Poems Born in Bergen-Belsen by Men­achem Rosensaft

My poems emerge, more often than not unin­vit­ed, insist­ing that I lis­ten and give them life, insist­ing, often relent­less­ly, that I forge them into an autonomous exis­tence out­side myself.

do you know who I am?/ and if not/​do you know who I was?/ and if not/​why do you know me?”

My poems define and explain who I am and who I was, because if our present day self is to be authen­tic, it inevitably is a con­se­quence, how­ev­er tor­tured, of our past.

I can­not pin­point the exact moment when I first began express­ing myself in the genre of poet­ry, but I am rea­son­ably cer­tain that my doing so was con­nect­ed to my read­ing, or reread­ing, Dylan Thomas. The Welsh poet intrigued me with his abil­i­ty to cap­ture emo­tions root­ed simul­ta­ne­ous­ly in anger and pain. His A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in Lon­don” con­veyed the anguish inher­ent in remem­ber­ing a child killed in the Ger­man Blitz air attacks on Lon­don dur­ing World War II. Read­ing the lines, Nev­er until the mankind mak­ing,” Deep with the first dead lies Lon­don’s daugh­ter,” and The majesty and burn­ing of the child’s death” inex­orably forced me to think of the chil­dren mur­dered in the Holo­caust whose death and burn­ing in gas cham­bers and cre­ma­to­ria were any­thing but majestic.

Again and again, I returned to this one poem until, decades lat­er, I crys­tal­lized my reac­tions to it in two poems of my own. whom should I forgive?/ why should I forgive?/ how can I for­give?” I wrote in A Refusal to For­give the Death, by Gas, of a Child in Birke­nau.” And in oh yes, I too refuse to mourn,” I made the direct con­nec­tion between Thomas’ dead child and the more than one mil­lion mur­dered Jew­ish chil­dren cast into immortality/​of mankind’s mak­ing” at Auschwitz, Tre­blin­ka, Belzec, Maj­danek, and so many oth­er hor­rif­ic places:

unlike London’s daughter/​they did not feel the flames/​that fad­ed them as black clouds/​into the syn­a­gogue of heaven/​child souls”

These chil­dren haunt me; in par­tic­u­lar, the image of one child haunts me, and I nev­er want him to leave my con­scious­ness. Again and again, I have looked at a framed pho­to­graph of a lit­tle boy with dark hair, sharp, intel­li­gent eyes, and a seri­ous demeanor look­ing straight ahead into the lens, seem­ing­ly through the lens. My moth­er rarely spoke about my broth­er, but I am cer­tain that she looked at this pic­ture every day of her life. It wasn’t until I read the man­u­script of her mem­oir short­ly before she died that I found out about her last moments with her child. It was the night of August 3rd, 1943. My moth­er, her par­ents, her hus­band, her son, and her sis­ter had arrived at the Auschwitz-Birke­nau death camp after a har­row­ing jour­ney from their home­town of Sos­nowiec in a cat­tle car.

We were guard­ed by SS men and women,” she wrote. One SS man was stand­ing in front of the peo­ple and he start­ed the selec­tion. With a sin­gle move­ment of his fin­ger, he was send­ing some peo­ple to the right and some to the left… Men were sep­a­rat­ed from women. Peo­ple with chil­dren were sent to one side, and young peo­ple were sep­a­rat­ed from old­er look­ing ones. No one was allowed to go from one group to the oth­er. Our 5 1/2‑year-old son went with his father. Some­thing that will haunt me to the end of my days occurred dur­ing those first moments. As we were sep­a­rat­ed, our son turned to me and asked, Mom­my, are we going to live or die?’ I didn’t answer this question.”

My brother’s death and his absence in my life have been a recur­ring pres­ence in my poems. Since my mother’s death in 1997, he has exist­ed inside of me. I see his face in my mind, try to imag­ine his voice, his fear as the gas cham­ber doors slammed shut, his final tears. If I were to for­get him, he would disappear.

In oh yes, I too refuse to mourn,” I wrote:

he was born/​I was born/​our moth­ers hugged us/​years apart/​we turned one/​then two, then four/​then five/​but he was nev­er six years old/​nev­er was called to the Torah/​nev­er kissed a girl/​nev­er stud­ied Eccle­si­astes or Kierkegaard/​nev­er read Buber or Kafka/​or even The Lit­tle Prince”

These chil­dren haunt me; in par­tic­u­lar, the image of one child haunts me, and I nev­er want him to leave my consciousness.

And in Psalm 121 On Fire,” I addressed God on his behalf, and mine:

black eyes search for yesterday/​above beyond walls/​above beyond imag­ined hills/​search for human divine help/​promised shel­ter … while aton­al melodies bereft of life/​ascend from their depth/​through charred skele­tal trees/​and one more five-year-old soul/​shat­ters unprotected/​into flames rag­ing up/​toward Your sky/​Your stars/​Your forever”

Mid­night Hal­lu­ci­na­tions” was inspired by anoth­er pho­to­graph. It is of my grand­fa­ther stand­ing out­side a house, a win­dow behind him. His beard is white, his eyes are pierc­ing. He is wear­ing a black hat and coat. On his left arm is a white arm­band. Some­time before the liq­ui­da­tion of the Będzin ghet­to, the Ger­mans appar­ent­ly want­ed to doc­u­ment the ghet­to. My grand­fa­ther was stand­ing in the street and was cap­tured on film. After the war, the film was found some­where in Będzin. Some­one who saw it rec­og­nized my grand­fa­ther, and knew that my father was in the Bergen-Belsen Dis­placed Per­sons camp. Two frames of the film were cut out and sent to my father who had the image enlarged and framed.

And so it was that I grew up with this pho­to­graph of my grand­fa­ther hang­ing in my room. I always thought that maybe he was look­ing direct­ly at me, the grand­child he knew he would nev­er see, and that in this one gaze he was try­ing to teach me every­thing he want­ed me to know.

ghost chil­dren paint/​black butterflies/​against burn­ing flowers/​as my grandfather’s eyes/​tran­scend eternity/​to remind me why/​I bear his name”

My poems allow me to at least try to con­front God in the after­math of the Holo­caust. With­out mean­ing to be either pre­sump­tu­ous or sac­ri­le­gious, I focused on cer­tain Bib­li­cal evo­ca­tions in the con­text of what we know to have been the grue­some real­i­ty of the mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Many of us are famil­iar, per­haps all too famil­iar, with Psalm 23, a stan­dard at funer­als. A psalm of David. Adon­ai is my shep­herd; I shall not want … Though I walk through the val­ley of the shad­ow of death, I fear no evil for You are with me.” In the psalm, God makes us lie down in green pas­tures and spreads a table for us in the pres­ence of our ene­mies, anoint­ing our heads with oil. Only good­ness and lov­ingkind­ness shall fol­low me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in Adonai’s house forever.”

How can we rec­on­cile these words with the agony endured by Jews, as well as Roma and oth­ers, in the Nazi death and con­cen­tra­tion camps?

These ques­tions led me to con­ceive of an alter­nate ver­sion in Psalm XXI­II at Auschwitz:”

a psalm to the emptiness/​no shepherd/​only foes/​no fes­tive table/​only bit­ter soup/​moldy bread/​no green pas­tures … he is always hungry/​she is always cold/​their heads anointed/​by blows/​shad­ows walking/​through the val­ley of death/​Adonai’s fog-wrapped house/​for­ev­er”

At the same time, I can­not write only about the past, or be obliv­i­ous to present-day suf­fer­ing. Nor do I feel or relate to only Jew­ish anguish and pain dur­ing the Shoah. My father taught me that all chil­dren are equal, regard­less of their reli­gion or nation­al­i­ty. Thus, I wrote: the mes­si­ah will not come/​God will not leave Her seclusion/​until Jerusalem’s bearded/​rab­bis imams priests/​teach dai­ly that each/​Jew­ish child/​Pales­tin­ian child/​is cre­at­ed with one/​only one/​always the same/​divine spark”

My poems are also my way of reflect­ing on the mir­a­cles and beau­ty of life. After our daugh­ter, Jodi, was born, I wrote: voice­less melodies drift forgotten/​through their fog-imbued vacuum/​of invis­i­ble sparks/​above God’s eter­nal twilight/​only to be heard/​tran­scend­ing heaven/​at the birth of a child”

And in Hal­lie and Jacob,” writ­ten for and about our grand­chil­dren, I won­dered: per­haps my par­ents kissed you/​like they once kissed me/​like my moth­er kissed your mother/​before send­ing you/​to become who you are/​to become who you will be”

My poems allow me to at least try to con­front God in the after­math of the Holo­caust. With­out mean­ing to be either pre­sump­tu­ous or sac­ri­le­gious, I focused on cer­tain Bib­li­cal evocations.

For me, writ­ing poet­ry requires men­tal com­part­men­tal­iza­tion. This was made clear to me in my first class at Colum­bia Law School. It was late sum­mer of 1976, and I had come there after receiv­ing an M.A. in cre­ative writ­ing, specif­i­cal­ly poet­ry, from Johns Hop­kins, and a sec­ond M.A. in mod­ern Euro­pean his­to­ry from Colum­bia. I was cer­tain that these two grad­u­ate degrees would be the cor­ner­stones of my intel­lec­tu­al devel­op­ment as a lawyer. Pro­fes­sor John M. Ker­nochan, who would become one of my favorite pro­fes­sors at the law school, told us in no uncer­tain terms that poet­ry was incom­pat­i­ble with good legal writ­ing. He was right, of course. My poems per­force con­sist of and reflect emo­tions, intan­gi­ble images, and escapes into imag­i­nary land­scapes that take on a fleet­ing real­i­ty before fad­ing away. These are decid­ed­ly unde­sir­able ele­ments for legal briefs or per­sua­sive his­tor­i­cal essays.

And so, I spent the past sev­er­al decades express­ing myself on two tracks: one rig­or­ous­ly fact-based, and the oth­er giv­ing me the free­dom to find refuge in images and shad­ows that take me on jour­neys inside myself.

My writ­ing is deeply influ­enced by my inter­ac­tion with oth­ers. First and fore­most, my par­ents, who remain my role mod­els; Jeanie, my love, my best friend, my inspi­ra­tion, and my sound­ing board; our chil­dren Jodi and Mike and grand­chil­dren Hal­lie and Jacob who make me feel that I am far younger than I am, and who inspire me every sin­gle day; Jeanie’s par­ents Lil­ly and Sam Bloch whose war-time expe­ri­ences as, respec­tive­ly, a hid­den child and a par­ti­san, com­ple­ment­ed my par­ents’ impris­on­ment at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen; my teacher and men­tor Elie Wiesel, who taught me that words can and should become burn­ing scars; Pro­fes­sor Elliott Cole­man, direc­tor of The Writ­ing Sem­i­nars at Johns Hop­kins, who gave me the con­fi­dence to dis­cov­er and devel­op my poet­ic voice; and friends, col­leagues, and stu­dents too numer­ous to list. Each enriched my under­stand­ing of the human con­di­tion immea­sur­ably, and I am thank­ful to them all.

I owe a spe­cial debt of grat­i­tude to Ambas­sador Ronald S. Laud­er, pres­i­dent of the World Jew­ish Con­gress, for whom I have worked in sev­er­al capac­i­ties for most of the past quar­ter cen­tu­ry. He has allowed and enabled me to make many trips, pil­grim­ages as it were, over the years to the sites where, in anoth­er phrase inspired by Dylan Thomas, death now has its domin­ion. Auschwitz and Birke­nau, my birth­place of Bergen-Belsen, my par­ents’ home­towns, the Czeladź Jew­ish ceme­tery where my grand­moth­er is buried. Many of my poems are root­ed in these and oth­er loca­tions, and I am quite cer­tain that their spir­its and ghosts, includ­ing my brother’s, would not have emerged to me as they did had I not been phys­i­cal­ly present there to meet and absorb them.