Remember the Women Institute is grateful to Charles Adés Fishman and Peter Medvinski for their haunting poems.
We thank them for giving us permission to reprint their poems. Fishman’s “A Dance on the Poems of Rilke” also appeared in The Jewish Women of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp by Rochelle G. Saidel.
Four Poems by Charles Adés Fishman
from Chopin’s Piano (Time Being Books, 2006)
Baby Carriages in Birkenau
They were out for a walk, strolling in Birkenau
under the eyes of Germans: model prisoners
enroute to the crematorium door where death
would smile at them and ask them to stay.
That is what they thought, but baby carriages
awaited them that day: 50 empty prams
they would row to safekeeping in the green shadows
of birch trees 50 beached hulls they would steer
into deep water. When they nudged those small ships
forward, they sailed with a crew of memories: infants
their breasts couldn’t nurse, children their wombs
wouldn’t harbor. They had two miles to walk,
but they sailed their craft across oceans.
It was Sunday in June yet these ghost galleons
edged closer like rafts of sheered-off ice: bereft of all
but drawing near to the shore.
The Youngest Known Holocaust Survivor
for Dani and Haya
At 3, she was caged above the ovens
a twin with her twin sister: small wooden cage
no windows Only Mengele held the key
and opened that darkness to the flames
What he needed was their bones and their pain
whiter than the first flare of light after blindness
Who could she cling to but her sister
who shuddered and gulped death in the darkness
who stuttered her name which was Sora
so that to soothe herself Sora she could only
stammer back? And when she died
in her own arms Mengele broke her fingers
What could survive this death which comes
pouring out of her even now? Only the twin
of her anger the twin of her sorrow.
A Dance on the Poems of Rilke
I remember a Czech dancer who danced on the poems of Rilke.
— Stennie Pratomo-Gret
In the particular hell of Ravensbrück
where Gypsy girls were sterilized and babies
were drowned at birth where dysentery
lung cancer and typhus took life after life
and grotesque experiments in the inducement
of infection and pain were cultivated as a fine art
where women of every European nation slaved
for Siemens through endless moonless nights
and cut trees dug pits loaded and unloaded
railway cars and barges where abortion was
inevitable and sexual cruelty the rule and where
a woman could be duly tortured for using rags
as tampons or merely for adjusting her dress
a certain Czech woman who knew every word
danced to the poems of Rilke moving sinuously
to each of his Orphean sonnets bowing gracefully
with the first notes of each Elegie: she felt the dark music
of Rilke’s heart each soaring leap of the spirit each lunge
toward grief Though she is long gone and we
no longer know her name she is the one who showed
even a halting step could be a triumph and a dance
on the poems of a dead poet might redeem.
THE BALLAD OF RAVENSBRÜCK
This poem appears in 5,000 Bells (Cross-Cultural Communications, 2007)
I feel like a ghost—I’m supposed to be dead.
50th anniversary of Liberation, April 24, 1995
4,000 women have returned
to Ravensbrück today
carrying roses wreaths and canes:
they’ve come to grieve and pray
Here is the wall where Rosa was whipped
for fashioning a small rag doll
and this is where Anja was burned by a guard
and this is where Sofi was mauled
This is where Magda was tortured for praying
and this is where Dora was hanged
and here is the Lake of Babies who drowned
before they were nursed or named
Ravensbrück refused them drink
refused them food and pride:
it forced them to divorce their hearts
from their souls and minds
Yet beaten sterilized and starved
they helped each other live;
though caged in dark and filthy cells
Yes, here is Bella who moans like a ghost
and Chana who mourns like a bride
and this is Ilsa who kneels in the dirt
where her twin daughters died.
This is Stenni and her sister Marie
with their faces in their hands:
they wear the stripes and hear the cries
of women from every land
Come, let us light a candle now
in this oven that’s grown cold
for sisters, mothers, daughters, wives
who in Ravensbrück were killed.
by Peter Medvinsky
To the sacred memory of Tanya Marcus and all known and unknown martyrs and heroes of the Holocaust
The man who entered my compartment on that train
Crossing the winter-gripped Ukraine
Looked twice my age, but strong and tough;
The kind whose war-time youth was rough;
He said “Hello,” then paused a bit
And took his seat.
The train was crawling; we were looking outside;
Another town was in sight;
A park, a church, a monument
To a Resistance fighter hanged…
“They honor heroes,” I said,
And turned my head.
The man looked grim, a muscle was twitching on his face:
“Young man, I fought in those days;
Killed murderers, was stabbed; was shot;
Had friends: a brave, daring lot;
The most courageous of them all
Was a young girl.
I first met Tanya in the fall of 41;
Kiev had just been overrun;
I was a soldier, had to hide;
The partisans were hard to find;
Tanya and her Resistance friends
Saved me from death.
I wish I had,” the man continued, “the words
To tell you what a girl she was;
Her gentle beauty to describe;
Her magnetism; her love of life…
And no photos of her
Survived the war.
Then came the day all Jews were ordered to report;
Most obeyed, Tanya did not;
I saw that eerie march of death:
Graybeards, cripples, women, babies…
The laughing Nazis machine-gunned them,
I did not see Tanya smile ever since that day;
“For us is left only one way,”
She said and soon began the hunt;
Forged documents; a small handgun…
A one girl army she became
After that day.
When Tanya struck, her blows stunned the Nazi gang;
The ones she killed were of high rank;
Gestapo dogs were running wild;
They searched for many days and nights;
Even SS-men from Berlin
Were flown in.
She was betrayed. We tried to save her, but we failed.
We later learned that in the jail
They tortured her beyond belief;
Death came to her as a relief.
She was just twenty. Not a word
They got from her.
After the war I met some high-ups and, in vain,
Urged them to honor Tanya’s name;
They made it as plain as they could:
“Jewish last names don’t sound good;”
This is the world that we live in –
Cruel and mean.”
The man got off the train and vanished in the night;
But not before leaving behind,
With me: his last look, long and hard;
The memories that I must guard;
The fire that has not ceased burning
In my heart.
Copyright © 2002 by Peter Medvinski
All rights reserved