Irene's Siege
(A Holocaust poem)

I begin with that overcrowded single bed,
my home in the winter of 44/45,
when public affairs assumed a dismaying mask
and the threat of panic was graver even than death.
It wasn’t very wide and it lacked a headboard,
its pillows were soaked in moisture from the wall
inside the entrance of the air-raid shelter
beneath a Nazi Arrowcross Party centre.
I shared that bed through the siege of Budapest
with Irene, my mother, and my two big brothers,
one just 11, the other turning 15,
a Jewish family petrified in hiding.

A word for genocide had not been invented.
My dysentery was beyond control. Its stench
mingled with the cooking smells and the odour
of fear polluting the musty, smoke-filled cellar.
And the cellar was full of homicidal Nazis
at the brink of hysteria under constant bombardment,
awaiting their fate as the Soviets approached the gates.
The law of the siege prescribed the execution
of carriers of communicable diseases
0-- like me. I think I was saved by the cotton wool
that I nightly stole from a nearby first-aid station.
It blocked the loo, and that was blamed for the stink.

My desperate mother had sought refuge from Auschwitz,
with a stack of doctored documents I still treasure,
in that howling den of hatred. A daring ploy:
she posed as the wife of an officer at the front
and claimed a vacant flat in that elegant building
that had been cleared of decent folks by the Nazis.
We were hardly allowed to use our looted flat,
its windows blown with the blasts, between the blackouts.
Irene had engaged in a calculated act
of audacious gamble, deliberately seeking out
the hunters, the hunters! the hunters, for they would least
expect to find the hunted within their pack.

Even I knew the odds. But I have survived to write this.
There might have been two alternatives: suicide
or terror and probable death in the ghetto, exposed
to hunger, disease and the fancy of uniformed bandits.
Instead, we lived with them and heard their descriptions
of what they had done and seen, as we helped each other
to play our roles in an endless performance for life.
We were observed all the time by a constant queue
that stretched past our bed to the overflowing lavatory.
Questions were raised about the persistent theft
of first-aid supplies. Then, in a rare lull of the air-raids,
the Gestapo swooped one day to arrest Irene.

And how we could act!… Victor the Wolf appeared
in the dusty cellar inspecting the huddled children.
A little rant he was, but preened like a hero: his Hitler
moustache was sculpted, his uniform carefully pressed.
0His three-quarter burgundy leather jacket glowed,
his gun holster glittered in the paraffin light.
He was blunt: The game is up, we know who you are.
Your mother is off to the Danube, feeding the fish.
But you can save yourselves... If you are smart
and admit to the truth while you may, you will be safe
in a home we run in the region for nice little Jewboys.

What do you say? A wink: You know you can trust me.

But George, the oldest brother, confronted him:
How dare you slander the sons and the wife of an officer
A0bove your rank? I shall report you at once!
Paul piled it on: You only act big with children
0behind our father’s back while he’s doing his duty...
Go on, be brave at the front!  As for me, I dried
my eyes to stare very hard, and tried not to blink.
Did our robust retort confuse the ambush?
What else might explain why Victor missed his chance
for the Arrowcross test of race, and look for proof
beneath  the duvet in a country where only
Jews and some foreigners had their sons circumcised?

And Irene? More than six decades later, I reconstruct
the drama from her old stories, probably accurate.
She was small and strong. She was protected by passion.
A butcher's daughter in love with her gentleman husband,
at 37 she must have been at her prime,
entirely devoted to her refusal to die.
Expressive, widely set eyes, high cheekbones, arched brow.
Her firm and generous body was tried by hunger.
In happier days, a mischievous brother once chased
me into the bathroom where she stood reaching towards
the towel: she smiled at me like a goddess and stamped
into my heart the glory of female beauty.

Now she stood in the over-draped drawing room
of a fortified Schwab Hill villa in Buda, adjacent
0to Hotel Majestic, the base of Eichmann's detachment
administering the racial cleansing of Europe.
Before her, a line of suspects led up to an "expert"
of human classification, in charge of their fate.
The woman in front of my mother was a brunette,
like Irene, but you could not tell if she was a Jewess.
Distinctive Jewish features do not exist.
The disgruntled specialist wielding the final decision
was weary of whining. The woman at last
before his polished desk was too frightened to whine.

My mother watched as the woman unfolded some papers,
to be dismissed with a flick of his manicured fingers.
His hand reached forward in a continuing movement
as he rose from his chair and almost gently took hold
of her chignon hung lean against the nape of her neck.
He drew her head towards the electric light
above the fateful desk and carefully studied
the shape of her nose in profile. Her trembling lips
gave way to the mute and gaping grimace of panic.
He did not pronounce a decision, just tossed the papers
into the bin. The queue moved forward again.
The whimpering woman was dragged out by two soldiers.

Irene then seized the pink hand and shook it with cordial
admiration. My dear doctor, she purred,
you amaze me. Even I might have been deceived
by that Jewess. Accept my heartfelt congratulations.
The official recognized a voice with authority.
Oh, madam, he clucked in toners of genuine modesty,
we do what we can. But the task is increasingly hard.
The devious Jews never cease to invent new tricks
to subvert the cause… But why are you here? She sighed
with suffering patience. He added: Our agents are urged
to be vigilant at this hour of national peril.
Still, they must answer for disturbing your peace.

And he sent her home to avert yet further distress,
escorted by four officers, with his apologies.
The vehicle's headlights were switched off: a precaution
despite the restful pause in the Allied bombing.
The empty, snowbound, freezing streets were lit
by the brilliant fireworks of the cloudless sky.
My abused and defenceless city lay numbed by terror.
A rumble of artillery fire bounced over
the Buda hills as the party crossed the wide river.
The crackle of small arms fire told of the raids
of Arrowcross gangs on civilian shelters, staged
under pretext of hunting for Jews and deserters.

Few people ventured out between the curfews,
mostly women and children, driven by hunger.
Their young men were lost. Even the old and some boys
unfit to fight were being deployed in the path
of the Soviets by the German occupiers
and their pitiless local “brothers-in-arms”.
And the city was being destroyed by the bombs so fast
that untended pain and panic reigned in the ruins.
Irene was of this city and knew every alley
far better than any military driver.
True to herself, she was to remain for life
faithful to her love of this treacherous city.

City of light and city of darkness where Wallenberg
and Eichmann duelled to the death for our lives!
One to be remembered truly forever
as a torch of radiant hope for the human spirit,
the other condemned as a blot on the soul of humanity.
The deportations to murder, from which Wallenberg
managed to rescue legions of captives, persisted
until the tightening noose of the Soviet siege
duly severed all communications.
The orgy of death went on to the end in the ghetto.
The city was made to pay a horrible price
for its foolish embrace of the Nazi rule of Europe.

Irene caught a fleeting glimpse in the twilight of shrunken
abandoned corpses here and there on the pavements.
There were no animal corpses. Like rats, the civilians
converged on the dying horses as soon as they
collapsed from fatigue, and tore them apart for food.
... At last my exhausted mother was safely delivered
to her destination by her gallant escorts.
They  greeted the sentry, saluted and clicked their heels
and turned to meet their own, very different destiny.
Irene flew down the stairs - each step a joy! -
to the children sitting up in the bed that was
our home at 66 Pannonia Street.

Thomas Land

If you have any comments on this poem, Thomas Land would be pleased to hear from you.

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