A true story, and a poem

Station on the Underground Railroad–the world has had many equivalents since, in Europe during WWII, in Afghanistan and Myanmar today…

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.




8 Responses to A true story, and a poem

  1. Mary Sunshine January 17, 2022 at 6:55 pm #


  2. Connie O Byrne January 17, 2022 at 7:22 pm #

    None of us really know what we’ll do when faced with such soul-racking decisions. We can only hope and pray we’ll be our best selves, living true to our values. Thank you so much for this sharing. And your poem is incredible!!
    As always, thank you for giving voice to the voiceless

  3. Martha Shelley January 17, 2022 at 8:29 pm #

    Thank you!

  4. Theresa Hill January 18, 2022 at 3:01 pm #

    I begin studying history through the eyes of my ancestors, I keep reminding myself of the old adage, a remembering so history does not repeat itself. I often wonder myself when are humans going to evolve to a place where are these horrors acted upon other humans cease. I tell myself that I can only control my own behavior. I hope that my morals and conviction are strong enough to do the right thing.

  5. Perry Brass January 18, 2022 at 7:16 pm #

    Thank you for the story, and the wonderful poem, Martha. I lived in Germany during the late 1970s—I had fallen in love with an American airman and decided to leave NY and live with him in a small town 2 miles from his air base, really out in the sticks. It was eye-opening and terrible, 30 years after the Holocaust, when a huge number of Germans were still in denial—even though evidence of it was constantly around us.
    I thought many, many times about “what would I have done?” then—how could I have faced it, or lived through it. I wouild like to believe i would have fought until I could not fight anymore, but the simple truth is that we were not there, and we have done what we could here at home, over and over, as best we could.

  6. Mary McCarthy January 20, 2022 at 6:52 am #

    Love the poem. And I agree, we keep doing what we can.

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