Life Among the Graveyards
A family heirloom
In Europe, life
is complicated by death.
History unfolds in forest,
town, and street.
Every house tells its story,
every family, every graveyard,
if you listen.
Something called me back,
the old country, land
of king, czarina, Fuehrer,
partisan, pope, and rabbi.
Why go? Because we can,
a peaceful gang of genealogy.
A statue on the Limmat river, Zurich,
honors Zwingli, protestant minister
who died fighting
half a millennium ago,
in the Second battle of the churches.
Why were there two?
In small Susice, a walled yard
green with ivy
harbors gravestones centuries old.
Hebrew letters, Yiddish names, straight but tilting rows.
A stream runs out back,
and on the bridge,
we stand in sunlit silhouette.
Sudetenland speaks suffering.
Romans called them barbarians.
Bohemian Czechs called them Nemsky mumblers.
For German language residents,
heimat, contaminated by Jews.
Nazis said it’s ours to take and
Sudetens armed the 3d Reich,
jailed Sudeten Jews
and marched them to their death.
Soviets exiled Sudetens and
destroyed their mountain towns
for an Iron Curtain kill zone, and
new land for Bohemians.
Today, we find a recreational region,
a Synagogue museum in Hartmanice —
Out front, a man polishes the gravestone
he found in a field,
asking for someone who can read it,
and protect it inside.
In the hills west of Prague, a Czech prayer
remembers his grandparents beneath a black stone,
crosses here and there.
Downtown, in the Old Jewish cemetery,
the stones are crowded, an urban throng.
Graveyards are where dead people live.
Maharal Rabbi Loew inhabits a small house
since 400 years ago, his Golem
long gone from the mud of the Moldau.
To the east, the New Jewish Cemetery
hosts many buried here before
mass murder madness
swept a generation away,
seventy dead out of a hundred.
Then burials began again,
and Jews now die to rest in peace
and receive guests.
At Kafka’s grave, a carnation
marks the page of a Chinese translation.
Death must be normal
so life can be, too.
We celebrate our lives with music,
beer, and food
and see great works of beauty.
Laughter frames our view.
The night train to Warsaw passes Auschwitz
close by. The ghetto,
destroyed with three million Jewish lives,
marked by plaques and monuments;
a new museum, built but empty, awaits.
Bialystok, home of the bialy,
and Zamenhof who created Esperanto
to unify the people in this Jewish city in the Russian Pale;
Great-grandfather Menachem Mendel Myron
took his photograph here nearby.
Melted beams from the dome
of the Great Synagogue
are all that remains
after Nazis burnt it down
with 2000 neighbors locked inside.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
The road to heaven, with good deeds.
But evil rides on both.
The Grodek road links Michalowa
to Grodek along the Bialovka river.
My cousin says grandfather Morris lived here —
or at least his brother Joseph did.
(Genealogy is so uncertain.)
We know the siblings fled by road and sea,
and brought forth a new American family.
In the new land we grew
to hundreds strong, but from the looks
of the old country, you’ll find no survivors
left behind, just houses, graves, and books.
We find a sign outside Michalowa along the road
right where the old farmer said it would be.
We hike through autumn leaves
and up a trail to find
a grove of graves among the trees,
Hebrew letters, Yiddish names,
ancestors and friends perhaps.
We light a candle, say a kaddish,
plum brandy toast in cut Czech glass,
read a poem,
plant New Mexican plum pits,
watch the golden sun set
through yellow leaves down into the valley,
We hug and cry.
In Grodek, the Catholic cemetery shines,
with wreaths and flowers,
smooth green lawns and a fleet of crosses.
Concealed across the way in a piney wood,
the Jewish cemetery remains,
its split rail fence outlining turbulent ground
of upheavals and toppled stones,
the helpless residents victims
of a final disrespect.
What was life like in the Pale?
Each shtetl rich with Jews, poor in land,
who traded from their homes
built around the market square
in the shadow of the church.
Ivye and Svisloc, Lazdijai,
Utena, and Kamajai.
In Yiddish Vilnius,
the world was ours.
Ponar woods is haunted
by the souls of innocents,
slaughtered by death squads —
the Germans’ poison gift.
How were they human,
the locals and invaders
who railroaded the ghettoed Vilna Jews
and shot them track side
to fill the pits with death,
and steal their shoes and watches?
Seventy thousand victims
will never leave these solemn circles
among the peaceful changing trees,
but as I breathe this chilly air,
my heart flies away
in grief and hope.
An angry man greets us in Butrimonys,
as we stare at the brick house dated 1905,
a Jewish house with two doors,
one for family, one for customers.
It’s his now – he’s working in the yard –
and he shouts in Lithuanian,
Go ahead, says our guide, call them,
all this used to be ours.
It might have been Grandma Sophie’s home.
We’ll never know.
Her father Moshe Yankel made dyes here.
lived with Chaya in a house on the square,
maybe where the grocery store sits.
We buy bagels and Starka Rye.
Next door, we meet some pleasant folk,
It was a Jewish town
but no one speaks Yiddish anymore.
Moshe visited Sophie in New York –
the bed he used is upstairs from where I sit —
my children slept in it –
and he went home to Butrimonys with a phonograph.
He played Caruso in the square
and all the town came out to hear.
They must have been amazed.
The cemetery is bright, maintained,
with no new graves of course.
A monument to massacred girls stands out.
We offer a candle a kaddish
a bagel and sage,
a toast to family.
A pear tree bears a
lonely fruit, sterile, no seeds
for us to bring home.
Our guide reads to us
the book of life,
as it is written,
page by page,
stone by stone.
In graveyards, death tells us a story –
of lives and loves,
joy and sorrow,
ended well or badly –
if we listen.
A long march down the road,
Vidzgiris near Alytus
saw 60,000 lives gunned down
in woods now marked by pyramids
among the fallen leaves.
The trees of Babi Yar look sternly down
and I am executed here,
with ruined Ozymandias, in despair.
Nothing remains of that wicked work
but we who witness and survive
the cruel fury.
I found the ’41 report:
Moshe Yankel murdered under Vidzgiris’ trees
with Itzhak and his son and Yosef,
while the Nazis killed
their wives and kin
at home in Butrimonys.
I feel like people feel who want
to feud for generations.
And then the
Soviets harvested stones
from Vilna’s Jewish cemeteries
for building public stairs.
A strange and bitter root to dig —
have been better?
Lithuania, freed, retrieved the stones,
and built a monument, to atone.
We find smiling girls,
plaques to honor Vilna’s Jews,
and a Synagogue,
lively and attractive.
Westward-bound, we climb
the Reichstag dome
transparent and reflective
above the tortured past
of bunkered evil and fatal walls.
Berlin shows the Holocaust in depth
and mourns it with regret.
They have a need to reconcile,
though unity may take a while.
We visit father’s lawyer friend —
Berliner born in ’32, he lost his childhood
in a cursed war. Eight decades later,
he loves his new Berlin.
We share stories, drinks, and jokes,
complain about elections.
Sharing joy it seems that we can find
our own kind of redemption.
Thank you, oh ancestors, who fled your shtetlach
for America where great families rise in peace.
We are the after-life you prayed for.
F**k you, vicious fiends, who chased them out
and killed those who stayed behind.
May your brutal deeds and
hateful lives forever be reviled.
I, too, had a Kingly dream,
that in the autumn woods of Europe,
we children of victims and children of oppressors
would sit down together at the table of brotherhood,
that Jew and Gentile, Catholic and Protestant,
would hold hands and sing songs of freedom.
As quiet as a graveyard is,
it celebrates the living,
as we remember those who died
and ways to be forgiving.
Even stones can speak to us
if we go to them and listen.