Janet R. Kirchheimer
From How to Spot One of Us
Take a number please,
the dispenser reads
at the butcher’s.
I take one and wait in line.
It’s before Shabbos, everyone is rushed,
people pushing or being pushed,
trying to get to the counter, to get their food,
someone mutters, “I was ahead of you.”
“Who’s next?” says the butcher,
and panic falls from me like a puzzle
dropped on the floor and I can’t
find all the pieces and the ones I can
pick up don’t fit together anymore and
I want to tell them about my father’s
sister and how her visa number was too
high and there were too many people in
line ahead of her waiting to get out and how
she was deported to
Auschwitz and she didn’t get
a number there and if she had, she
might have survived and
I want to tell them about my friend’s mother, how
she got a number on her forearm in
Auschwitz, and how she got a
visa number after the war and about the
dreams she has every night and
the butcher calls my number, and I
cannot make a sound.
From the womb a fetus looks and can see from the beginning of the world to its end, and when she emerges, God hits her under the nose and she forgets everything she saw.
—Adapted from Seder Y’tzirat Hav’lad.
I remember my father driving to the hospital, my mother
yelling at him to slow down, afraid the police
would stop them, the nurses telling him to go home,
it would be a long time, and the nurses wheeling her
into the delivery room, her screams, the drugs,
my father back after only two hours,
and I remember the red roses he brought her,
her asking how much they cost, they had no money, and
my mother’s face, her green eyes, her blond hair as she held me,
her olive-skinned girl with a mess of black hair, wondering
if they gave her the wrong baby, and hearing my name,
“Janet,” after Oma Kirchheimer, and “Ruth,” after my father’s sister,
and the woman in the next bed telling my mother
the nurses asked if a Jew could share her room.
Learning a New Language
My father is teaching me German.
He still speaks fluently, even though he
escaped from Nazi Germany almost
seventy years ago when he was seventeen.
We study nouns and verbs.
We study when to use the formal pronoun, Sie, you
and when to use the more familiar, Du.
One must be offered permission to use the familiar.
We study dialects.
The word Ich, I.
The Berliners pronounce it Ick.
Those from Frankfurt am Main, Isch.
Those from Schwaben, Ich or I.
He tells me when he was a kid he and
his friends used to say in a Berliner dialect,
“Berlin jeweesen Oranje jejessen und sie war so süss jeweesen.”
I was in Berlin and ate an orange, and it was very sweet.
“And then we added, dass mir die brüh die gosh runterglaufe is,”
with the juices running down my mouth.
He explains: “It is in our Schwäbisch dialect.
I should say, it was our dialect.”
My mother’s cousin Ilse went to school
with Margot Frank, Anne’s older sister.
Sometimes I dream that they met at Ilse’s home
on the Schubertstraat and Margot brought her little sister along.
Ilse’s mother served them tea and cookies,
and Hanni, Ilse’s little sister, played with Anne
and the older girls talked about the boys they liked,
the teachers they didn’t, what they would do
during summer vacation, what they would be when they
grew up. Ilse wanted to be a doctor.
Sometimes I dream they were all together
in the same barracks in Bergen Belsen, that Ilse begged
Margot and Anne to live after they contracted typhus, and
that Ilse told them they would get better and
they would meet for tea at a nice café in Amsterdam after the war.
Ilse returned, along with her mother and sister.
They lived in a small apartment, and Hanni, the one who
had been experimented on, rarely came out of her room.
Their father did not survive.
Ilse went back to school and became a doctor.
Sometimes I dream I’m the one who kills Hitler.
It’s simple. I walk up to him,
shoot him in the face, and watch his head
explode into a million
glass pieces that clink on the floor
like a Saturday morning cartoon character’s.
Except he doesn’t get back up.
And sometimes I am Yael.
I invite Hitler into my tent as he flees from his enemies.
He tells me he is thirsty, and I
give him milk, and he falls fast asleep.
I pick up a tent pin and hammer. I drive the pin
through his temple until it reaches the ground.
Other times I’m part of the plot to assassinate him
aboard his plane. This time I make sure
the bomb explodes. He falls faster and faster, crashing
with such force the earth swallows him up, as if he never
existed, and I’m sitting on the back porch, the sun is shining,
and all my grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles
are laughing and telling stories.
The Photograph in My Hand
My mother, four years old, blond curls,
wearing a smocked dress, in a field of goldenrod,
her doll on her lap and her dog at her side.
Two years later, the girl in the photograph
would be backed up against a wall at school,
by kids in her class for refusing to say “Heil Hitler,”
and they would throw rocks, beat her up, call her Jude,
her dress would be torn, and her parents
would have to find a way to get her out of Germany.
She would be sent to an orphanage in Amsterdam,
and they would wait two years for their visas
to America. I want to ask the girl what
would have become of her if her parents hadn’t
found a way out? Would she have survived?
Would she have been experimented on like her cousin Hanni
Who returned home after the war and rarely
left her room, or would she,
like another cousin, Bertl, have tried to cross the Pyrenees
into Spain and never be heard from again? What if Hitler had never come
to power, would she and her parents still have come to America?
Would she have met my father, and who would
she have married if she had stayed in Germany, and
who would she have become and what would have become
of me? I cannot let go of it.
The Way to a Visa
My mother tells me of the train
ride to the American Consulate in Stuttgart
when she was eight years old,
and of the jewelry that her mother owned,
and the window her mother opened at every bridge,
of the rings, bracelets, and necklaces she threw out
when Jews were ordered to turn in their gold
and silver, saving only her wedding ring.
My mother tells me of the doctor who makes her undress
and makes her mother leave the room.
He listens to her heart, checks for marks and bruises, and
she tells me of the shiny metal object he uses as he spreads her legs.
The visa was stamped, a red ribbon attached to its corner.
And my mother tells me of the red Mary Jane shoes her mother
buys her on the way back to the train and of her excitement
at seeing the statue of the Lorelei for the first time.
She tells me of the legend every German schoolchild learns,
and I sit in the kitchen, listening as my seventy-year-old mother sings me
her song: “I do not know what it should mean that I am so sad,
a legend from old days past that will not go out from my mind.”
Janet R. Kirchheimer’s moving collection of poems about the Holocaust, How To Spot One Of Us (2007), received endorsements from Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, Sir Martin Gilbert, and Rabbis Harold Kushner and Irving “Yitz” Greenberg (Chairman Emeritus of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council), as well as poets Mary Stewart Hammond, Yerra Sugarman, and Jeanne Marie Beaumont. Several poems from the book have been translated into Russian and appear on Russian literary websites.
Janet’s work has appeared in journals including Atlanta Review, Potomac Review, Limestone, Connecticut Review, Lilith, Common Ground Review, and on beliefnet.com and babelfruit.com, among others. She was awarded Honorable Mention in the Tiferet 2010 Poetry Contest, was a finalist in the Rachel Wetzsteon Prize from the 92nd Street Y, and received a Citation for her work from The Council of The City of New York. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2007. In 2006, she was a semi- finalist in the “Discovery”/The Nation contest and received a Drisha Institute for Jewish Education Arts Fellowship in 2006-2007. Her essay “Make Your Selection, Please” was a Jewish Telegraphic Agency feature article for Yom HaShoah (2006), and her essay, “Kristallnacht: How Will We Remember?” was a special feature in The New York Jewish Week in 2009. A popular speaker, she has appeared on radio programs around the country.
Janet has given several readings and taught at a variety of locales including the ADL/Hidden Child Foundation, Yeshiva University, Fairleigh Dickinson University, YMCA Men’s Club, Brooklyn and Queens Public Libraries, the Association of Jewish Family & Children’s Agencies, the JCC in Manhattan and Washington D.C., Hadassah, Poet’s House, Teachers and Writers, the Bowery Poetry Club, and various synagogues. As part of a 2009 Multi-National Forces Days of Remembrance Holocaust Memorial Service, she helped design the service, video-taped a reading shown at Camp Victory in Baghdad, Iraq, and judged a poetry contest for soldiers. In 2009, she spoke to over 200 high school students at the Westover School for their annual Holocaust memorial service, and in 2010 spoke to 300 fifth and sixth graders from the Yonkers public school system as part of Holocaust Remembrance Week.
Janet is a member of Chevrah Kadishah (the ritual preparation for Jewish burial), as are her parents. Through this experience, as with her poems, she has been able to transform her family’s pain into a moving tribute. “So many members of my family never had a burial and, as the daughter of survivors, the opportunity to give someone a proper Jewish burial is a great honor for me.”
A Teaching Fellow at Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, Janet conducts leadership development seminars, text study classes, and workshops in which adults and teens explore their Judaism through creative writing and poetry.
These poems are published here with permission of the author.