Mrs. Rifka Straussman
You see me now in this frayed old photograph toned in sepia,
My tentatively perfect smile outlined in rich earthy gloss,
My gypsy-black eyes fixed sideways on an absent lover,
My felt hat tilted on top of my sleek dark chignon,
Round my neck the spotless high collar of my single holiday dress.
You see hopeful happy youth.
You do not see the wasted horror I became shortly
After the roundup and deportation in the village square-
After that surreal ride in the sealed cattle car on rails-
After they stripped me and shaved me and nearly showered me-
After they seared the blue number into my very soul.
You do not see the wretched wanderer I became shortly
After the Red Army liberated us shrunken scavengers and set us ravenous
To fight our own bodies to keep the single swallow of solid food down,
And afterward begin the grim search in hometowns and across seas
For the remains of the families.
You do not see the stubborn survivor I became shortly
After returning to the rubble that had been home and seeing
How they’d stolen my everything-
And how there was nothing and no one left for me in raped Berlin-
And how the only path out of living death was rebirth.
You do not see the resolute wife and mother I became shortly
After I married a long-ago neighbor who’d smelled the smoke
Of his daughter turned to cinder even as the stench
Of his wife’s charred corpse still flooded his flesh.
And despite them - and to spite them -
We raised six perfect children in the haven of New York.
You do not see the frayed old woman I became
As the years became decades and the nightmares faded in frequency
Until that September morning, staring at the screen with incredulous eyes,
I watched the mighty towers crumple to their knees amid roiling clouds of ash,
A scene that wrenched me into a new reality, Hitler triumphant,
And I had to fight the terrifying urge to call my grown children
To gather and flee.