January 16, 2015

A Job To Remember, 1941

The speaker of this poem really existed. My father witnessed the events described in her class and his mother recorded the Bristol Blitz described here in ‘pyred horizons.’ The rest is holocaust documents. You don’t have to be Jewish to be chilled by this story  (or to think of what Theodor Adorno references when he declares "No Lyric poetry after Auschwitz") – I’m not – but...

“Let the day perish wherein I was born…” Job Ch.3


F.R Reich, Dental Surgeon, S.S.A,
Runes pressed in the cold
April blond plate outside,
Drilled in my child’s memory.
Swallowed like blood, his earnest
Jokes of sweet-toothed Fräuleins
But with us he was noted for kindness,
Treated me, thus, as a child
Right up to ’36, when all ended.
JEWS TO LOSE VOTE in headlines, heels
Clipped together, he courteously ‘regretted’
Our family could not in future be treated
By him as Germans. I ran
A dry tongue across the rotten ache,
Finding the gold he’d foot-drilled in
Four years before to my girl’s empty head
While I counted…in, in, in, out, out,
The rings on the lamp overhead;
He in bright mood at Hindenberg’s win,
His hand, and smiling political chitchat, made light
With That Austrian’s drubbing.


More rain – don’t they ever get tired of it?
Sweat from Mexico
Distilled by this creeping
Cold from Europe, damping
My spirit. Light washing over
Stone steps before blackout
Brings no comfort; the railing licks
Cold my supported hand.
A dark dumb terror articulated
Too many times, interned in files
Screaming with figures, birthdates, deathdates,
‘Family in Custody’, ‘deported’ ‘evicted’ arrested’
Begins to be meaningless,
A little crazy – one of Father’s
Hysterical jokes. Resistance,
Capitulation and at last, escape,
All broken down in the shabby
Second hand language of this race
Interned in a Crypt, peaceful Sundays
Smashed by the hideous wail of sirens, explosions,
Gun-bursts, pyred horizons.


I came here in ’38, just before
The Vengeance Pogrom.
Mad, but when the Nazis
Kicked in from the cold first
(The Elections in ’30)
I thought ‘Jews’ was just a
Vote-catching gimmick. The Storm Troops
Came out of the gutter
But their ideals sang: Germany the strong
Stirred heart of Europe, a nation
Which astounded West, and humiliated East
In the War made Great by that Valkyrie spirit
Our enemies failed to explain
Away as mere ‘organisation’.
Father won the Iron Cross, the
Fatherland its world destiny…
One thousand million per cent
Inflation, then the four, five, six
Unemployed millions: a Reichstag
Of Bolsheviks. Who cared, then, if a few Reds asked
For broken heads and got them?


The Elections of ’24 were wild. We
Saw the first Nazis
And we boycotted
Eve, the Communist’s daughter.
Nothing seemed absolute
Then. Over in England
The first Workers’ Government; at
Home 60 Reds, and ‘No
Guns to keep out the Soviets!’
Vater said. I’m still appalled by how cruel
I was to Eve, how exhilarated, though I was
Only ten and yearning, perhaps, to be accepted.
Then the reversed cross I’d watched
On my sixth birthday, when the Free corps
Marched on union Berlin, brought
Back excitement again. Breath-taking, too,
That red and black swathe, armbands, boots.
I almost wished them to single me out
(Aren’t Hitler and Freud from the same place?)
Conceived a brief crush on the eagle-eyed schoolboy
Who drilled our local Jungfolk.


Many friends of our class voted Nazi
Through the depression.
Some, to better themselves
Or their chance of a job
Joined them. But it was only
When The Corporal goosed in
To be chancellor that the dream
-Unhealthy, adolescent-
Turned into the nightmare you can’t repress.
We dodged the first persecutions,
Protected by Vater’s high rank in the army
(There were five hundred thousand others besides, then.)
Nationality was lost
By one or two, humiliating
And unnerving, yet we still thought
‘Once Chancellor… President… Hitler got
Economy and unions
Under control, it would all blow
Over!’… but der Störung continued,
Came marching the streets looking for us. New regulations
Each week, reduced to ‘subjects’.


Our newspapers were stopped and Otto spared
The new conscription:
Poor exchange for my loss
Of a second year place
At the University.
Gretel couldn’t wed Hans
Now: she was, they said, an ‘Ayran’.
The queue for passports grew
Desperate and with War in the air, I knew
It was time to uproot while we could.
To Austrian relations - soon not far enough,
Nor then Czechoslovakia. We beat the trap
On the 4th of October
1938, the day before
They marked our passports with a J.
Terrified friends in the office helped me,
Dropped the new ‘Sarah’ from my name.
‘Helga Sarah Helbrow’ sounded
So oppressed – as ‘Israel’ Einstein would have,
The way ‘Israel’ Freud might have analysed
Goebbels’ Vienna, newly Doctored.


‘Stateless’ – starving- Jews went first, to Poland
We heard, land of slaves.
In Paris, I cheered as
The Nazi Attache
Was shot by a Jew. Goebbels’
‘Spontaneous’ pogrom
Followed all through the Reich. Even
In Paris, I feared it.
In its wake, financially crippling laws,
Curfews, closures, exclusions, spoils,
All goose-stepped up and up then marched into Poland
With yet more kick declaring veltsturm, blitzgrieg…war.
Last winter (1940)
I heard that Vater, too proud to run,
Unpensioned, with unprotected
Rent, un-couponed, dispossessed, no
Radio, phone, ‘reparations’
Unpaid, chose ‘protective custody.’
I heard he went in a cattle truck…
Wheeled six million sub-zero degree separations
Through seven degrees of love.


I never thought much about Being A Jew
Till I found myself
Cowed on a train screaming
Out of Berlin. Hidden
With our remnant of luggage
Was a Rabbi Wanted
By the Gestapo. My cousin’s
Family are synagogue-
Goers, festival observers, too other
Worldly for me and quite willing
To risk the whole exodus for this priest. Although
Even Mutter had grown more orthodox by then.
I listened while he intoned
The Chosen People’s star role, to lead
The world from the wilderness, to lead
From totem to civilisation
In art, science, finance, comedy, song.
In fidelity to God His
Foremost nation; in losing his faith’s way
The butt of slaves; our gift for survival the true badge
Of David. And then they came.


Jews had to call themselves ‘Unbelievers’, those
Two hundred thousand
-And falling – left behind
For ‘The Final Solution.’
But I remember the wailing
Along the corridor
When they dragged the Rabbi away,
Power-hate on their death-
Chiselled faces, stone-eyed as bunker bats;
I heard the voice of a people,
A great and greatly suffering people, wailing
All the way back to David, and Moses, wailing
All the way back to Jacob,
Abraham, wailing all the way back
To God. Sweating blood, I wailed too.
And it was breath-taking. Like coming home.
We call it –kinah. Not surprising
In the circumstances: my home
And whole life wheeling back towards
The darkened heart of Europe, Mozart’s discipline shot.
One had to keen then. Or die.


Mutter naturally wants to forget
Germany, but, lately,
It seems, the West as well.
Since coming to England,
She’s taken up Hebrew
Scripture and lore, though (as
They say, even here, even now -
You can’t keep a Jew down)
Not yet so unworldly she couldn’t get
Work for me in the bombed out school.
It’s hardly Goethe, but helps my English, and to
Build a future. A divine spirit of defiance
Moves these peoples, allied to
Their deep suspicion of foreigners:
Two little boys screeching JEW JEW
In my class today, like hardened Nazis,
Shook me as much as that thousand
Pounder cratered in the churchyard,
Tombstones, decay, rubbled through windows.
Nationhood, race – all the past – is dead. Only
God is now worth fighting for.

Originally published as “A Jewess In Bristol, 1941” in "Coming Home" (available here) in 1991 (King of Hearts Publications, Norwich)

Peter Finch (in “New Welsh Review”) singled this (Book of) Job-shaped sequence  out as the "best piece (in the book)…crisp, comprehensible and moving.’’ I'm posting the here as a companion toNo Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz.”  

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