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A few years after my mother and I visited Krakóv , I spent some time in that city again. After seeing the Disneyfication of the old ghetto Kazimierz, I vowed never to come back. This place of remembrance and contemplation, of sorrow and grief had become a milk-cow for commercial exploiters of false nostalgia. It made me sick.

Kaddish for Kazimierz
Yitgadal veyitkadash sh’mei raba
let it rest now, it is over – don’t pretend
b’alma divrah chirutei
don’t desecrate its slaughtered body
v’yamlich malchutei b’chayeichon
don’t put its corpse on show
uv’yomeichon uv’chayei
embalmed and made up
d’chol beit yisra’el
lipstick on putrified lips
ba’agalah u’vizman kariv
kohl on empty eye sockets

Yehei shemei raba mevorach
le’olam ul’almei almayah

yitbarach veyishtabach veyitpa’ar
you have earned the right to rest
veyitromam veyitnasei veyithadar
the right to be left alone, to mourn
veyitalei veyithalal
alone, undisturbed
shemei d’kudsha b’rich hu
Eternal One, send them away

le’eilah min kol birchata v’shirata
even in death you find no peace
tushbechata v’nechemata
but are bought and sold again
da’amiran b’alma v’imru amein
your memories twisted, on display

yehei shlama raba min shemaya
killing you again and again
v’chayim aleinu v’al kol yisra’el
heartless, ruthless nostalgia
v’imru amein

osei shalom bimromav
hu ya’asei shalom aleinu
v’al kol yisra’el
v’imru amein

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Graves

1
In a stone forest of
barely legible words
the trees whisper your greeting:
‘your unexpected existence
is without guilt –
not because, but despite
is what you are
feel welcome in our dead midst
living sprout
from a trunk presumed dead’.

2
I wanted to embrace and kiss them,
the cold sorrowful stones:
‘here I am, finally
I found you
in the maze of time’

there was no embrace
only the tips of my fingers
touched the rough hard skin
the underworld awoke
with a startled smile

after so many years, a voice!
the cool silence colours
in the shadowy depths
women with sheytls,
men in caftans shiver

my longing cannot bring back
the stones to life nor the ashes
the nameless not far from here
within the refuge of these ravaged walls

never before was I this close
each step pushes the distance along
my voice brings forth only silence
a last powerless look
I turn and leave.

3
the tender cracks sing
a long forgotten song
fear sinks deep –
in the awaiting ground
an unspoken question

how strange am I how close
to these ancestral graves –
will they mourn me or
refuse to speak my name,
still curse me?

will their curse damn me,
bring me to my knees
or make me revolt –
do I have to be like you,
because, because, because
and then?

how close am I how strange
to your perished world
but still –
our longing drives me
to this transparent dusk:
in vain?

4
While I softly caress the stone, the same
as she whose name I bear
she who died nameless
and sleeps without a name
while I softly caress this stone
the fog dissolves for a moment
time becomes transparent
then and later and now
the voice of the Eternal
sings in my head.

5
In this place
far away from the world
enclosed by walls
sprigs of ivy nurse
the stones and the dead
hidden like Your love
without beginning or end.

6
Small stone on big stone
salt tear in sweet pond
flesh of your flesh
if –
if I lay me down here, stretch
arms, legs on the soft ground
my roots will grow into the earth
reach out –
but never reach.

Ghosts

1
Standing among the speaking stones
I stare silently at the house
the scent of poverty in my nose
through the windows of time
I can see you on the porch
your pale face staring over the graves
– at me, or so it seems
but your eyes don’t see me
you don’t see me at all;
the stones become silent
the porch deserted
the windows reflect a broken sky
opaque as time.

2
shadow that enfolds me
and flees –
only patches
of boots, coat, beard
your voice hidden in time
sings in the shul nearby
your leather-wound hand
covers my eyes –
your feet dance away, away
from me –
shadow that flees
and enfolds me.

 

This is a cycle of poems I wrote in 1989 after a visit with my mother to Krakóv – where my family on my mother’s side came from.
I recently found them among my mother’s papers and I corrected and edited them. I do not pretend this is great poetry, but it reflects my thoughts and feelings upon visiting this emotionally charged city where my grandparents – and, for a couple of years, my mother – lived. My grandfather grew up in the Jewish ghetto Kazimierz, in a building that looks on the cemetery where the famous Rabbi Moses Isserles (writer of the Shulchan Aruch) is buried. My mother told me about the poverty and unsanitary circumstances in the ghetto; she saw it every time they visited her grandparents there. I visited the other cemetery, where many of my relatives (the ones who were lucky enough to die before the nazi occupation) are buried. I found graves of some of them.

I dedicate these poems to my Mother’s memory.

Intro
Two halves united
like Persephone in ancient times
led by your hand I enter
the land of shadows
as a bride – the gloomy king
forges in vain
chains made of Then

Outside new life beckons
the eternally young Queen
the sun caresses your hands, my skin –
then, underground chains rattle
me back in a soft whisper

Summer here, winter there
my life is split
since you gave me both
the gap closed
the Styx navigable
and me – a fragile bridge.

Streets

1
Buildings die slowly
grief shatters stones
skin bursts in nameless pain
doors as open wounds
never closed
walls mould feverishly

to die like this –
among strangers
listening, shivering
doorsteps wait for a beloved foot
life remembered in vain
in this emptiness
full of Then.

2
No flowers for empty streets
filled with decay and disgust
let the end come quickly now
body without a soul

buildings degraded to bricks
housing nothing but slimy rot
nothing will bring back together
what was separated by man.

Let us carry you to your grave
under a clear sky, in the light
of a cold, cold day
our eyes without tears.

3 Uprising in the ghetto
to stay to look to see
nameless courage in vain
streets covered with bodies,
warm, pierced – everywhere
you stand or walk
here they lay
feel the warmth of their blood
feel the softness of their strength
feel the harshness of their deaths
feel the unknown names –
etched in every stone.

My mother’s last breath was a sigh of relief. She was relieved to leave this world that had murdered six millions of her kind, including hundreds of members of her large extended family: the people she loved, the ones she hated; the relatives and friends she liked as well as those she despised. She was also relieved not to have to go through the ever advancing stages of Alzheimer’s disease, a demon that had haunted her even before it touched her.

There were only 36 kilos left of her, a tiny, frail old lady. Still she fought like a lioness when we tried to sedate her; I think she was afraid we were going to prolong her suffering, but we weren’t. My sister Caroline and I had finally convinced the doctors to sedate her because she was suffering from a delirium, something that often happens to people as old and weak as she was when admitted to hospital. I tried to tell her we were only helping her and she wrapped her arms around my neck and broke the silence she had retreated into for one last time as she said: “Mijn kind, mijn kind.” (My child, my child.)

Eventually she was sedated and calmed down. The screaming and flailing stopped. She just lay there, sleeping. My sister and I took turns sitting at her bedside, stroking her hand. The next evening, my sister went home for a short break, she was exhausted. I was alone with my mother. Her breath was already superficial, but there was no sign she would die soon. As I sat there, I spontaneously started to sing the hymn Adon Olam (Lord of the Universe) for her. She always liked my singing and I hoped the familiar voice would be soothing. There was no visible response, but when the last note of the song died out, she exhaled and stopped breathing. No struggle, no fear, she just stopped. It was over for her. I said sheimes for her, the last words every Jew should say before they die: Shema Yisra’el, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echad (Hear Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One) and called my sister, who obviously was very distraught she hadn’t been there when our mother died.

I still miss her more than I can say. Our relationship had always been complicated, but I loved her fiercely. So much so that I haven’t been able to write about her since her death on November 24th last year. Last week, though, words all of a sudden flooded my mind and I wrote them down on the back of an envelope. What unblocked me, was the image of a Syrian toddler lying dead on the beach in Turkey. Or rather the thought that flashed through my mind when I saw it: I’m so glad my mother doesn’t have to see this. That she doesn’t have to be ashamed of her adopted country, The Netherlands, for its harsh and unjust policies towards refugees.

After the war was over in 1945, my mother and her parents stayed in The Netherlands. There was nothing to return to: no relatives and a country that was occupied by the Soviet Union. She married the love of her life, a much older German Jew who was an art historian. The marriage was not a happy one: her husband turned out to be gay and neither able nor willing to consummate the marriage. She divorced him in 1951, when her husband announced he wanted to return to Frankfurt, Germany.

Two years later, she met my father, a journalist who’d been involved in the resistance against the Nazis, was betrayed, and had spent years in camps as a political prisoner. He was both physically and mentally broken after the war. The way they met was very romantic: they both were members of a club for artists and intellectuals, and one night, when my mother was sitting at the bar and maybe had had a little too much to drink, she fell backward and was caught by my father. He was in every way the opposite of her first husband: tall and ruggedly handsome, down to earth, straightforward and extremely principled.

They had two children: me and my younger sister Caroline. Both our parents were severely traumatised by the war, and also had very different, often clashing personalities. Little by little their marriage deteriorated, through no fault of either of them. When I was seventeen, they finally separated. I was relieved, but my younger sister was heartbroken.

My mother had arrived in The Netherlands as a refugee in the late 1930s (“Just in time for the party,” as she always joked), destroyed her Polish passport, and remained a displaced person until she married my father and received the Dutch nationality, something that had always filled her with pride, until recently. Despite her advanced age – she was 93 when she died – she was acutely aware of the deteriorating political situation in this country. The inhumane treatment of immigrants and especially refugees by the government and many citizens alike made her cringe. The fact that nothing seemed to have changed since the war, made her despair of humanity.

She had spent almost three years in hiding during the war and used to say she didn’t have the right to complain about it, considering what others, who were deported to concentration camps, went through. But still I gathered from the few words she ever spoke about that period in her life, it hadn’t been a picnic. She was in a relatively safe place in Amsterdam, where she was in hiding with four others in the home of two German ladies. The others were her future first husband, his brother, his mother and a friend of his mother’s. Apart from having to live with so many people in a relatively small space – without the option to go for a walk – the German ladies weren’t very friendly to put it mildly. My mother refused to elaborate: after all, they’d saved her life. To kill time, they played endless games of bridge. After the war, my mother never played another game of cards. But of course there were more serious matters: every now and then there would be a razzia in the neighbourhood and my mother and the other hidden Jews would have to clamber into a space behind a closet and keep still for as long as it lasted. Things always ended well, after all, these ladies were Germans and they greeted the soldiers with “Heil Hitler” to suggest they were Nazis. Still, it must have been very scary there in that dark, cramped space behind the closet.

Before my mother came to Amsterdam, she was in a Jewish boarding school in London, where her parents had sent her. This was the second time her education was interrupted. Before she went to London, my grandparents and their daughter had returned to their native Cracow in Poland. It was early 1934 and living conditions in Berlin – where they had lived since 1923 – had become unbearable as well as dangerous. So they moved back to Cracow, where my mother of course had to go to a Polish school. She already spoke Polish, as they had spend every vacation with her grandparents in their native Poland. But in 1935 the Polish government introduced anti-Jewish boycott laws, which made earning a living next to impossible for my grandfather. He made his way to The Netherlands, as he thought this neutral country would be the safest place to be in the next war he knew would break out soon, and after his arrival had his wife and daughter join him. They travelled by train. It took them a very long time, because my grandfather had judged it prudent to avoid travelling through Germany, so their route went via Switzerland, France and Belgium to Amsterdam. Shortly afterwards, my mother was sent to a Jewish boarding school in London. The only thing she liked about it was being able to visit the British Museum as often as possible in her spare time.

But the ten years she and her parents lived in Berlin had been the most formative of her life: before the Nazis came to power, this city had been a heaven for culture lovers. Her father – an art dealer – took her to museums, the opera and concerts. She was immersed in the world of art and literature and would remain an avid reader and art and music lover for the rest of her life. Life in Berlin was exciting, but it had its downside: German Jews in general despised “Ostjuden” (Jews from Eastern Europe) and they made them feel it. Some girls in her class weren’t allowed to be friends with her, for one thing. The stock market crash of 1929 caused financial insecurity for most people, and her father was no exception. At the same time, the political landscape changed noticeably. Some teachers in her school wore swastika bands all of a sudden; they made Jewish kids feel unwanted, even before the Nazis came to power and they had to sit apart from other pupils in the classroom. Towards the end of 1933 my grandfather discovered that his German, non-Jewish bookkeeper had stolen a significant amount of money from him. When he confronted the man, the bookkeeper threatened him and told him not to go to the police, because he had friends in “the party”, obviously referring to the NSDAP, the Nazi Party. My grandfather decided to move back to Cracow with his family. My mother’s two much older brothers had already left in 1929, when they moved to Chile to build a future for themselves in a place where they hoped they would not be discriminated against.

My mother was born two years before her parents moved to Berlin, in 1921, in The Hague. When the First World War broke out, her father was in London on a business trip. As a citizen of an “enemy country” – the southern part of Poland was Austrian at the time – he had been arrested and put in an internment camp. It’s hard to miss the irony here. After the war, he travelled to The Netherlands and had his wife and children join him. My mother was the fruit of their reunion. Her father, though, soon found out that The Hague really wasn’t the place to be for an art dealer. As Berlin was quickly becoming the cultural centre of Europe, he once again packed his bags and moved to the capital of Germany with his family, hoping to become a successful art dealer, but also because he wanted to be in a place with a vibrant art and culture scene.

I often wondered what it must have been like for my mother to move from one place to another with her parents, forced by the economic and political eb and flow of Europe. On the one hand, it made her a cosmopolitan who spoke many languages fluently. On the other, the reasons they had to move and the treatment they received in most places must have robbed her of any sense of belonging.

Tehi nafsha tseror bitsror hachayim: may her soul be bundled in the bundle of life, and may her memory be for a blessing. Mama, my dear mother, Hadassa bat Mendel Meir, Felicitas Rössler [pronounced Ressler], you will always be a part of me.

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