Prose from Poetry Magazine

Like Soldiers Marching

by Rachel Cohen
My cousin Sophie, a cousin of my grandmother’s, sometimes says to me that she wishes she knew someone who spoke Polish, and who knew the poems she knows, she would just like to talk about poetry now and again. Once or twice she’s told me of how her mother, gone these sixty years, used to read poetry aloud when Sophie was a girl. Sophie was quick with languages, has always been quick, first with Polish and then with the German of the camps, and after the war Swedish and English, then Hebrew in Israel, and English again in America. Polish, though, is the language of her family and childhood, and she was quickest with Polish. “I would read a poem once,” she says, “and close my eyes and it would get organized in my head.” There are a few pictures of her from that time, a girl with a kind of joyousness, her head up, alert, her angular arms flung out. She is still girlish and joyous and alert, though less angular in her age.

Sophie can still recite, in its entirety, a poem critical of the first world war by Bruno Jasienski written in an unusual pattern with just two syllables—“like soldiers marching,” she says—on a line. She learned it one afternoon in the Warsaw ghetto. She was with her mother, and they were running from the Germans, who were blocking each street at both ends and then going through all the houses one by one. The two of them ran to the top floor of a building, where one of the apartments had a broken door. Sophie’s mother thought the Germans might see the broken door and think the apartment had already been searched, so they went inside. The apartment still had its furniture. There was a book of poems open on the bed. “My mother thought I was crazy,” Sophie said, “but I started reading. Never in my life have I wanted so much to just go into another country. I wanted to walk into that book. I memorized the poem. The Germans were in the building—they threw a baby out a window, I saw a woman jump. I remember thinking ‘A’ is a shelter you can go into, ‘M’ is a bridge you can walk across.”

The Warsaw ghetto was the last place she saw her parents and her younger brother, Stefan. From there, Sophie went into the camps, at fifteen, alone. She was in fourteen camps; she was in Majdanek and in Auschwitz and in Bergen-Belsen. At Bergen-Belsen they did no work, they were just kept—“they almost didn’t feed us”—and lights-out was very early. “That was the time for poetry,” Sophie says. In the evenings, lying on the boards they slept on all together, she recited poems, out loud, ones she remembered from school and from her mother. She has a high voice, unusually sweet, that has a little quaver in it. In English she always pronounces every letter in a word, which has the effect of seeming to recognize each word and to value it.

Once, some thirty years after the liberation of the camps, Sophie was working in the office of the United Nations Association in Washington DC, where she was the executive director for many years, and a woman came by who had a Polish accent. They began to speak, and it transpired that they had both been in the camps, and in some of the same camps. “I thought so,” said the woman, “you used to recite poetry at night, I recognized your voice.”

“Poetry,” Sophie says sometimes, “is how I kept my language. For years I had no one to speak Polish with, and I would sit and remember poems. The way I feel it is like pulling threads out of my mind, you pull a line and then you pull another line. That’s how I still have my Polish. I was in touch with that lady for many years, but now I have no one who I can talk with about those poems of long ago.”
Originally Published: March 1, 2006


On January 13, 2007 at 7:59pm Ron Cohen wrote:
Dear Professor Cohen,
Your beautiful note brought tears to my eyes and that flood of memories of Brooklyn in the 1940s and 50s, specifically my parent's kitchen table at 1308 Ditmas Ave. where my Nana Mae, held court. Uncle Izzie, Aunt Sonja from Russia and the never ending stream of "uncles and aunts," would "come, sit, drink some tea, have a bite herring, some schmaltz on pumpernickel..." and I would sit, listen, adore these big, rough hewn forces who spoke from the heart (well, I was four years old when first honored to fetch seltzer from the basement) and Mom and Dad, Nana and Moma Lil (Dad's mother) wanted my brothers and me to be "yankeees," which I think meant being "other directed" in the terms of the day, at least not being in the softgoods line, let alone lawyers (my Dad was one and loathed it). Memories, the smell of Nana's cooking, but my note is unbalanced: they came to see Nana with troubles and they left with instructions, calmer.
Even then, before Hebrew School, Sunday school, Bar Mitzvah, before having a family, before my children having families, before a divorce, before finding love in the very beginning I believed in the Redemption of the World through Good People Doing Good, and that Nana Mae must have been one of the Wise. Such anguish came across that table (and all those tables that followed) across 5 generations, from those much older than Nana to those much younger than I and, till the end: her ear was true and her vision clear. Luckily, in contrast, I was the beneficiary of her love.

The War and Survivors: I just deleted the page relating to our European and Russian hosts from the 3d to the 20th Centuries. My own burning curiosity, however, got he better of me so I decided to take a post doc in 1966 in Germany, at the German Institute for Physics and Technology (main post, Braunschweig, reviving post, West Berlin where I saw Einstein's former office shown by someone old enough to remember...another story) after reading every book in English translation about the War, the Camps, the Resistance(s) in each and every country, and the then amazing story that the US and British high command including FDR knew the whole story and chose to let the killing proceed. I traveled everywhere I could and discovered what our murdered forbearers discovered but already knew: hatred a hare's breath under the skin and that then, in 1966- 1967.

OK, this is sounding like a rant, sorry.
The worst part: I came home to discover Vietnam, and now we're in Iraq. I have a lot of dead people to apologize to!

Thanks for you wonderful note,

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This prose originally appeared in the January 2005 issue of Poetry magazine

January 2005


Rachel Cohen is the author of A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, 1854-1967 (2004), and Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade (2013). She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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