Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Case of Jakob W. (Poem)

The Case of Jakob W.

You say you see
nothing: you have
lost your right eye.

You say you hear
nothing: you can't
pick up the sound

in your right ear.
You say you are
just a guard, alone,

with a clear view
of the whole camp
from your tower.

You say it's God's will
you are six meters
above the ground,

not in a firing squad.
You have a week
of daytime shifts—

twelve hours long—
are not forbidden
a Bible, you have

never shot anybody
nor seen a soldier ever
shoot a single Jew.

You say you cannot
leave, you get used
to everything—day

and night that fire
burns, never goes out,
it is so huge, it is

impossible to look
away and you do not
complain but show

your brother (a soldier
also) the crematoriums
and later visit a bar.

You say it is chance
you are in Auschwitz.
You are in the last car,

seated alphabetically,
and have to go, you do
not have any choice,

you go where they say
as they read the names
aloud from "S" to "Z",

your own last name
beginning with "W".
You do not complain,

and when you step up
and encircle the train,
you have no feeling,

no guilt that you must
guard the Jews and do
not hit, kick, or kill any.

That summer of '42
you are drafted,
your hair's cut short,

your arm tattooed, you
can't get away (everyone
knows) standing in cold

standing in heat, playing
skat, drinking beer after
hours where the girls are.

You do not mention you
are part of the selection
on the unloading ramp.

You do not claim to know
what goes on, in the camp
you do not feel anything

like guilt, like a criminal
after all, you give to the Jews
what's left of your bread.

You say again you do not
remember questioning,
your insight's not extensive.

You are forced to serve,
cannot help any of them,
how are you supposed to—

it is absurd—if you desert,
you are shot. You are not,
Jakob W., no, you're not.

This poem is inspired by a recently published German newspaper's interview with a 91-year-old former Auschwitz guard who claims to "bear witness" but concedes "no moral guilt" because he was "just a guard" in a watchtower.

1 comment:

Peggy Rosenthal said...

A chilling poem, as of course it's meant to be. I'm awed by what you do with the final stanza, implicitly questioning his very identity as a human being.