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The International School for Holocaust Studies

The Return to places of former Jewish Life
An Interview with the poet Dr. Simon Lichman

By Franziska Reiniger


Introduction

When we decided to write this current edition of the newsletter on the topic of poetry and commemoration, I suddenly remembered three poems I had recently read in a book about Judaism in Europe today.[1] These poems, which dealt with the return to places of former Jewish life and atrocities during the Holocaust, affected me strongly and I decided to interview the writer.

The poet Dr. Simon Lichman, born in London in 1951, has lived in Israel since 1971. He is the Director of the Centre for Creativity in Education and Cultural Heritage, which brings together Jewish and Arab school-communities through education programmes based on folklore. He teaches Folklore, Creative Writing, Mediaeval Drama and Co-existence Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Kaye Academic College, Beersheva.
A member of Penn International, he has served as the Chairman of the Israel Association of Writers in English, editing a number of issues of its journal, arc. His poetry has been published in journals such as arc, Ars Poetica, European Judaism, Konch, Modern Poetry In Translation, Stand, The Jerusalem Review, Tikkun and Tri-Quarterly as well as in his own collection, Snatched Days. His most recent work includes Entertaining Angels, a manuscript of poetry after ‘masterpiece’ paintings of Biblical scenes, and The Harrowing, based on a family trip to Lithuania and Poland, which focused on the Holocaust.

We met several times and had long conversations about poetry, Dr. Lichman’s life as a poet, and his feelings and thoughts regarding the loss of family, community, culture and Jewish life as a whole in Europe. I was surprised and pleased to find out that the three poems published in the journal were part of a manuscript of almost 60 poems which deal with the topics mentioned above. Below are excerpts of our conversations.

FR: I recently read some of your poems about the Holocaust and I was impressed and moved. I would like to know more about your poems as poems of the second or third generation that deal with the return to places of former Jewish life and the Holocaust. What draws you to writing poetry about the Holocaust? Why do you use poetry to depict the Holocaust?

SL: I’ve never really thought of myself as a writer of Holocaust poetry. I never wanted to write about the Holocaust. I’m not the kind of poet who wakes up and thinks: “Oh, I’d like to write a poem about football.” I write about the things that affect me, things that I live through, things that I see and things that I do. Primarily, I write in terms of seeing. It is almost as if I’m painting, but I’m not, I’m writing. There is always something visual going on. I’m always looking at something. Even if I’m not literally standing in front of a tree and writing about the tree, even if I’m at home, it is visual. I’m seeing it. And I’m hearing it. I hear the poems that I write. Usually, it’s myself saying the words. It’s not like… the angel Gabriel [laughing], it’s not like a voice that suddenly comes to me. It’s not like that. But I hear… as I write a poem I hear the poem. And often my wife Rivanna will giggle. I think that I’m quietly writing the poem but in fact I’m mumbling my way through. Sometimes. It depends. I don’t set out to write poems about a subject. But once I’m on a subject – I don’t realize that I am into a subject at first – I find myself writing poems about and around that subject. It’s like a landscape, a landscape that I enter.

Growing up with the knowledge of the Holocaust

With regards to the Holocaust, it was…. [Pause] You know, you grow up aware obviously of the Holocaust. Especially, I was born a few years after the Second World War. So, it was fresh. It was current. London was… I remember London was with bomb craters all over the place. And obviously the Holocaust never stopped being a shock. But it was still quite fresh in a way when I was born.

So, you grow up knowing about the Holocaust. You grow up reading – I guess – the things that people read. I read quite widely but I never studied it as such. I never took it on as something I wanted to know everything about. I figured what I knew was horrific enough. Somebody would say: “There is this book called Treblinka, have you read it?” And I’d say: “No I haven’t.” And they’d say: “It’s just amazing.” Then I would read it. But I didn’t then go out and find out every single book that was written about Treblinka. I was not involved in that way. But I was involved in my being. As you know, my mother’s family, I suppose about 96% – if you can give percentages – were all wiped out.

And I grew up knowing that my mother had cousins in Poland whom she wrote to. They were her pen pals just as I had cousins in America whom I was close to. Suddenly they weren’t there. I grew up knowing about that loss. Again, I think in the way that some children do, I listened to all the stories that my family told. I consumed them but I never dug very deep in terms of the actual history. It wasn’t something I thought of doing. “What did my grandfather do when he lived in Lodz?” I don’t know what he did. I think he had a shop. But I don’t really know. Looking back now, there are all sorts of details I would like to know. What did the family do? I don’t know what they did. I’m not sure what my mother knew.

Writing about the Holocaust

The first time I wrote a poem…[Pause]. The first time I actively wrote about the Holocaust was… [Pause]. I don’t know when it began… [Pause]. At some point in the late 1970s I started to write some poems, which were cameo-narratives about members of the family who were no longer with us - my grandmother, grandfather. And then I realized that it was actually a sequence of poems about the way in which you move up the ladder of generations in your family. It was about loss. But mostly ‘natural’ loss. People do die; some die young; some die old. But it became combined with the loss suffered in the Holocaust, the absence of these people who could not have been known – not by me. And who didn’t have children who were then moving up their ladder – that kind of hole in a family. It ended up with that idea. And again, I didn’t realize that that’s where it was taking me.

FR: That was the first time you wrote about the Holocaust?

SL: That was the first time… the first time that the Holocaust actively became a part of a group of poems. I started writing those in America. A few years later, we came back to live here in Jerusalem. The manuscript was still current in my mind, I was still thinking about it, working on it a little – not entirely but partly. You know, we go to Yad Vashem periodically, but I suddenly started to go two or three times a week. I realized that it had to do with the end of the manuscript, that I could not complete it without being in the presence of all these faces. First I would look at the terrible scenes and I would wonder: “Could that be my cousin? Could that be my cousin?” And in the end I found that I was coming back just for an hour here, an hour there just to look. Now Yad Vashem shows the most amazing contextual data all through the exhibitions. Years ago they had one slideshow of the ordinary life that was stopped before the war – just people doing ordinary things. And I suddenly found that that slideshow became one of the final images of the manuscript, ultimately leading to my being able to complete the sequence.

So, I never thought of myself as a Holocaust poet. It was just something you grow up knowing and at that point in my life became part of understanding the difference between losing somebody because they are old or have been ill and that hole left in the family due to the Holocaust which is an obliteration – a complete absence not only of the specific people but of what they might have become and the families they might have produced. And that was that.

If people asked me whether I write Holocaust poetry I would say: “No, I don’t really.”
I’ve always wondered about people who were not in the Holocaust who wrote Holocaust poetry. What does it actually mean? There are many, many poems where people talk about the horror; they imagine themselves standing at the pit thinking that they are going to be the next. And I understand where that poetry comes from but I find that the voice doesn’t ring true for me. Like those films about the Holocaust, or those books. You begin to read a story about the Holocaust and my first question is: “Is this fiction? Is this complete fiction or is this fiction based on personal experience? Where does it stand? Is it sort of a way of the author thinking through the horror of the Holocaust but actually was never there?” I’ve never really liked that kind of literature. It has never spoken to me.

FR: If it were the same story and you knew that it was true, would it talk to you in a different way?

SL: Yes, I have hardly read stories that aren’t true. In other words, I’ve always appreciated the stories, the literature about the Holocaust. But I don’t see it as literature in the same way as Dickens, although, Dickens of course was talking about real poverty and real social issues. It wasn’t as if it wasn’t real [laughing], and of course he was talking about his own experience as well.

I always worried that there was something phony about it. And then I wouldn’t allow myself to say that it is phony because it isn’t phony. How can you say that this person’s poetry about Auschwitz is phony because they weren’t in Auschwitz? It is kind of an unfair category. I stand in awe of people who lived through the Holocaust who made poetry or novels about it. Elie Wiesel I understand best, because there is no disguising the fact that he is talking about what happened to him, what he saw. In a sense it is current.

The book that influenced me the most was not by Elie Wiesel, however. It was by André Schwarz-Bart: The Last of the Just.[2] I think it is just an amazing book and it really has made literature out of the Holocaust, I can’t imagine how it happened but it was his experience. I found that incredibly moving – it has always stayed with me.

Being in Israel you read, you see, you hear lots of Holocaust poetry. And I have been involved in evenings of Holocaust poetry and days of commemoration.
As a teacher of poetry and creative writing I often get students who bring in Holocaust poetry. And I don’t look at it as I look at other poetry. I imagine it would be the same as somebody writing about Rwanda, somebody who had been in the massacres. I would help the student hear their voice and try to get further with their poetry. I would be very careful. I mean I’m always careful, but I’d be more careful with those poems because they often don’t sound like poetry. They’re an outpouring, a psychological need, which you understand. And in a way you could say all poetry is that. But you know, the poets we read, like Lorca and Neruda, these are people whose psychological outpourings don’t seem personal or rather they seem both entirely personal and entirely for every person. With this kind of Holocaust poetry you have to be sure to deal with the personality who is writing it and the reason it has been written, as well as the words on the page.

Oh, one other thing, teaching in Israel both in university and in school you are constantly coming across the Holocaust. It’s either parents or grandparents or great-grandparents or survivors themselves. And intellectually, it is something that needs to be contended with. If I ask a student to work on a family story or the ethnography of the family, here would be the Holocaust. Or if we are talking about Palestinians and Israelis, there are many things that we have to understand about each other. One of the things that the Israeli Jewish children are invariably bringing up: “My personal history is the Holocaust.” You look at Israeli society, it binds you, the trauma of the Holocaust binds you, the living force of the Holocaust binds society and shapes society in some way, which has to be understood.

Trip to Lithuania and Poland

So what made the difference for me in terms of poetry? A couple of my wife’s cousins decided that they wanted to go to Lithuania to see where the family lived and died – would we want to go on the trip? Our initial impulse was: “Of course, we don’t want to go.” And the moment we said that, we said to each other: “Of course we’ll be going.” And our three children came, too, which was wonderful.

At some point we realized that Poland or Auschwitz and things related were going to be something that our children would see either with their schools or youth organizations and we had hoped to accompany them on one of these trips. I suppose I grew up thinking that I would go to Auschwitz one day in my life, as representative of ‘The Holocaust’ but I never thought of going to Poland itself. It never occurred to me. My family hated Poland; they hated the Poles. Their experiences were terrible: persecution, pogroms, terror... And they certainly didn’t want to go back there. They didn’t talk about missing anything. So, suddenly this trip came about and here we were now on our way to Lithuania. And then I said to Rivanna: ”Look, this will be a once in a lifetime thing. How would you feel if we also went to Poland? And she said: “Of course.” We were joined in Poland by my sister and her partner.[3]

People call it a roots trip. I don’t like that term. I wasn’t going to find my roots. I knew where they were beforehand and that hasn’t changed. And I wasn’t interested in enlarging in a sense the physical and concrete history. I was interested before I went, just in seeing. I understood that here was an opportunity to actually see Lithuania, to see where Jewish life had been situated - see the sky, smell the air… Go to Poland and see it. It was to understand my grandparents and Rivanna’s family differently, to understand history differently.

Rivanna’s family story was quite different from mine. Rivanna’s father and all of his siblings left before the Holocaust caught up with Lithuania. So, the trip was full of cousins, descendants of parents who had made lives for themselves outside of Lithuania. The grandparents were murdered by Lithuanians during the war, and those relatives who weren’t murdered by the Lithuanians were murdered by the Germans. But we were going to see homes that the older cousins remembered living in. So, it wasn’t just about seeing the places of death, it was also about seeing places of life. That was in a sense the emotional balancing act between being devastated by the absence of Jews, the complete annihilation of Jewish life and the: “But this was where my father lived. This was the windmill he saw every day when he woke up and walked to school.”

Although, Rivanna’s father Zalie was a survivor in as much as his parents were destroyed and all those people in his family that hadn’t got out were killed, he hadn’t lived through the war years in the camps or in hiding. But he lived as a survivor: with guilt, with the inability of ever fully enjoying a day. He used to sit in his garden in Jerusalem and say: “My parents never had this.” And there was silence, because he hardly ever talked about it, the silence of a survivor.

Great Grandmother’s GraveGreat Grandmother’s Grave

In Poland it was different. I did some research and I found some street addresses where my family had lived before the war and where they lived once the Lodz ghetto was created. And I knew which graveyard they were in. My great-grandmother had a tombstone; she died before the war.

The Lodz cemetery also has what they called the “Ghetto Field” which is where the Jews of the ghetto were buried. As you know, very careful lists of things were kept, so even though there are unmarked graves, they know where the people were buried. So I found quite a number of those, great-uncles, great-cousins…

Poems on the trip

As I said, the way I write is, I tend to write as I see. I often get into some kind of space where I’m literally writing as a result of seeing something. I don’t like notebooks but I had to buy one because this was the only way of making sure that anything I might write would be in one place.

I just wrote all the time, wherever I was, in Lithuania and in Poland. It was a journal, but it was a poetry book. So I wrote and wrote and wrote. People were taking photographs. I did take photographs but I was also taking photographs with writing. That was my manuscript, my landscape. I was there occupying that landscape. I had sometimes 20, sometimes 30, sometimes one poem per day. It was intense. And I wrote what I saw and, from that, what I felt. I wrote about the absence of Jewish life, I wrote a bit about Jewish life as it had been, I wrote about the destruction, I described what I saw, the broken graveyards, the broken shoes. But not in terms of: “Here is a destroyed graveyard”. It was much more how these jagged stones fitted into this part of this poem.

And as I said before I write in sequences. I build up a picture. Each poem depends on the next poem. They also stand by themselves as poems but I see the sequence in a sense as one poem. It is about 60 pages long. It’s like one impulse in a way and they refer to each other.

We all collect flowers, so we had lots of pressed flowers from various places. My pockets were full of stones and bits of bricks from various people’s houses, and the poetry talks about that.

I guess… what I realized… I realized many things! One of the things I realized was that although I hadn’t gone looking for roots, I did find what I was looking for. In other words I actually found my family. I always thought that I had my family from the stories that my Mum told and my grandfather told.

But I didn’t really have them. I didn’t have the entire sense of them. And I couldn’t have had that until I saw Poland because it was no longer a place to be shunned, a place to be hated. It was a real place with real people, real topography, real flowers, real sun, rain. And it was where my genes had lived. I could see how close I was to these people. They were no longer part of my family’s legend if you like. They were really close to me. But I could also see that in fact I had grown up very close to them. And it just seemed like the most natural thing to go back to Lodz. It felt known to me. Pieces of an emotional jigsaw fell into place. It was like finding parts of myself I hadn’t known were missing. I think I know myself pretty well. So it was quite astounding to find all these bits out there that I had to integrate, that I had to welcome. But I also felt that I was embracing the family. Saying kaddish in all of the places where we found them and found their graves. I felt we were gathering them in and enabling them to come home with us. I’m sure these are not unusual feelings [laughing] but here it was me. It was the first time I felt them, the family I had thought would always be absent. So suddenly, they were no longer absent. I know where they lived. I could see that was their window.

The other thing that happened was that I wanted to come home and do nothing but learn about the Holocaust. I realized in a way it was an abyss you could fall into, and I had possibly carefully avoided being drawn into it.

Now, I just wanted to read everything there was to read about it and to know as much as I could. It’s too late to start that because the sources are dead – at least from my part of the family – and then to realize that perhaps it doesn’t matter. It would have been nice to start 20 years ago. But I hadn’t.
And I also felt that perhaps I had been misguided in the focus of my PhD, which was on English folk drama.

I’m a really good folklorist. I know how to collect stories. I know how to make sense of what people tell me, the relationship between themselves and the current events they lived through, the physical land that they lived on. I am really good at it. And I suddenly felt quite sad that I hadn’t given my people the benefit of my own skills. It’s true I learned them over the years but I did my PhD because I loved the stories my family told and I like ethnography, so I could have easily done it on…

And then as with all things, I found it very difficult to move back into my everyday life. I didn’t want to leave that. In fact, I really wanted to go back to Lodz and spend three or four months walking the boundaries of the ghetto, walking inside, reading all the books that had been written about it, but from a being-there point of view, and thinking, you know, just thinking. And maybe the Jewish community needed some kind of help that I could offer. I can’t imagine that they would, because they are orthodox and I am not, so I wouldn’t have been able to offer them that kind of help. But who knows.

But you know, you have your own life. So I didn’t have the time to immerse myself in while these experiences were fresh. Many writers and artists don’t lead a life with families and jobs. Many of them lead a much more isolated life. So if they find themselves in a place where there are the most amazing sunflowers, they might spend four, five months just painting the sunflowers. But I was unable to do this.

Then the question is: Do I consider myself a Holocaust writer. And the answer is: No, I don’t. I consider myself somebody who writes about my experience. This was my experience. My feelings about the Holocaust found voice the moment I had my own experience. Without my experience I wouldn’t have tried to go any further than I went. I might have waited more, but I still wouldn’t have moved closer to something I could write about. I have to write about things I have seen. I don’t usually write about other people’s experiences, as moving as they are. I don’t. It’s not what I write about. So I wouldn’t consider myself a Holocaust writer. But I would consider myself as somebody who has written about the Holocaust in terms of going back, coming to terms with the absence, understanding what it means, how it worked, in terms of realizing – and this is a good thing – just how close I am to those people who died.

FR: You said earlier that your poems come in sequences and belong together. I would like to know in which way the three poems belong together and what they refer to.

SL: It’s not that these three form a group in themselves. It’s a question. When you see that you have written a sequence, one of the first questions is: Do you keep to the sequence, the timeframe in which you wrote them, so they work according to the chronological order in which you’ve written them or is that order irrelevant? Those are the two extremes: that you leave it in the order; or that you juggle the manuscript up and place the poems wherever you think they fit, so there is a different organizing principle. Given the way the mind works, it’s conceivable that you write poems that begin in the beginning later on because one thing releases another and then you kind of go back. In any case you’re always going to do a bit of chopping and changing. These poems I left more or less according to the time-line of the journey. I might have written something about Majdanek a month after having gone there but I would probably place the poem at that point in the journey when we went to Majdanek. That’s the basic way this one works. And there are some poems, which are larger commentary poems. Those I don’t necessarily put according to chronology, I would put them where I need that wider view.

FR: Tell me about the three poems and the creation process behind them. What are the themes in them?

SL: This is called Landscape With Hunters In A Barn. The title comes from the Bruegel[4] painting The Hunters in the Snow. Three men are standing on a hill. And you can see they have been hunting. You see their spears, their pack of dogs and also people skating on ponds in their village below. There is that terribly foreboding sense of people dealing with life and death. They are bringing life because they are bringing food, but they also bring death in these dead things hanging from rope around their backs. It’s the snow, and yet it’s dark. And that’s what Bruegel was talking about: the physical hardships and struggles within life, against the free beauty of people playing. So there is all of that. I can’t remember why I was thinking about that painting in particular, but I suppose I was.

The barn is a synagogue; it’s a shul. We got to this place in Lithuania, got out of the bus and the guide received the key from an elderly Russian-Lithuanian woman. We entered and it turned out to be a shul, just slats of wood with the light coming through and a bare mud floor. You could see the alcove where the Aron Hakodesh had been. But there was nothing in there other than the feel of it to tell you that it was a shul. I don’t know if it had been painted. Nothing was there.

It was both marvelous and shocking. It was one of those real physical images, not of destruction because it was standing, but of what humanity offers to places it inhabits, understood through what has been taken away. It was somewhat beautiful in a way that a derelict building can be beautiful. I remember standing there repeating: “We have to sing, we have to sing.” So we started singing Adon Olam. And it had acoustics; after all it’s a shul. And for a moment it was full of living praise within the light pouring through…

Ziezmariai SynagogueZiezmariai Synagogue

I didn’t actually say any of this in the poem. But that is where the poem came from. There is a difference between the story told and the poem, always. In poetry readings I often tell the ‘story’ of the poem but don’t consider the stories to be part of the published poetry. My vision for this manuscript is to publish the poems with the stories going around the text, as Rabbinic commentary surrounds the relevant Biblical text, together with some of the images/photographs.




Landscape With Hunters In A Barn

The story of a coming
told in the way the wood no longer keeps
the sun out nor the warmth in
the rain from filling the gaping alcove facing Jerusalem
the mud floor retaining no impression of tile or footstep
key in the lap of a Russian Lithuanian
who may or may not recollect real Jews
pressing it into her hand
as they were marched against a fantasy of return.

The story of a coming. It’s the story of us coming to find, but it’s also the story about the hunters coming, the hunters who came to kill and destroy. So, there is this woman who held the key. I don’t know how young she was when the annihilation happened but she had been entrusted with the key, I think, as a teenager. I don’t know if I was told this or if I imagined it - she saw the Jews being taken out of the village, they gave her the key to look after until they return. That was the fantasy – the idea of return.

So that’s that poem. I wrote it on the spot. Some of these poems have changed a lot with the editing process. They have to change because they settle in with each other. One might say a bit of what another one says. You write them as individual poems so they have to say it all. And then you have to learn how to take things out. But by and large these are quite similar to what they were.

Ramygola cemetery

Ramygola cemetery is in the community where my wife Rivanna’s father, Zalie, grew up. It was one of those beautiful overgrown cemeteries full of flowers. But in terms of the way that people respect their dead it was shocking because no one was looking after it. The stones were crooked. There was moss growing all over. On the one hand it was really quite beautiful, on the other hand you might be the kind of person who’d say: “But no one is looking after that. We need to clean it. We need to straighten everything. The stones need to look fresh and new.”

One of Rivanna’s cousins has a grave cleaning kit. Whenever he goes abroad he goes to a Jewish cemetery, chooses one overgrown grave and cleans the stone so the name can be seen, because you can’t say kaddish if you can’t see the name. In that situation you can say kaddish for people who you don’t know. He would never have the time to clean a whole graveyard. But it is said: “If you bless one name you bless them all.”

Ramygola Cemetery

i

shaded by trees
no flowers
with an undergrowth
of green on green on green

ii

bringing names
from stone
into the mouths
of those who
assure them
you are not alone

Over Lithuania-Poland

I have a poem that I wrote on a plane, when I was on my way from Ireland to America. I’m looking at the nice little farms and fields in Ireland, thinking to myself: “How beautiful!” And then I was thinking: “But Israel and the Middle East also look beautiful from a plane.” And in the poem I say it’s like Ireland, which looks beautiful, but it’s actually full of this terrible violence that people do to each other.
So this poem actually refers to that poem.

Over Lithuania-Poland

journeying through
sheep wool of clouds
you’d never know
what went on down there
some sixty years ago
the way the forests rang
with rifle shots
and wild strawberries
turned red in every season

I think it speaks for itself. We kept saying to ourselves: “But these forests are so beautiful!” It was really one of the most terrible things. You would get to these exquisite places in nature, and then there would be one of those killing pits. Sometimes there were signs; sometimes there weren’t. In Poland and Lithuania the signs were quite ambiguous. They would talk about Jewish martyrs of the Second World War, Jewish partisans, or Partisans and in brackets: “Some were Jewish”. You go to this place: a pit full only of Jews.

My father’s family came from two shtetls. My father’s mother’s family came from a place called Lukowa – a textile center. And I’d heard that there was one of those places of mass killing in a forest that was hard to find. A guide had given us instructions over the phone and we ended up driving around these forest fields. We saw some Polish guys playing around with cars. You know, our experiences of people in Poland had not been very nice so far. People weren’t delighted to see us. They could see that we were a bunch of Jews coming back to look at homes. What did that mean? Outside what had been the home of one of my mother’s cousins a man approached and screamed: “This is a Polish home, not a Jewish home”. And there were swastikas all over the walls of Pinczow (where my father’s father came from) which had something to do with football. One team would call the opposition “the Jews”, invading their territory to paint swastikas with people hanging from them.

So there were these guys and we asked them about the killing pit. They looked up and asked: “Żyd?” – the Polish word for Jew. One of them got into his car and took us through the fields into the forest to what turned out to be a well-known beauty spot. There were people coming in and passing by all the time. But they all knew, as well, that it was a place of massacre. It was very interesting. We had a conversation. Some of us felt: Nobody should come for a picnic here! They should come to see it, they should offer their sadness or apologies or to say kaddish and then they should leave. It should not be a place that you come to as a beauty spot. I felt completely differently. I was pleased to think that people came to it as a beauty spot. In fact they knew what it was. They didn’t eat their picnics on the graves. Everybody in that area knew that this had been the place where the Jews were killed. Maybe they felt guilty, maybe they didn’t. But it’s not about guilt. It doesn’t have to be about guilt. It is about acknowledgement. I think the people that need to feel guilty should feel guilty, but the people who don’t have to feel guilty don’t have to feel guilty. There are generations that came after the people who did the atrocities. They don’t have to feel guilty. They should acknowledge what their parents and grandparents did, but they shouldn’t feel guilty. The acknowledgement is what’s important to me. I tell this because it was just stunningly beautiful.

Lukowa

1
contemporary stalls and museum wall
synagogues under lawyers’ feet
unslabbed ground
criss crossed by woodland paths
trysting bowers and berry good times
fronted by a crumbling pyramid of gravestones
erected for Jewish partisans and victims
representing that in this space
the once upon a time
six thousand Jewish citizens
laid to rest their natural dead.

2
We sand and scrape until
Lo and behold
Miriam Bat Maya Menachem Zion
daughter/wife
calls to those foot and hungry
deep within the forest
lying between the silver wraiths
they came, they came – we have been named

Lukowa CemeteryLukowa Cemetery

FR: So, all of the poems were written in Lithuania and Poland or shortly afterwards?

SL: A couple were written before and a few have been written since. The last poem was written much later. It came to me after a conversation with the grandchild of a Nazi and a visit to the museum beneath the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.

FR: What do you mean as an end? To finish with the theme of the Holocaust?

SL: No, just as a final poem to this manuscript.

FR: So, you do continue writing about the Holocaust. But have you actually written other poems about the Holocaust that are not connected to the trip?

SL: Only those I told you about at the beginning of the interview and an earlier poem that lists some of the camps. The poems in this manuscript are specific to what we saw on the trip. For example this one is about Majdanek. As I said, we would take things that we found along the way to keep and sometimes to put on a family grave here in Israel.

Wake Up Call

1
Getting ready for Majdanek
shaving, brushing hair etc
in the mirror of homes
and former homes
possible homes
and former possible homes
ghettos deport stations
killing fields and pits
and yet
how to prepare for this next visit?

2
As I put on
an easy to wear shirt
I think distractedly
Pink is the colour of healing.

3
Leave all the stones where they lie
leave the grass, wildflowers and butterfly
see the place without its active pain
just savaged hearts remain.

It’s not an actual description of Majdanek. There are enough descriptions. I show photographs when I read these poems. I have got a slideshow, which goes with it. But I don’t show pictures of the atrocities.

It begins with the idea of going there at all. Doing the ordinary things to get ready for the day. I’m looking into the mirror, but what I’m now seeing is not just ordinary Simon. I’m seeing all of the homes that we found, and all of the former homes and the possible homes (because we weren’t sure about some of the homes: Is this it or is it that one?). All these things were in a sense what I am seeing in my face. And yet how to prepare for this next visit because for sure it was going to be worse than anything we’d seen before. That was absence; this was the presence of pure evil. And I really did choose a shirt and then I noticed that it was pink.

And the voice, the musicality in the poem changes, so that the last verse has a rhyme scheme and is lyrical. But what’s being said is, I’m talking about the horror. That’s the point where the poem becomes lyrical. To sort of go against what’s actually happening in terms of the picture. I’m not describing anything horrific. Leave all the stones where they lie… comes from my wondering which stone to take and then realizing how I cannot bear to possess anything that comes from Majdanek, seeing the places of active savage pain is enough.

Thus Original Shalom Ends Up In The Earth

Unmarked Graves, Lodz CemeteryUnmarked Graves, Lodz Cemetery

And sometimes it’s the process of discovery; sometimes it’s specific to the family. I began writing this poem at my great-grandfather’s grave. You know my ‘Hebrew’ name is Shalom after my great-grandfather who died of starvation or pneumonia in the Lodz ghetto. It’s unclear; there are different stories about how he died. Moshe is my mother’s first cousin who escaped the Lodz ghetto. According to the family’s story he was one of the ‘street urchins’ who used to slip out at night in order to bring food back. One day the older people said to these kids: “Don’t come back with food. We’re going to fight the Germans and we’re not going to win. We’ll all be killed.” He joined the partisans in the forest and made his way to Palestine when the war ended. In the early sixties my grandfather read the letter, quoted in the poem, in the Jewish Chronicle in London. His brother Nachum had died when he was about ten, and Moshe, a few years older, buries his brother in the unmarked grave. We found that grave. The only other cousin to survive lived through Auschwitz. She never spoke about it. My grandfather had gone back to Lodz with his wife in the 1930’s and offered to bring the rest of the family out of Poland but they felt too settled to leave. He became senile at the end of his life and one of the few clear refrains of his rambling was: Mind you I begged my old Dad, I begged him.

Thus Original Shalom Ends Up In The Earth

i
but we do not know what laid him there
ninety five starvations
eighty six lung-saturations
Mind you I begged my old Dad
who believed he could not leave
as himself or someone else
Son-In-Law Menachem for example
shot while helping a stumbled almost mother

ii
next to the tiny Nachum
buried by his past-Barmitzvah brother
straight because they liked their order
not too deep as they didn’t allow much time
lovingly for no one could disassemble that

iii
who climbed a wall one night
advised to not bring back food
for there would be a losing battle
slipped in with forest fighters
followed paths towards Jerusalem
(unhelped by the other lived-through cousin
who never told what she forever saw)
sent a letter to the Jewish Chronicle
If Aaron Yitzchak Gabrielov is reading this
know that your nephew Moshe
lives in Petach Tiqveh with his wife and children…

In 1970, at the age of seventy eight my grandfather came to live in the Hassidishe community of Petach Tiqveh next to Moshe and his family. We are each other’s only cousins within the extended family and we remain very close.

I would like to thank Dr. Simon Lichman for sharing his time, his thoughts, feelings, his insights and poems with me and for allowing us to read and use his poems. We also thank the Lichman family for allowing us to include their personal photographs.


[1] Jonathan, Magonet (editor): European Judaism. A Journal for the New Europe. Volume 44, Issue 2, 2011.
[2] André Schwarz-Bart: The Last of the Just. First published in English by Atheneum in 1960.
[3] Dr. Simon Lichman would like to thank his guides in Lithuania and Lodz, Yulik Gurvitch and Anna Pai respectively.
[4] Referring to Pieter Bruegel the Elder and to his painting The Hunters in the Snow. http://www.artchive.com/artchive/B/bruegel.html.