Friday, February 25, 2011

Folding down corners

(based on suggestions from @GretasTARDIS, @pinknantucket, @quadelle and @sorrel_smith)

How when the Nazis came

They were tucked in a cupboard

Saved by a wardrobe with no Narnia.

A slim book; The Upstairs Room.

I was nine, I yawned at church

Every Sunday with my father.

I listened, fidgeted, believed.

I ate my lunch with God.

I read in the bath, wrinkled wet pages.

A slim book; The Upstairs Room.

On page 95 I learned

About gas in a room like showers.

How they gave them soap

Led them in like cattle

Led them in like children

Promised icecream later.

A picky eater, I demanded

Plain pasta with butter (no parsley)

The exotic octopus balls and bonito flakes

Adults relished; it was ash in my mouth.

At night, I cried quietly about God

Worried myself raw over communion.

At page 95, I could not understand

How he made this chamber true.

In a dull hall of instruction

I cradled my green vinyl hymnal

Turned to page 95

And folded down the corner.

Every Sunday, like a quiet furnace

I drew a soft, warm text

From a dark oak slot and registered

My complaint with the angels.

I was nine, so I could not change history.

A picky eater; pasta with butter.

I could not feed those children

Or lead them away to ice cream.

A small show of revolution

A folded corner of protest

A whisper in a giant cathedral

‘I don’t believe you.’


The book, The Upstairs Room, is a 1972 YA novel (and was a Newbery honor book in the year Julie of the Wolves - which I also adore - won) by Holocaust survivor Johanna Reiss. It was my first introduction to the horrors of that time. The passage I'm referring to is a very brief and simple paragraph where the young Jewish protagonist Annie learns from an underground newspaper why they are hiding from the Nazis:

"Lots of people went into the shower-room holding pieces of soap in their hands, until the room was so full that the steel door could just barely be closed. No water was turned on. Gas was. It didn't take more than fifteen minutes. Most of the time everybody was dead when this happened."

In my copy this passage was on page 95. Every Sunday at church after that I folded down the corner of page 95 in the catholic hymnal I happened to sit in front of. I think I wanted to leave a mark of what I had learned, and how I could not equate the God of love I was learning about with Holocaust events. That's what I think in retrospect, anyway. At nine, I just needed to act somehow on what I had read on page 95. What an odd child.

Today's poem is based on suggestions from four people:

  • @GretasTARDIS: "Nazi Germany" (The Upstairs Room was Holland, but close enough)
  • @pinknantucket: "What about octopus balls? The tasty edible kind you get from Japanese restaurants with magical bonito flakes on top."
  • @quadelle: "Ice cream."
  • @sorrel_smith: "Therapy. I mean, social revolution."
The photo on this post is of Johanna Reiss (left) as a young girl. What a gorgeous little face.

In case you are wondering, as an adult I am atheist.


Mark D Osborne said...

There's a lot to be said for keeping horrors from children - do it, don't do it? Blithely I say to thee: I watched Dallas too young and it brought me pain when I tried the antics on my own parents. I was not yet seven.

Anna said...

At least it wasn't Prisoner.

ernmalleyscat said...

I think this one is brilliant. So many really memorable bits and the whole is a beautiful story of awakening. Amazing that it could be done on demand.

Anna said...

What a lovely comment, thankyou :)