Poem: Conversation With A Former Nazi

Stones of the Dead by Red Haircrow
Stones of the Dead by Red Haircrow

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
their deaths

and killed things
like you before.

But now you’ve
become people,

and you have
become a person.

A person who
knows what I did

yet still
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
me nothing,

and it costs you

–2 October 2012

Other of my posts on the subject:

4 thoughts on “Poem: Conversation With A Former Nazi

  1. I was station in Germany from 1976-1980. I met many people who were Nazi’s at one time. They would not discuss it. Sort of how us people discuss the slaughter of the Native Americans. I know soldier’s feel the pain of war. I carry many names of dead friends like rocks upon my shoulders. Thank you for sharing this poem.

    1. I’ve been fortunate as a German speaker, and one who has almost exclusively lived with and been around Germans of an older generation since I’ve came back to Germany in 2003, that I’ve been able to interview quite a number who shared their memories, thoughts and emotions regarding Nazi era Europe. Also having traveled to many of the former concentration camps, and continuing to make journeys to other notable if now deserted areas, it has been a need for me since childhood. So many nameless ones, it is a very curious feeling when you walk such places.

      1. I visit the death camps and many WW2 grave sites. Men had forgot the cost of war. They talk like war is easy. The people at the bottom pay the price for greed of land and hate. I enjoyed my time in Germany. Most kind and generous people I have ever met. I wish people would write down their memories. Real life can teach us not to repeat the same mistakes.

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