Mizmor L'David Anthology 

 

Poetica Magazine
                                           Contemporary Jewish Writing

Steven Pelcman is a poet, short story writer and a novelist. He has been nominated for three Pushcart prizes. Steven has spent the last twenty-three years residing in Germany where he teaches in academia and is a language communications trainer and consultant. “Capturing the voices of humor or pain, making the small moments epic and witnessing the trials and tribulations of the human experience which captures the heart and mind is what drives the work.” The experiences of this poem are based on fact.


http://stevenpelcman.blogspot.de

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A Promise Kept
Steven Pelcman

(‘The dying does not stop
it breathes on one’s skin forever’ 1939- for mom)

Her body learns
by instinct to obey the pain
from beatings on her back
when she sits at the sowing machine
or walks across the yard in the camp
that holds her until the war ends.

Her back caves in from the baton
that strikes her and gives her flesh
the color that food or sunlight
could not offer so that when fatty mounds
of skin lump and force her shoulders
to lower and her side to curl

within itself, her neck strains and her torso
sidesteps as she walks which makes guards
laugh and strike her again and again.
Her short dark hair and freckles mapped across
her face protects her pale skin from burning
even in the grey flat air of a Polish winter

and her best friend, Miriam, who steals a potato
now and then and soaks it in dirty water
to make soup to help her stay alive
long enough for the bruises to soften
and the bones to stop aching so that
she can continue working as she passes the

‘Work makes you free’ sign hanging
from the gate under the smoke-full sky.
She knows the fate of her mother and sister
and brothers but not of her father
who as a peddler she had last seen
driving a wooden wagon and horses

to bring house goods to small villages in the Polish
countryside to sell and then buy food or seeds to plant
a small crop in the backside of their family home, when
war crashes through cities and forests and roads
like the narrow roads he takes to travel from village
to village only to return to a home cold and his family gone.

The wooden bunk she sleeps on reminds her
of father’s wagon rolling away into the distance
and she can hear the creaking of the wheels
as the freezing air batters at the barracks and turns
sound into memory she clings to, to not wish for her own death.
Her neck aches from looking down so that guards cannot see

her eyes, so that she is not remembered,
so that she is not dragged out of the barrack
and stripped and used for moments
when guards run out of cigarettes
so that they have something to keep their hands warm

and their bodies alive.
She lies at night next to the faint breaths
of a woman slowly dying and stares at her eyes
thinking of her mother or of her cat
that would find some spot to rest
with eyes dark and dead and its body folded
as if it was unhuman and thrown away.

Time is measured in whistles by guards
on the parade grounds, the stray bullets
harmonizing with their feet stomping
on the frozen-packed dirt waiting for the women
to run out shooting a straggler who takes too much time
and beating a woman to show strength and discipline.

The men’s camp, not far away is measured
by trying to guess how far the sounds of shots fired
in volleys need to reach them but each knows
the silence of a body falling to the ground
and how far sound travels as they line up
for a head count, their hair full of lice and as insignificant

to guards as the bodies thrown in piles
in a pit to be burned. She is only twelve years old
unused to thinking of age or death or marriage
or men but she hears the old women speak at night
in hushed words drowned out by the moans when women
still believe in living.

This is the beginning of nightmares and each day
women die, little children are stomped and crippled,
doctors would check their bodies, not for health
but to measure how many more days and weeks
they speculate before death will come before ordering
more victims to be enslaved in the camp to work.

In the dark hours, heads are propped up
as dolls so they can eat or drink or look up
and remember where light comes from
and breathe what little clean air exists.
From camp-to-camp life is this way
for 6 years until the war is over and she

learns that only her father survives
and had been in Russia till they meet in Germany
and travel to the United States
together on a ship half sinking
and full of partial families
and the ghosts and scars they carry.

She ages more crooked every year
her body yielding to the pain and torment
as nights burst into images that see her
running from guards and staring at the oven
clouds forming over the camp and scattering
ashes carried by wind across the grounds

as the sounds of boots running makes her
scream for twenty years seeing her mother’s
face till her husband wakes her gently
and she remembers her father’s promise
that she will stop dreaming once he is gone,
once there is no one left.