Poetry surfaces in the Berkshires in real and immediate places. On April 16, a group of us were gathered at Congregation Beth Israel to honor Yom HaShoah, a day of remembering the Holocaust. A friend had asked me to play tenor recorder along with the choir when they sang the final song, and so I came to listen.
We were gathered in in a round room beside a willow tree so vast it looks rooted for centuries. And in the spring sunshine, a man was reading alound with his voice low in his throat.
Three fir trees grow there
and a regular signboard saying
here is the small station of Treblinka…
We were hearing from the Polish writer Wladyslaw Szlengel, as he (or the narrator in his poem) walks onto a railway platform five hours from the city and stares into the silence, to confront what once happened here. The the bare place, the timetables and commercial boards evoke for him a pain so encompassing that rage can’t describe it.
Because Treblinka was a killing center in World War II. The German SS built it for wholesale murder. In 1942 and early 1943 alone, more than 600,000 people were forced to come here, many from the Jewish Ghettos in Warsaw — and they never left.
And now we were moving between music and words in the skilled hands of Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, as she navigated a hard conversation in a challenging time. She brought us together into a space to slow down and hold attention, enough for recognition and understanding without overwhelming.
She shaped an arc of story and feeling, and the music carried us in. An alto recorder played music of survival and resilience along with the piano. Eight voices were singing in four-part harmonies that challenged and unsettled without resolving, shifting like the tide.
I pray these things never end —
the sand and the sea,
the rush of the waters …
And then poems brought us to the stories of people who had been there. They had seen and felt immediately what Wladyslaw Szlengel recalled on the silent railway track — they had held people they loved while they died — they had loved — and Rabbi Rachel reminded us that they were real, physical, three-dimensional, as we are. A solo soprano sang a new composition by choir director Adam Green, clear and sad and determined, holding the grace of people who wrote poems on the cell walls at Terezin.
Moving in and around prayers, poems came in to guide us. We came close to the stories of the people who lived through that chaos — and the people who didn’t. Poetry is feeling on the page, when nonfiction seems too detached and analytical. Sometimes today people talk about poetry as dried out, washed out, unimportant — and you only have to be in a place like this to hear it differently — as oral history. As blood.
When I got up to play, I stood near the piano to hear the cascading line of the keys, and I felt the voice of the low woodwind in my hands lift with the singers. The last song, Al Kol Eileh, follows the words of someone forced to leave the home where their family has lived for generations when their country devolves into chaos, and they don’t know whether they will ever be able to come back.
Preserve this house, this garden, this wall
… preserve the child, the fruit still unripened,
People have risked their lives for poems in the past. And tonight, remembering Rabbi Rachel weave the recent past and the current of today’s events, I think of the rise in banned books this year, and I wonder how close we are coming to that risk again.