I began this poem after briefly sketching down some ideas following an encounter on the way to work. I live in Berlin, must take the M-10 tram from Frankfurter Tor to my stop on Danzigerstraße. One morning, average number of people on the tram, I was standing at one end with a quite older man on a single seat nearby.
He was very frail, and I estimated at least 85 or 90, and I noticed he had twice attempted to rise from his seat but couldn’t lever himself up. I, along with four other people, all younger than my forty years, stood watching him. I, with growing concern; they: curious but abstracted. They turned away even though anyone with empathy could clearly see the anxiety rising on the man’s bespectacled face.
Kann ich hilfe dich? I asked. “Can I help you?” though grammatically incorrect and informal German. He looked up at me, blinking in surprise, no doubt partially wondering about my sincerity or if I might ask something in return for doing so. He gave a bare minimum of a nod of acceptance, but relief was apparent.
His weight was scarcely more than a child’s. His back thin, the elbow in my hand skeletal. I could have carried him to his destination easily. The train stopped, he shuffled off, nearly knocked down by the young people who hurried around him, thoughtlessly buffeting him with their backpacks; many with fingers tapping away on their I-phones, completely self-absorbed.
Whether or not the background presented in this poem was the case with this old man, the situation prompted the dialogue in my mind. The photo at the beginning of this entry is, of course, one of the thousands I’ve taken across Germany, of one of millions of small memorial blocks you’ll find in this country, laid into sidewalks in front of buildings where Jews had lived (been taken from) or at certain locations, such as where they were immediately killed. The blocks show the name or names of people who were murdered by Nazis, where they were sent to have their lives ended, their date(s) of birth, and if known, their date of death.
Conversation With A Former Nazi
I have ordered to
and killed things
like you before.
But now you’ve
and you have
become a person.
A person who
knows what I did
extended a hand
to help me rise
from the train seat
when my old, tired
limbs gave out,
when my own looked on
and did nothing.
Why do you
help me now?
Because it costs
and it costs you
–2 October 2012
Other of my posts on the subject:
- War Babies
- Cold Memories: Germany 2004
- Listening to Others: An Old Piano Player
- “To Die” A Poem by Hannah Senesh With Commentary & Memories
- Review & Commentary on “Night” by Elie Wiesel
- Review & Commentary of The Men With the Pink Triangles by Heinz Heger
- Tearing the Silence: On Being German in America by Ursula Hegi
- Stones From The River by Ursula Hegi