Charles Fishman

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 birthwhere dysenterytorture
and typhustook life after lifeand grotesque
experiments in the inducement of infection and pain

were cultivated as a fine artwhere women
of every European nation slaved for Siemens
through endless moonless nightsand cut trees
dug pitsloaded and unloaded railway cars and barges
where abortion was inevitableand sexual cruelty the rule

and where a woman could be martyred for using rags
as tamponsor merely for adjusting her dress
a certain Czech woman who knew every worddanced
to the poems of Rilkemoving sinuously to each
of his Orphean sonnetsbowing gracefully with the first notes

of each Elegie: she felt the dark music of Rilke’s heart
each soaring leap of the spiriteach lunge toward grief
Though she is gone and we no longer know her nameshe
is the one who showed even a halting step could be a triumph
and a dance on the poems of a dead poetmight redeem.


Eastern Europe after the War

Wisps of memoryragged dips in the grass

A few years earlier, millions died in sub-zero
temperatureStripped to their underwear,
they were whippedbeaten with fists
and rifle buttstheir infants ripped
from their armsTheir prayers to God
changed nothingShot in the neck,
they were kickedinto ditch after ditch
Those still living clutched at prayer shawls
or thrice-blessed amuletsbut their words
their tearscalled down no power
Their deaths did not alter the sky, which continues
to shelter their murderersThe earth
that churned for days afterward has yielded nothing
but fragmentsThe years swept by, blurring
the landscapethough, on occasion, something
in humanitytwitchedA list of the names
of the missingslipped from official fingers
and drifted into historyIn Eastern Europe,
not a stitch was mendedThe gash
in the abandoned universecould not be healed



A child of survivors speaks . . .

My first memories come from Chelmno:
at that time, there were no monuments
or markings, just a large clearing in the midst
of the forest. You could see where the mass graves
were: the thick green grass told you, the tilt and drift
of the earth told you. I remember the teeth,
a frayed piece of blue cloth.

My mother is the only survivor of her family.
She’s from Lask, near Lodz, a Polish village.
Her father was the rabbi for 3,000 Jews, half
the population of that village. Her parents, sisters,
and their families perished at Chelmno.
She survived the camps, the marches, was liberated
by Partisans. My mother is lucky and strong.

In 1992, with my dear father, I visited Lodz,
also Lask. There, we spoke with the only surviving Jew,
a woman of 90 who remembered my mother
and who cried when she recognized my grandfather’s face
in mine. Together, we walked through the beautiful
wide clearing in the midst of the woods that was Chelmno,
the beautiful woods where 250,000 Jews are buried.


A Child Survivor

For Arthur Kurzweil

With the help of a Catholic woman,
one of the righteous among the nations,
she escaped from the blazing furnace
of Warsaw. For 18 years, she was protected
even lovedbut it was only when a nun
let the truth flare, briefly, under the sun,

that the child—long since become
a lovely young woman—listened
and learned. But that other world
remained unapproachably distant—
the dark side of her private moon—

for the child she had been lived only
in whispersin fleeting dreams
in the unilluminated space of a lost galaxy
in the billionth billionth lightyear of the heart.

Only after marriage to a man who mourned
all that was goneand the birth of her own child—
that miracle of history and continuance—

could she feel in her bloodthe true worth
of the gift her mother had given her:

she was a Jew who had survived.


The Ballad of Ravensbrück

I feel like a ghost—I’m supposed to be dead.
—Bella Eisenberg

50th anniversary of LiberationApril 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

But some were strong and fate decreed
that they would not be lost:
these women—raped and scarred for life—
still managed to resist

Though beaten sterilized and starved
they helped each other live;
though caged in dark and filthy cells
40,000 survived

See, here is Bella who feels like a ghost
and here is Hana who died
and this is Ilsa who kneels in the dirt—
she committed suicide

This is Stenni and her sister Marie
with their faces in their hands:
they wear the stripes and hear the cries
of women who died on this land

Come, let us light a candle now
in this oven that’s grown cold
for 90,000 prisoners
who in Ravensbrück were killed.


©2001 Charles Fishman

Charles Fishman is director of the Distinguished Speakers Program at SUNY Farmingdale, where he previously directed the Visiting Writers Program for 18 years. His books include Mortal Companions, The Firewalkers, Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust, and The Death Mazurka, which was selected by the American Library Association as one of the outstanding books of the year (1989) and nominated for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. He has received the Ann Stanford Poetry Prize from Southern California Anthology, the Eve of St. Agnes Poetry Prize from Negative Capability, a fellowship in poetry from the New York Foundation for the Arts, and numerous other awards and honors. He was final judge for the 1998 Capricorn Book Award and has recently served as Poetry Editor for the Journal of Genocide Studies and Cistercian Studies Quarterly (following Denise Levertov in that position). Currently, he is Associate Editor of The Drunken Boat. His 8th chapbook, Time Travel Reports, will be published by Timberline Press in 2002. He can be reached at either carolus[AT] or charllzz[AT] (replace [AT] with @).


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