Posted by: Thomas Drinkard | January 27, 2015

A Poem for Holocaust Day, 2015

While reviewing this before posting, I was struck by the years.  We spent an afternoon, in May of 1971, walking through the Dachau Concentration Camp. I didn’t finish writing this for four more years.  Now, twenty years later, reading it is almost painful. As everyone says, “Never again!”  I hope that’s true, but what I see in places held by ISIS and Boko Haram, as well as other—less well-known—terrorists, I wonder.  The quote at the beginning was actually on a road sign along the Autobahn in 1971.

***************************

ARTIST’S CENTRE

“Visit Dachau, the 1200 years old artists’ centre with its castle and surrounding park offering a splendid view over the country.”

Sign along the Autobahn, May 1971.

It seemed the appropriate thing –

driving North,

after Munich’s beer halls,

toward the marching torchlights of Nuremberg,

filled with Bavarian spring glory;

pause,

– as a traveling artist might

for schnitzel and beer;

visit,

for a May afternoon,

where so many lived their lives

too short

or long.

THE GASTHAUS

         “We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds . . ..” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

 Houses and shops stand like unmoving spectators

edging medieval streets

whose cobbles pound our tires,

slamming in rhythmic thumps,

echoing from claustrophobic walls

like jackboots at quick march.

The gasthaus windows hold blurry leaded panes,

ancient as its yellowed mortar and bricks.

It slumbers the days beside shops with newer glass

-a comfortable quiet neighbor,

as old as evil.

Our host, bespectacled and fat,

knows us for Americans,

and waves aside our bookish German,

welcoming in robust English.

We sit in sturdy oak chairs,

before a round hand-made table

under shelves with pewter plates and tankards

high above, on clean white walls.

Dark lager (cold for tourists),

and bratwurst with potato dumplings

blend with holiday gemutlichkeit,

fill us with stealthy languor

until the question

stops genial smiles,

stops talk

that had eddied in holiday air

like swirls of pipe smoke.

The camp,

yes,

where is the prison camp?

The concentration camp.

He doesn’t know,

can hardly understand;

-business keeps him close,

perhaps another can tell,

good-bye, thank you,

good-bye.

The waitress has heard;

-is young, with a dirndl only for work.

Follow the old railroad;

         look where a branch splits in weeds to a siding

         where things were once unloaded.

         We will see chimneys,

         then, the road inside is near.

She tells us a story she had heard;

…the host,

         when only a youth,

         had crept silently in the night

         to throw loaves of bread over the walls.

     *********

 It was always closer than we knew.

From any higher vantage,

-a public building, standing tall

or church with a strong steeple,

we might have seen the camp before,

but persistent soot darkened their windows,

hiding the sight.

We traveled on the prison road

before we knew where it led.

-tracks appeared;

once bright hard German steel

that barely flexed under loaded cattle cars,

lie obscured now,

camouflaged in rust and silence.

“ARBEIT MACHT FREI”

 Work will make you free,

the sign above the gate promised each morning.

Everyone worked then,

The Fuehrer led us to our tasks.

I typed and filed for the SS Doctors;

-precise records:

race, nationality,

crimes against The Reich,

camp discipline,

experiments,

and deaths,

cross indexed by tattoo number

and name.

All the family has poor vision,

-I’m almost blind without heavy glasses

given me by the party-

but wanted to wear the black shirt;

had envied hordes of SS ranks at Nuremberg,

following swastika standards,

stepping to the pagan roll of kettle drums,

emblazoned with lightning and death-heads.

That night in thirty-four, my family joined the march;

bearing our torches toward The Fuerher’s stand,

down that dark path

where a column of spotlights pointed skyward,

and disappeared in emptiness.

The doctors gave me the storm trooper shirt

pinned with silver runes and skulls

-made me one of them

as an honor,

after I assisted in a medical experiment.

-I only followed orders;

only kept records.

They called him their Test Pilot,

-laughed at the irony of a Jew

dressed in Luftwaffe flight gear,

testing North Atlantic water survival

beneath the walls of Dachau.

He sat in a wooden tub,

chained to his task,

submerged to the neck in icy brine

that mocked the life vest he wore.

How long, the doctors had asked,

should we search for pilots

downed at sea in winter?

-How long, they wanted to know,

would it take the Jew to die?

I held the stopwatch.

watching both hands circle,

until his work had made him free.

Late in the night,

as the SS doctors drank and ate,

telling stories and laughing in our gasthaus,

I stole bread from the kitchen,

found my way in darkness,

and threw loaves over the wall.

 *********

 The picture hangs in the camp museum;

-part of the records we kept-

A doctor counts the Jew’s slowing pulse,

another ensures the water is cold enough.

Two others watch.

I stand away,         to one side,

wearing the SS shirt that doesn’t fit,

looking down at stopwatch and clipboard.

Everyone else looks at the camera.

Everyone smiles

but me

and the Test Pilot.

No one in town knows

-or tells-

who that young clerk was.

*********

 THE MUSEUM

Now, the path into the camp;

-a long entranceway,

whose high, whitewashed walls,

blank and mute,

keeps all sights enclosed.

One blind guard tower watches the gate.

It could be a schoolhouse,

an innocent white frame building,

where children hang bright crayon drawings

down long hallways with fragrant oiled floors.

It was once camp headquarters.

Inside, we submerge into the Third Reich:

black and white pictures in iron racks,

enlarged beyond reality,

stare back at us.

Hitler points and screams,

his grainy, sightless, long-dead eyes

storm from the poster

with erupting blackness

like a sudden rush of vulture’s wings.

Snapshots:

–a man chained in a wooden tub,

freezes in ice water.

Doctors in SS uniform watch.

–a “Test Person” locked in a steel tank,

       – a series of pictures

                  taken through a small thick window,

panics as his air is sucked out,

claws his face,

contorted in the vacuum,

until his lungs rupture.

–bodies, living and dead,

like stick-figures drawn by an insane child,

stare out from their wooden sleeping bins,

or lie stacked in a pit;

arms, legs, necks jutting in broken angles.

Exhibits:

–Ledger books

written in a precise hand

translated on another book to English,

to French, to Russian,

to Hebrew,

as exact transcripts of torture and death

-a daily journal

of ordinary horrors

–a long, slatted oak table,

concave across its breadth,

specially made for beatings,

-stained from its work,

stands highlighted by a sudden shaft of sunlight.

*********

         I am only a simple carpenter

         my thoughts lie in my hands,

         -my tools,

         and follow the grain of German wood.

         I could not see the crooked Nazi design

         beneath the lines and print that held their plan.

         They used my work

         …stained my pride,

         bloodied the pores of clear young oak,

         shaming the art of my ancient trade.

         I am only one man,

         …a poor carver of wood,

         I made the tables where they drank at night,

              -and whipping tables for their prey.

         What would you have me do?

         Is a carpenter,

         the son of a carpenter,

                  -to try to save the world?

***

We see nearly all of it now,

tall schoolhouse windows admit the sight.

The May sun is still not warm enough,

but we surface into newer air,

limestone gravel crunches and echoes as we walk.

Only one hut stands,

a replica from new wood,

-a reminder.

For the rest,

empty ranks of concrete foundations,

like indelible tracks from an army of giants,

stand squarely aligned in stone formation;

like casts of dinosaur footprints,

-silent evidence

of what once stood here.

Two chapels at the far end,

grown on this dead ground

like bright fungus

leaching sustenance from a fallen tree,

distance themselves.

Even from this vantage,

where once we would have smelled them,

we still cannot see gas chambers

and ovens.

                          THE CHAPELS AT DACHAU

 Like constructs from an alien reality,

the chapels sit on this barren ground

along the path to gas chambers.

Catholic and Protestant, they lie

unaligned with the vacant, squared foundation ranks.

Their modern concrete,

unstained,

sweeps in flowing curves,

and brown rock from distant quarries,

artfully forms a vertical cylinder,

holding its sheltered crucifix behind a steel fence

with points like tips of bayonets.

No sanctuaries;

comfortable backdrops for pictures,

or sites for occasional brief prayer

by pious tourists who come to visit.

These would have been a place to pause,

where those driven down this trail,

could kneel in meager comfort,

before a cross whose arms were not deformed

into a swastika.

But this dead earth lay unblessed,

churches and their architects — distant:

the Vatican tending her own affairs,

and preachers, heeding the voice of Luther,

could not see

beyond the Nazi walls.

*********

 We finally make our turn,

where the walls seemed to break,

finally see-

what we knew without seeing.

The gas chamber,

the ovens,

three tall brick chimneys;

modest,

even insignificant

by later production standards

-at Auschwitz, at Buchenwald,

and others,

nevertheless, sufficient

for Dachau.

Short, thick, white candles,

burn in stretcher-shaped iron beds,

-that had committed the flesh to the flames-

sending thin guttering smoke

up chimneys still crusted inside with darker soot.

 *********

Like an oasis,

like water in desert places,

standing aside from the “Fumigation Chamber”

surrounded by greenery, flowers and grass

a small statue of a small man,

dressed in tatters and a too-large coat

focuses tired, resigned bronze eyes

on a place beyond our view.

A symbol, the sign says,

of all who suffered here.

 *********

 There were always the walls,

it seemed.

as a man, I could never see Germany beyond the ghetto,

         could only hear the rhythmic stamp of boots,

         grinding whine and clank of tanks,

         shouts and commands of Nazi officers;

         noises in the distance,

         nearly unreal.

My violin, my brother, Bach, and other friends

made music a comforting blanket

covering our small spaces in practiced familiar sound.

Then the night of torch lights,

         doors smashed open,

         armed men cursing, laughing,

         their dogs growling, snapping,

         herding us down streets we no longer knew

         shoving my twin against me,

         packing a boxcar in a strange rail yard,

         new in the town

         where I was born.

Wind and train whistle screamed,

tracks of the Reich hurried from our origins,

distance stretching terror inside like violin gut,

bowed with constant rushing slap of steel to steel,

moaning in discordant minor keys.

Brought at last to Dachau,

because we were twins

because our hair was red,

because we were “untermenschen”

         because we were Jews;

we piqued the Nazi curiosity

we made amusing subjects

for the doctors’ experiments.

 *********

 I am Nathan.

I was here,

stacked like cordwood

waiting for fire.

My life was dirt

beneath the Nazi boots.

Fire transformed the last of sinew and skin

to ashes.

The grinding wheel of years made me dust.

Dust, with all the others.

I am Nathan,

I am here.

I am dust.

Dust on your shoes you will carry away;

dust you breathe

-even as you try to hold your breath

my dust with the dust of millions coats your lungs,

seeps in your veins

without remedy.

I will be here

-always.

I will be with you

-always.

TD `95

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Responses

  1. Thank you for sharing this tribute to those dark days 70 years ago and more. We’ve seen through your eyes and words the gut wrenching reality of Nazi atrocities.

    I’m afraid you’re right when you parallel the ISIS and Boko Haram atrocities now coming to the forefront in this so called enlightened generation. People need to open their eyes, especially our leadership to the dangers of radicalism and Islamic Terrorism.

    We owe you a depth of gratitude once again for opening our eyes. We can’t let this aspect of history be another lesson unlearned.

    Rich Weatherly

    • Thank you, Rich. Also remember that most historians estimate that less than 15% of Germans were Nazis in the WWII era. We can’t stand by silently while evil rampages.

  2. […] For the complete article by Thomas Drinkard, click here.  […]

  3. Tom you have written a great story of poetry. You have the gift of words, formed and scripted in their logical place. I congratulate your poetry, but wish this one was never to be written.

  4. Powerful words. Thank you for sharing this.

  5. Very powerful, very beautiful and sad. Thanks, Tom.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Larry. I’m glad to know that the snow didn’t get as bad as some had predicted.

  6. Very poignant and haunting, Thomas. Thank you for sharing.

    • Thank you. The experience still haunts me.

  7. The ending about the dust, just wonderful, ghastly and true. Thank you.

    • Thank you, Sue. Helen Bell told me about her visit to Madenaek (sp?). We shared a lot of emotions.


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