It was a thrill yesterday, to open the new issue of Whatcom Writers & Publishers and read “The World Will Be,” a poem I’ve been researching and drafting for a year-and-a-half. Of course, the first time I skimmed it I picked up changes I wanted to make. Oh well, that’s the life of a poet—never willing to let go!
Here’s the latest version of the poem and its story:
I began thinking about this poem as I read Fanny Howe’s comments in October 2010 Poetry after she had translated Ilona Karmel’s work and sorted through her personal effects. Ilona (1925-2000) told Howe that when they were interned in Buchenwald, their mother advised her and her sister, both teenagers, “to behave well because ‘the world will be the world again.’”
Ilona and Henía were born in a Kraków ghetto. When the Germans occupied Poland at the beginning of WWII, the girls were uprooted from their comfortable middleclass childhood and interned with their mother in three successive labor camps. The last was Buchenwald. Their father was sent to a separate labor camp and not heard from again.
After the war, Ilona and her sister migrated to this country, where Ilona received a degree from Radcliffe, married physicist Francis Zucker, and became an award winning novelist. Between 1979 and 1995, she was a senior lecturer in creative writing at MIT.
Ilona and Henía wrote poetry on worksheets they stole from their Buchenwald work stations. The poems were published as A Wall of Two after the war. (The book is available from the University of California Press. An English translation of Ilona’s novel An Estate of Memory is available on Amazon.com.)
Fannie Howe was principal translator of Karmel’s work.
The World Will Be
for Mita (Rosenbaum) Karmel and
daughters Ilona and Henia.
Think of a mother and her blossoming
daughters, their father, a number
dying in an unknown labor camp.
Think of them as floors echo
with reverberating boots,
each step a cloud of dirt and mites
swirling into cobwebs draping
concrete walls of their infested barracks.
Think of them each midnight hour
as they huddle in their bunks,
fearing that they will
be dragged to a rail siding,
thrown into a cattle car,
whether they are going
right to work and starve,
or left for gas and freedom.
Think of a mother telling
her daughters to behave well,
“the world will be the world again.”
Check out WW&P’s website, http://www.whatcomwritersandpublishers.org.