Below the surface of birdsong, under opaque lids, are the demons,
Memories out of context that break me into pieces so I don't know who I am,
Only feel shame, shortcomings.
Spring has driven out the cold silence and turned the early morning to pure sound.
The dawn that started yesterday, or I-don't-know-when,
Bleaches the lines, the minutes.
Yearning is in the daffodils outside the front door, past waking and dressing.
Under these membranes they seem unreachable,
A jungle of avian chatter between us.
The aperture of noise and light expands and forces eyes lined with weariness to open,
Knowing it will have begun narrowing when all creation is at its loveliest,
A grand design to keep longing alive.
Remarks delivered at a manifestation for Ukraine at Leksand Church, Sweden on 10 April 2022.
My remarks are in English so that our Ukrainian guests may understand.
Opa, my grandfather, hungered for the black soil of Ukraine. He was an SS man, a real Nazi, a fanatic complicit in hounding unarmed men, women, and children in occupied Poland where he was stationed throughout WWII. But he never reached his goal. Blinded by his own racism, and unhinged ambition, he believed that the enemy would soon collapse by virtue of its own weakness. At his life’s lonely end, in the interior of Brazil, the country of my birth, he searched revisionist literature endlessly for answers as to why the war had been lost. In such accounts, the Holocaust, the murder of millions, was downplayed or unmentioned.
My wish for today, apart from this war and all its suffering ending as soon as possible, is that someday in the not-too-distant future, the child or grandchild of a Russian perpetrator will stand here before you in my place. He will tell you about the atrocities committed by his forefathers, the silence about them in his family, and the shame that formed his life. She will relate to you the way that lies and taboos asphyxiated her family―that no one escapes genocide unscathed― and that one day all this became unbearable. He will explain that the dam inside him broke, and that he decided to learn the truth for himself. She will describe the heart-rending meetings with the families of the Ukrainian survivors. These won’t have been easy, and neither should they have been. But by listening and not flinching from the truth, a transformation will begin to take place inside of him. The shame that she has borne for so long will be reborn as responsibility. He will seek out his grandfather’s victims and their families and, unimaginable as it is today, they will stand together and offer the world trust and hope. This work will never end and will keep opening itself like a never-ending succession of romanesque arches.
Now I would like to read to you a beautiful poem in Swedish by Nobel Prize winning poet Tomas Tranströmer about our human complexity and the pride of being a work in progress; our humanity, a never-ending succession of Romanesque arches.
Romanska bågar/Romanesque arches
In a hollow of winter in spring,
Night descends releasing snow
without a sound
A trinity of deer leaps down the hill like music
In graceful arcs past sculpted bushes,
over the lawn under the palace lights
The wisdom of pines,
Branches heavy with men's wars,
manifests in stillness
What is our word?
From the gut of night you reply, peace,
On a walk in Drottningholm Park on the evening of 8 April 2022.
Riding with a strong woman,
Stealing just one glance
From she who chose the people,
With us delayed on the tracks.
Riding with a strong woman
Over bonfires and burning stakes,
Honour the witches and the whores,
The mothers who died with their babes.
Riding with a strong woman
Winter yields to spring,
Come with us, young wenches,
To peace this world we'll bring.
On riding the train with Sweden's first female prime minister.
What does it take to break out of the story,
To free oneself of its confines,
Not to be its victim?
What is needed to overturn its humiliations,
Those blockages to the heart?
How do you steel yourself to the tyrant,
A vulture to grievances,
Hungering to starve you of freedom from anger's shackles?
How can you face your nearest,
Those mired in the myth, and say to them, "Enough?"
For as long as you remember your own hurt through the autocrat's filter
You walk the earth tatooed with dead children,
Living as a prisoner to be fattened with lies and devoured.
Putin has called his war "a special military operation to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine." While this description may seem absurd to most of us, it taps into grievances still felt in Russian families, perpetuating a viscious circle of never-ending self-victimization. Putin needs this sense of indignation to run strong in order to maintain public support as his war brings hardship upon his own people. For years there has been a neo-Nazi battalion in the Ukrainian army (see the Azov fighters), but, unpalatable as their views are, the reality is that they are a small group, many of them have Russian as their first language, and their ideology is more similar to Putin's ultra-nationalism than any brand of nationalism to be found in Ukraine. The idea that Kyivs "fascist junta" wants to cleanse East Ukraine of Russian speakers is exaggerated.
Victory over Nazi Germany in 1945 represented both a high point in a humiliating Russian century and a low point: During WWII Russians lost more of their countrymen than any other Soviet Republic, and the Soviet Union more citizens than any other country. There are many Russian families with a story from the Great Patriotic War, as WWII is known in Russia - Putin has shared his version of the fate of his own family's suffering in public repeatedly. The rapid onset of the Cold War meant that this loss of life went relatively unacknowledged by the rest of the world, a humiliation that was compounded both by the miserable conditions of the Soviet Union as well as ironically its collapse in 1991. For a few years, world leaders attended Victory Day on the 9th of May, Russia's biggest annual celebration, until Putin's invasion of Crimea in March 2014 made attendance unpopular.
Putin has long worked hard to erase the Soviet Union's duplicitous role in WWII in which it forged an agreement with Hitler to divide up Eastern Europe until the Reich turned on it with Operation Barbarossa in 1941. It is no coincidence that even discussing this period in Russia today is regarded as a criminal offense. Between Putin's tampering with history through his memory laws and the earlier relentless Soviet propaganda machine, Russians have had limited opportunity to come to terms with their nation's role in this traumatic event.
This type of grievance is notoriously difficult to shed, even in societies that are free. For example, while some German families continue to cultivate a sense of victimization for their unrecognized, unmourned suffering and war losses (I come from one of them), their standard of living improved rapidly and to such an extent as a result of the Marshall Plan and West Germany's integration by the liberal democracies that this sense of grievance didn't have the chance to affect political stability. Importantly, citizens have the option of access to facts if they so choose. It is no coincidence that in the 2000's the far right in Germany flared up in the eastern part where, under the East German totalitarian regime, myths about the "fascist" west blanketed any serious confrontation with history. The same has been true in other parts of the former eastern bloc, including in Poland where it is illegal to claim that Poles were complicit in the Holocaust - the myth that they were solely victims must be upheld in order for governing politicians to play on the public's sense of grievance. Ukraine's very own Azov fighters might be seen as a symptom of the same problem.
Efforts by descendants to face their families' and communities' pasts with honesty must continue for these old bombs to be diffused. Even without Putin, the same will be necessary for the emergence of a peaceful Russia.
It was the only thing he left to me
Father, O, of mine,
That book of our small blunders
All marked with those red lines.
“We could have had that living space
If only we’d manoeuvred high,
If the people hadn’t betrayed us,
Understood that might was right.
Black soil melts through my fingers,
Butter we deserved to till,
To know one’s dreams but never taste them
Is an injustice to the will.”
“Ola!” squawks the parrot,
A reminder a thousand times,
The black soil, it eluded us,
Spat us out to distant climes.
Concerning a book that my grandfather - a Nazi and SS man with ambitions in Ukraine whose life ended in hiding in Latin America - left to his son about the reasons their efforts to overtake the region failed.
Look the tyrant in the eye
And you will see a fatherless boy,
Or one whose father, called away,
Left the gaps that filled with hate.
Don't be tempted by your fear,
See the boy's loaded tear,
Falling, without a father's notice,
Into the mud of gangs and mobsters.
Pierce forthright into his soul,
Inject the vial, with even flow
Refill the gaps with all you know,
Love that boy, never let go.
Written for my friend and mentor, Emerich Roth. A Holocaust survivor who devoted his life to overcoming hatred with love, especially among boys deserted by their fathers.
Gnarled by discernment,
Petite as out of a doll's house,
or another dimension where the unicorns roam,
Sort the fast slow food she would rather dignify with a fork,
At a PEN meeting, of all places, where there should be porcelain
- it's cultured, for goodness sakes -
But there is only this plastic box that rattles and shifts like an inmate's tin cup.
She is the only one
A bite cannot be wasted
- once there were just five lumps of sugar left in her whole world.
What would happen when those were gone?
Maybe the unicorns would come,
although, in as much as she held fast to them, she knew one could not think that way.
Her whole town had - now she was one of the few left.
Authors in the room
Anoint one another,
Assuming importance by meeting other significant authors,
the importance of which is so oppressive -
heating and swelling the temples - that one looks for a way out,
Any way out at all.
She, so near her food,
Remains cool and silken
- it's just another association meeting,
Faithfully to be attended.
Those slim fingers,
Of vein-marbled hands,
Are topped by brittle ribbed nails,
Filed to a point like thinly painted fish teeth.
"May I sit here?" I ask.
She looks up,
Across the table
- eating is not a game.
I cannot hear her reply under the drone of transactions overhead,
Only see her by herself,
quintessentially alone, from beginning to end,
The mirror of everyone else - the reason no one talks to her.
I fill her long, ancient ears
With my sad tale,
And she says,
Deflated, I recount.
"You musn't concern yourself about such things,"
In my notebook,
are scribbled in retired teacher's hand
Under my to-do list that never got done,
All seemed once so urgent
- no more, now that I know,
She took Alice in Wonderland with her on the train to Auschwitz.
Part I of a series dedicated to my friend, Adéle Schreiber, who died of complications due to COVID just shy of 100.