Hannah’s Letter to Her Grandparents, Berlin
Dear Oma and Opa,
Yesterday, we heard bombs. After they hit the zoo, we saw birds showing off their brown, blue, and red wings around the city. I found a stray bright red feather on the sidewalk this morning like a small trail of blood undecided where to lead me. It reminded me of the poppies in your garden. Do you think those birds will find new nests? They were so used to living in cages. We heard a lot of gunfire. Papa said it was from keepers killing bears and tigers they raised as cubs, not trusting them to wander the streets. When it got loud, I burrowed myself under my bed. Mama and Papa hid in the empty pantry until it became quiet and all was back to normal.
Do you hear explosions and gunshots at your new house? Is there a good place where both of you can hide? Are there poppies and daffodils in the garden of your new house? Do you have a big window with a bench where I can play and read my books? Opa, I miss you reading the newspaper to me in the morning. Oma, does your new house have a big kitchen where we can decorate cakes and make different flavors of challah? I miss watching your hands kneed dough for me to roll into strands for braiding. I miss you letting me dip my finger into the cinnamon and sugar for a taste.
You were supposed to write as soon as you got to the new house, but we haven’t heard from you. Let us know how you’re getting settled.
September 9, 1941
Berlin, November 18, 1941
When we arrive, Mama might bake a kugel
of noodles, raisins, sugar, or Papa might smoke
a brisket to celebrate our new home. Maybe
Oma and Opa will wave from the platform
as we approach the train station. Opa will
lift me up, his body hunching while wearing
me on his shoulders the way Papa wears
our laundry bags. We leave behind faces
in picture frames I hold to remember Oma
singing Shema to me as we stared out my window,
squinting eyes to find the faintest star,
and Opa teaching me how to make paper
planes, letting me draw feathers on them.
As we threw them, we mimicked engines
and birdsong with our voices. His
was a deep raven’s croak, mine—
a soft and controlled thrush’s call.
Mikhail’s Letter, Minsk Ghetto
I wish I knew why you and Daddy left. Sometimes, Mommy holds one of the shirts that you left up to her face and takes a deep breath. It’s the same way that she used to breathe in the bouquets of lilies that Daddy gave her on her birthdays. Remember the honey spice cookies she used to bake for us on our birthdays? Sometimes, right before I take a bite of my bread, I imagine it being one of those cookies. Mommy says that no one has sugar or honey anymore. Sometimes, I don’t save some of my food for later, and my stomach will hurt from eating so much all at once. It’s a much better feeling than hunger, though. Sometimes, Mommy yells at me for eating too much too quickly. That makes me sad, but I don’t let her see my tears. You told me never to let anyone see me cry, to be like them— firm, head held high.
November 20, 1941
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same…
—Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
Even as a child, I knew to leave
out the o. The o, its nod to moons,
planets, stars, and spiral galaxies.
Aristotle observed that the cosmos,
or heavenly bodies were circular.
The way our solar system is shaped,
perfection moves in circles. All things
down to their microscopic makeup
are circular—atoms and their structure.
When I leave out the o, I am leaving
all of science behind. The Yahwists,
egocentrics writing about Him, center
of all, believing His focus was an ideal
Vitruvian Man, could not imagine
other planets while writing Genesis.
When I write the dash, I apply tradition.
If I were to trade the dash for an o,
I would need to become a gravedigger,
burying paper deep into the ground
with the same respect as a person—
covering it with a pall like the shrouds
of my grandparents and their parents.
I will wear one when I die, after the Chevra
Kadisha—group of Jews trained to cleanse
the dead—writes dashes across my body
with sponges dipped in water, erasing
all dirt and memories, preparing me
for death as a nurse in the hospital
prepared me for life. After I have settled
into the dash-shaped simple pine box,
without nails, without metal hinges,
to become one with the earth and all
its organisms as my ancestors went
and descendants will go, I will break
down into ordinary atomic matter.
My hope—the founders
of thermodynamics were correct
in that energy truly can neither
be created nor destroyed.
Avraham’s Tailor Shop
Kristallnacht, November 9-10, 1938
Waists puff out; legs, backs straighten
for the measuring.
A needle has
to stitch together what tore, what was
always separated or reveal blood.
A single shard tears
skin into red
A single boot turns breath into a zephyr.
Their sea of hammers reveals sidewalks
blanketed with splintered doors,
What image should I create
with my broom, dustpan?
A deity who sweeps
At what point in looking back, will
one of us become a pillar of salt?
They smash it all in His name
or against His name,
but what they rip,