Six Poems for Anka Bergman

By Jane Liddell-King

Following the trail of a Torah Scroll once used in Pardubice in the Czech Republic, poet Jane Liddell-King and photographer Marion Davies went to the town to find out if there were any survivors. Their unexpected meeting with just two was the beginning of a collaboration during which they met several remarkable people who told them their intersecting stories. These stories form the basis of a travelling exhibition and a book Faces in the Void: Czech Survivors of the Holocaust.

This series of poems was written for Anka Bergman (pictured)

  1. Tea Time
  2. Koblihy
  3. Turnip
  4. Anniversary
  5. L’Chaim
  6. Race

1 Tea Time (Download the word doc.)

when the German soldiers marched in they didn’t look at her

they merely got on with the vital job of breaking after entering

of tearing cushions

of tearing down curtains

of pulling open drawers and slinging letters cards address books journals

on the floor

of clearing the mantle shelf of photographs and scattering the glass

of tearing open envelopes notebooks folders invitations records

they threw themselves into their work

upturning chairs

slitting upholstery

unstitching her house

and she combed her mind for whatever they were missing

and might hope to find

and all the time she stood still and quiet

until suddenly they wiped their faces on their sleeves

she let them exhale and then once more draw breath

and then she said

so now would you perhaps like tea and something light to eat

and when they nodded almost eagerly like any pack of boys

she quietly righted her chairs

and covered the table with a white embroidered cloth

and lifted down the porcelain cups

and while the water boiled

she tucked a wad of notes inside her blouse

submissive to the laws forbidding sugar to her kind

she offered them jam to sweeten their black tea

talking all the time

mostly about the food they missed

Mozart bobbons gulasch viener schnitzel

until they left wiping their mouths on white napkins

which she’d hemmed

as if they were new to Prague

merely a couple of unexpected guests


2 Koblihy (Download the word doc.)

December 1941

Bernd left first

I packed cooking pots and pans and spoons

and a few extra woollen jumpers

in case the heating failed

and then at the last moment

I scooped two dozen koblihy

Pfannkuchen left over from Chanukah into a box

and tied it up with string

these were Bernd’s favourites

folk food

sweet and hot for winter

jam packed

we waited three days to leave

sleeping skull against skull

hundreds of us

before the march to the train

tugging bags

red currant jam seeping from the box

soaking the cardboard

and a teenage guard carping

es ist scheiß egal ob die schachtel mit kommt

as if at 24 I were a box about to fall apart

at the first sign of trouble

I tightened the string

and gathered up my suit case my hand bag and my doughnuts

and three days later

in the Dresden Barracks

I gave Bernd his little treat


 3 Turnip (Download the word doc.)

fifteen people waited for me daily

sister parents in laws cousins aunts uncles

assigned to distribute food I had to keep them going

sometimes an extra turnip

sometimes half a carrot

sometimes a raw potato

too little to live

too much to die

but please God

enough

but every time I gave my mother a turnip

or a cup of milk

or thicker soup

another light boned woman

peeled of dignity

shit heeled

slipped on the straw

and died


 4 Anniversary (Download the word doc.)

15th May 1942

sixteen months after we’d left Prague

two years after he’d married me

more than two thousand dead

some on their feet queuing for the latrines

I thought

perhaps he’ll bring salami

perhaps an extra dumpling

perhaps perhaps

and all that day I wondered

waiting for Bernd to come

and when he came

running from barracks to barracks

holding his nose against the wreak of death

he held out

in this nowhere place

a single dazzling rose


 5 L’Chaim (Download the word doc,)

1 Bereshit 1. 28

Be fertile and increase. Fill the earth …

 Keeping the first mitzvah made you unforgivable

according to the Ghetto regulations

handed down from SS General Eichmann

to Dr Siegfried Seidl

our first ruler

twelve girls shoved into a barracks room

knew sex was normal

necessary

part of the old mundane forbidden world

but in Terezín

miraculous as koblihy dipped in icing sugar

so

when a lover stealing time

crept across

we knew to turn away fake sleep or slip outside

after such snatched love

when the hard watchfulness that kept you going through the day melted

and you and he were each a sweet soft touch to one other

five of us conceived

handing us each a formal piece of paper

a guard asked us to sign

something about handing over our babies after birth

something about euthanasia

none of us knew the meaning of the word

I gave birth in the hospital

no question of medication

(even for constipation)

February 1944

five Jewish obstetricians helped Jiri into the world

talking me out of pain

with story after story

for two months I walked him in Tommy Fritta’s pram

the mountains were shrouded in snow

I fought to keep him from the cutting wind

and gusting builders’ rubble

I showed him clusters of violets on newly painted window sills

in our newly named town

now the

Jewish Settlement Area of Theresienstadt

I said

it will be all right

all will be well

but then he gasped for breath

twisting and turning his head for air

his body shuddering

the doctor said

dust in the lungs

maybe because of the Verschönerung

he has an incurable infection

pneumonia seized him

and when he died the white card box they put him in

looked oh so very small


6 Race (Download the word doc.)

after they sent my husband East

I asked to follow

sure that nothing worse could happen

see you tomorrow I promised

waving him off

a last pouted kiss

and his hand brushing my belly

it was 30th October 1944

the last time that we met

once there without him

time and again I took off my clothes

and ran between two lines of German guards

their steel eyes probing me

at 4.00 a.m or 6.00 in the evening

when it was always black and freezing

each time I told myself

look it’s just another swim you’re going to win

never mind who’s watching

and held my rounding stomach in

once and just the once I met Herr Mengele

Herr Doktor Joseph Mengele

stud among Nazi studs

selections were his thing

he couldn’t get enough of choosing Jews to burn

or slowly to dismember

addicted to data collection

he kept a wall of eyes

mostly prised from twins

blue green grey

grey green green blue and violet

each meticulously labelled

but speaking eugenically

meaningless and blind

 

eye to eye with me he simply said

ausgezeichnetes Material

whistled a snatch of Lohengrin

twirled his cane and turned away his face

dissecting my performance coldly later

Anka I said you ran a flawless race


 

Jane Liddell-King is a poet. Her prize-winning work has been published in Britain, Germany and the United States.

 

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