by Ruth Sabath Rosenthal
i. Raus! Raus!
father shaking me awake
father shaking in fear
raus, raus, dreckige Juden!
father yanked from my grasp
me grasping at air
raus, raus, dreckige schweine!
soldiers dragging Jews
out of their homes
into the streets of our village
the menfolk separated
from their women and children
menschen! geh da rüber! menschen! geh da rüber!
mütter, weitergehen! kinder, weitergehen!
wide-eyed women and children
catching sight of their fathers, grandfathers, brothers, uncles
being lined up in the town square
me spotting my father
schnell, schnell, Jüdische schweine!
me shoved onto
one of many waiting military trucks
along with my mother, sister, brother, and neighbors
my ears ringing from the gunshot blasts
tears streaming down mother’s face
me huddling her trembling body
she clutching my wailing sister
gripping the hand of my little brother
wetting his pants
our truck packed
latches locked in place
motor upon motor thundering
we plunge into the dark
- “out, out, filthy Jews!”
- “out, out, filthy pigs!”
- “men! get over there! men! get over there!”
- “mothers, keep moving! children, keep moving!”
- “quickly! quickly! Jewish pigs!”
ii. The Dark
is a Yugoslav concentration camp where I go to sleep
hungry and thirsty and cold. Sleep, on a filthy floor,
huddling with my mother, sister, brother — riddled with
lice, rats running rampant. Passing each day, dazed,
just sitting around except for garbage detail and
cleaning soldiers’ latrines and other chores
given us by the Germans guarding us, all of us
wait for what, we don’t know.
Me, trying to be grown-up for my mother, act like
father to my brother and sister. All the time frightened
of doing something that angers the soldiers — living
with that, awake or asleep. And in the dark of night,
what fills my head I can’t even put into words; it keeps
me awake, till I doze off. When I wake, it’s hard
separating what’s real from what isn’t. I feel helpless,
as does everyone around me. I see it in their eyes.
Escape is what grownups whisper any chance they get,
yet I don’t think they believe they can pull it off. But,
when a German victory had the guards celebrating,
I, along with my mother, sister, brother, and a handful
of willing cellmates — do escape — no long-time plan,
just a spontaneous flight: Slivovitz, passed round to
soldiers guarding us, left a drunk guard off guard —
that, the impromptu cue for an exquisite Jewess
to single-handedly lift keys off the snoring soldier
she’d so thoroughly pleasured moments before
he passed out. What brilliance! What bravery!
I’m so proud of us, so relieved, yet frightened
to death. Under cover of darkness, hours and miles
away we are still whispering. “Magical” is the word
describing the escape we can’t stop talking about,
and we hear “magical” escape stories from those,
like us, who’d fled other camps and are hiding with us
deep in the woods. Stories of courage and daring shared
in hushed murmurs. And through that sharing, we learn
that our escape had taken place only days before our camp
(and other camps) were emptied of the fellow Jews left
behind — each one in the dark about where they were
being taken. We fear the worst, as whispers of “death”
camps are coming to us by way of the Partisans
who’d rescued our little band of Jews, and who have
me doing whatever Tito’s generals want. And, though,
living with the Partisans is strange (and, for me, scary)
it’s nowhere as scary as the concentration camp was.
Here, we are well fed and get all the water we want
and my family is safe enough, though I’m not
because of what I do in the darkness of night,
in the denseness of the mountainside.
Always, there is darkness in the wilderness I tiptoe
through, shoeless, machine gun slung over one shoulder
and, strapped across the other, a leather pouch
holding coded messages I deliver encampment to
encampment. Locations I was trained to find
in the dark, even in rain. Focus! Focus! And — focus on
blocking out thoughts of being captured and tortured.
Me, a recruited Partisan Courier being sent into
the wilderness, night after night. The same darkness
my family and I escaped into, before being rescued
by the same people now sending me back there.
“He’s only a boy!” Mother pleaded. “Tall for his age,
yes, but only eleven. Please, please believe me!”
And when she learned I could be promoted to Saboteur,
targeting German soldiers transporting war machinery
through Yugoslavia’s Mosor mountain villages —
the same villages the Partisans live as farmers hiding
families like mine — she cried for days, spends hours
week upon week trying to get us to a place where
we can be safe.
Each night, returning to my farmhouse hideout,
the communications I’d been charged with delivered
hours before, miles away, the fear almost freezing me
begins melting away. And in the moments it takes me
to hang up my courier bag and machine gun, I’m ready
for the evening meal of pit-roasted mutton and stone-
ground bread, washed down with goat’s milk. Then,
a foot soak (weekly, a full-body scrub), followed by
deep sleep, swaddled in hand-woven blankets,
on the cement floor of a cellar hidden below
a wooden trap door. And, come summer, when
it’s the end of July, plans for me and my family,
and other escapees, to go to America should be
ready. Imagine! In just a few months, we’ll be
on our way to America! It’s guaranteed we will
find safe haven there, because everyone knows
America is the land of the free, home of the brave.
And we are the bravest people I know!
i.v. Into the Light: Safe Haven, 1944
Thank God for you, Henry Gibbins, ship of dreams
filled with my bedraggled brethren dark and fair,
tall and short — all frail-boned and gaunt —
each of us a survivor reborn in the wake
of conscience, reborn on this buoyant sea revered
for strong currents and changing tides, fresh air
filling the sunken chests and ashen lungs of those
who’d escaped the fires of Auschwitz-Birkenau,
Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau, Treblinka…
Yes, thank God for you, Henry Gibbins —
your sky-crowned decks surrounded by sea-
speckled rail — a far cry from barbed wire!
And during hours of German bombardment,
the shelter of stalwart bulk, mahogany halls,
tier upon tier of canvas hammocks —
warm blankets and soft pillows helping
to smother my nightmares, set in motion
sweet dreams; dining hall, with cornucopias
of vegetables and meats, kaleidoscope
of treats swelling shrunken bellies, smoothing
withered souls; and treasured beyond belief —
glistening white toilets! You are America
to me! The America of my dreams! Home
of the free and brave!
Note on “Into the Light: Safe Haven, 1944”
The Henry Gibbins, a United States army transport, first launched in 1942 as the Biloxi, was delivered to the Army Transportation Service on February 27, 1943, renamed, and readied for the purpose of transporting 1000 holocaust survivors (982 Jews) to the United States from Naples Italy, on or about July 17, 1944, under an order signed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and carried out by his emissary Ruth Gruber and American Repatriation Officer, Captain Lewis J. Korn.
After 17 perilous days, the exodus, named **“Operation Safe Haven,” arrived mid-afternoon August 3, 1944 in New York Harbor — the Statue of Liberty literally rising out of a rainy-day haze.
The sojourn from unimaginable tyranny and enslavement, to peril on the high seas, to eventual safety on dry land, continued, by railroad, to Oswego, New York’s army base, Fort Ontario, which had been converted to a refugee camp.
It was on August 5th, 1944, that the bedraggled group of survivors arrived at the fort, and there, for 18 months, tended their wounds and immersed themselves in the process of healing and preparing for their moves into houses and apartments across America and any countries, world-wide, that proclaimed them welcome.
Today, the site of Fort Ontario serves as a memorial to these survivors. The fort’s administration building, renamed “Safe Haven Museum and Education Center,” houses priceless photographs and documents mapping the extraordinary exodus out of darkness, into the light.
** not to be confused with “Project SAFEHAVEN – tracking Nazi gold” — an operation designed by The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to root out and neutralize German industrial and commercial power wherever it might be found.
RUTH SABATH ROSENTHAL is a New York poet, well published in literary journals and poetry anthologies throughout the U.S. and also in Canada, France, India, Israel, Italy, Romania, and the U.K. In 2006, Ruth’s poem “on yet another birthday” was nominated for a Pushcart prize. Ruth has authored 4 books of poetry: “Facing Home” (a chapbook),“Facing Home and Beyond,” “little, but by no means small” and “Food: Nature vs Nurture.” These books can be purchased from Amazon.com (USA). For more about Ruth, “google” her and visit her website: www.newyorkcitypoet.com