Pillars of Fear
Three Holocaust Poems for Our Time
by Thomas Ország-Land (August 2011)
For James Fenton
Floating among the ice, these peaceful
soft, curly shapes reflect the sky.
The river rocks them lightly, gently,
their pace appearing slow and graceful
beneath the evening’s silver mantle.
We cannot see the fish below, but
discern from here a place of worship
that dominates this wounded landscape.
The fish cannot disturb the dead.
Indifferent, the murdered lie
swelling our rivers of history.
A friendly warlord has purged a delicate
threatening issue of principles
(which we regret). You must have heard:
a war afar stirs passions once
it has occurred on television.
They’ve left behind a tidy village
of great importance – once, to them,
the toil of ruined generations,
a scent of sweat, the stench of fear,
spent cartridges trampled into the snow
and children recoiled from adult ways,
potential witnesses still in hiding
in crumpled bedrooms (which we regret).
Others I know marched calmly at gunpoint
and left their clothes and shoes on the shore.
They were received by the surging waves
tied in pairs to prevent survival,
to float forever towards the sea
– rejected by oblivion.
We have erected a monument
to urge humanity: Never Again!
...A monument secured by our stubborn
pillars of fear that make us insane and
succumb to the lure of the tranquil river.
The icy current coils beyond
our will and wailing. Hear this dirge
composed for you and me, undated.
It mourns the living. We calculate
our fate in sums of overkill.
My name? Kurt Eichmann. I am the son, not the monster.
You may relax your face. I am your age
and you and I both share my father's shame.
You think you're innocent? I'm responsible
for my father's deeds just as you are for yours.
I am condemned by my inheritance,
the trains and Auschwitz. So is all humanity.
I must embrace my place and role, and bear
my name for I can rearrange the past
no more than you can change your skeleton.
He looked like me, my father. He was warm,
he loved his children, women, fun and flowers.
He obeyed in full the exterminating state
and thought in terms of tame processing quotas.
Perhaps he managed to avert his eyes
from the purpose of the national enterprise –
perhaps he was, like his entire nation,
hysterically drunk with fear and hatred –
or, like me, he thought he must fulfil his role –
He is condemned for lacking exceptional courage.
And did he love the stench of burning flesh?
He was a man of the stopwatch, not the gun,
an author only of railway timetables, an architect
of ovens only and chimneys, a planner translating
the people's will to kill into detailed instruction,
a man of industry only doing his job.
He thus extended human experience by learning
to channel rage and passion into detachment
and patient dedication to a purpose
beyond a person's modest comprehension.
Today we know we all need exceptional courage
and all of us must answer for our souls.
I am a German and heir to Goethe's poetry,
a European, heir to the dream of Erasmus,
a Christian, heir to the faith of Jesus the Jew.
I am condemned to keep alive the name
that must confront humanity with our
capacity for suicidal detachment
as well as love. My role is to enhance
our common inclination towards survival.
Our civilizations have sown new notions
of treating unwanted populations,
reasoned a seasoned son of Auschwitz.
And he entreated his own: You’ll lose all
you own and never forget it – so boldly
hold up your head while you’ve got it.
THOMAS ORSZÁG-LAND is a poet and award-winning foreign correspondent who writes from London and his native Budapest.
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