We filed through the exhibits,
Charlotte and I taking turns
reading captions to Andy.
Herded into a freight elevator,
we rode to the top floor,
to the beginning of the War
where we were on our own,
descending floor by floor,
year by year, into history
growing darker, ceilings
lowering, aisles narrowing
to tunnels like the progress
of Andy’s vision over the years.
In Warsaw, his family owned
Maximillian’s Fur Salon
like a little Bergdorf Goodman’s,
doorman and French elevator,
furs draped on the Persian carpet,
over the blue velvet Empire chairs.
Andy was one of the lucky ones,
a Jewish boy escaping Poland
the day before the border closed;
playing card games with his cousin
in the backseat of the family Packard
as they inched through peasant villages,
trading mink coats for gasoline.
If his German shepherd guide dog,
Topper, isn’t there, it’s hard to tell
that Andy is blind, Andy’s blue eyes
look normal, and he stares
directly at you when you speak.
His bearded face, grave, listening,
as Charlotte and I stood to the side
describing photographs or reading
softly, quickly, in monotones,
so as not to attract attention,
casually, as if reading selections
from a menu. Guards warned us
that there were so many things to see—
thousands of bits of information,
photographs, newsreels, movies—
it would take us days to read it all.
That morning, I had dressed
in a black sweater and black pants,
black coat and black boots,
and Charlotte and Andy had, too,
mourners attending a mass funeral.
I knew that, eventually,
something had to break me down—
the cattle car, the crematorium door,
the confiscated valises of Jews
piled high and dramatically lit
as in a department store display,
or the room filled with nothing
but shoes—mountains of shoes—
each shoe still shaped to the human
foot it had once belonged to,
a man’s shoe, a woman’s shoe,
a left or a right shoe, its mate
lost in a pile somewhere;
dusty, scuffed boots and pumps,
heels worn down to the shank,
shoes that appeared to have walked
miles and miles to arrive here.
The odd thing was—
the room smelled like feet.
I managed not to cry.
Until a small snapshot of a girl
shot dead, lying beside her family
on a cobbled street—her hair
as long as my eight-year-old’s,
her coat, my daughter’s size—
stopped my words, and by then
Charlotte had started crying
and Andy was crying, too.
I didn’t ask what had triggered
each private grief.
When I couldn’t read, Charlotte
would continue mid-sentence,
when she choked up and had to stop,
I stepped in. We started developing
a rhythm, Andy’s hand placed
on Charlotte’s or my arm to guide him
through room after room of empty air.
Around us, weeping strangers
detoured around our little group
moving far too slow for them;
and as they passed they stared
openly at Andy
knowing he couldn’t stare back,
but they smiled at Topper straining
against his leash and metal harness,
they chuckled when Topper flopped
down sighing and nodding off
in the dark at Andy’s feet
each time we stopped to read.
A woman asked permission to pet him.
After those nightmare photographs
of snarling, muzzled, killer dogs,
what a relief to see
an ordinary one,
and something that wasn’t human.
Three o’clock. We were starved,
but nobody felt like eating.
Charlotte and I went to the ladies room
leaving Topper and Andy in the lobby
by the cloakroom, near a black family
putting on their coats.
The husband wanted to pet Topper,
and struck up a conversation
with Andy. “I see you’re blind,”
he said politely. “Do you understand this
any better than I do?” And Andy
shook his head and told him no.