From the Archive: “Yom Hashoah in Florida,” by Rick Hilles

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“Yom Hashoah in Florida,” by Rick Hilles, appeared in the Winter 2003 issue of MQR.


Here, the trees pay their respects, mourn openly,
  wear dreadlocks of hanging Spanish moss
sun bleached ash-blue and swaying; in seawind
  they become prayer shawls
salted with dust, grief threads of every kind
  of human hair, some washed ashore
in mollusk shells, some rescued from mass graves,
  appearing now as storm-torn curtains,
silver-blue and smoke-stained, as tattered
  boas flapper-thrown from bygone

Mardi Gras, sweat-ruined scarves and handkerchiefs
  hanging like empty hives of dried lilac
& wisteria. Squinting and sweaty in the midday heat
  I can almost believe they shine for the
unlikely blessing on Tadzik, my Ohio pediatrician,
  who emerged from a Warsaw Ghetto
bomb-flooded cellar & walked out drenched
  into the clutches of laughing armed SS
and lived. The Gestapo, in laughing, forgot
  to shoot Tadzik and the nurses—Bela,

Sabinka. His fiancée, Fredzia. Her brother, Henio.
  Maybe if I stare at them I will see that
these trees wear the torn clothes of the vanquished
  like medals: Bela’s torn blouse, her
skirt and underthings ruined at Umschlagplatz
  by Gestapo who pulled her by those prized
blonde streaming curls into another room . . .
  . . . and, later, on the train ride
to Treblinka, when Bela kissed Fredzia & said
  “Help me” and her hostaged

friends lifted her up together, up, like a child,
  up to the window without glass
—the train’s pistons pumping furiously now—
  her wish to fly finally fulfilled
when she pushed herself from the cattle car,
  as Pinek had instructed her,
and how in leaping she became a paper moth,
  before the rush of bullets pinned her
to the sky above the sun-scorched earth;
  if I look hard enough, I will see

these heaps of Spanish moss are the spun
  legacy of Henio Grin, the strewn yarn
of his lost story, for which there are still
  not words enough. Not for Henio,
who was sixteen and would not live to see
  another time. He was the first one
off the train at Maidanek, winning the prisoner
  race easily—by two whole lengths—
to the gated building beyond a field of dust,
  turning around an instant to cheer on

his slower friends, certain his track-star speed
  would save him, though it would not.
Only Tadzik, who stumbled, was saved
  when the SS egging them on held out
a white-gloved hand to block Tadzik’s last-place
  finish to the death showers, an act both
merciful and arbitrary. My doctor was shoved
  aside, and the Gestapo said: “You
idiot” and “Don’t be afraid, your death won’t
  amount to one flash of lightning

in the night sky.” And what if the trees in Florida,
  covered as they are with Hawaiian
leis and luau dancers’ skirts & struck piñatas
  whose treasures kids made off with
long ago, are also a kind of code still waiting
  to be cracked, saved ticker tape & streamers,
fanfare for homecoming parades that won’t happen
  till everyone comes home. Or they are
the nests of promises, each strand thrown
  by a spouse whose marriage vows

extend beyond the grave; the mosses certainly are
  woven of Bela’s braids, and countless others,
which now smell forever of summer & brush
  fires near everglades. For each specter circling
the earth, and all who still believe blue Shoah smoke
  shall block our way to Paradise, the trees
observe this breach, the break in covenant. Listen.
  How gently they rattle their worry beads
for us on a day that begins in Hebrew at sunset.
  When the first three night stars are visible.


Image via Florida Memory.

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