Friday, October 28, 2011

Last night I saw through the wild eye of fear


A poet read at the open mic: an old bright star. As a child her small eyes and mouth were shuttered in the Warsaw ghetto. Then she was passed off like a loaf of bread on a black train, first to be hidden from the danger of the camp to where her family was cargoed and killed, then shuttled from village to village on more black trains until she was fifteen to work in fields like a beast of burden.

It is easy for my mind to glaze over in numbness when I hear another story about the holocaust, until I meet a survivor. (Have you seen and touched a forearm with a tattooed identification number?) I drove home under the magic silver light of the old Jewish poetess, hearing her speak through that wide smile, line after line, her child-slow English spoken in staccato sibilants through beautiful teeth, until a key word in her second poem, one bead of mercury: the Polish word pamiętaj: remember.

Pamiętaj the wound, I thought, not the fear. I followed her silver star and drove home in the dark, wondering, where from, her bright and clear joy out of so much darkness? When suddenly a doe from out of the farmer's dark field appeared and shocked the windshield and me, the reflection of my car light in her eye a shooting star! In a second her umber-and-ivory-hided body jerked into a dancing constellation with my silver spinning car. The star you are following is suddenly everywhere, rays splayed to the horizon. She dives into the moment of you, the moment after fear, just before the wound blossoms.

Listen to me read this piece here.


Friko said...

In answer to your question in brackets: yes, I have, a few times.

Each time is as shocking as the first. If the person is/was close to you, you come to accept it in the end. There is nothing else you can do.

I am sorry about the doe, more than your car. I know these encounters cannot be avoided but they also shock you back into a moment of sudden realisation.

(I wonder why you remarked on the poet's teeth? They brought, for me, a moment of unreality )

Ruth said...

Friko, thank you for reading. My first and only witness of an identification tattoo was in Jerusalem, in 1975. I am still stunned.

I hope the doe made off without much damage. When the collision occurred, I felt she was doomed. But later, assessing the damage to the car (not too bad, but I can't open the passenger door), perhaps she got by with only bruises and no broken bones. I hope so.

I regret that observing her teeth was a disruption. She is so beautiful, and her smile so captivating, I wanted to present that image. I wonder if it will be universally uncomfortable as it was for you. Let's see.

Elisabeth said...

I was thinking about this today, Ruth, in a different form.

I was thinking about the way trauma can become something almost triumphant over time, as you write so beautifully here, when 'the wound blossoms'.

A multi-layered truth, the beauty and the horror of our pain transformed into fresh insights that release us from old bonds into new freedoms, especially the freedom of poetry, art and music.

Thank you.

Louise Gallagher said...

Hello Ruth, I went back to read that line again -- spoken in staccato sibilants through beautiful teeth -- I had noticed it in my first read, let it slide through my mouth. I find the insertion of teeth telling and touching. If you've ever visited a concentration camp, teeth were a great source of gold. There is such exquisite symmetry in how they connect to one bead of mercury and then that one word, remember. I find it a powerful and beautiful write.

And I am glad both you and the doe were okay.

erin said...


The star you are following is suddenly everywhere, rays splayed to the horizon. She dives into the moment of you, the moment after fear, just before the wound blossoms.

there is no other word to follow this.


Friko said...

Thank you for explaining, Ruth.

I had assumed the deer had died. 'Rays splayed into the horizon' and 'just before the wound blossoms'. Your language is so lyrical, I saw these words as betokening death. I am glad I was wrong.

Perhaps I was still too much in the mood of the first paragraph.

Healthy teeth were the first thing to go, not only for inmates but also for those living under the shadow on the outside or in hiding. Hygiene, nutrition, vitamins, all unimaginable concepts when it came to survival.

Cake on Sundays? Does Inge also remember the enforced Sunday afternoon walk in the park, in tight fitting black patent leathers shoes and your Sunday best outfit?

All of these things have long gone.

Heather said...

Dear Ruth, you should send this to Maria. I can send you her e-mail address. I so hope the deer (and your car) is alright. much love, Heather.

~cg said...

Beautifully expressed, thank you. Do you remember that Bennett briefly dated a girl who's mother was a child survivor of the camps?

hedgewitch said...

Compelling and hypnotic, yet also touching in a very real way. I haven't seen many survivors of that great rabid madness, but the ones I've seen all seem to have that sweet smile. How amazing that humans are that resilient, as resilient as the doe. A true moment of terror, that--I once had it happen on a dark highway going 70, and the buck leaped out, across, away and just tapped my passenger side door with his hooves, death for us both passing over in less time than it takes to type it. Unforgettable adrenaline rush. Thanks for sharing your experience with us so lyrically and immediately, Ruth.

Maureen said...

I imagine hearing these beautifully composed words in a darkened room, and then sitting with the silence that holds the loss.

Grandmother said...

I'm with erin- those last two sentences are stunning. I remember the sheer physicality of the impact of being in Anne Frank's tiny room.

George said...

After reading this piece when I first woke up this morning, I was so haunted by the images that I stood in the shower thinking about them until the water ran cold. This is all about sight, isn't it? What she saw, what you saw of what she's seen, and then the totally unexpected sight of something that sees you as the universe snaps its fingers and demands that you see the reality of the present moment. What we ultimately see, I think, is shaped by what we have seen, whether it be the tattooed i.d. on the arm of a Holocaust surviver or the bruised ribs of the survivor that you encountered on the way home. I will see better, of course, just knowing that you managed to escape without physical injury and with your creative spirit still intact.

Nancy said...

Ruth, what a lovely, poignant piece. I have met a number of survivors, and it's chilling. I accompanied the granddaughter of a survivor to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. some time ago, and I still get chills and tear up, particularly the memory of an exhibit which featured only shoes; thousands of shoes.

The beautiful teeth? I did not find it jarring. Beautiful is a term which can cover so many visions.

Someone above said this is about sight. It is also, to me, about being present, about bearing witness. I'm glad that you are OK, and like you, I hope the doe was only bruised. The description of your awareness of that moment is mesmerizing.


Heather said...

Ruth, you might want to submit this to the Michigan Jewish Historical Society's journal. My friend, Joy is soliciting submissions: The journal Michigan Jewish History, published by The Michigan Jewish Historical Society is calling for submissions of poetry and memoir for their section entitled "Reflections". Please submit your work to Joy Gaines-Friedler: and put "MJHS Submission" in the subject line. All work must have some relationship to Michigan and a Jewish experience (not necessarily by a Jewish person.)

Mary Ellen said...

Ruth, I enjoyed your wonderful reflection on the holocaust survivor poet. What a lovely idea - the writing retreat you had.

Ruth said...

Elisabeth, thank you for understanding and articulating it so well: trauma can become something triumphant over time. Even joyous.

Without art, poetry, literature, music—all the sorrows, tragedies and fears of this life would not be soothed! Both the creation, and consumption of art, writing and music transform pain into beauty. It is a way of seeing (as George says in a comment below).

Ruth said...

Louise, thank you. I recognize what I think Friko feels from "beautiful teeth." As she has returned to explain, the teeth were the first to go! And as you say, the teeth were in piles, after harvesting gold, horrific. I did want to convey her smile, perhaps enhanced by a good set of dentures.

And thank you for being glad the doe and I are fine. I can't know for sure about her, but I received no injury, just a shake-up and sadness.

Ruth said...

erin, your response means a lot to me (and link on your sidebar). Thank you.

I am fascinated to observe the range of thoughts and feelings I had in those few moments, like a distillation of life experience.

Ruth said...

Friko, thanks for returning. Your point about dental hygiene is very well made and taken, and I can understand your reaction to the phrase "beautiful teeth." I wanted to suggest possibilities in the piece, and the sense I had (and maybe the deer had) for a few moments that this could be the end.

There has been a tragic accident this week in Indiana on the toll road: A van with ten people hit a deer, or stopped or slowed for a deer, and a huge semi-truck plowed into the back end, killing eight people, many of them from Ecuador. It is horrible, and it only confirms the moments of fear I had, that anything is possible in situations like that.

Ruth said...

Dear Heather, please do send Miriam's email (I'll email you too about this), I would like to share it with her. And I will also submit it to the Michigan Jewish Historical Society for their journal! Thank you so much. I'll keep you posted.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Cindy! What you say is vaguely familiar about Bennett, now that you mention it, but I don't remember hearing him talk about it. Was this in Boston, I wonder?

Ruth said...

Hedge, your drive at 70 and encounter with the deer must have been terrifyingly transformative in a way, even for a few moments. We sail along without a care, and then we're reminded how tentative and fragile we are. I'm glad you were both spared.

After the long, drawn out fear and torment through the holocaust, maybe a person's subsequent joys are felt more deeply and clearly.

Ruth said...

Maureen, thank you for that image and possibility. Silence was my response when I visited Dachau at age 19; saying anything just wasn't possible.

Ruth said...

Mary, is there anything more touching than the daily remembrance of a girl's family life through that terror? And knowing that she did not survive?

Thank you.

Ruth said...

George, your visionary comment is a testament to the power of our minds. Sometimes what we see changes our perception just a sliver-slant, and it is enough to transform everything. What we see is filtered through our experience, and through another's experience, and on and on the ripples go. I believe that the more we allow each other's experiences, and visions, to dwell in us with deep attention, as you did after reading this piece, the more we will understand one another, and the less we will respond in violence to anyone as "other." Thank you so much, dear friend.

Ruth said...

Nancy, your comment is lovely. Yes, awareness . . . attention!

Miriam, the poet, in the poem with that Polish word pamiętaj was at the Holocaust Museum in DC. She spoke, or read poems to a group of school children. A boy came and asked her to sign his book. She wrote pamiętaj, and he asked what it meant: remember, she said. After that the other children came to ask her to write the word on their books.

I imagine that Miriam bearing witness to her story in that museum is something those kids will never forget, a real live flesh-and-blood woman who remembers.

Ruth said...

Thanks, Heather, see my comment to you above.

Ruth said...

Hi, Mary Ellen. Thank you for reading here, and the other post. I hope you are well.

Vagabonde said...

This is a beautiful piece. When I used to go to work on some Saturday mornings early (5:30 am) I would always drive slowly when passing through the National Battlefield Park as there are many deer there. Once I had a guy in a pick-up inches from me but I kept going at 35 and sure enough a deer drove right in front of me and I could stop (he almost bumped me in the rear though.)

I saw someone with concentration tattoo ID on his arm, and in my home, at dinner many times – he was the boy friend of our middle age housekeeper. He had been in a concentration camp in Germany and he was not Jewish (there were many non-Jews in the Concentration camp – I knew a gypsy whose father had been killed in one.) At dinner sometimes he would tell us about the food there and every time I would leave the dinner table and could not go on eating. I still remember his stories. When he would tell some remembrances of the camps he said people would tell him they did not know he was Jewish and he would respond that he was not and that almost as many non-Jews were killed as Jews – I think 6 million Jews and 5 million non-Jews, but they are rarely mentioned, unless someone knew one of them. But I always wonder why we don’t hear more here about all of these non-Jewish survivors - 5 millions that is a large number I think.

Loring Wirbel said...

A Holocaust survivor at an open mic? What a rare and astonishing occurrence.

ds said...

How to describe the effect of this? Being, bearing witness, beauty terror horror that strange peace... And the doe/hart/you/Hart/heart that I always first read as your personal symbol so that it took a bit to realize that your encounter with the animal was real (duh, dense!). Oh, that amazing woman. Oh, your amazing words.
Thank you.

Ginnie said...

Anne Frank, yes, but I also thought of the powerful story of the Freedom Writers.

I don't think I have ever been in touch, personally, with a known survivor. I would remember, right? But I still remember the time standing still and the breath escaped as though it were my last when the deer darted out on our way home from Michigan last July. I've watched two dear people breathe their last breath and I remember.

But who can ever know what those holocaust stories were really like! The wound, not the fear.

I'm glad you're okay, sister. I didn't know about your accident and now suddenly feel the wound of distance....