Tag : Holocaust

January 10, 2019 by

Poetry: “Except Following the Rules Will Kill You”

“The Auschwitz Album is the only surviving visual evidence of the process leading to the mass murder at Auschwitz-Birkenau.” — www.yadvashem.org

He looked like a man I could have spent my time with. Relatable, handsome even. Dapper and tall with pants a little too loose on his lean frame. A good Jewish boy. I could have brought him home to my mother except he’s in black and white. Except he happened 70 some odd years ago. Waiting patiently to approach the commander on a small platform. Second in the endless line of men with brimmed hats settled politely against their sides. From here I want to scream out his name but I don’t know it. Except following the rules will kill you. I’m staring. From here I’ve decided to claim this man as my good Jewish boy. Absorbed in his lips twisted to one side. He’s smirking. He’s beautiful and smirking while he’s waiting in line with the thousands of men of all shapes and sizes in their best rumpled winter attire. I think it’s summer. My good Jewish boy. Except following the rules will kill you. He’s beautiful and he’s next up and looks like he’s already cleared his throat. Ready to reason with the commander. Understand what this procession is all about. That the train ride was days of hell. And the last few years leading up to it were like treading water. Except following the rules will kill you. I’m staring and I can’t stop. Except he’s in black and white and I can’t reach back to tell him. I’m staring and my skin is prickling sour and I can’t stop. Body clenching. Pain sharpening through my bones. Heart throbbing in a thick monotonous rage. My Jewish boy. I don’t even have his permission to claim him. He has no idea. They have no idea. From here I can’t stop what’s already happened. 70 some odd years later. How could anyone believe it to be true. Except following the rules will kill you. My Jewish boy. My people hold shame like wine overflowing through cupped hands, like blood hemorrhaging without a way to stop the bleeding. He has no idea. They have no idea. Except following the rules will kill you. From here I see there are so many more of them, than them. From here I see the giant pits of fire and limbs and babies and ash. From here I’m dying to tell them to break their ranks and take over even if the result is still the same. Fight back I scream with the bluntness of the back of my throat. Even if the result is still the same. From here I know he’s dying. They are all dying and they have no idea. My Jewish boy. Except all that’s left of him is this photograph from Yad Vashem’s website called “Auschwitz album.” Except I will never know his name, their names. People who were here that were matter with alive bodies, blood running through them. Except the worst thing about the past is that it is still here and following the rules will kill you.

Lilith Poetry Editor Alicia Ostriker comments: Reading Gabriella Theisen-Jacobowitzr’s prose poem “Except Following the Rules Will Kill You” was for me a stunning experience, in which a woman’s voice very like my own seems just short of crack-up. Irrationality—illogic—rules this poem, beginning with its title, which becomes its obsessive refrain. What can “except” mean? If the fragment of a sentence were a full sentence, would it say “A civilized person should obey custom, should respect how things are done, should follow the rules, except following the rules will kill you?” What are we looking at? The behavior of the man in the photo who is like a good Jewish boy ready to argue rationally with the Nazi officer? The speaker’s own irrational response to a man dead seventy years as if she could take him home? Or her horror that “he has no idea. They have no idea” as if the horror were still going on? The speaker’s awareness does not lessen her anguished helplessness—or mine, or yours.

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December 26, 2018 by

A Filmmaker Listens to Germans, Jews and Palestinians

Like many born into the generation following the Holocaust, Ofra Bloch has always been fascinated with, and affected by, generational trauma–on both sides. Bloch set out to make a documentary focusing on descendants of former oppressors, focusing on the effects of the Holocaust on non-Jewish Germans. But what she ended up creating extends far past that initial subject. Instead, “Afterward” weaves together three emotional narratives: Germans after the Holocaust, Palestinians after the “Nakba” (the “catastrophe,” known by Israelis as the 1948 War of Independence) and Bloch’s personal story of growing up in Israel squeezed between inescapable shadows of WWII on one hand, and silence regarding Palestinians on the other. 

As a child, Bloch dreamed of pursuing both psychology and filmmaking. Now, 30 years into her career as a psychoanalyst, “Afterward” is the meeting point of these dreams. “I have a lot of chutzpah, I take risks and I do things,” Bloch told Lilith. Throughout the six years it took to film and edit “Afterward,” Bloch continued to work full-time at her practice in New York. “I’m not a filmmaker, I’m a psychoanalyst, but I think both professions need the same skills,” she says. “You need to listen, which is like the camera looking at the subjects, and analyzing is like the editing process.”

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August 22, 2018 by

Why Deporting an (Actual) Nazi Feels Hollow in the Age of Charlottesville

Under the heading of “better late than never!” the last known Nazi war criminal, the 95 year old Jakiw Palij, has been arrested at his Queens home by ICE and deported to Germany.  It’s justice done, yet in this summer of fear and anger, it feels hollow to focus on the past without looking at the present.

According to a press release from the State Department, Palij served as an armed guard at the Trawniki slave-labor camp for Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland during the second World War. He concealed his Nazi service when he immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1949. A federal court stripped Palij of his citizenship in 2003 and a U.S. immigration judge ordered him removed from the United States in 2004 based on his wartime activities and postwar immigration fraud. A careful reader will notice that that was 14 years ago. So, nu?

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June 21, 2018 by

The Cloth Mother and Trauma at the Border

As you read this, more than 11,000 children captured while trying to enter the U.S. across the border with Mexico are warehoused in more than 100 facilities in 17 states. The thousands of children separated from their families in recent weeks are scattered across the country, and there is no coherent plan apparent to reconnect them with their relatives.

I keep thinking about Baby 106.

In the 1950s, American psychologist Dr. Harry Harlow used baby rhesus monkeys for groundbreaking research on childhood attachment. One of his subjects, Baby 106, was taken from its mother at birth and placed in a cage. Eventually it was introduced to two “mothers,” that were actually wire cylinders. One had a protruding nipple connected to a bottle of milk. The other, with no nipple, was covered in cloth. The baby monkey initially went to the wire mother and suckled. Then it went, and stayed, with the cloth mother, the one that offered some tactile comfort.

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June 20, 2018 by

Stop Arguing About Holocaust Analogies and Do Something

Refugee Children in Immigration Detention Protest BroadmeadowsPlease, let’s not lightly throw around Holocaust analogies – but perhaps equally important, let’s not argue about whether or not we need to throw around the Holocaust analogies. The Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” policy which has led to internment camps for children is truly horrifying. On this point, thankfully, many, many people seem to be in agreement.

But are they “concentration camps” “just like the Nazis had for the Jews”?

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June 6, 2018 by

What Did Your Grandparents Do to Mine?

The HeirsAfter breaking her hip in a serious accident, Eleanor Ritter’s mother, Rose, a Holocaust survivor now living in New Jersey, suddenly starts talking about her harrowing childhood in Poland and the taboo subjects she has refused to discuss for half a century—even speaking in long-forgotten Polish. Around the same time, Eleanor learns that the parents of her nine-year-old son’s soccer teammate, Tadek, are Catholics from Poland.

As Eleanor becomes fixated with digging into the histories of both her mother and Tadek’s family, her obsession strains her already difficult relationship with Rose, as well as her marriage to Nick, an IT technician who is himself caught up in preparing for the feared Y2K turn of the millennium.

Eleanor starts flirting with the soccer coach, ignoring her 12-year-old daughter’s growing rebellion and her son’s misery when, messing up several games, he becomes the team pariah. Meanwhile, the “sure-fire” tech stock that Eleanor bought behind Nick’s back is losing money. Even as her quest nourishes an odd friendship with Tadek’s mother, it forces Eleanor to face the unavoidable questions: For how many generations can guilt carry on? And: What did your grandparents do to my grandparents?

Hawthorne, the author of the award-winning Ethical Chic: The Inside Story of the Companies We Think We Love and seven other books about business, consumers and social issues, talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about her journey from fiction to fact and then back again. 

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February 3, 2015 by

Losing My Anne Frank

I recently travelled to Amsterdam, and was invited by Dienke Hondius, one of the curators of the Anne Frank House, to visit the museum. I accepted with alacrity: the lines to get in always snake around the block, and I was especially curious to see it because it has come under fire recently in a piece in Haaretz.

After I toured it I wrote to Ms. Hondius. 

Dear Dienke,

Here is an attempt to answer your question as to why I found the Anne Frank House Museum personally disorienting.

The nub of the question is what are we doing when we remember (and commemorate) Anne Frank: something about the Jewish experience, or something about the human experience?

When I was a child, the Holocaust was talked about in our house, but it was not the subject of general conversation – in society, politics, and literature – that it later became. Perhaps 1945-1968 (with the publication of Arthur Morse’s When Six Million Died) was a kind of liminal or marginal period of remembrance. In my house, we talked about my parents’ German backgrounds, especially my mother’s. She remembered my grandmother trying unsuccessfully to find living German relations in the late 1930s. Most of her family had arrived in the US around 1850, as part of a general wave of German emigration to the US. Like so many other Jewish immigrants, they steadily moved west until they reached Chicago. One of them sent letters home to Ohio during the American Civil War—these were preserved and were later published as A Jewish Colonel in the Civil War

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January 20, 2015 by

Strange Comfort

One day, a week after my second chemo treatment for my fourth bout with cancer, I was feeling all right and decided to take the T to Newbury Street in Boston to see an exhibit of paintings by the renowned artist Samuel Bak, who survived the Holocaust. I was bald and wore a black turban.

That afternoon, I stood in front of “Da Capo” at the Pucker Gallery, a painting of shepherds sitting next to a pyre of violins, facing away from one another, hands raised, pretending to play music with their wooden staffs. The head of one shepherd had been shaved. All I could feel was my cold, bald head beneath my turban, and, thinking I might faint, I rushed home. The next day, I started to write about this painting: “…the mourners play on/past shloshim/past shneim asar chodesh….” [Quartet]*.

As my treatments continued, I visited the gallery as often as I could, and I kept writing — feeling ill, feeling terrified of death, but also experiencing this art as the thing that was getting me through. It was strange comfort, a ritual of call and response.


When I was too weak to leave the house, I asked Mari, the gallery assistant, to send me images of the paintings and drawings that had especially moved me. I focused my imagination on one image at a time.

I had no plans — no idea that these poems might become a book. I was simply grateful to be writing. At first I thought that I might write just a few poems inspired by Bak’s art, but I couldn’t stop. When I had three poems that I considered polished — that had been vetted by my writing group — I emailed them off to Mari as a gesture of thanks, because she had taken me behind the scenes to view Bak’s work on the second floor.

Without telling me, she forwarded the poems to Sam Bak, and within the week, he wrote to me: “I am greatly moved by your words on my art. To know that it can bring what you describe. It is more than I could dare to hope for.” My previous book, Van Gogh in Poems, was written as if in the voice of a painter who was long dead. I’d also written poems about the work of Frida Kahlo and Mary Cassatt — but Bak was a living artist, who, at 80, was still painting. Hearing his positive response affirmed what I was creating and made me feel less alone. While writing, I was aware that I might die. This realization propelled me and made the work urgent.

Trying to Get Out

The images that I chose to write about actually chose me. With some, the objects pulled me in: a chess piece, an oversized pear, a broken easel. The poems would expand, grow into being as I wrote them.

With other paintings, such as “In This Direction,” I knew where the poem might lead. I “knew” that the naked, red-headed woman was Magdalen. What drew me to the figure was the shock of her severed arm. My body, my breasts felt similarly severed. When I looked closer at the background, I saw smoke rising from the crematorium and, given that Jesus was a Jew, I penned the line, “Where Jesus/ would have died again.”


The severed arm also reminded me of my father’s soul-killing emotional abuse which accompanied me throughout my childhood and on into my adult life. I still need to remind myself every day that I am smart, worthy. As a secular Jew, I rarely go to synagogue, but I spend every Yom Kippur alone at home, reading aloud from my father’s prayer book. Some years ago at temple I noticed a printed sheet on one of the seats and I took it with me. “Know whom you put to shame,” it says, “for in the likeness of God is she made.” If only there had been such a message when I was growing up, perhaps I might have told someone what I had to endure.

What drew me to “Draped” was the figure bundled in cloth and tied with ropes. I saw the chess piece — a pawn — as female. I felt her powerlessness, her imposed silence. At first I didn’t know who this figure was, but then I remembered Lot’s wife, who was nameless — another indignity — and centered the poem around her.

Lot's wIFE

Here, I explore the terrible price of defiance. “She’s bundled/ for storage/ then left/ upright,/ disgraced.” Of course this painting triggered memories of my childhood, too. If I spoke out or argued with my father, I was subjected to his rage and humiliation. He was a physician, and he knew just how to hit me without killing me. As I was writing the poem’s final line, I heard in my subconscious “my father’s fist,” but instead I wrote, “God’s punishing eye.”

I came to recognize Sam’s recurrent symbols and what they meant. The chess pieces — because after the Holocaust, Sam’s stepfather played game after game with him. The sacks — because his father put him in a sack when he was nine and smuggled him out of the labor camp in the Vilnius Ghetto; his father and all his grandparents were murdered immediately afterwards.

Pillowcases — because the Nazis allowed him to take one thing from his house, and, though he wanted to take his teddy bear, he didn’t want to seem like a baby. So he took his pillow, but it got heavier and heavier as the Jews were marched down the street in the pouring rain, and so he dropped it. The pears — because, as Sam says, smiling, “I much prefer them to apples.” With all he has had to overcome, he has maintained a sense of humor! 


Over the next 11 months, I sent Sam poems, one by one. The work began to feel collaborative. “Your poems are like echoes that return to me, and their volume feels stronger than the sound of their origin,” he wrote back.

Sometimes a poem inspired a new painting. “Your poem reads so profoundly into the myth of the painting’s image that I have decided to dedicate it to a much larger size.” He respected my vision, and never censored me. He treated me as an equal, although I would have been threatened if I’d actually known how famous he was. Still, I didn’t think about him when I wrote. The work was everything.

One evening at dinner at his and his wife Josee’s home, I decided to tell them my secret: that my long blonde hair was a wig, and that I was undergoing chemo. I’d written about my experiences with breast cancer in my memoir, Places in the Bone, and I gave them a copy. The parallels of suffering were now out on the table, and that seemed so imbalanced to me. Holocaust and cancer…? But they were very appreciative of my courage, of what I was going through and had gone through, and that added another layer of depth to Sam’s and my relationship.

Screen Shot 2015-01-20 at 2.26.30 PM

I admit to feeling guilty during the whole time I was writing these poems. No one in my family had been brutalized by the Holocaust; they died of natural causes. My paternal grandparents, immigrants from Lithuania, whose original name was Daen, came to America, assimilated, and didn’t even give my father a bar mitzvah.

At the same time, I felt worthy because Sam praised my descriptions of his images of grief. That gave me permission. I knew, from reading Painted in Words, his autobiography, that Sam and his mother had endured hell, and that gave me strength. To survive, Sam used art, and although our struggles were radically different, so did I.

Bak’s genius — expressing the beauty that exists in horror, the hope that lives amid destruction—speaks to me. Above the ruined ghetto, he paints an azure sky or floating white clouds. Images fill with cerulean, orange, sun-yellow, gold, red.

For the cover of Orange Night I chose a bird. At first glance, the bird is pure white, a dove suspended in a tree, surrounded by a peaceful, misted sky. But look closer and the bird is fragile, made of paper, its wing a tallit, or the Israeli flag. And the tree branches end in talons.

In February 2012, Sam wrote, “Please keep overwhelming me with your inspired poetry. In the future I can see a whole book dedicated to the fertile encounter of our mutual visions.” And so our book happened. I dedicated it to my dear friend Tehila Lieberman, who assisted me with the Jewish content. And to a very caring man, Dr. Steven Come, my oncologist.

I held my first copy of Orange Night in the Pucker Gallery, sitting beside a friend on a low wooden bench. We turned page after glossy page. I thought, “I survived for this.” She asked if I wanted to read aloud.

But I couldn’t even whisper.

[*past the thirtieth day of mourning, past the twelfth month.]


Orange Night (Pucker Art Publications, 2014), is Carol Dine’s fourth published collection of poetry. Her memoir, Places in the Bone (Rutgers U. Press, 2005), discusses the redemptive power of art. She is currently working on Resistance, poems in the voices of women who have resisted war, terror or abuse. She teaches at Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

See more of Samuel Bak’s art at the Pucker Gallery website.

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