May-September 2015 Edition RSS feed for this section

“Havana Honeymoon” by Jean Colonomos

Jean Colonomos is a former member of the Martha Graham Dance Company and a former freelance dance journalist who wrote for publications such as Dance Magazine and The Village Voice.  Her award-winning play, Black Dawn, is based on psychogenic blindness many Cambodian women suffered in the wake of Pol Pot’s Cambodian genocide.  

In January, 1959, Fidel Castro overthrew the American-supported Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Batista, and installed a Marxist government. At this time President Eisenhower still maintained diplomatic relations with Cuba.

When my then finance and I planned our Cuban honeymoon, my great aunt Mary, who lived in Havana, told us life was proceeding as usual under Castro. At that point, he was still setting up his new government.

It’s early July, 1959 and we are a ridiculously happy honeymoon couple strolling down the seafront gem, the Malecon. This “we” consists of a nineteen-and-a-half-year-old ex-ballerina who’s a French major going into her junior year at Hofstra, a commuter college on Long Island, and a twenty-two-year-old Colombian who just graduated Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as an electrical engineer. We are insanely proud of having withstood a three-and-a-half year courtship when for a time my parents wouldn’t let me see my beloved. They thought we were sleeping together and it took time to convince them we weren’t. Even though we were. And they never wanted me to marry so young. Two reasons that made me want to escape my house. 

We’re honeymooning in Havana, courtesy of my Cuban Aunt Elvira’s mother, Great Aunt Mary, who lives here most of the year except for the brutally humid summers when she visits her daughter in Roslyn, Long Island. The Havana apartment comes with a housekeeper who’s been taking care of the family for years and who my Bogotano husband jabbers with incessantly. He asks Modesta what she thinks about the new Cuba; she answers it’s too soon to tell.

Our first few days, despite the steaming heat, we’re intrepid tourists pounding the streets, hopping on buses, shopping in open markets and eating new foods. The Cubans we meet on the bus want to adopt my Colombian husband: they adore his pristine accent – and me, his gringa sidekick. Sweating non-stop by noon, we return to the humid apartment with a ceiling fan to cool us off. It doesn’t. When we turn on the television, Fidel Castro, who’s been in power five months, rants twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. How does he do it, we wonder? What about sleep?

My husband and I abandon sightseeing. We escape to the air-conditioned Hotel Nacional that’s now empty since dictator Batista fled. They say these big hotels were run by the Mafia, who’ve been kicked out. Though outside it’s burning daylight, inside the Nacional it’s an enveloping, black-velvet night. The days we visit we notice three men gambling. One white-haired gentleman at the blackjack table looks as if rigor mortis has set in.

My darling marido and I flee to Varadero, a pristine, white-sand beach on the Caribbean. We’re finally in honeymoon heaven. Our hotel is simple and clean, we can walk out the door and step into the gentle, bathtub ocean water so clear we can see the veins in our feet. Our meals consist mostly of fresh fish, rice, beans and plantains. The cooked bananas are new for me and I love their sweet bite. At night after we make love, we fall asleep to the men playing dominos below our balcony. The sounds of them tapping the domino twice against the table before playing it soothes us.  

After five blissful days, we return to Havana and what happens next dictates our departure. Re-entering the city, we notice rebel soldiers we haven’t seen before, stopping cars at gunpoint to collect contributions to Castro’s Reforma Agraria. The soldier who points his rifle into our car is barely fifteen, I’d guess by the sparse hairs on his baby-face skin. It’s the first time we feel the oppression of Fidel’s regime up close. We donate and get out of there.

At the apartment my husband tells Modesta we’re going to Mexico City the day after tomorrow. My husband’s parents are there, so our honeymoon is now a family affair. I like his parents but they’re skeptical about me. They’re Holocaust survivors who’d hoped their son would return to Bogota, but he sees his future in America. At least I’m Jewish, which is a plus in their eyes. And I’ll take care of their son, the tall husband next to me with a lilting foreign accent, whom I love.

“Jackson Pollack’s Strokes” and “60” by Mitchell Grabois


At midnight, Jackson Pollack went to my mother’s gated community in Boca Raton, Florida and dripped paint on her driveway and on the driveways of many other residents. At dawn, when the old Jewish ladies went to the curb to retrieve their garbage cans, they witnessed what had been done. Dozens died instantly from heart attacks and strokes.


Nanci’s back on chemo, trying to keep the tumor down so she can attend her only daughter’s wedding. By force of will, Nanci’s already a month past the two weeks her doctor “gave her.” The days go by like a mountain of sand pushed by a bulldozer in a beach replenishment project.


The black men stink of pesticide. They’ve been on a Southern road gang. This is, after all, the Deep South, how deep you can never even guess. The ghosts of the brutal past animate the present as the ghosts of our brutal present animate the future. The black men have been chopping brush, spraying poison. The blacker they are the more poison they absorb. The blackest die first.

The roadway is not asphalt, but the bodies of Doberman Pinschers laid side by side, their dead bodies recruited from junk yards from Mobile to Apalachicola, Galveston to Jax. The highway is the bodies of Dobermans, and the bodies of black men with huge blue muscles, reeking of pesticide. Sometimes all the Dobermans come back to life. They spring at the black men’s throats. They engage in pitched battles, apes versus wolves, as it was back in the day. Do you see why I have so much trouble traveling with all this roiling around me? I tremble to get on a bus with the image of a stretched Doberman on its side.

I climb into the belly of the beast and commingle with blue toilet disinfectant and xombies travelling en masse to the next xombie jamboree. Please, mister, give me a ride in your white Cadillac, with fins like an angel’s wings. My race is nearly run, and I prefer to fly in the clouds with your drunken hand between my legs, and your clothes dirty and rough.




I want to take a roots tour with my friend Abbas. An Armenian, his name means cruel, dreadful, pugnacious, and many people see him that way. They never experience his soft center. It is like some kind of candy. But he keeps shutting me down. The women in Armenia are dark and hairy like spiders, he says, and I’m afraid of spiders.

I’ve seen some beautiful Armenian women, I argue. Your sister is a beautiful woman.

My name is Vlad, which is also off-putting. It conjures Vlad the Impaler, but Vlad is not an uncommon name in Moldova. Abbas says that they’re so poor in Moldova that they cut out their own organs and sell them.

After he left his wife, Abbas hooked up with a biker babe. She gets on top and does all the work, he tells me. He doesn’t want to mess up a good thing, going halfway around the world to consort with spiders and vampires. He hurts my feelings when he uses the word “vampires.” In the morning we go back to work in the popcorn factory and talk about other things.


This is a dove, I think. I’ve never been good at bird identification. That’s funny, now that I’ve been laid off from the popcorn factory, and my new job is picking up dead birds killed by the windmills’ spinning blades. There are 60 windmills in this “wind farm,” lots of dead birds.

I think I might get a book. I mean, I can tell an eagle from a sparrow, but is that really a sparrow lying there with his neck broke, or a wren? It would be respectful to the dead to know.

I never studied much in school, and I left after the eighth grade. It was too hard for my dad to get me to town, to the high school. I was happy to be on the farm, but in the end I couldn’t keep farming, not enough land, not enough money for new equipment. There’s only so much repair you can do until you’re done. Everything literally falls apart. That’s how I ended up with a job at the popcorn factory. That’s how I ended up with a job like this, collecting dead birds. Abbas still works in the popcorn factory. The boss is Armenian.

I don’t need much money. The farmhouse and land was paid off long ago. I have a well, so my utilities are minimal. I don’t leave the lights on. My mom taught me that. I don’t have a wife, no car payment. I fix my own truck, no problem. ’55 Chevy’s are easy, no computers or nothing, and I have spare parts in the barn.

I like this job because no one bothers me. I drive my pick-up around the township. Even as a kid I liked the how the township looks in different seasons, and I like the cold. The colder the better, as far as I’m concerned.

Birds are pretty in death, unlike humans who are just spooky and grey. Keep that casket closed, Jack! I once stood at a casket and studied my uncle Kep, studied him the way I’d never studied in school. I couldn’t take my eyes off him, my favorite uncle, always telling lame jokes. Afterward I felt sick for a week, lost about ten pounds, couldn’t keep a thing down. But Audubon discovered long ago that dead birds are pretty. He killed a lot of them to make paintings. I have a few of them on my walls I got in a yard sale. I had them on my walls even before I got this job. Funny, isn’t it, how we prepare ourselves for our fates without even knowing it?

“The Last Thing I Stole” by Joanna McMillen

The first thing I stole was a taste. I swiped the little, yellow cookie from the highest tier of the silver tray and absconded away to the pantry.

The voice screamed, Not yours!

Lemon decadence crisped against my teeth as my mouth met a middle soft and sweet. Macaroon, how have I lived never tasting you?

The second thing I stole was a walk. My breath caught in my chest when I slipped on the boots from the box that read, from Paris. The zipper sang up my calf.  Zzzzzz.

The voice called, Not yours.

I strolled through her dressing room. I’m not just a maid when I’m wearing these.  I shake my head and put them back.

The third thing I stole was a glimpse. I found the necklace under a cushion. It sparkled and shone. 

Not yours, the voice said.

The chain felt cold on my neck and the green gemstone glittered in her mirror from the hollow spot between my breasts.  Maybe, I don’t put it back. Maybe, I go home.

My key, in the door of my building, squeals as I wrench it. No mail. One flight. Two flights. Three flights of stairs and I open the door to my studio apartment.  The cat meows.  The radiator knocks. There was a time when I loved it here. I never knew how poor I was until I saw how rich I wasn’t. I touch my prize.

I strip. Even naked, I’m beautiful wearing it. I shower. I put on makeup so that I’ll look different, lace panties so I’ll know they’re there even if no one gets to see them, a short skirt so I’ll feel the wind on my legs, and heels so I’ll hear them crack against the pavement. I’m out the door.

The bridges of the city greets me. The street lights are bright but the neon martini glass shaped sign flickers. I wait and then fight for a seat at the bar.  A cold, wet bottle moistens the tips of my fingers. I take a sip. Disappointing. Empty wine bottles, banging together through their translucent, blue recycling bags, ring in my ears. I remember reading the labels as I drug the bags outside to the trash.  Merlot. Not yours.

Chardonnay.  Not yours. Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir.  Not yours, not yours, not yours. 

Hey,” someone says. I turn. It’s him. Next to me at the bar, it’s Him. He’s never looked like this.  I’ve washed his clothes, cleaned his toilet, listened to her complain about him but, to me, he’s never looked like this. His green eyes fall to the necklace. I gasp and cover it with my hands. I’m in trouble. He smiles and brings his finger up to his puckered lips. He won’t tell her. He touches my hand, kisses my neck, touches my knee, and touches me. I look into his face, grab his oddly perfect and thick, dark hair.

Not yours, the voice whispers.

I say back, but he could be. Maybe, the last thing I’ll steal is you.

But…I didn’t. I don’t. I lay the cushion down, put the necklace on her dresser, and I really go home.

I strip. I shower. I put on lotion so I will feel smooth, soft pants so I’ll feel free, and socks so I can slide across the slick wooden floor.  The tea kettle whistles. I pour and I steep. I wrap my cold fingers around the hot porcelain cup and sink into a chair. The cat jumps in my lap and purrs. I open my worn journal, touch pen tip to page, and smile. Mine, I say. Mine.

The last thing I steal is me.

Louis Daniel Brodsky’s NEW GERMANIA

The great poet Louis Daniel Brodsky passed away in June 2014. Aside from 83 volumes of poetry, he authored William Faulkner, Life Glimpses (University of Texas Press, 1990), shared his Faulkner scholarship in publications such as Faulkner JournalSouthern Review and Studies in Bibliography, co-edited several bibliographical works about Faulkner, amassed the largest Faulkner-materials collection in the world (before giving it to Southeast Missouri State University) and penned over a dozen prose collections.

I want to sustain part of L.D’s artistic spirit by sharing some of his works with others, so I plan on featuring selections here in the Tea periodically. Here is an unpublished 18-page poetry suite that Brodsky completed in the summer of 2012. The suite is called New Germania, and it chronicles his visit to Berlin. 

After previewing the work, I wrote this to him: “First of all, I have to say that this suite is further validation of how I think, or, rather, how I can’t help but process experience. There are layers and layers of meaning and historical strata under everything – especially places that have been spiritually scarred by true man-made catastrophes. It didn’t seem as if you’d toured modern-day Berlin. You broke the illusory time barrier and walked through swastika-shadowed streets.  And those three stones you took from the former concentration camp might as well have been there, in the same position you found them, when inmates shuffled toward their unsung dooms.  In a sense, you liberated those stones from their damnation. They are no longer part of that haunted earth. I needn’t go into how symbolic and mystical stones are, or the context of stacking stones on Jewish graves (as seen at the end of Schindler’s List), but I’m reminded of what Rabbi Yose wrote: ‘[Foundation Stone] stands over the abyss.'” I hope you enjoy these poems even a fraction as much as I did.


I. Street of the Dead

We take a four-hour walking tour, from the Hotel Adlon,
Easterly, along Unter den Linden,
Past Humboldt University, the statue of Frederick the Great,
Beyond the Bebelplatz, where, in 1933,
On orders from Nazi propaganda minister Goebbels,
Students and professors from the university across the street
Burned twenty thousand books deemed verboten,
Past the island of five museums, the Berlin Cathedral,
And eventually to the Alte Synagoge’s empty lot,
Then on to the oldest Jewish cemetery in the city,
On Grosse Hamburger Straβe,
Which has come to be known as the Street of the Dead.

On this peaceful side street in Spandauer Tor,
Viennese Schutzjuden settled, in the late 1600s,
And soon allocated a sacrosanct space, for a cemetery,
Where they’d bury almost three thousand of their dead,
Until, by the 1820s, they’d filled it up.
Later, they built a Jewish boys’ school and old-age home,
Both of which, during the 1940s,
The Gestapo converted to internment centers to hold Jews
Before trucking them to Grunewald, for deportation;
They also converted the cemetery,
Desecrating its gravestones and appropriating the land,
For an underground air-raid shelter.

The two of us linger, beneath a convenient tree,
Meditating on the graves, which are nowhere to be found,
Not even in the air, which, as we stare into the sky,
Turns suddenly cool, begins to swirl, ever so briefly,
Into a gentle drizzle that lasts less than five minutes.
Standing in the leafy shadows of this tree,
We listen to myriad whispers awakening from the earth,
Lifting into the merciful isolation of this side street,
Where, once again, a Jewish school is in session.
As we leave, we hear the girls and boys at recess,
Wiling away their hours, days, generation,
As if nothing will ever disturb the equanimity of their play.



II. Reichstag-Rooftop Lunch

Our first full morning in Berlin begins with us standing in Pariser Platz,
At the symbolic heart of the nation:
The Brandenburg Gate, close by the Reichstag,
That restored avatar of unified and reunified Germany,
Before whose monumental grandeur we’ll end up, four hours later,
Just in time for our precisely scheduled 1:30 lunch, atop its roof,
In the Käfer restaurant, where we’ll have a 180-degree panoramic view —
Semblances, traces, shimmers of the sights we’ll have visited.

Neither our legs nor eyes realize that those four hours have now passed,
Yet here we are, at the Reichstagsgebäude,
Surrendering our American passports, to an armed female security guard
Stationed in a hut by the driveway leading up to the front entrance —
That marble-stepped staircase I’ve so often seen depicted in movies,
To whose base shiny black-enameled Mercedes-Benzes, with tops down,
Delivered  Nazi military and diplomatic dignitaries,
Sitting in stiff-backed solemnity, in their ribbon-bedecked uniforms,
Those mythic stick-figure gods, legendary heroes, epic representatives
Of the greatest nation ever to have anointed itself savior of mankind . . .

An armed female security guard, who looks at us suspiciously,
As she scans our faces, for an exact resemblance to our photographs,
Before methodically checking our first, middle, and last names
Against her multipaged list of visitors who’ve made reservations
To enter the dome as well as those who’ve paid the high price
For the privilege of dining in the hallowed confines of this historic place,
Whose Neo-Baroque shell is all that remains of the original building.
Checked, vetted, determined not to be enemies of the state,
We’re discharged from the makeshift security hut,
Made to wait, by the driveway, for the next pair of guards,
Who escort us up the stairs, through two sets of sliding doors,
Observed by other guards, who scutinizingly approve our status,
Free us into the foyer, signal us to line up, again,
Submit our names, so that they might be checked, again,
Ensure that we’re being shunted in the correct direction —
Parliament chambers, dome, rooftop restaurant —

Where, again, we wait, this time for a cattle-car-sized elevator
To descend, disgorge its captive passengers,
Make room for our obedient group — no fewer than fifty of us,
Pressed, now, so tightly against one another
That even breathing is rendered self-conscious, difficult, thick,
For the seemingly interminable seconds the glassed-in cage takes
To arrive at roof level, where, at the behest of yet another guard,
We step out, gasp for a few fresh breaths,
Before walking several paces, to the guest-information desk,
Where the two of us ask about the location of the restaurant . . .
“We have a 1:30 reservation for lunch,” I hesitatingly state.

Once inside the Käfer dining room,
Our credentials are checked, for the fifth and final time,
By an efficient hostess, who seats us close to the tall windows.
Chilled tomato soup with shreds of basil, green salads,
And dark, thick-crusted, grainy bread, with olive oil, for dipping,
Gratify our appetites, allow us to relax for an hour and a half,
Scan the city’s skyscape, contemplate its ubiquitous tower cranes
Everywhere turning, turning, their pulleys straining soundlessly,
As they raise the new Berlin, piece by piece by piece,
From the dust- and debris-encrusted memories of seven decades.

Soon, all that’s left of our adventurous lunch
Is the fifty-person cattle-car elevator descent to the ground floor,

Past the two sets of sliding doors
Monitored by armed guards behind glass,
Down the marble stairs, to the driveway,
Past the pair of guards located behind the security hut,
Down the ramps that lead into Platz der Republik,
And the short walk back, along the Spree River,
Past the four daringly modern glass-and-stone buildings
Housing the Bundestag and federal-government offices —
Bulwarks against the resurrection of fascism, race hatred, genocide —
Until we’re standing, again, in the Pariser Platz,
Then in the lobby of the Hotel Adlon, on Unter den Linden,
Then home again, in our suite, staring out at the crowds
Milling beneath the iconic aura of the Quadriga,
Which surmounts the Brandenburg Gate,
Both of us overcome by a compelling need for a brief respite
From the gravity of the last seventy years checking on us.



III. After the Aftermath

Today’s Berlin
Is the calm after the Nazi storm,
A colossal Platz for all Earth’s humanity,
Tolerant, open, peaceful,
Boasting a pervasive respect
For those who were murdered,
Without euphemizing “murdered,”
With words
Like “perished,” “disappeared,” “lost,”
Craving contrition, forgiveness, absolution —
An insatiable necessity to erase
Without ever forgetting.



IV. Sachsenhausen

Not a twenty-five-minute drive north, out of Berlin,
Is the pastoral, palace-graced town of Oranienburg,
Where hides, in inconspicuous obsolescence,
The Third Reich’s concentration camp named Sachsenhausen,
That sublimely timeless ur-version, matrix, inspiration, prototype
Of Hitler’s system to achieve his colossal design of Judenrein,
Prove that Deutschland’s Über Alles Final Solution
Could bear the fruit of the Vaterland’s universal truth
That Aryan purity was not just an ideal but could be a reality,
A fait accompli of Germany’s majestic destiny,
If only enough Völker could be indoctrinated, intimidated —
Those who’d inevitably dominate those who’d ultimately succumb.

Entering this bucolic Hölle, through its “Arbeit Macht Frei” gates,
I traipse over the gravel paths, which collaborate in the hoax
That nobody who ever came here was designated as doomed on arrival
And, therefore, no human being of meticulously documented record
Ever had to leave here or, if so,
Had to be transported, easterly, on the ghostly underground railroad
Leading to those camps waiting, with eager open maws,
To greet the sleepwalking bones entering their fiery resting places
In spaces below and above the days passed and nights to come.
Now that I’m here, it seems incumbent on me to expose the hoax,
By spending the night in the one remaining barracks with bunks
And discovering sleep that knows it will never awaken.



V. Here and There

What could be more incongruous
Than you, a Jewess from Brooklyn,
And I, a Jew from St. Louis,
Being here, in Berlin,
Celebrating our three years together?

I know what:
That the year could be 1943
And you’re on a train to Ravensbrück,
I on my way to Sachsenhausen,
Yet we’re not separated.



VI. Breakfast Buffet at the Restaurant Quarré

Why is it that in every young, handsome, clean-shaven face,
In every pair of squirrel-alert  eyes — Aryan blau
In every precision drill movement of the strapping waiters
Replenishing a cog in the cornucopian breakfast spread,
Whenever a bowl of strawberries or kiwis or mangoes
Or hot server brimming with scrambled eggs
Or miniature vat of honey-saturated muesli
Or platter of schneken and fruit cakes and strudel
Or carving board of smoked salmon, venison, roast beef
Is no longer overflowing its perimeters, limits, edges;
Fetching patrons a second set of silver pots
Steaming with coffee or scalding water, for tea;
Meticulously, fastidiously, methodically
Eradicating accumulating stollen and toast crumbs;
Or rounding up, from the starched white tablecloths,
Every dirty dish, impure plate, stained saucer,
Sullied water glass, filthy, encrusted piece of flatware,
Whenever it’s served its purpose, outlived its usefulness,
Needs to make living room, breathing space — Lebensraum
For the next complement of eating utensils,
As the diners repeat, endlessly,
The gluttonous consuming of food, food, food,
Simply because it’s there, on never-dissipating display . . .
Why can’t I see, respect, and appreciate,
In all these orderly, synchronized, duty-bound attendants,
Just the flawlessly trained, highly disciplined staff — Schwadron
Of the Hotel Adlon’s Restaurant Quarré,
Doing everything it can to make the guests comfortable
And absolutely satisfied, gratified, happy, beholden,
Knowing they’re receiving the very best service — Über alles?



VII. Wannsee

Best known for his exquisite, softly rendered Impressionist canvases,
From the 1870s until the end of his life, in 1935,
The same year Adolf Hitler introduced the Nuremberg Laws,
And for serving as president of the Prussian Academy of Arts,
From 1920 until his resignation, in 1933, due to utterly helpless disgust
Over its members refusing to exhibit the works of Jewish artists,
Max Liebermann had reached the highest echelons of success,
In the decades before the Nazis catastrophically grasped the fasces,
Appropriated all semblance of democracy, in the name of the Third Reich.

Not a day has passed, during our trip, that we haven’t acknowledged him,
By standing in front of his commanding family home, on Pariser Platz,
Situated immediately to the right of the Brandenburg Gate —
The estate he purchased with the enormous inheritance he’d received
From his businessman father’s bequest, funds which, in 1909,
Also allowed him to buy the last available parcel of waterfront property
In Berlin’s most affluent and picturesque villa colony of Alsen,
At 24 Grosse Seestraβe, on the western shore of Greater Lake Wannsee,
Then hire architect Paul O. A. Baumgarten, to design his summer house.

Not three hundred meters away, a mere six years later,
When Gentile manufacturer Ernst Marlier commissioned Baumgarten
To design his private residence, at 56-58 Grosse Seestraβe,
Liebermann and Marlier, proud owners of exceptionally elegant homes,
Unknowingly became neighbors,
Neither one dreaming that the final destiny of their beloved residences
Would be decided not by God but Hitler’s National Socialist Party,
Villa Marlier becoming branch of the Reich’s main security office, in 1940,
Where, in 1942, Heydrich finally solved the Jewish riddle,
The Liebermann house, in 1938, loaned to the Deutscher Reichspost,
The property used as an entertainment spot for its female party members,
Then forcibly sold, two years later, for a sum Max’s wife, Martha, never got.
This cool, breezy, seventy-degree August afternoon,
Itself almost a scene from one of Liebermann’s brightly hued landscapes,
Sixty-seven years after the cataclysmic closure to World War II,
You and I tiptoe stealthily, deferentially, through both these villas,
Reprising the sad, sickening, heartachingly fading history
That forced such tragedy to claim so many maliciously targeted victims,

And holding hands, we forget, for a few precious moments,
While strolling in the Giverny-like gardens of Liebermann’s restored villa,
How Martha, in March of 1943, at eighty-five,
Eight years a widow and bedridden, from a stroke,
Was notified, by the Gestapo, that she must pack a suitcase,
For deportation to Theresienstadt, and chose, instead, to commit suicide;
Rather, we see the Liebermann family, in the teens and twenties,
Dining on the veranda, swimming in Lake Wannsee,
Mother and father tending their front yard’s Impressionistic flowers.



VIII. Hallowed Space

As I sit at the faux-Biedermeier desk, in our exquisite suite,
This autumn-tinged Thursday afternoon, in Berlin’s Hotel Adlon,
After returning from Wannsee, where we wandered through the villa
In which Reinhard Heydrich and Adolf Eichmann,
Along with thirteen NASDAP and SS elite,
Encouraged by a surfeit of the finest cognac, for an hour and a half,
Articulated the ultimate euphemistic arabesques and prestidigitations
For the nagging subliminal implications of the Final Solution,
Conclusively reconciling the ambiguities defiling the Jewish Question,

I gaze out through the three sets of floor-to-ceiling double doors,
Which open onto the Pariser Platz, two stories below,
Peer at multitudes lingering, their presence praising reunified Germany,
Or waving flags of dismay, brandishing invisible fists of dissidence,
Or chanting strident phrases, calculated to raise consciousness’s hackles,
For miscellaneous causes gone wrong, ideals unfulfilled,
In this or lands distant from this hallowed space dedicated to peace,
Watched over by the nearby glass eye of the resurrected Reichstag . . .
The Platz is ablur with white and black on a sea of crimson.



IX. Three Stones

The three stones I brought back to our weeklong home in Berlin
Focus on me, in their faraway, elegiac muteness,
From the desk, where I placed them, two days ago,
After bending over, gathering them up,
At the six-decade-abandoned Sachsenhausen concentration camp,
Off of paths stretching, like threads of a black widow’s web,
From disappeared barracks hut to barracks hut to barracks hut,
And stuffing them into my pockets, for safekeeping,
As we waded, stumbled, drifted, like dazed, glazed-eyed somnambulists,
Through the gravel of that infamous, sinister desolation,
Weaving in and out of the suffocating crush of 200,000 ghosts . . .

Three spirits, rousted out of their houses,
In earshot of their spouses’ and children’s agonized cries, screams,
Whisked away, like scrap paper caught in history’s bad breeze,
Not even at gunpoint, just by means of a simple hand gesture,
Which said, in its histrionic silence, “You’re a dead person, dirty Yid” . . .
Three souls who compelled me to lift them, from their resting places,
As if I might set them atop their own gravestones —
Stones atop stones — in a display of desperate reverence,
To let them know that I came to visit them, stay with them . . .
Three stones I’ll take with me, when I’m buried,
So that, beyond forgetting, I can return them to their rightful owners.



X. Stelae

Contiguous with the back of the Unter-den-Linden-facing Hotel Adlon,
Where we’ve been living in a palatially spacious suite
Facing Pariser Platz and its dominant Brandenburg Gate,
Is situated the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe,
A curious faux cemetery of imaginative sorts,
Consisting of a numerically insignificant aggregate of 2711 markers,
Termed, by their American Jewish designer, Peter Eisenman, “stelae,”
Which, in fact, are hollow concrete blocks, modern sarcophagi,
Whose already-cracking gray-hued surfaces are coated with a chemical
Created by a subsidiary of the former IG Farben company
(Suppliers of the Third Reich’s Giftgas prussic-acid crystals,
So vital to maintaining the efficiency of Hitler’s death-camp exterminations),
To make for the easy removal of graffiti blooms that might rise from seeds Sown by neo-Nazis, who revel in desecrating such sacred gardens.

This late Sabbath afternoon, having taken an hour’s cruise on the Spree,
After sitting inside Berlin’s recently completely rebuilt main cathedral,
We surrender to the gravity of the memorial, enter its labyrinth,
In which we encounter other visitors maneuvering bewildered,
As well as those leaping from slab to slab, like Tyrolean mountain goats,
Others sitting on them or assuming supine positions,
Using them as convenient beds, to rest their tourist-weary bones,
Study the scudding clouds, or unabashedly kiss and hug each other,
Yet others lost inside the reciprocity of their own boisterous laughter.
But nowhere is the reverence we assumed would pervade this holy place.
Distracted, disconcerted, we escape without meditating on the six million
Murdered by the Führer, who took his own life, in 1945,
In his bunker, buried under a parking lot not two hundred yards away,
Goebbels and his family still residing in theirs, thirty feet below us.



XI. Learning German

I’ve only learned two words of German,
On this weeklong trip to Berlin,
My first and my last:
“Achtung” = “attention, I’m about to murder you”;
“Danke” = “thank you, for warning me
That you’re about to take me out of your misery,
For my being Jüdischer.”



XII. “Dear Guests”

After returning from a cabaret-like variety stage show
At the fabled, newly relocated and rebuilt Wintergarten theatre
And having late dinner, in the sumptuous lobby
Of the storied contiguous-to-the-Pariser-Platz Hotel Adlon
(Whose every detail has been fastidiously facsimiled from the original,
Which was burned by Soviet troops, in 1945),
Dining to the American standard songbook tunes
Descending from a piano located on the mezzanine,
Feeling relaxed, having gotten to know Berlin another day better,
We open the door to our suite, overlooking the Brandenberger Tor,
As well as the stunningly reconceived glass dome of the Reichstag
(Which peers into its modernistic, democratized insides),
And find a note that’s been left beside our nightly chocolates:

“Berlin, August 10th, 2012

Dear Guests,

            We would like to bring to your attention that due to a demonstration on Saturday, August 11th, 2012 there will be street closings in the area ‘Friedrichstraβe’, the Boulevard ‘Unter Den Linden’, ‘Wilhelmstraβe’ as well as ‘Straβe des 17.
Juni’ .
            Please note that there will be possible traffic-delays during 11:00 a.m. until 10 p.m..
            Please allow yourself more than the usual time to reach your appointments.
            We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause and thank you very much for your kind understanding.
                                                                                                                                                                  The Management.”

We wonder if a note of similar dimension might not have been issued
By the management of this splendid hotel, on Tuesday, November 8, 1938,
The night before a vast, catastrophic, glass-shattering demonstration
Would create street closings and traffic delays, in the area.



XIII. Gleis 17

Because it was set in an inconspicuous wedge of lush, dark-green forest
Sufficiently west of fastidiously war-preoccupied Berlin,
So as to call no undue attention to itself —
An enchanted forest boasting villas and mansions with extensive grounds,
Fit for Deutsche princes and princesses,
Who made the easy commute to the capital, for work or the opera . . .
Because the luxurious suburban village of Grunewald
Was compactly tucked away, in its exquisitely inviolate silence,
Its railroad station made a perfect collection and distribution depot,
To which trucks and vans leaving Berlin, with their hideous cargoes,
Might be received, at all hours of the Morgen, Mittag, and Nacht,
Without being detected by the unsuspecting villagers
(Or so they claimed to be, repeatedly, to each other and the world),
Since it just made uncommonly good Nazi common sense
Not to have those degenerate refugees be seen boarding the trains —
Mainly Juden, with a smattering of Gypsies, homosexuals, the demented —
By Berliners in the vicinity of Friedrichstraβe and Unter den Linden.

And so it was that number 17, a nondescript “platform” or “track”
(Depending on who might be translating the noun “Gleis”),
In an out-of-sight-out-of-mind village half an hour’s drive southwest of Berlin,
Could become such a pivotal, crucial, strategic starting point
For a ragtag confederation of helpless, hapless, hopeless souls
About to make their penultimate journeys —
Ravensbrück, Auschwitz, Theresienstadt, Sachsenhausen, Treblinka —
Before reaching the ultimate destination: thorough earth or ravenous sky . . .
A notorious, stark, infamously indifferent pair of cast-iron rails,
Which shouldered the weight of thousands of starving cattle cars
Waiting, impatiently, to be fed human fodder — Jew straw, grain, grass —
And dragged away, bellowing, shitting, grunting, pissing, lowing,
By growling, roaring, belching, imperiously raucous steam engines
Working that territory, in all seasons, for more than four bountiful years . . .
An active station, today, seven decades later, with an ice-cream shop
And an abstract marble-sculpture memorial leading up to Gleis 17,
Where you and I stand beside a truncated segment of two rusted tracks
With adventitious trees growing out of their gravel bed,
Our eyes following the rails easterly, to the roof-obscured horizon,
Where we see white clouds turning into black puffs
Lifting, lifting, lifting from locomotive stacks chuff-chuff-chuffing.



XIV. Pariser Platz

Having focused on the imposing Pariser Platz,
Through the three open double doors of our second-floor suite,
We weave through the obstacle course of overstuffed lobby chairs,
Then out the revolving door and into the cobbled square,
Amidst the hundreds of congregating tourists,
Who’ve come here to appear in the roll call of awestruck pilgrims
Apotheosizing the iconic symbolism of the Brandenburg Gate —
All of this in a naked state of primal Semitic nature,
The two of us being seen, in all our unambiguous nudity,
As Jews, in no way able to be confused, conflated, with Aryans,
Both of us prepared to sacrifice the last shreds of our flesh,
To the disdainful, grimacing gazes of red-hot racial hatred
Flaming from the muzzles of machine-gun eyes.

Only, at the last second, peering out the three open double doors,
We decide, instead, to dress in destiny’s gesture of serendipity,
And leave our suite, slip through the lobby, into the Platz, undetected,
Before August 12, 2012, can fade into 1942’s abysmal haze,
When Juden like us were shorn of our spirits’ clothes,
Consigned to the chambers of the Nazi desperation for bodies,
Where they could shower us,
With the aromatic essence of their indomitable power.
But long after twilight descends, our delusion lingers,
And night catches up with us, detects our Jewish chromosomes,
Sewn, as yellow Stars of David, all over our naked souls.
Suddenly, the late-night revelers in the Pariser Platz
Smear swastikas on their bare arms and chests, with our blood.



XV. Berlin 2012

While here, in redefining-itself-by-the-second Berlin,
Amidst all its traditional and modernistic architectonic transfigurations
And all its necessarily apparent manifestations of democratic transparency
(So that its citizens might justify their being invited back into civilization,
Back into the family of peace-worshiping nations,
Back into the holy sanctuaries of their pre–Third Reich souls)
And all its memorials, proliferating on every meter of bombed-out space —
Done not so much to express complicity in genocide but contrition,
Acknowledging that though they’ll never be able to go back
To that era when “Untermenschen” and “Endlösung” weren’t words,
They must yet hope they’ll progress to a lasting redress and acceptance,
Say yes to the blessed sovereignty of each and every human spirit . . .

While here, in Berlin, this cool, cloudy-blue-sky August afternoon,
Walking through the sunny shadows of a millennium of Germanic heritage,
I postulate questions whose answers must discover their own truths
If they’re to have a chance of making me understand how the beast’s name Corresponds to the number 6,000,000, on its forehead:
What if the Nazis had offered blanket reprieve, from the gas and ovens,
To all Jews who would expose homosexuals, Gypsies, crazies, Gentiles?
Would they have eagerly donned SS, Sicherheitsdienst, Gestapo uniforms?
Had Hitler been Jewish, would he have persecuted and murdered Aryans?
Had I died in the Shoah, would I still be composing this poem,
Trying to enlighten myself as to why answers keep answering with questions
That only heighten the ruthless truth of mankind’s inherent misanthropy?



XVI. DeutscheBahn

Berlin is a reverberating, interweaving, sprawling network of steel wheels
Gliding precisely, with near-silent susurrations, over glistening tracks,
Into and out from recently constructed stations,
Drawing their pollution-free energy from overhead wires and third rails,
Running above ground, on the Schnell-Bahn and Strassenbahn,
And beneath the streets, on the Untergrund-Bahn,
In a perpetually smooth, fluid blur of yellow, red, and beige cars,
All the city’s 3.5 million citizens
Able to interface with even its least reachable places, spaces,
In a display of the world’s most efficiently operated technology,
Staying continuously interconnected, as it did seven decades ago,
When Germany came to rely on its steel wheels and cast-iron tracks,
To transport its Aryan superiority to the farthest regions of Evil,
So completely beyond the limits of reason, decency, and mercy
That not even the Prince of Lies could have conceived such malignity,
Such inhumane dominions of mass depravity, sadistic apocalypse, rot…
A city yet relying on its trains, to restore the greatness it was promised
When the Führer und Reichskanzler enticed its mesmerized residents,
With visions of the DeutscheBahn connecting the kingdoms of the world.



XVII. Home, from Berlin

Home, just a few hours more than two complete days,
From our weeklong vacation, odyssey in Berlin,
I’m still reeling, feeling, if not shock waves from Nazi Germany,
Then the temblors from its seismic scourge of European Jewry —
The war it waged, as a heeltap to the Führer‘s personal vendetta
Against Elohim’s Chosen People,
Those lower-than-earthworm-dirt vermin Martin Luther had abominated,
Advising his Reformation-minded parishioners
To burn down their houses, run them out of town, murder them.

How all that bilious ill will could still cast such a chill spell,
I can only believe is the legacy of Revelation’s Beast,
The monster’s second coming, in its reincarnated Führer-skin,
Its diabolical, infernal visitation on Abraham’s meek tribes.
How else might I reasonably explain the merciless insanity
Requisite to killing six million of humanity’s innocent beings?
Since I’ve been home, I’ve not known an hour’s, a second’s, respite,
For having stayed seven days in the abyss of Satan’s hissing Hell.
Will my cells ever quell the smell of those smoldering bones and flesh?



XVIII. A Week’s Sojourn

Back in St. Louis, after a week’s sojourn in Germany,
Where we stepped inside that infamous villa at Wannsee
And registered the jackbooted pacing of Reinhard Heydrich;
Wandered through the last of the Hohenzollern palaces
(Half-timbered English Tudor Schloss Cecilienhof, in Potsdam),
Eavesdropped on Clement Attlee, Harry Truman, and Josef Stalin,
As they reapportioned the Vaterland and Europe, in its Grosse Halle;
Had a white-tablecloth lunch of greens and cold tomato soup with basil,
On the rooftop of the recently revitalized Reichstag,
Where I overheard Hitler’s whisperous asides to Himmler and Göring;
Climbed the incline leading from Grunewald’s train-station entrance,
To Gleis 17, from which I witnessed the deportations
Of thousands of mute, humiliated, doomed Jewish wraiths,
To death’s sepulchral abattoirs, in the east, home of the setting sun;
Traipsed over Sachsenhausen’s gravel pathways, leading me nowhere,
Between gone barracks, factories, medical-experiment rooms,
Stood with those ghosts, at roll call, as the snow fell on their flesh,
Before they entered the trench and were shot or hanged;
Toured the Disney World Magic Kingdom of Dresden’s facsimiled history
And listened to Martin Luther, outside the Church of Our Lady,
Fomenting venom against Jew-rodents, while seeking God’s blessing . . .

Back in St. Louis, after a week’s sojourn in Germany’s darkest heart —
That no-man’s-Berlin of memorials, memorials, memorials,
Whose skies are filled with tower cranes rebuilding, rebuilding, rebuilding —
I’ve begun seriously wondering if ever again, in this existence of mine,
I’ll be able to breathe easily, free of anxiety, stress, fear,
Without feeling angina’s pain stabbing both sides of my psyche,
Be invisible to Gestapo agents, who, I know, have been closing in on me
And are now about to shout, “Juden raus!, rout me out of the safe house
In which my soul has been hiding, for the past five decades,
Behind the wall my creative imagination has been building
Around the ghetto in which my mind has been starving, freezing,
So that when those Aryan-indoctrinated soldiers invade my spirit,
Searching, with their frothing dogs, for my subversive Holocaust verse,
I’ll have time to bury the poems, in history-proof containers,
Hoping they’ll weather the worms and rain and tree roots
And, most threatening, those who’d deny the Shoah altogether
(That anyone ever died from being shot, gassed, burned,
Purely as a matter of pragmatics, mathematics, statistics, triumphal will),
And survive till the time is right, again, to unearth them, publish them,
To remind brave new youthful worlds, every succeeding generation,
That genocide is the Final Solution to the Human Question.

Related: Brodsky’s Rabbi Auschwitz



Claudio Parentela

Claudio lives in Catanzaro, Italy.  Visit his site.


“Welcome to Bushwick” by Matthew Wallenstein

“Okay, I got one. So, back when I was living in Brooklyn – industrial Bushwick- before Bushwick was East Williamsburg and you still had to watch your wallet on the way back from the Jefferson stop. Anyway, I was living in this converted factory.”

“What were you doing there?”

“I was playing in this band. In fact, this whole thing happened two days before we were supposed to go on a full U.S. tour. But so I got woken up at 5:10am.”

“That is pretty precise.”

“Yeah, well, I remember this because I had been up all night arguing with the girl I was with at the time. We finally fell asleep a half hour before that, and I remember being really pissed that it was that early. So I’m all the way on one side of the bed and she is all the way on the other side of the bed, and of course she has all the blankets, and I hear someone downstairs calling to me. I jump out of bed and toss on my pants and head down. There’s my neighbor and I say ‘What’s up?’ and he says ‘Come on’ and I follow him down the hall.”

“Yeah, so what happened?”

“I’m getting there. So we’re going down the stairs to where the front door is and he tells me he heard this sound like a bomb going off while he was in bed with his girl and went out to check it out. Apparently he saw my van had been smashed, real bad, like destroyed. The other car hit it so hard it ended up on the other side of the street facing the other way. It was a little thing, totally crushed, the driver’s-side door and the trunk were open. So he goes running down the street and finds the guy.”

“How’d he know it was the guy?”

“Because he was the only person stumbling down the street covered in his own blood at the time. Well, that and that before my neighbor even said anything to him the guy says ‘Hey, you hit me man!”

“That’s rich.”

“Yeah. And so Chris – that’s my neighbor’s name – says, ‘So, you’re telling me that my friend’s van, which was parked and no one was in, hit your car?’ The other guy, reeking of booze and covered in his own blood, says ‘Yeah, man you hit me, man.’ Chris said he didn’t know what to do. He wanted to hit him but didn’t want to screw up anything with me getting the insurance money. And nobody likes to call the cops.

“But then he hears sirens and so he runs back to the van. The cops aren’t there yet, but he sees the ambulance with the back open and the drivers are loading all these shoeboxes in the back. I guess the trunk was filled with boxes of brand new Nikes. They saw this and snagged them. Chris asked them what they were doing and one guy said ‘Welcome to Bushwick’ and then they drove off.

“Well, by the time Chris had come to get me and told me all this and we got out there the cops had already shown up. They told me they had to get a second ambulance there to pick the driver up because the first one never showed. They told me the case was pretty open and shut. That the guy had gotten out of jail the night before, stolen a car, got real drunk and hit our van going 60, and somehow didn’t die.”

“They never asked about the shoes?”

“They never asked about the shoes.”

“So what happened about the tour? I mean, you couldn’t go, right?”

“No, we went.”

“But the van was totaled, right?”

“Yeah, the frame was all bent up and the back window exploded. But we wired the bumper back on with a coat hanger and replaced the back window with cardboard. Our drummer, Weezy, was a mechanic and he jerry-rigged the rest. We did the whole tour. And when we got back we claimed the thing as totaled and collected the insurance money, which was just enough to cover the money we lost from going on tour and buy us a pizza dinner.”

And they cracked jokes and drank and tipped the person bringing the drinks and argued over which women in the place would be the most fun to take to bed. Then the storyteller stood up and walked to the door. His hands ached from the coming rain. Age had given him that, the ache that came when the weather changes. He felt it worst in the third knuckle, the one he broke punching a wall when he was twenty and told everyone he fought off a mugger.