A Poet’s Reflections on Approaching the Edge

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

In looking at my two Holocaust poems–“Accident of Fate,” The Jewish Writing Project, May 14, 2012 (http://tinyurl.com/cpywfs5) and “One Holocaust Movie Too Many,” The Jewish Writing Project, August 22, 2011  (http://tinyurl.com/d7dt7po)–I can’t help notice that there is a sizable difference in perspective.

In “One Holocaust Movie Too Many,” the earlier one, I am the outsider looking in. I see pictures of the Holocaust, but the screen filters me from reality. I am there and not there, separated from the horror via celluloid and watching from a distance in present time where the world is safe and Jews can be proud of their heritage. In the poem, I do not hear the “awful trains,” except in a vague generational memory. I am as distant as anyone who has not been through the camps.

In “Accident of Fate,” there is a closer, deeper perspective. Yes, there is also the movie screen, but I wished in this poem to state much more emphatically that my involvement in the horror is much more than a memory. It is a feeling that I have been spared, granted life, but should not have been. Except for this accident of fate, I should have been in the barracks waiting to be put to death. The poem raises vividly an unresolved philosophical dilemma: why was I allowed to live while others were marched to the chambers? I realize, of course, there is no answer to this question. In the latter poem I am singed by the fires of the crematorium. I am there – far more so than in the first poem where I exist as a curious spectator.

My different vision for each poem was cast by personal history. My parents escaped Vienna in 1939, and I was born during the war in safe Switzerland. On some level (though not as much as my father), I have suffered from some kind of “survivor’s guilt,” never fully escaping the thought that I, very easily, could have been one more nameless victim.

I never truly understood my father’s torture, but I am beginning to see now that I am not totally unscathed from the horrible history. Though I did not fall in, my toe has always touched the rim of this terrible abyss. In the second poem I move closer to the edge.

Each time I approach the edge, I find myself compelled to write.

Here is a poem that I wrote after thinking about the process of moving closer and closer to that edge:

My Father’s Soul

Two Holocaust poems written months apart,
both describing horrors seen on the silver screen,
both touching on my escape from
the fires of the crematoriums.
In the first poem, I serve as spectator
seeing the barracks from a distance,
realizing I have been fortunate enough
to live free in a Jewish neighborhood.
In the second poem, I am the participant
with the growing sense
a part of me, a part of my father
still lives among the prisoners,
and what’s more, I have no business
being a survivor, being allowed
to live free in a Jewish neighborhood.
I am my father’s son;
his survivor’s guilt is my guilt.
His soul is my soul as I put
one foot ahead of the other,
casting my eyes upward at the smoke.

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years.  Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in a new YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy,  edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Jewish identity, poetry

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