Commentary Magazine

The Village of My Fathers

I wonder what it looks like. Earlocked men with caftans,
Women with their wigs and Hannah in their eyes,
Hasidim, drunk with piety and narcotic prayer,
This village I never saw nor my father either.
Unlike New England’s land except, perhaps, for climate.
Men in grim solitude and women who did all work.
How strange a land it was, one people living absent-mindedly
In the country of another, island sinking in water’s hate.
One countryman they had there though, a lad and his mother
And loved they are and were as none have ever been.
From Nazareth they hail, this woman and her boy.

But they, my fathers, spat within their beards
In ache of wounded hearts, of children bruised by stones and fists
And kicks, of clubs and thrusts into the very groin of mercy
Until poor Jesus says with Heine, “No, mass, no kaddish, say for me.”
So this village was, two streets and the alleys off of them.
On one, a barbaric boulevard of unpainted timber where Slavic
Made their beds between the pigs and Mary’s smile,
Stood the church, marble white, its cross, firm and proud and gold.
Was this Christ’s heart or was it Herod’s face?
I did not answer but walked the other street
And saw the synagogue and David’s star and a hundred thousand scars
And I smelled a fire but the others shrugged and saw no smoke.
They say the two God-houses were a mile away; I cannot say
But as far as Jerusalem is from Rome, so far it was from each to home.

I said I smelled a fire; a Jew can always spot a funeral pyre.
You see, I never saw the village of my fathers.
This is but a dreadful daydream, a photograph of anguish.
The village of my fathers is the village of the dead.
Its denizens are the brothers Auschwitz with snowflake flesh,
Their shoulders rounded, eyes of a fish head, smelling of death about
to die.
There is my fire! They were right. There is no smoke,
Only the sweet burning smell of babies being cremated.
So this is what Wodin’s men have done—
The village of my fathers is the village of the dead.

Yet daylight bows to night and moon still does his watch.
The living are as living always were, furious with those
Who being killed and die, prove for all to see that all men can.
So it is, a few millions less, a few millions more—
The soil of Poland got some unexpected rain, oddly red.
Of such man-made rain what else can or need be said?
For Europe’s wind has become a disciple of atonality.
Lightly the virtuoso strikes the keyboard—the screams of the gassed
and the dying.
The tones he plays with, keys he reaches
Are more sounds than ever one dreamed
Born out of more horrors than ever were outside of dreams.


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