DeWitt Clinton —
All of us are hungry as dogs, though it’s not even noon, but our guide in green shoes wants us to stop at this grocery store, pick up some cheeses and breads so we won’t have to waste any time, so we can spend more time at Treblinka where we will wander around thousands of stones, each one a village which was sent up in smoke here in a place in Poland none of the Poles want us to see. Moments ago, we stood at the memorial at the Umschlagplatz in Warsaw, where Yatzik told us in a cool tour guide voice how this was the place where more than 800,000 boarded the trains for a place they’d never heard of, a place, when they arrived, looked more like a holiday than a place of ashes and suet.
But now we’re simply in line for cheese sandwiches, waiting patiently behind locals who are busy getting their own breads and cheeses at a small grocery store on the edge of Warsaw. The woman behind the glass deli, who has a very bad head cold, who despises our little touring group, young Americans come to see the death camps, blows heavy snot into her already wet handkerchief, and then, curtly, glares at each one of us as she assists her neighborhood customers, customers who have no intentions either of driving out into the woods and seeing stone monuments of a place that really doesn’t exist anymore.
These are our first days in Poland. We’ve just come from what was once the Jerusalem of the North, Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, known then as Vilna, in Polish, Wilno. On one of our first evenings we feast on delicious onion soup, so good, we have bowls and bowls of it as we listen to a stranger tell us about how she has found her way here from Finland, a nanny for her employer’s children, and she tells us about her beautiful country Australia. We’re amused on this first evening, alone, in the arms of each other, the sweet taste of caramelized onions and good strong drink, and dark bread we cannot even pronounce.
Hours before, we were standing in what is now an old housing district, a glimpse back to the 1940’s where black coat Jews would find prayer and solace and study in tens of small apartment synagogues. Now there is only the sound of children playing and squealing on a concrete courtyard, none of them Jewish, none of them even knowing at this place one could circumnavigate the entire Jewish world. The Great Synagogue as it was once known, has disappeared, and now, on the grounds of our neighborhood tour, just around the corner from where we are standing, is a two story Soviet built box, a kindergarten school no longer in use. Next to it is a statue of the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman), a reminder of what this place once was.
All the long beards and black coats are gone, having boarded trains and taken on forced marches to a place known as Ponary, an old oil depot with the tanks removed, creating a natural landscape for easy undressing and shooting and burying and unburying and burning and burying without even one person whispering kaddish.
All of us are too young to know any of this. Ponary is not one of the places that come to mind when one thinks of slaves and muselmann and gas and crematoria and ashes floating over us all. Here at this place all of us are stunned looking into these shallow pits. The fir trees are shimmering in the light rain. The crows circle above us providing the only orchestra for our brief visit. In the quiet breezes of this einsatzgruppen aktion, we actually hear the rifle fire, rapid and constant, and then we know we are only tourists, here, seeing, trying to put this inside of us in a place we can never forget. A few of us stand by the monument, and we’ll see many of them, and if built by the Soviets, and that is where we are, in old Soviet Lithuania, the memorial will be the largest structure, one we can all stand on, pray on, and read what we can in Russian, Yiddish, Polish and German of what happened here, and this is only the beginning of what we have come to see. We must board the bus, or we will miss lunch, outside the city of Kovno or Kalnaus as some might know it. Nobody wants to miss lunch for the beer is good, the bread is good, the soup is good, and for the carnivores, the meat is good, too.
I missed the Holocaust while growing up in Kansas. I’m sure I lived in the same town with plenty of World War II vets, but I never found them, as I was busy failing Latin and convincing my English teacher that I had read George Orwell’s Animal Farm by copying some wonderful phrases about whatever totalitarianism was from the flyleaf. Actually, German prisoners-of-war were actually gardening and plowing Kansas fields long before Harry Truman authorized dropping bombs on Japan. A few years ago, I remember reading a curious obituary of one of the German POW escapees from an Oklahoma camp, who had died in old age, having served his country of Germany admirably. I wonder now if my parents were ever concerned with Nazis plowing up the good Republican earth.
But they’re all gone now, or at least the memories of the German POW camps are gone. Most of the camps in Poland, and those in Germany, still exist, though it’s hard to find every single one. Who’d want to? I knew about the Israelites in Egypt, and their long sojourn in the desert, wherever that was, but even in high school, I don’t remember hearing of any modern-day Israelites, and actually didn’t know any were alive. Did I sit in a bunker on the perimeter of death in Vietnam with any? Now I’m not so sure? Maybe. Only when I moved east to Ohio did I meet any Jews, and as far as I was concerned, I no longer wanted to preach the word of the Lord, I just wanted to live in this world and write poetry. A few years later my friend Sol from Detroit invited us to his home, and he took us out in the backyard to sit in his sukkah and enjoy hummus and pita for the very first time.
Now I make kugel and blintzes and matzo ball soup and tzsimmes, lead an occasional service, and write poems on verses from Torah. But even that seems long ago, and somewhat of a miracle for a Methodist preacher’s kid destined for St. Paul’s Seminary in Kansas City. In time, I began to hear more and more about ghettos and aktions and the einsatzgruppen and the hundreds of concentration camps, and of course, the six million. My moreh, my teacher, my close but quite elderly friend whose Hebrew name I share—Naftali, in Hebrew, one of the sons of Jacob, one of the twelve tribes—was a survivor of the camps, one in Germany called Buchenwald. Sometimes I stand in the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. and stare into the glass where I see ten men hanging from the gallows at Buchenwald. I look closely to see if one of them is me. Though I’m an atomic bomb baby, somehow, I think I’ve been there, but maybe it’s because I’m trying to catch up for being so stupid as to what was going on in Europe in the 1930’s and 40’s. I missed Anne Frank, I missed Eli Wiesel, I missed anything and everything about the Holocaust, and now I seem to be searching for a former life, perhaps a life I lived as a naïve kid in some small shtetl in the Pale, or maybe even in Poland, or Germany, or Holland, or Greece, or Italy, or anywhere The Fuhrer’s long arm could reach me, if I were a Jew. Now that I am, I wonder about my cousins, distant all the way back to Abraham. A story about mice and cats was my “formative” experience with the Holocaust, and anyone who says he knows the Holocaust through a graphic novel like Art Spiegelman’s Maus should be questioned, but we all start somewhere, don’t we?
While on a sabbatical from the university where I taught writing and literature, I found a group of young college students and a Jewish philosopher who were planning a tour of Holocaust camps in Poland. I still am not sure why my wife and I asked if we could come along. Perhaps I wanted to see what my mentor never told me what happened inside the gates at Buchenwald. Of course, I’ll never know, and still don’t. The photographs in the Holocaust Museum, and at Yad Vashem in Tel Aviv, certainly help me to imagine the horror. Most of our friends looked quite puzzled, and worried, that we were taking our holiday to see Vilnius and Warsaw and Treblinka, and Lodz, and Lublin and Majdanek, and Krakow, and Auschwitz and Prague and Theresienstadt. I still have a small stone from Auschwitz-Birkenau II. I keep it close by on my desk, and gaze at it even now, a reminder of the prompt and efficient rail lines with a last stop near the convenient showers for all the dirty travelers.
Mother wanted to FedEx her own ashes down to the town in South Carolina where her husband was buried almost 20 years before. She probably was the first to go up in smoke like that, though I doubt if funeral homes allow too much drift of smoke and ashes when they take care of our loved ones these days. She’s in the bottom of a small inexpensive urn in a small inexpensive box which none of us cared to open, the package “ready for burial” as the funeral director reminded us. We mixed it up with a variety of readings and reflections, and her granddaughter sang a soulful solo of “Our Father” which made all of us pause and wonder. After a kaddish which she may not have recognized as a Methodist minister’s wife, at my suggestion, we all took a shovel and helped bury her just a few inches above Father who is probably in the same shape he was when we first put him down in the ground twenty years before.
So no one would somehow make a big mistake and put him in another grave, or something stupid, or idiotic as I imagine happens in cemeteries, I asked the attending minister, my cousin, another DeWitt, if I could help bury Father myself, something I would do much later as a Jew, but for now, I just wanted to make sure he stayed in one spot here on this lovely hillside, with this postcard view of gently rolling hills in a peapod of a town known as Greer, a place we all came down to as children on one our many sojourns to visit cousins and mother’s uncountable-at-the-time brothers and sisters. Mother was the last to be counted, and I doubt if any of us ever go back, as we sold our own lots back to the cemetery.
Today on the way out of my own town, I drive by a national cemetery of the war dead and tend to always look over to the mausoleums which are just a few feet by the side of the road. Back from Vietnam, one of my first jobs was delivering flowers to home and hospitals, and occasionally, the owner would give me a set of keys, and I knew I was going to have to make another delivery to a walk-down-into-mausoleum which was far creepier than any set of Romeo and Juliet. By then I had read far too much Edgar Alan Poe, so every step down was closer to my own premature burial but compared to incoming mortar rounds from Charlie or the Viet Cong, in some impossible grid of a rice paddy or edge of a forest, somewhere in the Song Chang River Valley in South Vietnam, this place was nice and quiet, and I often stayed a few minutes after replacing the fading flowers on the iron gates to the family crypt. I never took my lunch there, but years later, I’d write about a creepy wannabe Dracula who thought it cool to hang out in crypts and old cemeteries named Valhalla.
The two of us have no plans for crypts. Actually, we’ve been talking about this end-point of our lives for ages. We’ve been to the Jewish cemetery many times to lower our old friends into their graves. By far the most meaningful ritual is shoveling in a scoop or two of dirt, followed by the other mourners doing the same. It’s not just helping the grounds keeper. We’re trying our best to acknowledge that our friend is in this ground, and that all we have now are the memories. We did this for my mother a few years ago, and it seemed very comforting to those at the gravesite who were unfamiliar with this ritual. Of course, who knows where we’ll be when we die, and who might care for our bodies. They could be washed by the chevrah kadisha. They could be taken to a crematorium and burnt to ash, ashes then to the ground, but lately, I’ve been thinking about having the ashes scattered in some Wisconsin prairie or forest north of the campus where I lectured and graded, graded and lectured for so long.
The first time I heard kaddish was when my wife invited me as a lapsed Methodist preacher’s kid to a synagogue service, on the east side of Milwaukee. She had been taking a few classes from a Holocaust survivor, a retired psychology professor from the university across the street, and now I had been asking her about all the history and culture she had been taking in during her “Sunday School” lessons. I was quite unprepared to enter the Temple of the Jews, but then, it wasn’t exactly the Temple in Jerusalem, and it wasn’t exactly the Ancient World of Israel, but then, I’m not even sure I knew any of this, yet. The building was beautiful, yet my one concern was being identified as a Gentile in such a holy place.
Actually quite a few looked like Gentiles, as I had not quite figured out what Orthodox and Conservative and Reform and Reconstructionist and Renewal all meant in terms of looking like a Jew. Where had I learned anything about looking like a Jew? All those terrible stereotypes wafted away when the music began, and the whole evening felt more like an opera in some great hall in Europe, yet I had never really been so mesmerized before by the baritone leading the Jews into whatever he was leading them into, and when the rabbi and the chazzan opened up an incredibly beautiful antique clothes closet, I was overwhelmed with the dazzling light, and then, the rabbi carried this immense yet magical scroll through the different aisles, and by then. I did not think the service could be any more magnificent, even if I did not know a single word of the mysterious language.
I recalled my Old Testament teacher in college, or even my own father who would often talk of “the prophets of ancient Israel,” but here was a breathing one, championing the cause of terrible housing conditions in Milwaukee, and speaking in such alliterative phrases, that I thought I had been put into a trance. Near the end of the service, still in Hebrew with a mix of English, the rabbi read from a list of those who had died this last week, and those who had died at this time of the year, going all the way back to who knows when. Just hearing the names of the dead was more than I had planned for a Friday night visit, but then he added “and the memory of the 6 million,” and that’s when I started blubbering, and couldn’t stop. We all stood and said something that had the effect of a long mournful chant with lots of “Yit gadals…” By then, I needed to be carried out. My wife and I revived with cake and tea, which seemed to lift our spirits and a few even came up to us and welcomed us, and without knowing anything, these lovely people, as I called them, would change my life forever.
That evening, without knowing it of course, I wanted to be with this tribe, these Jews, even if I had only been with them for one Friday evening service. Soon my wife’s teacher became my teacher, and soon we were talking in Buberian dialog that was a little confusing with all the “thous,” yet slowly over the years, he and his wife became our Holocaust parents, parents that had managed to escape with their one child from Nazi Germany and Buchenwald before Kristallnacht. But then, during that precious evening, I knew nothing about the Third Reich except for a vague memory of having read about it on my own in senior high, out in Dodge City, where everyone I talked to looked a little strange at my interest in William Shirer’s big book about The Rise and Fall.
Today I show students a website of the Umschlagplatz. They gaze politely. The pictures I share with them of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Memorial are just pictures. They are here to receive credit for a core course, something called the World of Ideas. With a click of the mouse, I take them to the remnant Wall in Warsaw. We’ve just finished reading Wladyslaw Szpilman’s The Pianist. Soon they will view Roman Polanski’s view of the pianist’s life inside and outside the Ghetto Wall.
On our first day of traveling in Poland, we are treated to the King’s Park, filled with beautiful 19th Century residences of what once were Palace grounds. It’s hot. Today is a state holiday. Every museum is closed. We all queue up for ice cream. An artist is drawing idyllic pictures of ponds, palace grounds, and holiday strollers walking their Pekinese. Soon we will walk through Warsaw’s Jewish Cemetery, the largest in the city, the largest in the country, the largest in the world, for Jews had been burying their dead long before the Wall went up. We stroll through the Cemetery, arm in arm, passing by, kneeling, absorbing the endless acres of those who once made a life here in Warsaw. Then we come to the open fields. The ghetto fields. This is where emaciated male Jews, under guard, carted their dead out of the Ghetto to be swung into open pits. Of course, the kaddish was recited. But there was no minyan, unless you count the Nazis guarding the burial society. This is our first day in Poland. We will visit many cemeteries. Poland is a cemetery. The Poles would rather we join the opera tours, or the tour to Chopin’s childhood home, or just enjoy the beauty and grandeur of their country, now that it is no longer a satellite of the U.S.S.R., now that it is no longer Germany’s path to the greater fields of the Russian steppes, and ultimately, Moscow.
Tomorrow, after breakfast, after stopping at the remnant Wall, after standing at the Umschlagplatz, we are bound for Treblinka, following the nearly same path as the rail line that will take 800,000 Jews, those who survived Warsaw and thousands of others, to their immediate and efficient death. All of us have picked up our cheese sandwiches and European cookies that will hold off our hunger until we can walk through an uncountable number of symbolic stones at Treblinka. I still see the village boy giving our bus load the finger as we turn into the last road to this outdoor Polish museum. A small sign tells us where we are, and what we will not see. We will not see the camp buildings, we will not see the ersatz buildings that looked to those arriving in cattle cars as a decent place to survive the war. We will learn about the history of this place another time. All that is left is the space. Markers tell us what once was here. As we orient ourselves as to where we are, most of us separate, find a path, and walk as if we can absorb some of what happened here. Coming out of a grove of trees, we see an open field, a field of stones, each stone inscribed with a name of a village somewhere in Central Europe. The ash of those villagers is all that is left here, and even the ash has disappeared, either floated away to drift onto farmer’s fields, or to be buried in pits that we walk by. We gather at the immensely large memorial stone in the center of the field and say as best we can a kaddish for those who died so violently here. We are all barely able to stand, yet one of our class members tells us more about how his uncle somehow miraculously escaped from this place.
I’m now standing in the last available space behind two lovely middle-aged Poles who lean forward from their chairs, leaning as far as they can into the beautiful music of Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco. I can’t begin to even appreciate what it is like to look at this modern Polish version of this ancient “Italian” epic that captures almost perfectly the story of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar who hopes to enslave all of the Israelites inside the walls of Jerusalem, and take them off, perhaps in tow, to someplace in the east for resettlement. The Assyrians come down with a bad case of Biblical poisoning, or at least that’s how the story goes, or what I can remember of it from whenever I read the story in Sunday school.
The opera is 50 hours long, or at least it feels like that, and we’ve just finished walking through Majdanek outside the city environs of Lublin, a pristine death camp that takes us deeper into what it must have looked like in the 1940’s. On one special “harvest” day, thousands and thousands of Jews were delivered to the gas chambers and later to the crematorium. As I write this, I look up to a photograph I’ve taken, just about the only one I’ve kept of this tour through Holocaust Poland. The red poppy is a single flower in the foreground, larger, perhaps than the smokestack in the background. The photograph hangs in my office, a reminder of where I once laid down in a field in Majdanek to find this poppy.
We’re still a bit untrained to the long acts of Verdi, so we slip out at the intermission for Act III, and step out into the lovely summer rain and look for a place to have a late dinner. We run across the street, trying not to slip, and walk into a quiet small restaurant, where we take a table next to a large leaded glass window that lets us look out onto a side street where the rain reflects off the large bricks of the road, and somehow, I see Humphrey Bogart running across the street, waving at us, perhaps he wants to join us for potato soup. We talk about the costumes, Verdi’s music, the libretto which we can’t understand, and I try to make sense of the attack on Jerusalem, and how we really are safe here in this quiet lovely city that once had been one of hundreds of frightening cities to live in, in Poland, if you were Polish or Jewish or anything in the way of the Reich cleansing of 1939 and beyond.
Earlier in the afternoon, at Majdanek, I realized how I had forgotten to use any restrooms either on our bus or back at our hotel, and now, I sensed a pulsing urgent need to find a toilet, anywhere at this camp. Our philosophy professor and guide for the tour was actually in the same predicament, and so the two of us started looking for any signs that might lead us to relief. But all we found were a couple of outhouses, and now, as we were sitting in both, looking around in our quiet little reflective spaces, it dawned on me, all too late, that we were using the Nazi officer’s latrine. We both closed the doors about the same time, a little in shock as to the where we had just been and would never forget.
Day by day, we were getting closer and closer to a place we had all read about, heard about, wandered about, but for now, all we wanted to do was enjoy each others’ company as we bussed further south to the place that seemed untouched by Soviet architects, or at least it seemed so, as Krakow became a respite, a brief one, before we walked the next day under the metal banner reminding us of Arbeit Macht Frei.
This article was first published in Cultural Studies<–>Critical Methodologies and is featured in a new collection of my poems, At the End of the War (Kelsay Books, 2018).