“Those Damn Jews …”


At Auschwitz I stood on the caved-in gas chamber by the vent through which the canisters of “Zyklon” gas had been dropped into the room crowded with naked men, women, and children. I felt my Jewish grandfather who had fled Poland, the Cedar Rapids rabbi pointing at things and speaking their Hebrew names, old Gabe battling pain like a boxer, Reba who hired me for a Shabbas goy , the old man in Berlin who loved Rilke’s books, his daughter Rebekah, whose eyes are on me as I write these inadequate words, I felt them walking toward me with their devoted but accusing eyes.

I was back with my own Jews. I was home. The railroad tracks that had carried those suffering people were just beyond the place where I stood. A thin whistle of a train on its way to Krakow. The dead crying.

The white birches trembled their leaves in the white sunlight (the Nazis had called the place Birkenau , “the place of birches”). My feet sank into the concrete. I was too moved to move.