He Wished to be an Inmate at Auschwitz

“I was born in mitteleuropa. You would say ‘central Europe.’ I had a happy life. I still have a happy life.” The man’s smile is wide, unmistakeable through the oxygen mask.

“When the War came I was a boy. My father and his partner had a business, so although there was war we had enough. But then the Nazis came and claimed my country. The great German Volk needed more livingsroom.” A smile, no bitterness, the smile of a man who sees the joke that is nationalism, the extended joke that is human history.

“The Nazis made lists, they liked lists. They made one list of Jewish businesses. My father’s business partner was Jewish, so the Nazis found it necessary to confiscate the business. My father found work as a clerk. It was not much but we got by for a while until one day they took my father away. I was at school when they came for Father. My older sister had to stop her studies. Later she disappeared, then Mother. There was just me. I stayed at home until a friend of Father said to me, ‘They will come for you tonight.’ I ran and I stayed with a friend in the country.

“This was, I think, 1942. I was bigger, still a boy, but big enough to work, big enough to become a slave for the Nazis. The Gestapo found me and were taking me on the trolley bus to their HQ for questioning. The trolley slowed for a corner and I jumped and ran. I was fast and small and I got away.

I took a train to a town where we used to ski in the mountains. I knew that place, we had friends there.

“But the Nazis found me. They put me into slave camp.

Work I don’t mind so much. It is hunger that is bad. Hungry slavery, that is very hard. They give us only one hundred fifty grams of bread a day. You know how much is one hundred fifty?”

The man shows me how much is one hundred fifty with his hands. His thumb and forefinger describe the thickness of a slice for a slave of the Nazis, something under a centimetre. His right forefinger sketches the outline of the slice on the palm of his right hand.

The small hand and the fine fingers are pink and soft. The skin has forgotten and forgiven the slave years. As he speaks the man leans forward, his neck muscles and his upper thorax working hard between phrases as he sucks in gulps of oxygen. His ribs rise and fall with his phrases. When you listen no tide of incoming or outgoing air is heard. The lungs have been burned away.

“People said slaves at Auschwitz received two hundred fifty grams. Two hundred fifty! I wished I would be taken to Auschwitz.”

The smile has not ceased. Does he need the widened mouth to get a full insuck of air? – I wonder.

“They did transfer some of us, on a train. I did not know to where we would travel, I decided I would escape again. I went to the toilet and opened the small window. The train travelled passed through snow close to forests. As we climbed a hill I jumped. The snow was soft. I ran to the forest and joined the fighters. For more than one year we fought the Jerries.” Behind the mask the smile widens in happy recollection of fighting ‘the Jerries.’

“I knew that country from our skiing holidays. I went to a farmer I used to know and his wife left food for me in the forest. I fought against the Jerries. They never came looking for us in the forest. They were too frightened, they did not know those forests as we did.

“After the War I returned to my hometown. And my father and my mother were there. And my sister. Later I came to Australia and we” – he nods towards his wife – “ we found each other and married. That was in Brisbane. We have been together ever since.”

The man and the wife live in the last house in a street that ends at the foot of a mountain. Forests of dark green stretch up the nearby slopes. When I phone to arrange my visit it is the wife who answers. Her voice, clear and steady, speaks in distinctly Australian accents. I follow her directions and find a derelict-looking building in ancient rendered cement. I approach a tall grey structure with glassless window frames. Inside a clutter of ancient debris. And silence. Clearly the wrong place.

Walking back towards my car, I am startled by a steady, clear voice: “Come around the side. Be careful as you climb the stairs.”

The stairs are steep and uneven, the building high. Surely a barrier for any aged couple, certainly an impossible mountain for a man with no lung tissue. The voice guides me up a second flight and there, on a concrete deck, at an alarming elevation above the buffalo grass below, stands a tall woman in a long navy dress, her face deeply wrinkled, her smile of good, original teeth and outstretched hand bidding me welcome. The dress and the face arrest me; the dress rises from ankle height, a deep blue teepee speckled with small stars of wattle; the face a roadmap of antiquity charged with vitality, lit withal by that smile. A woman attractive enough to haul any man up those terrible stairs.

We sit and I listen to reminiscences of a life. The man pauses and works his breathing as his lung remnants fight for oxygen. The smile never fades, never loses its expressive energy. When memory slows the woman prompts him: “Tell Howard about…” “Did you mention the time…?”

We look across sunlit mountain forest as the man breathes and speaks. He says, “My life has been a happy life. It is a wonderful life, this is a wonderful world.”

Blu, Blu, it’s Green they say… 

A lady young enough to jump rope inscribed her book of poems and sent it to me through my sister in New York City. The sister claims the poet as a friend. That is no small boast, for the poet in question is a celebrated thinker, a public intellectual who has advanced the thought of a generation.

 

First impressions: the book is slim, at my age a mercy. A quick glance at the cover – pleasing design, the lacing of leaves, a hint to the content, which is to do with the lacing of the generations.

 

The title, “Black Bread*” – innocuous enough; but then follows the subtitle:

 

Poems, After the Holocaust.

 

A sinking feeling, a bracing for the assault which must follow. A needful assault, I must declare. The world has forgotten; Europe has forgotten; the young at their universities agitate as if they never knew you needed to know.

But still, holocaust poems!  Did not Paul Celan write, ‘after the holocaust there is no poetry’? 

Inevitably there is poetry, inevitably man must sing. After Celan, as after Cain, we can sing no more of man in primal innocence. We sing on, however, because we remember, we sing because we lament, we sing because we breathe. This book of singing is singular because the commemorator was not there, not in the Shoah. But she was there – insomuch as I (with my family intact and untouched in Australia) – was also morally there, also implicated, wounded, alongside all my people, alongside all people of all peoples.

 

Open the book, read. You hear a voice that doesn’t hector or scream or even moan, a voice delicate, tactful; and lively with empathy. The poet, Blu Greenberg, born and raised in the USA, was not directly affected, but – as we have learned from the developing study of epigenetics – the trauma of a previous generation can, in a real and concrete sense, be heritable. Stress hormones are measurably increased in later generations of survivors. In this way the pain of one can spread, from the victim to her relative; from that relative – through her verse – to us all, an emanation for our sorrow and our enlightenment. Greenberg knows what she knows and by subtle indirection, she shares her knowing with us. And like Coleridge’s Mariner, we rise on the morrow morn, sadder and wiser.

 

 

Consider ‘TRIGGER WORDS:’               

             

 

Action

Barking

Boots

Butterfly

Bystander

Cattle car

Chamber

Chosen

Collaborate

Drek

Dysentery

Experiments

Eye sockets

Forests

Gold teeth

Lampshade

Latrine

Orchestra

Soap

Solution

Swine 

Transport

Wheelbarrow

Yellow
God

 

What’s poetic about that – a list?  “Trigger Words” is not a poem you’d recite for the beauty of its words.

 

But it all works as poetry by its density of meaning. Twenty-four words carry a universe of meaning, a world of pain. Without recourse to emphasis Greenberg manages to convey all.  Working simply through the alphabet of human experience she stirs the shared memory of humans. We read, we feel the uncommon jolt of twenty–four common words and we know what humans have known since Cain. And we remember.

 

 

Quite otherwise is “MAY 14TH: AN OLD PRIESTESS, A NEW PRIESTESS.” This complex poem weaves its path from the poet’s familial ‘Ke’hunah’ (her descent from the biblical high priest Aaron), through the appearance of two small girls of the 1990’s. The two wear green leaves and crepe paper in the pageant in which they represent the priesthood. Their appearance, ‘two laughing priestesses’, flings the poet’s mind backwards, forwards in time – backward to ‘that other planet’, forward to future great grandchildren, who will, like Greenberg, surely and inescapably remember:

 

 

“My Deborah will tell  

Her grandchildren

As they sprawl

On her carpet 

Inquiring

Of old photos

I once knew

A girl 

Whose mother

And

Father

Survived that other planet

Come here and touch me.

 

 

What that closing line works within me is alchemy. I remember a pain that was never mine but which is the inheritance of all, remembered through the electricity, the innocence of childhood, that universal time we all had and we all lose. 

 

 

* KTAV, Hoboken, NJ, 1994

No-one Likes Poems.

My father said, “I don’t like poetry.” But he recited whole stretches of Shakespeare and odd fragments he learned at school. They shaped his thought and ferried it forward until he died, more than threescore years after his schooling ended. And Dad loved song, singing sea shanties to us through the hours of boat trips and long drives in the country. Dad imagined song was not verse and persuaded himself he ‘didn’t like poems.’

Many feel the same: confronted with verse they shrink and expect to be baffled by this often complex, always dense mode of expression.

Some poems however are quite straightforward. In First Class at Leeton Public School, Mrs Paulette announced, “Today we will learn a new poem. It is ‘Ding, Dong, Dell.'” I raised my hand: “I know that poem already.”
“Good, Howard. Please recite it for the class.”

“Ding, dong dell,
Pussy’s in the well:
How can you tell?
Go and have a smell.”

“Howard, leave the class immediately.”

Whether in the original version, that features Little Tommy Thin as the malefactor, or in the Howard version in which putrefaction proceeds, the lines race along in straight lines from straightforward beginning to clear ending. The charm is in the music and in the energy-packed compactness. Next to a picture and a graph, a poem is often the most efficient mode of conveying experience.

If you are like me, you might be daunted by lengthy poems. Try this one, a shorty:
I, Too, Sing America
Langston Hughes, 1902 – 1967
I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.

Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

I know too little of American verse, but the phrase, ‘I sing America’ rings a bell. I think it was Walt Whitman who wrote a poem by that title. Here the poet claims American folk memory – together with Emily Dickenson, Whitman is said to be the most original of American poets – and with graceful economy and marvellous power, protests against his exclusion to the kitchen of America, ‘when company comes.’
If you like that, try the even shorter, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”

I found both poems in ‘The Great Modern Poets’, edited by Michael Schmidt (Quercus). The CD enclosed inside the front cover features all the poets – from Yeats T S Eliot to Plath – reading their own work. Langston Hughes sings his lines with a jazz rhythm and in an accent faintly redolent of the Caribbean. Buy the book, listen to the CD and weep for beauty.

Atul Gawende and the Cane Toad

Running along the road in the early mornings through the sleeping town and out through the canefields I ruminate on Gawande’s important recent work, ‘Being Mortal’. I think of the quick and the dead and I think of the slowing that comes to the quick before they join the dead. 

Before me, beside me, ahead and behind lie cane toads, flattened by motor cars. Quick as they were but yesterday, they were not quick enough. Now they lie about me, very dead.

 

How, I wonder, does the cane toad die? I mean in nature, without cars, wheels and tarmacadam? Does Old Toad embrace his kin, exchange farewells, lie down and, like the stoic Inuit, wait? Does he – or do his relatives – euthanase him with their poison? It is to the merit of Dr Gawande that my thoughts soar to such heights in the mellow time before sunrise.

 

Back at the hospital I ask my fellow doctor, ‘How does the cane toad die when the motor car won’t put him out of his misery?’

Dr Danny is a Queenslander. He knows. Over ten minutes he enlightens me: ‘Scientists introduced cane toads to Queensland to defeat the cane beetle that was eating the crop. The idea failed – wrong toad, wrong beetles. Both thrived. The toad multiplied, spread throughout the waterways and headed west to despoil Arnhem Land and the Top End. 

Cane toads became so numerous they even outnumbered the next most prevalent pest, the Grey Nomad. Growing up in Bundaberg I never saw a road free of toads. There’d be thirty between our front door and the gate. They love Queensland. They feed on our lizards, our insects and our own frogs. Our frogs are cute. The toads are not.

 

‘But here’s the interesting thing. They’re dying out. There are roads where you mightn’t see a single toad. It’s almost eerie.’

 

Is it the motor car, I wonder?

 

‘No, not the car. No human agency can take the credit. That’s not for lack of trying. People carry golf clubs and practise their driving on the toads. They freeze them, which is said to be merciful. From time to time the ‘papers offer a prize for the greatest number of frozen toads. The Innisfail Advocate presents the winner with a voucher for a banquet of frogs’ legs at the local French restaurant.

 

All of this turns out to be a token gesture. None of it slowed the marchof the toad north and west. And the toad had no natural enemies. Birds would swoop, peck and die. The dorsal poison glands killed them. Man’s best friends died like flies: I mean small dogs; they’d bite and froth at the mouth. I had to wash out the mouth of my Grannie’s King Charles Cavalier whenever I went to stay with her. The dog never learned.

 

‘But the crow did. Crows swooped, upended the toads and bit their bellies, a poison-free zone. Toads died, crows crowed. The magpies watched all this and learned to do the same. Goodnight, sweet toad.’

 

Bloody still in tooth and claw, Nature operates with impartial grimness. But my question remains unanswered: what End of Life Directive does Old Toad give his offspring? How does the toad die? What lessons can we learn from this supremely ugly, universally loathed creature? 

 

Barring sudden death at the hand of man or God, I shall see the day when I will resemble the cane toad, unattractive and an ecological burden. This is the lot of humankind: just as we are born helpless, we return in old age to a state of helplessness some time before the end

 

We will lie and we will wait. 

 

Meanwhile, whether by command or uncommanded, the same body fluids will flow, the same needs persist – for company, for care, for loving touch, for music, for flowers, for light and mirth, for the sight of children at play. 

Some good soul or some sour misanthrope or some hired wheeler might wheel us outside into the garden where perchance we’ll sight the cane toad uglifying the scene in all his coarse vitality. And we will envy him.

 

 

 

Orpheus and Eurydice in the Yidinji Lands of Babinda

I have taken this story verbatim from the free brochure produced by Babinda Information Centre Volunteers and funded by the Cairns Regional Council. 

The volunteer who gave me my copy, a gracious and helpful lady a good deal older than I, told me: The authors wrote this a very long time ago. They were a man and a woman who became knowledgeable about the local tribes. They both passed away many years ago.” I acknowledge my debt to those writers. I trust I have violated no-one’s copyright. I will be pleased to receive any information that will put me in contact with the heirs of the authors. 

More fundamentally, I acknowledge the traditional owners of these lands and thank them for welcoming me here. I swam in these beautiful waters, enjoying them among the descendants of the original inhabitants. Mothers and fathers of brown kids and pink kids joined tourists, backpackers, Asian tour groups and an old white doctor, cooling upstream of all and danger and loss.  

“A long time ago, when the Yidinji tribe lived in the Babinda Valley, there was a tremendous upheaval that created these unusual shaped “Boulders” with their foaming, rushing waters. In the tribe was Oolana, a very beautiful young woman. Also in the tribe was Waroonoo, a very old, wise and respected elder. It was decided these two should be given in marriage to each other and so it was done. Some time later a visiting tribe can wandering through the valley and as was the custom of the friendly Yidinji, they made the strangers welcome, inviting them to stay. In the tribe was Dyga, a very handsome young man. All eyes were upon him for his grace and beauty. At first sight Dyga and Oolana fell in love.

 

“So great was their strong attraction for each other they arranged to meet secretly. Knowing full well their desire for one another would never be permitted they ran away. Oolana knew she could now never return as she was rightfully married to Waroonoo. They journeyed well up into the valley, spending wonderfully happy days together as they camped under Chooreechillum*, near the water’s edge.

The two tribes had been searching for them and it was at this spot they came upon the the two lovers. The wandering tribesemen seized Dyga, forcing him away 
(re)calling how they had been shamed and would never return and how they would travel far away and never return. The Yidinjis had taken hold of Ooolana and 
were dragging her back, forcing her to return with them to the rest of the tribe. Suddenly she broke away and violently flung herself into the gentle waters of the creek, as she called and cried for Dyga to return to her here, but the wandering tribe had gone and with them her handsome lover.

Would he ever return? Just at the very instant Oolana struck the water, a tremendous upheaval occurred. The land shook with terror and sorrow as Oolana cried for her lost lover to come to her. Her anguished cries spilled out as rushing water came cascading over the whole area. Huge boulders were thrown up and she disappeared into them. Oolana seemed to become part of the stones as if to guard the very spot where it all happened.

So to this day, her spirit remains.  Some say that at times her anguished calls cry out calling her lover to return – and that wandering travellers should take care

lest Oolana call them too close to her beautiful waters, for she is forever searching for her own lost lover, and this must always be.” 

Upstream the waters are wide and gentle. Downstream a little and around a bend the river narrows, the waters deepen and rush between mighty boulders that are 
grey and silent and solid and powerful. Leaping suddenly downward in great foaming furrows, the green waters crash from a height into a pool that roils and

froths in endless turmoil. “Very many have drowned here”, reads the notice. (“Caution, slippery kocks”, reads another notice, the capital ‘R’ helpfully altered to a ‘K’.) In the words of the copper in ‘Point Break’, pointing over his shoulders at the wild waters off Bells’ Beach where Patrick Swayzee has preceded them, “It’s death on a stick out there, mate.” 

 

Upstream where all is tranquil a young mother sat on the steps at the water’s edge, watching her children swim. She said, “It’s true. In my own lifetime in Babinda very many have drowned down there…very many. But only men drowned. Never a woman.” 


* Choorechillum, Queensland’s highest peak. Its whitefella name is Mt Bartle Frere.

Sylvia and Bruno, A Love Story

I watched an aged couple today as they made love.

She is in her late eighties, he’s a little older. Thirteen years ago, Sylvia (not her name)
became vague and forgetful. Bruno (not her husband’s name) passed the farm on to 
the children so he could care for Sylvia at home. For ten years this worked well, but as 
Sylvia became less active she gained weight and as Bruno aged he lost muscular 
strength, the strength that built the farm that sustained a family. Three years ago, Sylvia was admitted to the nearby nursing home. Bruno visits Sylvia every day.

Until today Sylvia had remained the most placid, easy-going resident in the home. When she was found this morning, burning with a high fever, pale and limp, helpless even to sit, breathing fast, her heart racing, her blood oxygen levels low, she remained that same tranquil, agreeable person.

“She’s severely demented”, said the nurse, “It’ll be cruel if we overtreat her. Let’s just 
keep her comfortable.” This is code for, let her die.’

When I met Sylvia at 0630 she gazed at me, eyes wide. Was this recognition? The opposite? What, who, remained behind that enquiring gaze?
‘Hello, Sylvia, I am the new doctor.’
Sylvia, her face pale, yellowed, smiled. I thought of my mother, another placid smiler.
Sylvia spoke, a voice soft, barely reaching my hard ears.
I leaned over her and listened as she spoke again: “You’re the doctor.”  
Attending at her bedside in the early morning, clad in my running shorts, vivid cap and colourful singlet, I don’t look like anyone’s idea of a doctor  – or a runner. But Sylvia knew. 
These were not the words of one ‘severely demented.’ 

I called Bruno, made the call that relatives know will one day come, the call they dread: ‘Bruno, I’m the doctor caring for Sylvia. She has a fever. I thought you should know… She’s not in danger, but we need to decide what treatment will be best for her and I’d like you to come in and give me your advice.’ A lot of words, too many words. Words to paper over insecurity, uncertainty.
Bruno thanked me for calling. He asked, ‘When would you like me to come, Doctor?’
‘Any time that suits you, Bruno.’
‘No Doctor, you’re a busy man. My time is my own. When will it suit you best?’
We agreed to meet at nine-thirty.

I studied Sylvia’s file. There was a reason for her long stare – she has glaucoma. And diabetes which will make her vulnerable to infection.
I read the family’s biographical notes: ‘Sylvia is a gentle, happy, quiet and kind person; compliant; she has sons, husband, extended family, friends who visit her often; she likes fruit, enjoys stories on television; she understands, even though she answers with only a few words. Please speak to her slowly.’ 
Elsewhere I read a relative’s observation: ‘I believe Sylvia does not have the ability to consent to or decline treatment.’
Once again I thought of Mum, a patient who’d always agree with a doctor, always wish to defer, to oblige.

I found Sylvia’s End of Life Directives: ‘Keep her clean and dry and as free of pain as possible. Please do not provide therapy that is futile. In the event of acute deterioration or critical event, she may have IV fluids, IV antibiotics, CPR, defibrillation not more than twice, a short course of ventilation.’

I tried to decode the directives: the family allows resuscitation, ventilation and defibrillation – more or less Intensive Care – while excluding futile treatments. But you never know whether intensive treatments might be futile. You do know CPR must be vigorous to succeed. In the words of an Emergency Medicine Physician of my aquaintance, ‘If you don’t break any ribs you won’t save them.’  And short ventilation slides easily into prolonged. Dying is prolonged and deformed; and any living that remains is disfigured.
This constitutionally gentle soul, comfortable in her frailty, undistressed even in her febrile state, would she welcome such rough treatment? What roughness, which bodily incursions, can the family tolerate? 
I needed Bruno to help me untangle this nest of contradiction.

At nine-thirty, I found Bruno seated by Sylvia, holding her hand. On her bedside table, a pear, freshly peeled and sliced, waited Sylvia’s pleasure. I introduced myself. Once again I told Sylvia I was the doctor. She looked at me, then over to Bruno. He nodded and her wide face relaxed and fell into a smile. Since my earlier visit her temperature had fallen and her breathing improved.

I listened to the front of Sylvia’s chest. I wanted to examine further, to hear the breath sounds at the lung bases. Sylvia, aged, weak and ill, would need help to sit up. Ordinarily I’d ask a nurse to support her but Bruno was here. Sylvia would know, her body would remember the touch of Bruno’s hands.
‘Bruno, when I sit your wife up, will you hold her shoulders for me?’ 
I hauled Sylvia’s upper body upright and Bruno leaned forward and placed one hand on each shoulder and steadied her. My stethoscoped ears listened intently to the breath sounds. Faint crackling betrayed the pneumonia I suspected.

Pneumonia, the old person’s friend. Will antibiotics save Sylvia? ‘Bruno, this is pneumonia. It’s a dangerous illness. Do you want us to use antibiotics? We’d give them through a vein…’
But Bruno, raised in a time and a school where the doctor gave orders, replied: ‘You’re the doctor. Whatever you decide will be for the best.’ 

Deep in cogitation, I applied the stethoscope again. Eventually I looked up. Two large brown hands, the joints wrecked by time and work on the farm, supported Sylvia’s creamy shoulders. Bent forward, held by her man, Sylvia gazed into Bruno’s eyes. I noticed her right hand. Sylvia moved it back and forth along the inside of Bruno’s forearm. Up to the elbow, back down to the wrist, up, down, Sylvia’s fingers stroked Bruno’s skin.
The fingers caressing, moving upon the silence.
Two people, oblivious of this interloper, oblivious of all, man and woman made love and confounded me: where I had wondered how much treatment would be too much, now I sensed how much the two still gave and received from each other, how precious to each was time with the other. 
How much treatment will be enough?