Friday, July 25, 2008

Shoah, New York - Stephen Smith

Steve emailed his final reflection piece and asked me to post it. Enjoy!!

Shoah, New York

“We are always afraid of falling so we balance ourselves.”
Louise Bourgeois

Broadway and 42nd Street

The sound of July escaping,
a musician moving air
with the striated muscles of an ex-junkie,
flexed stance of a subway vet. A bluesy flute, moving fetid air, moving me
past furtive glances, cold stares.
He blows long cascading notes as we enter the station,
bracing his body against the slowing train, against our leaving,
hands on the final notes, balanced.

The notes, strung out along the tracks,
climb the stairs, move through turnstiles,
funnel, then spread up and down Broadway
to heaven and hell.

The train has stopped but no one moves. Silence hangs.

I expect applause, but get a last ironic note:

“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for that wonderful round of applause…

…If you can find it in your heart
to make a small donation, I would truly appreciate it. This is Times Square,
please watch your step as you leave the train.”

Broadway and 12th Street

At Strand’s in the Village I hold the new translation of Elie Wiesel’s Night. The New York Times calls it a “slim volume of terrifying power.” After fifteen city blocks and three beers I have not escaped day three of a two-week seminar on “Reading, Writing, and Teaching the Holocaust.” Today, we met Gisa, a Holocaust survivor.

In clumps of syllables she tells us “After the war was a famous slogan—‘Never again,’ but that I think is lie.” We nod and take notes—boxcars of 80 people traveled for three days and nights, without water, one bucket for shit and piss. The waste ran down her legs, where it caked and dried. When they arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau, she saw the smokestacks—“What is belching out like that? Why is it stinking? Why white particles—like butterflies—we didn’t know.”

At 84, she is small, slight, with dark eyes, dark hair, and a direct gaze.
I am reeling from her words.

“…ate clumps of grass, boiled up like spinach soup.”

“…had to undress in front of men…and the world, because this was our world.”

“…if you wanted to finish your rotten life, you could run to the electric fences.”

She watched her mother taken out and shot in her hometown, watched her older sister and little brother march to the shower where they were gassed. Her sister, knowing what awaited them, tossed her braided hair back, took her brother’s hand and went left. Gisa felt the ponytail brush her face, and went right.

How did you survive? I want to ask.

One time she laughed at her friend’s childish prank, but told us “You cannot laugh with crematoria belching out human skin.”

When she finishes answering questions,
Gisa, “slim volume of terrifying power,”
asks to use the restroom.

36 Battery Place

From the windows of the Museum of Jewish Heritage I see Ellis Island
and the Statue of Liberty. Under brilliant blue sky the harbor teems with ship traffic, with life. We are studying primary sources, trying to understand the cold steel engineering of the Nazi war machine.

“Ninety-seven thousand Jews have been processed in the trucks to date, but minor operating defects have been discovered and we recommend the following improvements.”

Like my Krupps coffee maker, an efficient machine, but the filter clogs occasionally, spilling coffee. I should write the company.

“It would be desirable in future to install electric lights, shielded by a steel grill, in the ceiling of the truck. For it is dark in the car when the doors are closed, and when the exhaust gas begins to be piped in, the result has been panic and loud screams, which make the work of the drivers more difficult and may attract undesirable attention.”

Some of my fellow teachers are gasping, some crying. When we take a break, anger and horror spill out of the conference room. How do I teach this to fifteen year olds? What pedagogy is there for efficient, technological mass murder?

“In addition it is desirable to make the cars shorter—although we are aware of the concern expressed by the engineers regarding the increased pressure on the front axle. There is no need for concern about the overweight on the front axles of the trucks, for the merchandise, without exception, is pushed together during the journey and, for understandable psychological reasons, pressed to the locked doors at the rear end, so the weight will nevertheless be well distributed on both axles.”

I look up from this document, checking the blue, the harbor, and Liberty.

Delancey at Essex, Lower East Side

We do a fine job of memorializing those we have slaughtered. Some of us have become very rich off the tragedy of others. In Hollywood, they say there’s no business like Shoah business. Ask Steven Spielberg.

In the last year, I’ve read reviews on three new films about the Rwandan genocide. For this year’s National History Day competition, one of my students developed a website on the Khmer Rouge that took her all the way to Washington DC.

One can now take a virtual tour of the “most significant act of domestic terrorism on American soil,” the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The website encourages the tourist to visit “the famed gates and empty chairs to appreciate the beauty and serenity.”

Many cities in our country have a street or park named after Martin Luther King, and they’re often a symbol of a city’s health. Detroit’s Martin Luther King Blvd is a mass of potholes and weedy sidewalks, but I found a beautifully maintained MLK park tucked away in the Lower East Side.

In New York City, there seems to be a museum for most oppressed groups, including Jews, American Indians, Chinese, and even tenement dwellers.

New York teachers can adopt a Holocaust survivor. It’s almost as easy in places like McCool Junction, Nebraska and Paradise, Michigan. We can meet a death camp survivor on line, say from Bergen-Belsen, ask questions, get to know him or her...sort of.

Despite our efforts to honor and remember, to share stories, to teach the past in order to inform the present, we continue the horror. “Never again” is a phrase completely devalued by our repeated history. And when we’re not killing, we ignore, even those we honor. By one count, today there are over 100,000 Holocaust survivors living in poverty.

Maybe it is enough to survive as something other than our original self.

Fifth Avenue and 82nd Street

Even looking at Rodin’s “Les Bourgeois de Calais ,”
it is not easy understanding man’s horror
when he faces death.
My daughter presses for an explanation.
Then he appears at my side, like a docent, speaking earnestly
about the sculptor, the subject, his own life and his father.
It is more than I need, but I am relieved of parental duty.
I never learn his name, even later when we shake hands,
so I think of him as Frank.

He points to the figure of Jean d’Aire, the second burgher to volunteer
for death. d’Aire stands wide, jaw set, holding
one of the keys to the city, a noose about his head.

“That’s my guy. He’s got that thousand-yard stare.”

I cannot see his eyes. Rodin’s figure is looking beyond death.

“You were in ‘Nam.”

“Thirty-nine months.”

d’Aire stands outsized with enlarged hands and feet,
a paradox of emotions on his face: proud but overcome, hollowed
yet living fully in this last moment of breath.

Frank is here every Saturday, working a few hours at the information desk. After his shift, he tours one of the galleries, piecing together the art and history, but he always ends his day in front of “Les Bourgeois de Calais”—“it’s a French sculpture for the French people, but they didn’t like it because it wasn’t heroic.”

Frank has burn scars on both arms, a twitch in his right eye. After he’s told us everything he must know about the sculpture, I tell him about my friend Irving Roth, a death camp survivor. When the Allies liberated Auschwitz, Irving was 15 years old. “Now, you may have pondered the Messiah, but I saw him—one was black and one was white, they were strong and healthy, and gave us pork beans, and when they saw us, they broke down and cried. Never seen walking skeletons.”

Frank’s eyes well up, but not from the obvious.
“My dad told that story. He was there, too. We could never really talk—we both served, but our wars were different. That’s the only time I ever saw him cry, when he told that story.”

I listen as d’Aire as Rodin as Irving Roth as Frank as Frank’s father
talk through death,
breathing a museum to life.

1.Lower East Side Tenement Museum, 90 & 97 Orchard Street
2. Holocaust Resource Center,
3. The Burghers of Calais (Les Bourgeois de Calais) is one of the most famous sculptures by Auguste Rodin, completed in 1888. It serves as a monument to an event in 1347 during the Hundred Years’ War, when Calais, an important French port on the English Channel was under siege by the English for over a year. England's Edward III, after a victory in the Battle of Crécy, laid siege to Calais and Philip VI of France ordered the city to hold out at all costs. Philip failed to lift the siege and starvation eventually forced the city to parley for surrender. Edward offered to spare the people of the city if any six of its top leaders would surrender themselves to him, presumably to be executed. Edward demanded that they walk out almost naked and wearing nooses around their necks and be carrying the keys to the city and castle. One of the wealthiest of the town leaders, Eustache de Saint Pierre, volunteered first and five other burghers soon followed suit. They stripped down to their breeches and Saint Pierre led this envoy of emaciated volunteers to the city gates. It is this moment and this poignant mix of defeat, heroic self-sacrifice and the facing of imminent death that Rodin captures in his figures. In history, though the burghers expected to be executed, their lives were spared by the intervention of England's Queen, Philippa of Hainault, who persuaded her husband by saying it would be a bad omen for her unborn child. The original work is in Calais, while several sites own a casting, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. (adapted from Wikipedia)

1 comment:

Ilka said...

You are a brilliant write. I am honored to have met you. I wish I could spend just an hour seeing the world through your eyes.