IWhen I was 16, still in high-school, I took a trip to Auschwitz. It was a hot sunny Summer day when I hit the road. I hitchhiked up the Vistula river the ancient city of Krakow, then further into the mountains, Auschwitz on the way.
The buildings of the main camp are made of red bricks, still look solid. The iron gate welcomes with the Inscription: ARBEIT MACHT FREI -- WORK LIBERATES.
Inside, several huge rooms, each filled with hair, combs, toothbrushes, eyeglasses, razors, belts, prosthetics, shoes, many of them children's shoes. . .
I could not speak
for several days.
IIYears passed. My mother gives me a tour of Auschwitz and the sister-camp of Brzezinka -- Birkenau, Birch Forest. The forest of chimneys spread for miles along the railway tracks welcomes us. Most barracks were burned to cover the crimes. Only a few survived and the dead forest of chimneys.
Gas chambers at the end of the tracks, crematoria-furnaces right behind. All is neat and efficient. 3 million people were killed here.
My mother stops by the crematorium, says: "Sometimes we heard the screams as if people were thrown alive into the furnace." I want to embrace her, tell her I know. But she's already taken off, marches, measures her steps like someone who knows exactly where she is going. I follow her into one of the barracks.
She stops by an alcove 2 by 2 yards, three shelves of wooden planks inside, points to the top one, says: "Tutaj spalam. Here's where I slept." "Alone?" I ask. "No, 10-12 women shared the bunk. One blanket, sometimes two. It wasn't all bad. We cuddled when it was cold."
She leads to a central place where the roll-call was taken, twice a day. "We would stand for hours in cold, wind, snow, rain, especially when anyone had tried to escape. Sometimes the guards would bring them back and torture them in front of us," she says.
We walk to the parking lot. My mother stops by the Wall of Dead, kneels down, pulls out her cherry wood rosary worn thin by the touch of generations: "Swiêta Marjo! Matko Boga! Módl siê za nami grzesznymi, teraz i w gozinê naszej smierci," she whispers and I join her with Zen chant: "Namu Dai Bosa! Homage to the Great Compassionate One!"
Namu Dai Bosa!
Mother of God!
Namu Dai Bosa!
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death!
I raise my eyes. Calm mountaintops loom on the horizon.
IIIMy mother and I watch "The Trial in Nuremberg" in her tiny apartment overlooking the Vistula river. Hermann Goering, second in the Reich only to Hitler, claims to be oblivious to what happened in the camps.
My mother says, "Let's take a walk along the river. Wild geese may need food."
I typically post videos of poems before the poems, but I felt that the written poem was stronger than the performance simply because of the unbearable lightness of being in Part III, which is omitted from the video, in part, I believe, because it is very difficult to convey that sensation in a poetry slam opposed to a featured performance or a page read.
This poem was performed as a group piece with Stefan S. Sencerz and Amalia Ortiz, from the National Poetry Slam in Chicago 2003, where I first heard it.
Stefan S. Sencerz is professor of philosophy at Texas A&M in Corpus Cristi. He earned his Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Rochester in 1992. He teaches Introduction to Philosophy, Foundations of Professional Ethics, Issues in Philosophy of Religion, Environmental Ethics, Eastern Spirituality and Western Thought, War, Terrorism & Ethics, Zen: Culture and Art and Philosophy & Science Fiction.
His published papers cover ethics and moral philosophy.
He published his first poem, "Writing a Poem," in ByLine magazine, issue 224, July/August 1999, and has since been published in Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Freedom to Speak: National Poetry Slam 2002, and From Page to Stage and Back Again: The 2003 National Poetry Slam, di-verse-city; Anthology of Austin International Poetry Festival, 2004 (ed. Vicki Goldsberry ); a runner-up in the competition for The Christina Sergeyevna Award.