbi's
Yes, the boy fallen, having fainted
in relief. One arm raised, palm up,
he's forever caught in eloquence, articulate
gesture, his sharp, familiar profile
my son's or yours, lively as a bird's.
This poem has not been translated into any other language yet.I would like to translate this poem