Porajmos

“Forget us

forget our generation

live like humans

forget us”

Tadeusz Różewicz

***

Luminitza – 1941

“Aishe?” I whisper, gently nudging my sister. Her eyes are closed, but her breathing has not yet become deep and steady. She doesn’t respond, just turns her shoulder away. I wonder whether she is still angry at me for ripping her shawl yesterday or if she is simply trying to sleep. We shouldn’t be awake, in any case, but I haven’t slept well in days. And although Aishe sleeps like a log, I know that she has had trouble falling asleep lately as well. “Will you tell me a story?”

“Go to sleep,” she mumbles. Her mouth sounds like it’s filled with marbles, her words jumbled and slurring into each other.

I lie back onto my mat. The faint droning of insects outside has become a comforting noise for me in these silent times. Once, there would have been music – bright, vivid music – and dancing throughout the night. The only dance I see tonight is a fly buzzing near the roof, weaving between two spiderwebs, an exquisite performance of survival. Trapped, it heads for the window, where a sliver of moonlight shines through, but it is closed. Desperate, the fly tries again and again. What a stupid creature, I think. It will be dead by morning.

Soon, my eyes begin to weigh down and the fly drifts out of my vision. A dream begins, one that I have had for weeks. It fills me with terror, but I cannot elude my sleep. Tonight, I fear, my thoughts will be painted with blood.

It is late and Aishe has snuck out to see a boy she likes very much. I hear her leave and follow her. I do not know why; perhaps to catch her in the act, perhaps to see what she does with him. But I follow her. I like it very much, sneaking out. The tension, the silence, the stifled breathing. I am very good at this, Aishe does not hear me at all. Neither do our parents.

She meets him near a very large tree. He sees her and smiles widely. I am hiding, and so they do not see me. They touch each other, carefully, lovingly. I see him do what my father does with my mother sometimes, run his fingers gently down her cheeks as if she is the prettiest girl he has ever seen. He should- my sister is very beautiful.

It is dark and quiet, as all nights are, but there is something else in the air, something I can only sense with the growing lump in my chest. It is the feeling I get when I know my mother is about to find that I have done something very wrong. Aishe and the boy she likes do not seem to be nervous, but I am.

I don’t know how long I stay crouched in my hiding space. Aishe seems to want to stay out with the boy forever. I grow tired and weary of watching them, but I fight to stay awake. It is a long time before I hear the men.

They come from a distance and at first, all I hear are boots. Aishe hears them too, but the boy shushes her, caresses her hair. I want to leave, go back to the  safety of my bed, but if I do now, they will seem me. I do not want to get in trouble. When the men come closer and their distinct marching is now clear, I am terrified. But my feet are frozen. As it seems, so are Aishe’s and the boy’s. Together, they kneel behind the tree, hoping it can conceal them from the oncoming men.

Within seconds, they are even closer and now, everyone is awake, and fires are blazing, people screaming, yelling, angry, scared, all mixed together. Everything is loud and suddenly, I hear gunshots, short bursts of fury, ring out. Then another. Then another and they are everywhere.

I am still crouching.

This feels like a game I play with the other children. We pretend to shoot each other, see who can outlive the rest. In our imaginations, it is a very vivid game. Are we playing now? Is this all in my mind? I see Aishe, still behind the tree. She looks as if she is going to run somewhere. I decide to join her.

“Aishe!” I yell, running towards her. Around me, it seems as if the world is ending. We are near the forest, and the flames seem to be coming closer, the gunshots louder. This is not a game. Not a game! A man stumbles near me, his face distorted and bloodied. I can’t tell who he is. I scream and run faster. “Aishe!”

She turns, surprised.

“Hide!” she cries, fear streaked across her face. “Run!”

The boy lies beside her, a single bullet hole through his head. His eyes are open and his arm outstretched to Aishe. I look back to the man; he is dead. So are many others.

Aishe is crying, but she takes my hand, sprinting for the trees. I am hard to drag though, for I keep looking over my shoulder for my mother. Where is she? Nothing seems real.

Someone has spotted us. They are beckoning to others, screaming angrily. Bullets fly precariously at our heads, but they only hit the trees. They seem to be poor shots, but perhaps only because it is dark and the branches curve and protect us.

I am so scared, but we are disappearing into the woods and then we are flying, flying….

We are angel-children, descending from the skies. We find an empty barn. It is worn and looks like it’ll fall down upon us, but we are so tired…. And my mother asks, “Where did you go?”

***

Marko – 1942

Everything went to hell in January of 1933 when Adolf Hitler came into power. After the Jews, he began to persecute my people to the ends of the earth. People went missing, people I used to know, the windows of their homes boxed up and the doors locked and shut. With what was seemingly all of Germany under Hitler, there was almost no one and nowhere we could turn to for help. Passage out of Europe was expensive and the cheapest ways out were always the most dangerous. There was no one to trust but ourselves.

My family moved from the city to the countryside not so many years later. It’d be safer for all of us, my mother believed. But no matter where we lived, we knew it was a brutal time. We lived in fear of everyone and everything. During the nights, we would be glued to the one rickety radio we owned, trying to see what was happening. Sometimes, we would receive news about old friends or acquaintances whom had disappeared without a word. We knew what had happened, but for us to be taken from our homes? The idea seemed so unreal – something that couldn’t possibly happen. Until 1942.

Early that summer, we were taken to the Warsaw Ghetto. Dragged out from our lives, packed into a truck like fish in a can. Resistance was not an option, but how we wished it was. Under the warm sun in the ghetto, people starved on the streets, others succumbing to the brutal fate of disease. Some were slaughtered cold-heartedly by the Nazis. So many pleaded for a miracle, but there came no mercy.

Thousands of the Jews were sent off over the months I lived there. Nothing good could come of that- they would surely suffer a similar fate of those who remained. I saw men, women, children… all massacred. Hiding made no difference; the Nazis shot upon sight. My friends, my neighbors- innocent men and women, girls and boys. How to describe to gruesome deaths, the resounding gunshots? The final cries of the dead? It all haunted me, followed my dreams in the night, my thoughts in the day. And who would be next? There was no way to be sure. Perhaps it would be all of us.

Maybe there was hope, contained in the minds of the young and innocent, but not nearly enough for anyone to live on. We were fenced in with no way out, facing an inevitable end. Survival meant so much, yet there was so much death. I believed our lives would never be the same again.

It was not long before we had been moved once more. This time, however, we were certain we’d never come out alive.

***

Aishe – 1941

I am older than Luminitza. I am stronger, I am smarter. I should have protected her. My sweet, precious sister. How could I have failed so badly?

They found us and took us to a train. They brought us to a camp that I can barely think of without becoming sick. The Nazis took our clothes when we arrived, stripping us naked. All the things they did… it was like they thought were animals. Worse than animals! So many people looked half-dead, some brutalized, others like they could barely stand to live a few more moments.

We were so scared that at any moment, we could be torn apart, never to see each other again. The very idea petrified me and brought nightmares to my dreams. Luminitza was even more so terrified, however. She had never been around death and despair like this. She always thought she’d be next. I tried so hard to tell her that everything would be okay, even when I couldn’t believe it myself. My mother taught me never to lie, but also to never hurt my sister. I wish I never had to make the choice between the two.

***

Jili – 1943

They brought us to Auschwitz in the early days of 1943. It was a new year, but no one was celebrating. When we arrived at the camp, they put us in a special area with the other Roma families. Within months, our numbers had reached tens of thousands. But at the same time, exhaustion, disease, and starvation rained down upon us.

My mother remained hopeful to the end. She would whisper comforting words to me at night, saying one day, we would be free and unpersecuted. She died that spring. I sat by her side, clutching her hand. It was limp, barely more than skin and bones. She had stopped eating, those last few weeks. Selfless, she had sacrificed her rations to those she knew would outlive her.

I remember on my fifteenth birthday, my mother made me a beautiful skirt with her own hands, working day and night to finish it in time for the celebration. It was so lovely, I dared not wear it in fear that I would tear or stain it. When I told her this, she laughed at my ridiculousness, but I could see the sadness behind her eyes. And now, I know why. Something so elegant, that she had worked so hard on- never to be worn.

My mother died in imprisonment, knowing she would never see her freedom again. And so I believed, no matter what happened next, that neither would I.

***

Marko – 1942

Many of us were separated at Treblinka. Most were taken across the camp but some of those around me were marched into an old, decrepit building. We were told to stand still. There was a round of shots, all fired at once. Then again, then again, and again. I watched as each fell to the ground, the smell of blood filling the air, until finally, it was my turn. The pain was sharp and sudden, blood seeping onto my dirt-stained shirt. 

I do not believe there was no one who could have survived.

***

Jili – 1944

The Nazis had put us to work for a long time, yet they did not give us sustenance. Death was rampant, but many were able to stay strong for those they loved who had perished.

One day, however, the Nazis came again. Although almost autumn, it was a dark, cloudy day. Or perhaps, it only seemed so. Months ago, they had arrived, trying to take us out of the camp. They were fought off with sticks and stones that we had found lying in the dirt. We knew they would swear revenge and swear revenge they did.

Everyone was forced into trucks, huddling masses of crying men, women, and children. We all knew what we would face.

My only comfort was knowing that perhaps I would see my mother again.

***

Aishe – 1944

With each year, we lost more hope. I wished to stay strong only for Luminitza, but I did not know how. I knew we could only leave this awful place in God’s arms.

Late in the summer, the Nazis took me to a building where a man in a white coat stood. I did not know that he was such an evil man. For days, he would not give us food or drink, only water that had a strange taste. My throat burned and longed for more water; I could not resist even from trying to drink the water from the freshly-mopped floors, but to no avail.

I believe that I went crazy in those last few days. I could barely walk without my head spinning or pounding. I was weak and tired. Sometimes, my legs would give out and I would fall to the ground without warning. I longed for everything to stop- and in the end, my wish was granted.

***

Luminitza – 1945

Aishe died a year ago, too weak to even whisper her last words. I cried for her everyday.

In early spring, however, they made the remainder of us walk. Walk! when we could barely stand, when we were famished, when we were dying. We walked for days, but it seemed an eternity. There were many who couldn’t go on, who died on the path, were left behind. And we kept walking.

On the fourth day, I stumbled and fell.

“Get up!” they yelled. “Get up or you die here!”

My arms felt weak, my legs numb. I struggled to get to my feet, but met the ground once more. Pain radiated throughout my body. I was kicked to the side and heard what seemed like an explosion above me before all went dark.

There are no good people left in this world.

untitled [poem 1938]

It feels like fear- heart pumping fast,
Like a lion in a cage-
Riding up to the throat, beating, beating.
No sweat but the pounding has reached
The ears. The impossible
Becomes the inevitable. Hearing is
Perfect but there’s no sound,
Just beating, beating.
The ground scratching at skin
(Remember when all scrapes needed were a
Superhero band-aid and a kiss?)
It’s too late:that’s the fear talking:it’s too late
Can’t think of anything else it’s too late
Nothing, it’s too late except for the heart, it feels like
It’s going to explode it’s too late and it’s
Beating, beating.

in october

mornings begin to melt at seven am
when pink fades into the clouds and the frigid air still bites
through jackets, through sweaters, through the skin of
students who haven’t slept in days; a congregation of the tired,
the weary, the flesh and blood who’ve exchanged their
hearts for batteries and their souls for caffeine and ritalin,
who know that mornings are meant for sleeping, and
for finishing english papers that were due yesterday and never notice
how the smallest leaves on trees bend the most welcomingly to dew drops,
nor the pale moon, rising above the cotton candy sky, nor the
remarkable silence of
early morning streets.

mornings may be melting, but they have not yet begun
to dissolve.

symphony

allegro con brio

she believes in the strings that rip apart her fingertips
and the black and white notes that dance before her eyes which
flutter to the elongated melodies of mahler and prokofiev, the rhythm
never faltering, not even under the bright lights of the stage or in front
of the audience – they can see you better than you can see them – and never, not ever, during the
quietest moments, the epitome of silent grace, soundless music
that can only be marked by the soft coughs of the
men and women of the hushed jury.

the night has only begun.

adagio

with the flick of a wrist, the clarinet begins to sing
the melody floating around the stage, like a bubble with no skin to burst and
her heart is in her throat and it seems, at that moment,
as if nothing is important; not the calculus test tomorrow she hasn’t studied for, nor the
fear of some astronomical apocalypse, though for a second, she wonders
if stars would look nice beside the notes and whether the moon is really made of cheese-
then she is floating – up, up, up – with the music,
touching that ornate ceiling, each delicate chandelier-
she falls back to the stage in a haze.

scherzo

a prelude to the grand triumph of a masterpiece begins
slowly, like the first taste of the chocolate bars she spends her allowance on, a sweet
addiction, and then they are rising, swelling, and she gets those small
chills down her spine that are both comforting and haunting and each note seems to glide from one to the next and it feels like
walking through honey.

finale

each worn page, graffitied with harsh circles and marks, envelops her mind
the adrenaline rushing through her veins as the timpani rolls and the horns
begin their descent, a blissful, awakening call of the senses

crescendo

louder and louder and louder and LOUDER
her heart beats to the sound of the percussion,
the cymbals crashing, a storm brewing in the brass,
like a tornado, wreaking havok,
quietly, at first, but it gets bigger and bigger, until!

piú mosso

white bow hairs, coated with rosin – the powdered blood of every player-
fly across the strings, casting a spell over the room
and in that moment, the world holds their breath-
quick as a flash, the bows dance back and forth, whipping up a frenzy, just a little faster, faster,
the stage swelling in size-

fine

Fear

My stomach is jumping through my throat, my heart pumping harder than its ever done before, as if each beat brings it a mile away from wherever we are right now. If this is fear, then I don’t know if I’ve ever been truly scared before in my life. I wish I had someone here with me now, someone to hold my hand and tell me it’s alright.

Fear isn’t even a word right now. It’s my state of mind.

I’m afraid that if I close my eyes, I’ll open them to find a monster on the other side.

Butterflies

I gave everything to him, but the prettiest things he ever gave back were lies so delicate, they reminded me of fragile butterfly wings. He supported my world or maybe I supported his, I never really knew. It all just went round and round in a broken carousel that was polished to look new. We weren’t new, we were old, and there was nothing left to fix.

I always thought I’d be the one to ask him to never let go of me. But in the end, neither of us said a word.

Victoria’s Pie

He sat at the diner table, staring at red leather and linoleum floors, scrubbed clean by the unruly haired boy who walked out of the kitchen with a bucket and mop every hour. The neon lights screaming DINAH’S DIN R (the ‘e’ was blown out) flickered rapidly, the blindingly bright sign creaking cautiously under the heavy winter wind.

“Cup of cocoa and a slice of mud pie?” A pretty blonde waitress asked, seemingly appearing out of nowhere.

He looked up, startled. “I didn’t order no pie.”

She smiled sympathetically. “Big feller like you in here alone on a freezin’ cold night? It’s on the house.”

He stared at her as she set down his order and walked away. She had gray eyes like Victoria. The pie was cooling in front of him. Victoria loved pie. He picked up his fork hesitantly, slowly tasting the sweet chocolate melt on his tongue.

She loved apple pie and key lime pie and she could eat it all day and never be sick except for mud pie, she hated mud pie, and she thought it was only fit for pigs and sheshesheshe-

He set the fork down, a single tear rolling down his cheek. He closed his eyes, suddenly remembering the waitress.

… slice of mud pie… alone… gray eyes… alone… hair like the sun… alone…

Almost angrily, he took up his fork once more and stabbed it into the dessert.

She was screaming, screaming, throwing her glass figurines, picture frames, plates, and she was so angry, it seemed as if her sweet, gentle body had been possessed by a demon of sorts and her mouth never stopped yelling you bastard-

He took another bite.

She sat at the edge of the water, beckoning, and he came, putting his arm around her, and she smiled and said why can’t we always be like this and he didn’t know-

He was crying hard now, silent tears streaming down his cheeks. He hasn’t cried in so long… it feels so unfamiliar. He reached for the napkins, but she was there and she was yelling again, you deserve the pain, you deserve it all-

The waitress came by again. This time, she wasn’t smiling. “You okay?”

He cleared his throat. “I’m good. Thank you for the pie. I’ll be off now.”

He gives her a roll of bills for the drink, which sits untouched on the table. He’s given her too much money, but he doesn’t care anymore. He leaves the diner, just as the sign begins to fade. The manager is flipping the OPEN sign to CLOSED. His old truck is waiting for him. They’re drive around, the radio off, when they get to the bridge over the river near the edge of town. He stops the car, gets out.

The last time he was here, Victoria had-

She wanted him to apologize… she was standing on the ledge… I’ll jump! I swear I will! Save your pride! Save me! Do you even love me? She had never been so serious… yet it seemed like a terrible joke… and his words had never been so sticky before….

Victoria is taunting him, laughing. She sits atop the rushing waters, flowing downstream with the rain from the storm yesterday. He reaches for her, something he should have done all those years before.

Do you even love me? 

The cold stone… the white waters….

Love me?

Where are you?

Me? I’m right here….

Victoria….

to the night

the moon hides behind gray clouds
a sliver of light creeping down the walls of
downtown’s worn brick buildings
while we lurk in the corners of alleyways
surrounded by the broken bottles of dashed
dreams and jack daniels.

a shadow of a cat dances between trash cans
darting between the garbage like a ghostly bullet,
its black and white tail flying briskly above the heavy concrete.

there is the smell of gasoline on the streets
rainbow puddles and eyes in the dark – glowing, glowing…

they are watching, but there isn’t time
glass timepieces and gold fillings cannot hold still,
pulling forward to the earth
to say goodbye

and in the hazy walks of the city we raise our glasses, smudged crystal filled with the
tears of the sky, and we salute the stars,
shimmering guides of incandescent light,
whispering to the night, my darlings, to the night.