I write this on MLK day.
My Israeli friend and ex-lover Ruth, who was born in Poland, told me that during World War II, her grandmother and a number of other Jews were hiding in an attic. They had to be very, very quiet so as not to tip off anyone who came to the house and might rat on them, perhaps Nazi soldiers, perhaps Polish collaborators.
Grandma was in the last stages of pregnancy and then went into labor. She had to keep silent throughout. By common consent, when the infant emerged, her companions drowned it in a bucket of water before it could take its first breath. Ruth was horrified to hear this, but her grandmother said the child couldn’t have survived anyway. Its cries would have alerted the Nazis, who would have killed everyone in the attic, baby included, and also whoever had been sheltering them. Besides, Grandma said, it wasn’t so terrible, as this was her tenth pregnancy. After the war, she survived and emigrated to Haifa.
Ruth’s story left me horrified as well. What does it mean when a woman has to deny the trauma of such an event? And how does going through ten pregnancies affect a woman, both physically and psychologically?
My mother’s family left Poland in 1921. I came into the world in 1943. If they’d stayed, I could have been that baby. Growing up in the U.S., I often wondered what I would have done if I’d been born a generation earlier, and in Europe. For Jews the options were limited: flee if you can, fight if you have the capacity. Some tried to save themselves by collaborating. In the long run most died. Yet what if I’d been a gentile? Would I have joined the Nazis or joined the Resistance? Would I have pretended not to see, or to ease my conscience by finding ways to blame the victims?
We can’t say what we might have done in another life. But every day brings its own choices, its own opportunities. What will we tell ourselves, when facing the long dark, when we weigh in the balance the deeds of our lives?
No superhero in tights and fluttering cape
will fly to the rescue
biceps the size of bowling balls
the big letter S across his chest
signifying that he alone can save us.
We only have an army of the ordinary
hundreds of hands on the ropes
that pull however many they can
up, up, and out of the abyss:
One forges passports
Another, in an embassy, drafts papers
for safe passage
Another hides the hunted in her attic
while a neighbor bakes bread,
boils rice for the refugees,
Another brings medicine if she can find it,
midwifes a clandestine birthing—
While hundreds in lands of evanescent
safety, remembering how our forebears fled
famine, slavers, and slaughterers,
knowing we might someday face the same fate
we prevail on the kindness of diplomats,
collect cash to pay
the guides who lead the fugitives
over the mountain passes to Pakistan,
cash to fuel the trucks with
families packed in the back,
to fuel the planes that fly them
to Qatar or Canada.
In each generation new pharaohs arise, fascists,
Taliban, Tatmadaw, Ku Klux Klan.
Our work will never be done.
We rescue as many as we can.
We may not abandon them.