Investigator Vrontzev visits regularly
our malaria Clinic; he strolls around
the ward, asks questions about the ill,
the nurses’ aides, and the volunteers.
He pretends to know Uzbekian,
greets the staff with “Salaam!”
He calls our chief doctos “Tovarishtshi,”
but never responds to our greetings.
We know that he is present by the smell
of vodka and the heavy stench of Machorka
that trails him like the odor of the carboline
fumigant with which we clean the floors.
Vrontzev is disliked by the refugees and
the native Uzbeks. He behaves like a bull
and touches the women, to the displeasure
of the elderly Moslem Clinic personnel.
He always finds “adversary elements” among
the female refugees, ordering them to come
to his offices at the N.K.V.D. late at night.
The women hide from him as from a plague.
One day, two militia men brought Vrontzev
to the Clinic, his face a bloody mess.
A local Uzbek cut him up with a dagger—
the sledovatel tried to rape an Uzbek girl.
We treated his wounds and put him to bed;
in the morning, we found his bed empty.
The ochrannik, he night guard, told us secretly
that the Voyenkomat Natshalnik arrested him.
The city grew rapidly while
refugees kept arriving daily
from Ukraine, Byelorussia,
and from other war-ravaged
occupied Soviet Republics.
The activated factories
polluted the air with damaging
choking and sickening the
large population of Irkutsk.
The people worked in factories
producing aluminum for the war
industry, and every day listened
to high-spirited speeches about
efforts to win the war.
The weather was terribly cold.
Store shelves were empty—no supply
of warm coats or shoes. Only on the
black market were we able to buy
things, and then only at high prices.
The line around our medical center
grew daily with every new transport
of evacuees searching for a safe haven.
They found instead a hell of shoddy
housing, malnutrition, and disease.
People were dying of typhus and the
lack of medication. The sign Kto
nie rabotaet nie Kushaet—He who
does not work, does not eat—was
displayed in all public places.
Many of the ill wandered forty miles southeast
of Irkutsk to Lake Baykal, jumped in the lake
with their children, to drown, while the radio
from the pump mill on shore was playing—
“Great is our leader, Joseph Stalin!”
Beneath a gray sky
katiushas pierce the air,
firm and loud voices
echo in the battle cry:
For the Fatherland!
Fierce warfare: man-to-man
bayonet duels leave
The enemy flies,
young soldiers in pursuit
We medics take after them.
We pick up the wounded
breathing out their last,
gather them from their pools
of blood, load them on
ambulances, half trucks,
and leave. The slain are
uncared for; no one has time
for the soldiers who died,
except the crows.
They are not afraid of
the noise, the explosions, fire.
Not even the cold wind
makes them tremble.
With patience and coolness
they watch the dead soldiers,
anticipating their lavish meal.
The Girls of the Warsaw Ghetto
A written order was delivered to the Judenrat:
“One hundred young girls, pretty and healthy,
must surrender by midnight to the Gestapo.”
The Militia, the guards, and Military Police
hastened to the Bais Yaakov School, grabbing
young girls. Without saying farewell to parents
or teachers, they were loaded onto army trucks
and taken to a hostelry at the military barracks.
A blitz-woman of the SS addressed the girls:
“Don’t cry, lucky fraüleins. You were chosen to
entertain handsome young men of a superior race.
You will be dressed and fed, and sleep on soft beds
with clean sheets, bedcovers of satin, silk pillows.
You will drink sweet wine, dance to Wagner’s music.
Our soldiers will treat you gently—just behave.
After showering, you will receive new, elegant attire.”
The girls undressed and went to the showers.
They turned on the faucets and let the water run.
Every one of them took a poison pill they carried.
While dying, they hugged each other and said prayers.
They left a note: “We died clean. Pray for our souls.”
Here ends the elegy to ninety-two Jewish students,
mourned by their families, remembered here.
Days of Awe Approaching
“Shall the horn be blown in the city/And the people not tremble?” — Amos 3:6
Elul tiptoed through with hazy days,
rainy nights, and moonless grey skies.
Cool, autumn winds are undressing
the trees of their red and golden leaves.
We feel naked like the trees as Tishre
approaches, the Holy Days descending,
drawing near from the heavenly realm,
awakening us to reconsider our ways.
Comes the sacred month, we think of
confessions—guilty not so much for what
we did, but for the promises we made and
didn’t keep, wondering whether we can repent.
Elul’s magic is fading away, making room
for the Days of Awe. Each one of us is a
limb of our people’s body, branches of
trees that seek cover from the autumn wind.
Originally published in Vol. 13:2, Spring 2012.
Herman Taube (February 2, 1918 - March 25, 2014) was born in Lodz, Poland and served as a medic in the Polish Army in World War II, where he was captured and held in a Soviet work camp. Upon his release, he served in Uzbekistan, where he was injured when the ambulance he was riding in drove over a land mine. After recuperating, he was stationed at the former Lublin/Majdanek concentration camp, caring for liberated prisoners who were too sick to evacuate. His final posting was a hospital in Pomerania, where he worked until the war’s end, organizing the first Polish Red Cross Station for civilians. Taube and his wife immigrated to the U.S. in 1947, settling in Baltimore and then DC. He worked as a journalist and teacher for over 60 years. He was the White House correspondent for the Yiddish Forward. After retirement, he lectured widely on Yiddish literature, WWII, and the Holocaust, and volunteered as a translator for the archives of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Taube is the author of twenty-three books of poetry and fiction: Looking Back, Going Forward: New & Selected Poems (2002), Autumn Travels, Devious Paths (1992), Between the Shadows (1986), and the novels My Baltimore Landsmen (1995), and Kyzyl Kishlak/Refugee Village (1993).