Not being real
I am not real.
I hide in the corner of this room, tyring to think like a chair or a table, so that THEY might miss me when THEY come.
Most of those I know left here the first day, dragged out, dumped onto the street, separated from their suitcases and loved one – THEY telling them no one will need anything.
Those of us who resist find out what they mean – blood flowing on the cobblestones as black boot step over us.
Even some of us who don’t resist, even up like that, a bag of flesh left in the street with the rest of the useless luggage to get collected later and searched for valuables – gold teeth melted down for German rings, excess hair matted into mattresses for submarines.
I think that if I am something else to start with, THEY won’t need to take pieces of me away, laving my hair on my head, by skin on my bones, my teeth standing crooked in my mouth.
I stumble from room to empty room, seeking a place where I might stand unnoticed.
I hear the labored breathing of others hidden from view, scared souls seeking refuge in rafters I already know will not save them.
We cannot hide like that.
THEY will always seek us out.
We must become something they won’t recognize as us, something acceptable in their eyes, something they will recognize as real.
I just don’t know what to become, a book shelf, a foot stool or lampshade.
I used to love trains.
Everybody said so.
They called me “the Jew kid” they always saw sitting by the Krakow train yards watching the trains come and go.
I went there whenever I could, sneaking out of school whenever could, always scolded later by momma when I got back to the schule.
I loved the way the wheels moved, show at first, like some great beast gathering strength before a leap, the chug chug chug of the coal-burning steam engine and wheels struggling to drag away the rest of the train.
I even loved the way the black soot settled over me, filled with sparks I always saw as eyes, living beings staring out at me from some unimaginable darkness.
I breathed deep air scented in coal and grease, a smell poppa hated because we had to breathe it in all day, living as close to the tracks as we did.
When I was very young I sat at the tracks side and dreamed of all the places those trains might take me, counting down the months, hours, weeks and days to when I would be old enough to take on, places my vivid imagination painted inside me like the scratchy photos I sometimes used to look at in books.
I didn’t really care where those trains went as they took me someplace else other than Krakow.
Momma always scolded me about being such a dreamer, telling me I ought to learn to learn the Torah, respect my elders and take comfort in following in poppa’s footsteps – who she said was an honest man.
Now I don’t dream as much.
I don’t breathe too deeply or stare too hard at the ash that falls.
And now, I don’t love trains.
All my life I have waited as I wait now.
For something to happen.
For something to change.
Something to make life better than it was and into something it might become.
I love my father, but do not love the life he lives, locked up in old traditions.
He has no room for new or better things.
Some of his kind frown at me for wishing to be something other than what I am, what they are, telling me I should have pride in what we all are.
Pride I have, only…
When I was a boy I ached to be a man, to live my life with my head raised and my eyes clear.
Is it wrong to wish for more than we have, to work towards some dream we might achieve as a man or as a people?
I am not shamed of what I am, or of my desire to be more.
Perhaps that is what makes all this most unbearable, not the hunger or the stench, not even the promise of death, but the perception that I am even less than what I thought I was, and that all these years waiting has led us to this place where we are told we are worthless as people or a race.
I lift my head and get whipped for it, and wonder about God, and what all the waiting was for.
It isn’t enough THEY want us all to die; THEY can’t let us die in peace.
Someone in here tells THEM all about what we do and say.
Sometimes, I even think THEY know what I think.
We are an enduring people, having suffered for so long and at some many hands, one more oppressor seems insignificant.
And yet, THEY seem to need us to not exist.
How can any one want to do away with all of us?
Still THEY do.
How can we believe that some of our own kind might want to help THEM do it?
WE no not see the person.
So we look to see who remains fully fed, when everyone else grows thin.
We even look at people we loved and used to trust with new suspicion.
Is my brother or mother or sister the one who tells THEM about us?
We look into each other’s eyes, trying to make out some shadow of deceit.
All we see is the empty hope of people destined to die.
Yet – someone tells THEM.
Someone barters our lives for their own, perhaps even foolishly believing THEYH will keep THEIR part of the bargain, when like Satan, THEY never do.
Who is it that tells THEM, I ask my elders as they ask me?
How can I ever admit to anyone that the person we are all looking for is me?
I make up a face for the Jew in my head, whose hair makes up my bed and my socks.
I know it is more than one Jew, but I ache for a face to comfort me.
It is so cold here under the Atlantic – American or British ships constantly on the prowl in their search for us we slither silently along the bottom.
I am always scared and cold and lonely.
Even a Jew’s face is better than no face for company.
This is something I know none of the others trapped inside this hull understand.
They tell me to love the fatherland.
They tell me I must hate Jews – or gypsies or Soviets or any others listed on the list of enemies the Fuehrer issues.
But how do I hate the man or woman who keeps me warm?
The Americans have a saying about walking in another man’s shoes, and here I walk in their socks and sleep on their heads.
How can I hate them?
How can I not wonder about them?
Was this a good man?
Did he raise good sons?
Sometimes in my dreams I call out names I have never heard in waking, Jews names, dead names.
And those around me who hear me warn me to keep silent or else.
I am puzzled as to why I say these things and helpless to stop them.
And sometimes in this close place, I feel the hair smother me, bad air filling the chamber around me not with the expended breath of my fellow sailors, but the last breath of Jews I have never seen.
I tell myself the war won’t last forever and I will not spend the rest of my life locked in this chamber filled with heartless men.
Someway, I will go home again to where I can walk again side by side with strangers and not feel hatred.
And I won’t need to make up a face or name
Or have nameless ghosts haunting me in my sleep.
Then, the Americans or British find us, bomb us and our world rattles and leaks, air growing staler and staler with each breath.
Until we all cry or pray or close our eyes, no longer supermen, perhaps no longer even men, but boys calling for the comfort of our mothers or our wives.
And I’m so scared I don’t know who to cry to any more or to what God I should pray.
So all that comes out of my mouth is the name I make up for that person I never saw, the man, woman or child whose hair keeps me warm at night.
If any of the others hear me they are too scared to say
What is in a name when you wait for death?
Is this pace of metal like that space where those Jews died?
Did those Jews feel then as I feel now?
Once the attack ends, we all become good Germans again.
I tell myself these people here are my kind, while my ghosts are not.
If we die – here in this ship, we die with honor, not like dogs.
I tell myself I am a hero, a man, a good German.
Yet when no one can here me, I still call out my Jew’s name, snuggling deep into the warmth of his hair, feeling something more growing inside of me that is neither German nor Jew.