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The Poems Of Joan Seliger Sidney: Songs From A Daughter Of The Holocaust

Joan Seliger Sidney grew up with parents who barely escaped the Holocaust, unlike her grandparents and other relatives who did not.

Those forebears and her family's hometown of Zurawno, Poland, have been at the heart of many of her poems. She is the author of three books, has had work in some of the country's finest journals, and is the recipient of many awards and honors.

Sidney is currently writer-in-residence at the University of Connecticut's Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life. In addition, she facilitates "Writing for Your Life," an adult workshop. She lives with her husband of 52 years in Storrs and they have four children and six grandchildren.

— CT Poet Laureate Rennie McQuilkin

 

INHERITANCE 

Zurawno, Poland, where Mom grew up:

The coal stove in the kitchen, brick

oven big enough for her mama

to bake wheat bread, challah, rugelach

to feed her family of nine all week.

The chestnut table doubling

as the goose-down feather bed

where Mom and her sister Luba slept.

The barn behind the house, the cow

her sister Minka milked morning and night.

The eggs Mom picked up from the sixteen hens

she gave grain, named, and refused to eat,

not even in Shabbos soup.

The outhouse in the woods

she wouldn't use on icy days and nights.

Her brother Julik's hickory skis

she borrowed, ropes threaded

through holes and tied to her boots;

the Carpathian trails she crisscrossed,

the cheese and chocolate she stopped to eat.

The Dniester, where Srulik, Julik's best friend,

taught her the European breaststroke,

her head high above water.

Her blue eyes that speared him for life.

Their courtship off and on: Gymnasium in Lwow

for her, law studies in Krakow for him.

This pink heart-shaped diamond engagement ring

Dad slipped on Mom's fourth finger,

at home today on mine.   

WHY MY MOTHER CAN'T SPEAK YIDDISH 

"I know," Mom tells me, "when they were alone

Papa and Mama spoke Yiddish

like the other old Zurawno

Jews. But although I know a few

words like Papa's Du host genug gekvetsht!

whenever one of us seven children

complained too much, in our home we spoke

Polish. Not to have a Yiddish

accent, Mama said. When I asked,

what's an accent and why was it bad,

she looked me hard in the eyes

and took both my hands. I felt chills

and squeezed tight, wishing

I could pull those questions back

into my mouth. Christ killers,

the Poles call Jews. But if you speak

real Polish, with no accent,

they won't know and you'll be safe.

"Mama pulled me tight

against her chest. Barely could I breathe

but who cared? At night I listened

to Mama and Papa's Yiddish

whispers slip through our wall

like Rozinkes mit Mandlen

lullabying me to sleep."

"Some story, Mom! Makes me

want to learn Yiddish."

I take her spotted hands, kiss

her wrinkled cheeks, inhale her scented

breath: baked apples, cinnamon, Sanka.  

LEAVING 

Why do you say you escaped

Mother, when you are still

trapped among their bones?

How many have you dragged

into your Holocaust past?

Every day you are back in Poland.

Every day the Ukrainian peasants

shoot your parents and push them into the ground

you never found. Every day

someone scratches the earth for treasures

they buried behind the outhouse.

Babi Yar you say over and over.

Though you mean Zurawno, your world

so small, every town becomes Zurawno.  

MALKA AT NINETY 

In Yiddish, your name means queen.

"Too hard to go to the beauty parlor,"

you have let your crown go

from gold to silver for the first time

since 1945, when after twenty-five months

you emerged from hiding.

Until you and Uncle Munio emigrated

and moved in across the street,

my parents refused to speak Polish.

"You're Jews, not Poles,"

the government told them.

I hated those rough, guttural

sounds I couldn't understand.

I wanted, like you, to belong

to both worlds: Flatbush,

where Coney Island and the Brooklyn Dodgers

were a nickel's subway ride away;

and the shetl, where Zisl played his violin

in the street below your steps.

How did you survive

those twenty-five months, in a cellar

below the cellar of a house? Thirty-five

Jews in a space designed for twelve.

How did you breathe without a single inhalation

of fresh air? Endure without a second of sunlight?

What did you eat when the rats

stole your stockpiled flour, barley, kasha?

Late Sunday afternoons on East 2nd Street,

you'd bribe me with your fox-head stoles

to behave, letting me find them in your bedroom drawer.

We'd pretend your evergreen bedspread was the forest

where they stalked. After dinner, you'd pile

my plate with rogeloch, and thumb-print

cookies filled with strawberry jam, powdered

sugar sprinkled on top.

Today I sit in your living room of twenty-five years,

on the twelfth floor, Miami Beach.

How many years since you touched

your oven? These days I bake

your honey cake, laced with whiskey

and walnuts. Laila, your Jamaican caretaker,

brews tea. Her name means night.

She blares "Days of Our Lives"

as we try to talk.

"Starosc nie radosc," at the elevator door

you whisper. "Old age is no pleasure."

 

PANTOUM FOR MY GRANDPARENTS 

On Yom Kippur I wrote my first Holocaust poem

instead of returning to synagogue to pray.

The grandmother I never knew put her

hands on my shoulders and told me her story.

Instead of returning to synagogue to pray,

back to Zurawno I journeyed with Grandma.

Hands on my shoulders, she told me her story:

"Germans, so cultured, won't hurt us old Jews."

Back to Zurawno I journeyed with Grandma.

We watched the road darken with soldiers.

"Germans, so cultured, won't hurt us old Jews.

From us, our Ukrainian neighbors rent."

We watched the road darken with soldiers.

Grandpa wore his Silver Cross from World War I.

"From us, our Ukrainian neighbors rent."

If, only instead of listening, I'd whisked them away.

Grandpa wore his Silver Cross from World War I.

Grandma braided challah and slid it in the oven.

If, only instead of listening, I'd whisked them away

before the betrayal by their Ukrainian neighbors.

Grandma braided challah and slid it in the oven.

She braised brisket and potatoes, my mouth watered

before the betrayal by her Ukrainian neighbors.

They beat and bloodied Grandma and Grandpa.

She braised brisket and potatoes, my mouth watered.

Granddaughter from the future, what could I do?

Neighbors beat and bloodied Grandma and Grandpa,

threw their still-breathing bodies into a pit for Jews.   

FLEEING 

God knows where they're going

in this photo by Josef Koudelka,

this stream of refugees caught by camera

almost in a pose. Up front, the family

dog, white chest and forelegs, regal

and high as a Weimaraner, pulls

the two-wheeled cart, his withers yoked.

The child, awkwardly balanced on a bundle

of clothes, struggles to stay seated.

Like sticks beating his back, sacks

stuffed with pans, pots, potatoes, barley—

everything his parents could fit

in this quick exodus—shift and hit.

Alongside, his mother in her everyday

dress and shawl, his father in his peaked

wool cap stare straight ahead, not daring

to blink at the camera, trying not to see

black boots, Kalashnikovs blocking the border.   

COUSIN

 

Jan Rybak, the tiniest man

in his village, opens his attic

to a man and his eight-year-old

daughter, her mother killed

while fleeing camp. He shares

his potatoes, ignores the law:

death to any Christian

and his family that helps a Jew.

When Nazi soldiers drag

a teenage girl over cobblestones,

her legs bloody, her dress

shreds, the crowd shrieking

"Jude! Jude!" Jan Rybak

grabs her hand, hoists her up

into his buggy. Her eyes wide

with disbelief. "She's not a 'Jude,'"

he shouts to his townspeople.

"She's my cousin."  

A BIELSKI PARTISAN SPEAKS  

Victory means each day

we stay human. Steal

only to eat, take from farms

rich in potatoes and turnips;

not from farmers starving

like us, fields stripped, barns

burned, cows, pigs, chickens

slaughtered by Germans. Deep in the forest

in darkness we cook our soup, the black

pot hangs from a branch, fire blazes

below. Safe for a few hours, no Germans

brave enough to enter the night forest.

Still we sleep dressed, ready

to flee our temporary tents

of tree leaves and limbs. What

a strange collection of runaway

Jews, our Bielski otriad! Old

people, young men and women,

children. To Tuvia Bielski,

who leads us on his horse

like a meteor, everyone is welcome.

Some younger men disagree, fear

for food, want revenge. "Feel free

to leave," Tuvia tells them. "Better

to save one Jew than to kill twenty

Germans." Not so for Belorusian peasants

who catch fleeing ghetto Jews,

keep them freezing in storage

rooms overnight, tie them up

like sheep, and sell them to the police.

With their own guns, Tuvia shoots them

and their families. On their farm doors,

in Russian he writes: Death to Nazi

Collaborators. Now they know

we Jews, too, can fight. Our otriad

grows to a forest shtetl, our own Jerusalem.

July 1944: our exodus stretches almost

two kilometers—scouts on horseback, marching

fighters, horse-drawn carts for the sick,

a herd of cows, a celebration of survivors. 

 

ON APPROACHING SEVENTY 

Watching the hands of my son

kneading challah dough

on the maple cutting board

in my kitchen, a memory

rises of my mother

bending over our kitchen table

in Flatbush, pressing, stretching,

folding flour, water, eggs

into a living elastic.

Sometimes in my dreams, Mom

appears, whispers of her mother

in her kitchen in Zurawno

in the pre-dawn dark,

by the light of the kerosene

lamp, pulling and pushing

the yeasty challah dough

until my son covers it

with a clean white cloth

and leaves it in the warm

electric oven to rise.   

Poems copyright 2017 by Joan Seliger Sidney. CT Poet Laureate Rennie McQuilkin selects work for CT Poets Corner by invitation.

Copyright © 2017, CT Now
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