“Auschwitz I & II” by Farah Peterson

Farah Peterson


My group arrived after the site had closed 
So our guides put on Shoah and made plans for the morning
But I insisted I wanted to see what we had come for 
I don’t know why, the monstrosities could have waited
I just didn’t like being cooped up and besides
The ovens were easy enough to find
Simply follow the train tracks, that’s where they led
What the trains were for. The men insisted I take a man with me
I thought the man who came with me a fool 
And so I asked for silence, and then chafed
At walking in tandem where I wanted to walk alone
Chafed that this natterer, impressed by silence, 
Was having a profound experience at my side
But I became glad to have him there
Seeing the isolation of the route
Its graffiti and the abandoned bottles 
Showing where young men, I assumed, had congregated 
This was, after all, a place where people were born, 
Grew up in the same home as their fathers’ fathers, and went to school 
And either escaped or fell to the ruin of small town life
In such a town! When we arrived at the end of the line 
We entered and, not knowing how to mark the occasion, 
I laid a hand on one of the hulking kilns, and thought a prayer
Interrupted by a plainclothes officer
Who emerged and told us first in Polish and then in English
That we would have to leave
His whole body soft, his tone, apologetic
But firm, and we signaled we understood.
He watched us away and I wondered what must it be like
To man that post just waiting for the crazies
Who come in silence or in celebration
Violent or weeping to those humble hillocks
The guard was, no doubt, one of those boys from town
Maybe even had wondered as a youngster 
Whether the chambers’ roofs would make for good winter sledding 
I was reminded of my own time as a museum guard
Telling patrons, “don’t touch the art”
(Although they knew that, they always waited to be told)
The paintings became as familiar as my own furniture
And after a while I looked on them no more
But still I had the sense they looked on me
And now, I cannot open a book of art
Without lingering long over familiar works 
Yes, I would recognize those faces anywhere.

We went to Auschwitz II a few days later
And after a brief guided tour of dormitories
Where local schoolchildren had scrawled, as children do
“Moritz waz here” and other little slogans
We walked a bit of the perimeter together,
Our guide explaining how the barbed wire was regularly replaced
By volunteers from Volkswagen corporation
(Because rusted barbed wire will quickly fall apart)
My eye then caught on every piece of shiny silver
And my mind cluttered with thoughts of those young men 
And women working, perhaps as their grandfathers had done
To repair a line of fence precisely here
It is something I do not think that I could do
And I was also struck, when the tour had ended,
And I was ambling round the site
At what a pretty day we had chosen for our visit
There is a picture taken by a murdered inmate
With a camera that he then buried for posterity
Of the Nazis stacking bodies under the trees
Men and women murdered in the open 
And in haste as the war was ending
I walked there, under the lacey birches, by a pond
The greenery and sunlight and the breeze teasing me 
With animal comforts in the midst of human horror
Seducing my attention from the grave.
I thought, it’s wrong all this time I have been wondering
How can God be good if bad things happen
The answer is simply: I will have God good
Because I refuse to spend all my light on despair
Though evil slaps me in the face!
And this Auschwitz resolution has helped me some
In thinking over my own losses, but only some.
I was a distracted visitor but then
For almost a year after, a low brick building 
Or a train track would undo me. And I had nightmares, too
About what I had not avoided seeing there
Even through the fog of my experience.

from Rattle #61, Fall 2018
Tribute to First Publication


Farah Peterson: “As a historian, I am in the business of telling public stories. Now and then a private story emerges as well.” (web)

Rattle Logo