Fiction
they left early this morning we woke up in the cold darkness – we heard the trucks the cars the muffled voices – we looked out the window we couldn’t believe it – all of them – they were all leaving, sneaking out before dawn, just running, running for their miserable lives those dogs those assholes how could they leave us here? it is so cold like ice in the veins and they’re leaving – took the dogs, too, or else shot or poisoned them – daylight will tell on that one

 

oh my god he had been here (he was here) without waking me? he left his woolen greatcoat on the foot of my bed – so cold, so cold – he left it there for me – what had he told the others who must have waited for him maybe it doesn’t matter anymore what they think – he knew he wouldn’t see me again (never, never) and he left me his greatcoat he didn’t want me to be cold

 

we are all getting out of bed now, here in the brothel – someone has found a pair of scissors – yes it’s time to get rid of the hair, we don’t want it to betray us – I hear the sound of the scissors – eva’s beautiful golden hair is going, gone, cut it close to the bone, girls – have to look like everyone else now – no trace of beauty to betray us

 

we drift outside, me wrapped in his greatcoat, all insignia taken off in the night – we are all walking in the same direction, to the kitchen – one of us has brought the sausages the secret stash that Kurt kept in the warehouse next to our barrack – others have brought onions (from where?) and Kartoffeln – the men have started the fires under the cauldrons already and they’re chopping my god we’re making soup we are making real soup (with real food, not like before) for everyone, everyone who is left

 

wheeling the cauldrons out of the kitchen slowly slowly down the snow covered paths to the selection ramp – my god there is a cellist there on the ramp, on a stool, he is playing this music from Himmel from God what is this music I’ve never heard it before my God and now others are drifting over to join him – skeletal prisoners carrying violins (from where?) and horns, and flutes, silver flutes –they are here and they are playing (by the grace of God) someone has hooked up the speakers and their music, the music of angels, is being broadcast throughout the camp into the grey, grey dawn – the men, the women, are coming to the selection ramp and we are serving soup to them, ladling it out. it never gets any lower in the cauldron somehow God is looking over this operation, eva says (loaves and fishes)

 

the musicians play, the cellos are singing a lament, a celebration of life and death – no one has ever heard this music – my God it’s cold – it’s beautiful (where is this coming from?) now I hear church bells (bells?) it is Sunday, it is January, it’s cold and no one has ever heard church bells here before today, before this day, this day from the future

 

it seems like we will never finish there are so many people, so many thin people but the light is coming up now and we see a boxcar on the siding – it must have come in overnight – we all suddenly see it and converge on it – very still then we hear a child crying inside – the men set to work to open the boxcar – instant death were (they) still here but it seems like (they) are not here

 

by the grace of God and we are opening the boxcar on this cold grey morning – our former selves stumble out – women holding the hands of their children, our men helping them down onto the ramp – lots are not coming out they are dead already – we form a human chain to lift out the corpses, the men are gently laying the corpses onto the snow (it has stopped snowing for once) and we, the shorn women, are leading the others the living ones towards the soup, towards life – they are from far away, we can’t talk with them – Holland, Belgium – a long journey with a twist at the end – for those who made it (and for the others) – freedom, unexpected freedom

 

this is how life scrabbles itself back together in this cold place, with sausages, soup, fires, and the impossible sound of cellos lifting their voices into the winter dawn – now they have gone, they have gone and we will never see them again, not in this life, no, he is gone from me now –  oh my God, his smell, the scent of him on the lapels of his coat – never to see him again – that life is over now – the beauty, the order, the men in their serried black ranks, him coming to me at night making love in dark silence careful not to wake the other girls – that was the last time – you never know when it’s the last time it doesn’t announce itself does it

 

that life is gone and this is no time for mourning – too many people to feed, we have to feed the musicians – so many musicians (where did they come from?) an entire orchestra, and now one of them smiles at me, one of the cellists, a rueful, tired smile, so cold no sun snow everywhere but the dogs, the dogs are gone, (thank God) it’s peaceful here now – we were the privileged ones and don’t think the others don’t know this – even hiding with our newly shorn heads, they know but they forgive us because we’re feeding them soup (real soup!) with Fleisch and Kartoffeln and Zwiebeln so good oh so good soup that God would eat

 

we are in God’s concert hall, here on the selection ramp – the sun hasn’t come out, that would be too much – the sun does not shine here not yet anyway – singing, sounds of singing coming from the eastern road – a group of men and women are approaching and they are singing, miraculously, singing a lullaby that no one has ever heard before,  a religious lullaby – we stand transfixed as we watch them approach – they are prisoners, like us, and they are singing in harmony a gentle song they come up to the orchestra and surround the musicians with their soft voices, (like Engeln, angels) – we don’t recognize them but a few smile at us they have blankets wrapped around them, they came out to share their voices with us

 

how can we leave this place, it’s too much – I look at the other girls, we have all lost someone, every one of us loved (one of them) and I know we are thinking the same thing – that way of life, it’s in the past now, they have left and wherever they are they are shedding their uniforms, putting on the carefully saved civilian clothing (how long have they been saving it? did it come from Kanada?) They’re wearing Jewish clothing but they don’t care they are just running, fleeing, finally afraid for their lives – uniforms cast into ditches, no more use for those things now, without their emblems of power they are (just men now), men fleeing, afraid for their lives, and no, they are not thinking of us now, are they

 

this is how life starts again, you make soup in the dawn and you serve the soup to everyone to keep them alive – and they are barely alive, God knows – to keep them going for another day and then you unload the boxcar and you have to keep those people alive the ones who have not already died that is – potatoes, onions, soup, feeding – all of it takes our time and our attention – good to not have to think about (them) their black tightly fitting uniforms, their impossibly shiny boots (oh my God I loved him so) and he is gone forever now gone forever – I reach my hands down into his pockets, his greatcoat pockets, feeling for a note but there is no note, of course there is no note – he has gone from this place, this frozen water meadow, this fucking swamp, forever, and he will not be returning, none of them will, not in this life

 

soon other men arrive, other uniforms – they take over from us – they are organizing food and shelter, doctors separating the living from the dead and the dying stacked up by the buildings, it’s so cold nothing will happen to them now, it’s too late for them and miraculously the new men in the brown uniforms allow the orchestra to go on playing, the cello’s lament for the dead and the paean to life, to our past lives which we can barely recall now and to our future lives shorn of our hair, shorn of our loves (no it will never be like that again will it) and yes, no, we can never talk about it – to no one can we tell (what we did) whom we loved – soon we will leave here to begin our lives again, somewhere, in this deep winter, we’ll leave our memories here – no one can know who we were (what we did) how we managed to survive here, in this place, while everyone died around us, smoke filling the air

 

soon we will leave this place behind forever and we are without hope now, we are alive and without hope as we walk out into the world – we have known love here and now we must walk out into the world, without those who have protected and loved us (they are gone) we are alone now and for the rest of our lives

 

the Game is at an end, the Great Game is at an end, the banners gone now, 1945 is just another cold grey place without them to give it meaning – just a cold January morning, impossible to imagine a future only to live from one day to the next, surely nothing will ever compare to the glory we have known here

 

Author's Comment

This piece arrived unbidden, with no conscious effort on my part, two days after a guided psychedelic therapy session. It marked the true beginning of my life as a writer. I had experienced “memories” of a concentration camp during the session, memories totally unconnected to my current life or the life of anyone in my Catholic family of origin. Since that day I have been writing fiction with themes from the Holocaust, without knowing why. I’ve come to the conclusion that I am one of many people who use the Third Reich as a metaphor for early traumatic experience. (The best example of this I know of is the book The Kommandant’s Mistress  by Alexandria Szeman, which I highly recommend.) I’ve also become open to the idea that I may be writing about past-life experiences. I see these two explanations as complementary rather than contradictory. I’ve come to accept that there are some questions for which we will never find answers. I would love to hear from anyone who has thought about these matters.

 
 

 
 

 

Bio

Judith Haran is a psychiatrist from central Massachusetts who began writing seriously at age sixty. She is currently revising her second novel. Since 2017 she has also worked on the Nuremberg Project (http://nuremberg.law.harvard.edu) at Harvard Law School, and was a deep fascination with WWII. She lives in an old farmhouse with her husband and cats, and blogs occasionally at judithharan.com.

One thought on “Forbidden Elegy

  1. Hi Judith,

    I’ve just finished reading “Forbidden Elegy.” This was a haunting and compelling and challenging and wonderfully ambiguous piece, which really did seem to come from a place beyond your personal memories, however this might be understood. I would not say that the main character is an “unreliable narrator” in any conventional sense. What she says is quite believable, but she also seems to have a very questionable relationship to her own experience. To what extent has she found a small island refuge of human warmth in an otherwise horrific situation? To what extent has she forced herself to euphemize, for the sake of psychic survival, a relationship that was initially coerced? To what extent has she come to fully identify with the mystique and superiority of her abuser and to share his casual indifferent to the suffering of the prisoners in the camp, his belief in their less than human status? The rhythmic obsessiveness of the narration—quite masterfully done—seems that of a person desperately trying to explain her experience to herself but refusing to follow her various lines of thought to their conclusion, moving in one direction only to lurch back in the direction from which she has come, circling constantly back to the intimate details of her trauma which are, at the same time, her fetishized memories of a romance. While you have presented this narration in a short story format, the focus on rhythm and repetition and image is almost that of a prose-poem, and I could quite easily imagine this as a one-person-play.

    Here are a few notes:

    “they left early this morning we woke up in the cold darkness”

    Right from the first paragraph, you have forced the reader to focus both on blunt sensations and on primal oppositions. The first thing I noticed is what wasn’t there—any reference to color. There is morning light and the cold. This sets the tone for the rest of the piece, in which various oppositions are presented and varied almost as if you were writing a sonata—light/dark, morning/evening, cold/warm, sustenance/starvation, safety/threat, present/past, present/future, guilt/denial, domination/love, intimacy/distance.

    “one of us has brought the sausages the secret stash that Kurt kept in the warehouse next to our barrack”

    This quietly introduces the theme of complicity between the victim/lover and abuser/beloved.

    “they were all leaving, sneaking out before dawn, just running, running for their miserable lives those dogs those assholes how could they leave us here? it is so cold like ice in the veins and they’re leaving – took the dogs, too, or else shot or poisoned them – daylight will tell on that one”

    The loved ones are dogs and assholes not because they are participants in mass murder but because they are leaving. While we cannot reasonably assign much blame to the speaker, this causes us to question both her motivations and her full awareness of them.

    “what is this music I’ve never heard it before my God and now others are drifting over to join him – skeletal prisoners carrying violins (from where?) and horns, and flutes, silver flutes –they are here and they are playing (by the grace of God) someone has hooked up the speakers and their music, the music of angels, is being broadcast throughout the camp into the grey, grey dawn”

    The appearance of these musicians has a spectral quality to it. Their sudden arrival, the speakers disorientation on seeing them, the hearing of the “music of angels” after years of horror, all of this made me stop and wonder if I really knew what was going on. When I first read this section, I asked myself if all of what I had thought was happening in the speaker’s life was actually happening immediately after death, in the transitional state of the Bardo.

    “now I hear church bells (bells?) it is Sunday, it is January, it’s cold and no one has ever heard church bells here before today, before this day, this day from the future”

    This at first seems like a sudden breakthrough of insight and energy from the beyond, a moment signaling an imminent rebirth, or at least the potential for one. The reader does not suspect this is a setup, that the speaker is fearful of letting go of the past and has not particular desire to step into the future.

    “by the grace of God and we are opening the boxcar on this cold grey morning – our former selves stumble out”
    The phrase “by the grace of God” seems almost an obligatory return to a sentiment learned in childhood. When the speaker says, “our former selves stumble out,” there is certainly some element of sympathy but also of psychic distancing and dissociation from the reality of her position. “Thank god I am no longer as weak and pathetic as these victims.”

    “this is how life scrabbles itself back together in this cold place, with sausages, soup, fires, and the impossible sound of cellos lifting their voices into the winter dawn – now they have gone, they have gone and we will never see them again, not in this life, no, he is gone from me now – oh my God, his smell, the scent of him on the lapels of his coat – never to see him again – that life is over now – the beauty, the order, the men in their serried black ranks”

    I love the incantory nature of this first line—“this is how life scrabbles itself back together in this cold place, with sausages, soup, fires, and the impossible sound of cellos lifting their voices into the winter dawn.” This seems exactly true; this is how life scrabbles back together. The speaker then abruptly shifts to a tone that is almost that of a Schubert leider—” now they have gone, they have gone and we will never see them again, not in this life, no, he is gone from me now.” The exclamation, “oh my God, his smell, the scent of him on the lapels of his coat,” once more focuses the attention of the reader on hard, sensory details, which show that the speaker’s experience, whatever we might make of it, cannot be other than it is. The juxtaposition of these very different types of statement bring us face to face with the torturous contradictions of the speaker. Just as she cannot escape from who she is or what she feels, the reader cannot escape from the impossibility of passing judgement. There is also irony and pathos in the way these statements fit together. Just as the making of soup is the way that “life scrabbles itself back together, “so too this romance was the way that the speaker scrabbled her life together—in the barrack late at night, in the winter dawn, in the cold.

    “you never know when it’s the last time it doesn’t announce itself does it”

    Surrounded by death, the speaker has shrunk her sphere of awareness so that “the last time”” refers to a breakup with her “lover.” She perhaps suspects that the phrase means more than she is willing to admit.

    “we are in God’s concert hall, here on the selection ramp – the sun hasn’t come out, that would be too much – the sun does not shine here not yet anyway – singing, sounds of singing coming from the eastern road – a group of men and women are approaching and they are singing, miraculously, singing a lullaby that no one has ever heard before”
    Once again, events seem to almost be transpiring in a Bardo state. “We are in god’s concert hall, here on the selection ramp”—this statement hints at some repressed fear of judgment. The sounds of singing from the eastern road, the miraculous singing, the singing that only later has a group of men and women attached, this seems almost to be coming from a place not quite on the Earth. At the same time, “the sun does not shine here not yet anyway,” suggests that the speaker is trapped in a purgatorial realm.

    “how can we leave this place, it’s too much – I look at the other girls, we have all lost someone, every one of us loved (one of them) and I know we are thinking the same thing – that way of life, it’s in the past now, they have left and wherever they are they are shedding their uniforms”

    As in a lower Bardo state, a realm of purgatorial reenactment, the speaker is not free to leave. The phrase “we have all lost someone” is bitterly ironic in this context. With millions dead, with millions of others saved from almost certain extermination, the speaker mourns the loss of her lover and abuser. Once again, the fetishization of the uniform.
    “this is how life starts again, you make soup in the dawn and you serve the soup to everyone to keep them alive – and they are barely alive, God knows – to keep them going for another day and then you unload the boxcar and you have to keep those people alive the ones who have not already died that is – potatoes, onions, soup, feeding – all of it takes our time and our attention – good to not have to think about (them) their black tightly fitting uniforms, their impossibly shiny boots”

    And yet again, the fetishization of the uniform, this time in a more explicitly erotic context—starkly juxtaposed to the “bare survival” of the speaker’s campmates.

    “I reach my hands down into his pockets, his greatcoat pockets, feeling for a note but there is no note, of course there is no note – he has gone from this place, this frozen water meadow”

    This constant drawing of the reader’s attention to hard sensory detail and action puts us, very intimately, into the physical and psychological space of the speaker. The reader can feel the weight of the greatcoat on the small shoulders of the speaker, feel her reaching into the pockets, feel her searching for a note that she knows will not be there.

    “we can never talk about it – to no one can we tell (what we did) whom we loved – soon we will leave here to begin our lives again, somewhere, in this deep winter, we’ll leave our memories here – no one can know who we were (what we did) how we managed to survive here, in this place, while everyone died around us, smoke filling the air”

    This resolution—or lack of resolution—is quiet and yet wonderfully dramatic. The speaker is, on some level, quite aware of her complicity in evil, although it is not clear whether or not she actually accepts some degree of guilt or whether this is simply a factual acknowledgment that others may see her as being guilty. The statement, “we can never talk about it—to no one can we tell (what we did) whom we loved,” is explosive in its ambiguity. The reader is left with no way to choose between the speaker’s roles as victim or participant. The girls in the brother can never talk about what they did, whom they loved, because no one else could truly understand what they had to do to survive but also because no one else could understand—or forgive—the forbidden intimacy they shared with their lovers.

    “we have known love here and now we must walk out into the world, without those who have protected and loved us (they are gone) we are alone now and for the rest of our lives”

    The promise at first held out by the future has proved elusive, if not an outright mockery. The speaker and the other brothel girls have “known love”; that love is gone forever and they must venture out into the coldness and uncertainty of the world. Their bodies have been freed. As in a Bardo state, however, their psyches must continue to circle and return to the fixed site of their trauma.

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