Textbook history can be dry and seemingly lifeless, but the collective past of the human race is our touchstone to assessing where we might venture moving forward. In this era of fake news and tweets, with knowledge being devalued in many places, we need, more than ever, to rely on humanity’s history in all its truth, both the ugly and exemplary, to guide our decisions about what is happening around us, pointing where we might be headed.
Philosopher George Santayana made it clear that those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it. January 27 marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day, established by the U.N. General Assembly in 2005 to commemorate the 1945 liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau; it is dedicated to honor the memory of Jewish and other victims of Nazism. On April 23-24, the Jewish community will observe Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, established in Israel in 1953 and now observed in synagogues throughout the world to commemorate the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht once said, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” Today, when we see that the unspeakable has once more been given voice, the reprehensible again been granted license, then the poets among us – and I as a Jewish poet with a lineage back to biblical times – have a mission to bear witness, to sound the clarion call. I tried to express this idea in "The Poetry of Bearing Witness."
In Judaism, the requirement to remember (zachor) is a biblical imperative (Deuteronomy 25:17–19).
I remember the first time I visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. My wife Sheila and I had been invited to the wedding of a close friend’s daughter in Washington D.C. It was the end of August of 1998, five years after the opening of the museum and less than a month after the death of Sheila’s father, Albert Goldberg. Al had served as a tank commander in the 14th Armored Division, and had participated in the liberation of the camps. Finally being there, at the museum, felt like a pilgrimage for many reasons.
Upon entering, I was handed an identification card, one I still retain. It is card #6706. The name on the card is that of Max Krakauer, born April 1, 1901. At age 41, Max died, either in the forced-labor camp at Rejowiec or in an extermination camp in Poland. This, I will always remember. Learning and knowing – the truth and the facts – is the first step to living and acting responsibly. I offer the following poem as one more means to keep the flame of memory and truth ignited.
Sieg Heil/Their Shoes
“One wonders if these people are people at all.” (from keynote speech of Richard B. Spencer, November 19, 2016, NPI Conference, Ronald Reagan Federal Building, Washington, D.C.)
The shoes are made of iron
presumably to preserve the
symbolic footwear, but they are
attached along the Danube’s
stone embankment, so
perhaps the sculptor intended
that the splashing water
would with time
have its own effect;
sixty pair, men’s women’s
children’s. Starting In 1944
the fascist Arrow Cross Party
militiamen murdered Jews and
others along the river bank, the
shoes were considered of value, the
shoes alone, the victims in their panic
hastily were demanded to remove them
as shots rang out and writhing bodies
spilling blood flooded the water the dead
and dying to be carried by the current downstream;
the victims often knew their killers,
no blindfolds were used to mitigate
the circumstances, this was slaughter
at the water’s edge. Presented now oxidizing
“remains”—oxfords maybe for wearing
by a businessman on his way
to the office, a woman’s wedges to be donned
for shopping, a child’s saddle shoes to come
home from school.
“Sieg Heil/Their Shoes” was originally published in Cleaver Magazine. The photo that accompanies this post, taken by Nikodem Nijaki, is of a part of the sculpture "Shoes on the Danube Bank," created by scultor Gyula Pauer, to honor those killed by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen in Budapest, Hungary, during World War II.