The crematorium’s ashes turned by tears to mud
oozed into my veins. First, Masha told me of long-
past joyful Vilna days, how her boyfriend’s twin
fooled her once in a dark movie house and stole
a kiss. The twins both died. She never explained–
only her distant cousins in Johannesburg remained.
There was no need of it. Even a child of seven
absorbed that something unspeakable occurred.
Twenty years later, thinking myself lucky
to have been born later, and in America,
I learned the hollow solace of this lie. No.
My forebears had died, by dozens, in Ukraine–
my great great grandfather Schmezell, tied
by his beard to a horse’s tail and dragged
until dead. In 1941, in Dobrinka–the little
town, they called it, though only the number
who escaped was small–murders were vast,
open as the sky, felling even those who had
avoided Stalin. Days before, my few cousins
rode on a strand of track east to Omsk the last
train bound for life and returned, via Gorky, in ’44,
to precious Dobra of ash. Their Ukranian neighbors
said how like Pogroms it was. Except in 1941,
the year of Dad’s Bar Mitzvah,
Hitler’s men shot all, saving the horse only
for the Zitser patriarch, for whom Dad was
named Saul. I don’t think he ever knew.
The poet gives grateful acknowledgment to Ruah for first publishing “How it Happened” in The People Bear Witness, which won Ruah’s 2000 chapbook award. The poem also appeared online in Summer 2000, at Kota Press, Issue 4, Journal 7.
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