Home » Culture

From The One Who Knows Hebrew – a Poem by Hannah Alexander

2 May 2011 10 Comments
Written by:

Hannah Alexander

Hannah Alexander, a student in the Young Judaea Year Course, a one year program of studies in Israel, shared this poem with Midnight East – a moving and eloquent reflection on the Holocaust and the relationship between first and third generation:

From The One Who Knows Hebrew – a Poem by Hannah Alexander

Savta,
I know you see me sitting next to you and I can taste some of your world in my mouth.
You speak with a Yiddish accent and replace every ‘w’ with a ‘v’
“Challo Challo. Vere are you?”
You beckon me to your perch on the couch in my father’s living room.
He built you an alcove from office wall dividers and a curtain,
I ask if it reminds you of a barrack.
You look at me like I am crazy,
They don’t have beds in barracks.

I wheel you to the doorway of our bathroom
And watch your shrunken hips lower themselves
Your magenta pant bottoms fall to your knees, as your ankles dangle
I think of your naked skeleton in a pin striped suit.
I try to imagine the number 54238 branded onto your chest and I watch you
Rip toilet paper along the dotted line and count four satisfying squares.
You make me want to understand
Why you lick the collar of your shirts to see if they are clean
A hint of salt reveals you have worn them
Why you eat the strawberry leaf and all.
I will never know the pain of your hunger
I will never know the stench of human flesh marinating on the ground and
I don’t know the terror of a death march in January.
I bundle up with my layers, a winter coat, and smart wool socks just to run to my car
And still, you worry I might be cold.

Cold like trembling bones huddled in freezing snow digging their own graves
Or frosted hearts inside rhetorical uniforms taunting you to flirt with death
To be the target of that next bullet round
So you too may know the warmth of human piled ditches.
Forget the massacre of parents, brothers, husband and child,
Blink twice and erase sisters fallen dead in tracks across your frostbitten feet.
I look into your wrinkled eyes, eyes which endured screaming children ripped from clutching mother’s breast bone,
Eyes that cringe at deniers who don’t believe those experiments at Auschwitz really happened.
Who could look back into your sunken cheek bones and feel nothing?
Your survivor blood runs through my veins and when you touch my hand I can feel your suffering in the crevasses of my skin.

You ask me why I have a ring in my nose and how it got there.
You don’t like the ripped jeans and oversized sweatshirts.
You are shriveled and your ears stick out but
I want to be your person.
You spend your days drifting in and out of consciousness waiting for the five o’clock news.
I record you with my phone as you sit next to me so I won’t forget what peace looks like.
You sat in arms reach until I moved you,
You were getting weak and I was sick.
You offered me your blanket and tried to give me your purple slippers
My skin was swimming with maggots and my organs were eating themselves
We had heart tests the same day and my father was overwhelmed
I moved to my mothers the first time I woke up without my eyes
Doctor said I would never see again.
My mother sobbed as she squeezed my hand and I felt my way to the parking lot
Gravel crunched beneath the feet I would have to rely on to find pavement.
I listened to the cars zoom past and I could feel the vibrations.
I would never drive again.
It would take me an hour to lace my shoes
And perhaps what I would miss most would be colors
I hoped I wouldn’t forget what yellow looks like and I hoped I wouldn’t forget your smile.

I am scared to live without sight
To never see myself age.
There was a time when I wanted to leave this dimension
But now I don’t want to dance with spirits,
I want to dance with sisters and strangers, with a man I haven’t met yet
I want to dance with you Savta,
I want to liberate you from the chains of diapers and a wheelchair
I want to smash your oxygen tank into oblivion.
You danced with death and you survived
You breathed incinerator air and kept inhaling
You knew thirst like licking between earth’s toes as the water seeps through the cracks.

I promise, even without my eyes
I won’t forget the way you mimic the sound of your hearing aid losing its battery,
I won’t forget the way you pick at your teeth with plastic toothpicks after dinner
And how you show me the treasure you find as you dig
And how you forget you already showed me 4 times.
You are making up for the years you didn’t have a toothbrush.

The years you stood emaciated and wore your wedding ring inside yourself so you could save it for me.
How you pressed it inside the shaving of soap they gave you to wash yourself … you already had lice.

I will find this ring among your lost things and I will squeeze my stubby finger into its metal
I will lift you onto the couch like I used to and I will stare at what I hope will be your eyes…
I am blind and you can’t hear but we are both alive.

I told you I would heal myself
And four months later I have.
I am a medical mystery.
I sit with you and watch the news and you squeeze my hand
You tell me my new glasses are pretty.
You don’t know I only see with one eye.

I know one day your cubicle will be empty
And I won’t forget that high five and fist bump I taught you
I will wear your clothes even if they don’t fit
And I will sit in your wheelchair just because I can.

You know Hebrew and survival
I know Hebrew and blindness.
We both know it’s more than a language
I call you Savta
You call for the one who knows Hebrew
That’s me.

“From The One Who Knows Hebrew” is a performance poem written by Hannah Alexander, a student in the Year Course of the Young Judaea movement. The program, supported by Hadassah, brings high school graduates to Israel for a year of studies. Year Course students may choose to participate in Kuma, the Dr. Marcia Robbins-Wilf Hadassah/Young Judaea Holocaust Studies Program, an optional one-week journey to Poland that explores the heritage of 1000 years of Jewish history in Poland and studies the events of the Holocaust through a Zionist prism, bearing witness to the destruction of Polish Jewry.

10 Comments »

  • Kate said:

    Every time I see this poem performed, or read it over again, I find yet another powerful and sometimes overwhelming image that I somehow missed the previous time.

  • Peer said:

    I’ve never been so moved by the spoken word. Hannah is incredibly talented on so many levels, and watching her perform this poem is simply moving.

  • D'vora Greisman said:

    the most moving, creative, profound expressions I’ve heard in a long time!! will be passing this along to everyone! Kol Hakavod, Hannah

  • Mimi said:

    Hard to type with tears streaming. Magnificent piece period

  • Keri Cohen said:

    Hannah — what a powerfully moving tribute to your savta, yourself and to the human spirit. Wish I could have been there in Jerusalem when you performed this. A friend of mine who lives in Jerusalem happened to be in the audience and was blown away by your poem. I’m very proud of you. Wow!

  • Fellow Young Judaean said:

    Hannah. This is remarkable. You have always amazed me with your strength. Your Savta was unbelievable, and she would be so proud of you. Somehow you have risen above blindness and regained sight. I think it is safe to say that your words also transcend blindness. They are pure and true and moving beyond belief. You must understand that you have a talent and a spirit that shines through your poetry. You are not like the rest, Hannah Rose Alexander.

  • Cilderenda said:

    Untouchable.

  • sue mizrahi said:

    Hannah –
    This is remarkable – powerful – brilliant –
    I’ve known your mother and your Aunt Ruthie for many Westchester Hadassah years – and of course I knew and adored your other Grandmother, Margarete I never knew this piece of the family story –
    with admiration and awe –
    Sue Mizrahi

  • helga said:

    Hannah, you evolved from a very talented three year old to a very talented serious writer and caring, loving granddaughter. I was very moved by your poem. And will read over and over again.
    Thank you for writing.

  • Ellen Halter said:

    Hannah,

    Very moving. I want to read more of your poems. Ellen