The Complications in Making an American Book
of Poems About Germany

Norbert Krapf

Appeared in Winfried Fluck & Werner Sollors, German? American? Literature? (Peter Lang, 2002), pp. 383-400. Essay (c) copyright Norbert Krapf 2002.

 

     I wrote my first poem about Germany not long after my first trip to that country in 1971, a time of great change and discovery for me.[1] In 1970 I moved from Indiana to metropolitan New York, began to study German and trace my family history, and, in early 1971, wrote my first poems. Now that Blue-Eyed Grass: Poems of Germany has appeared twenty-six years later, it is a good time to look back at the stages and implications of a project that in retrospect may seem inevitable.[2] When a project is completed, there is a tendency to look back and see a series of cause-and-effect developments that led to its completion. It is too easy to see, in the final product, the seeds of its success and, looking back, to trace a progression and development that now seems pre-destined. When we stand at the end of an achievement, bask in the glow of an accomplishment, and look back at the footsteps that led to our present fulfillment, we are prone to forget the obstacles we had to overcome, the insecurities we had to work our way through, and the moments or stages of paralysis that, for what seemed an eternity, threatened to culminate in frustration and failure.

      In this essay, I would like to recall some of the complications, obstacles, and setbacks on the road to the publication of this collection of sixty-three poems about Germany. I would like to revisit and recreate, if I can, the feelings of discouragement I experienced before reaching this vantage, now that I have published a large collection of pioneer German journals and letters from my native southern Indiana, Finding the Grain: Pioneer German Journals and Letters from Southern Indiana;[3] a collection of legends, in the original and my American English translations, from Franconia, Beneath the Cherry Sapling: Legends from Franconia;[4] a volume of poems about my rural Midwestern German origins, the first section of which deals with the arrival of German-Catholic immigrants in the wilderness of southern Indiana, Somewhere in Southern Indiana: Poems of Midwestern Origins;[5] and, at long last, a collection of poems about the land of my ancestors. It has always been clear to me that these various pursuits and projects cutting across academic disciplines and departments are interrelated and part of an integrated whole; but it has been far from certain that all the parts would have the chance to be published separately and then one day form a published whole. For a long time, in fact, it seemed certain that I should not consider publishing a book of poems about Germany. To be more precise, for a number of years I did not believe it would be valid to put together a book of my poems about Germany.

      I would like to explain why I thought this way. Let me say that I have never, since that 1971 trip to Germany, questioned the legitimacy of Germany as a subject matter for the writing of poems. There is a sense in which the subject chose me; not I, it. I believe that the best writing comes out of our obsessions, our deepest obsessions, and there is no denying that, since I moved away from the area where my family had lived since 1840 and began to write poetry, I have been obsessed with what is commonly called my "German roots." Ever since 1971, when I wrote the poem that begins Blue-Eyed Grass, "Waking in Europe," poems about my German ancestors, about revisiting the sites where they lived, and about artists such as Riemenschneider, Brueghel, Cranach, and Dürer, who depicted the landscape and way of life of my ancestors, have kept coming.

      Admittedly, these were not the only poems I wrote. It did not take long to realize that Germany was a subject that it would be hard, if not impossible, for me to exhaust, so rich, deep, and complex are its history and culture. In my mind, it was hard to separate Germany from another subject that grabbed hold of me rather quickly and has not loosened its grip, my native southern Indiana. Many of the poems that make up the 1993 volume Somewhere in Southern Indiana: Poems of Midwestern Origins, came in clusters throughout the 1970s, when the world seemed fresh because, freed from the rigors and pressures of graduate studies and now teaching in a metropolitan area so different from the region I had known my first twenty-six years, I was making so many discoveries about myself and my origins. After a year of teaching in England, 1973-74, I returned to Long Island and found, for the first time, that Walt Whitman's Long Island, his "Paumanok," opened up to me as a subject for poems, which also came in clusters.

      So now I had three major subjects, main sources of inspiration, three places or "spiritual centers," if that does not seem to pretentious a term; and before long I came to think that these three "centers" should provide the structure for the long poetry manuscript I was assembling, revising, expanding, and reshaping as the poems of place kept coming. Section I would be Indiana Origins; Section II, European Roots; Section III, Long Island Present. My life revolved around these three places, I reasoned, and so my manuscript should take its shape and find its identity from these three spiritual centers.

      I had decent luck placing poems in little magazines and literary journals, from the start, and good luck placing small manuscripts to be published as chapbooks, but after a series of near misses with national competitions and middle-sized and big publishers, I became discouraged about the likelihood of ever publishing a full-length collection of poems. Each year I would revise the big collection, add some new poems, pull some old ones, perhaps find a new title, and try the rounds of competitions and presses again, with the same depressing result. I began submitting a full-length manuscript in 1974, did not succeed in placing one until 1991 and having it published until 1993; but in the early 1980s a couple of editors who liked what they read but did not select my manuscript for publication made a suggestion. We like your poems, they said, as if in unison, though they may have said it a year or so apart, we like what you're doing; but we don't find that your manuscript coheres in the way that an integrated book of poems must. In fact, we think you may have three books in the making here: one on Indiana, one on Germany, and one on Long Island. Have you ever thought of making separate books of each of these sections?

      "Absolutely not!" was my silent reply, and I had my reasons. The first is probably a product of German stubbornness: my life centered around the three places I have mentioned, my poetry comes out of these three places, and a full-length collection, an opportunity to reveal a wholeness and integrity of vision, must reveal the interrelationships between these places. I would not budge on this. My second reason for resisting these well-meaning editors was this: I did not believe I had enough poems of each place to make three complete, fully realized volumes. My third reason is more relevant to the topic of this essay: I did not want to publish a collection of my poems about Germany because, though I had enough poems to fill what would be considered a full-length volume, the poems I had completed did not, in my opinion, constitute a fullness or wholeness of expression on the subject. What do I mean by this?

      First of all, I do not want to serve as a poet who merely celebrates the life of his ancestors and the ancestral landscape he discovers, revisits, and recovers as part of his and his people's heritage. There is nothing wrong with such a role and responsibility--which has, in part, motivated my work as editor of pioneer German journals and letters, translator of Franconian legends, the early poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, and a few poems of Katrine von Hutten, a contemporary poet from Lohr am Main, the town where my mother's family lived until 1840.[6] To explore a subject in all its fullness, however, requires more than celebrating its brighter, more positive side. One must also be willing to confront the darkness of an inheritance and try to balance the light and the dark. In order to explain what I mean by this, it is necessary to give some autobiographical information.

      Since 1970, when my wife and I moved to Long Island to assume teaching positions, we have lived in an area with a substantial Jewish population. Roslyn, Long Island is probably as Jewish as Jasper, Indiana is German Catholic. I teach with Jewish colleagues, have Jewish friends and neighbors, have had many Jewish students, especially through the 1970s, and our children, who came to us as infants from Colombia in 1980 and 1983, have mostly Jewish classmates, many Jewish friends, and attended Bar and Bat Mitzvahs when they were of that age. Being of German descent in such an environment, you cannot help but attract attention if you are obsessed with pursuing and exploring your German heritage, especially if that search leads to publications and public presentations. More than once, when I was explaining why I am so interested in living, teaching, and travelling in Germany, in experiencing German culture, I have been told, "I'm afraid I do not share your enthusiasm for 'things German.'" To be fair, I should point out that such a remark was most often made by a friend or acquaintance who lost relatives in the Holocaust, a trauma that would surely have caused me to react in the same way. In most such cases, my German stubbornness and persistence were strengthened, however, and I would redouble my resolve to continue the search. At the same time, I should admit that some of the most important encouragement I received in my exploration of things German came from Jewish colleagues. Above all, I want to mention Martin Greenberg, whose translations of Kleist, Kafka, and Goethe I consider to be treasures and whose friendship has been a source of nourishment since 1970.[7] In the brief introduction to my Rilke translations, I acknowledge some of my indebtedness to him, and I am honored that the former editor of Commentary, critic, and translator wrote such a moving, eloquent statement for the dust jacket of Blue-Eyed Grass. I especially appreciate his view of the Klara Krapf poems in the last section, "Stones for the Dead": "In quiet poems of mourning, meditation, and imagined relations between his ancestral people and Klara Krapf's, he passionately embraces her, too, as part of himself and himself as part of her."

      You cannot live in a Jewish area, interact with Jewish friends and colleagues, teach Jewish students, and drive your children to Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, without thinking, often, about the implications of the Holocaust. All the while I was writing poems about my German forebears and German art that recreates the world they left behind, I was thinking about what my Jewish friends must be thinking about the relatives they lost in the Holocaust. I was also thinking about the pain my father's family, my grandparents in particular, experienced when my Uncle Jerome, who had left the Benedictine Seminary at St. Meinrad Archabbey because of mental strain, died fighting against the Germans in March, 1945, so near the end of World War II.[8] Like so many Americans of German descent, I felt a mixture of pain, sorrow, confusion, anger, perhaps even shame, and certainly resentment, when I thought about World War II and the Holocaust.

      As we are all painfully aware, our feelings and ideas about difficult subjects are not easy to unravel or express, but I was aware that one day, if I was to do justice as a poet to my obsession with Germany, I would have to confront in poems the difficult, even overwhelming subject of the Holocaust. I had no idea how I could begin to confront such a difficult, controversial subject. I was not even sure I had a right to try, but I was convinced that if I did not somehow discover a way to make an attempt, publishing a volume of poems about Germany would be an evasion of my responsibility as a poet. I knew that a full-length collection of poems about Germany must make an effort to confront the whole of the German experience, as impossible, foolhardy, and presumptuous as that may sound.

      I simply could not live with myself if I continued to write and rewrite "The Forefather Arrives," one of my best-received poems. I could not just continue to write poems inspired by Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach, and Tilman Riemenschneider, like those collected in "The Landscapes of the Masters," the middle section of Blue-Eyed Grass, despite the advice of the wife of my late friend, colleague, and collaborator, the sculptor and artist Alfred Van Loen, a survivor of Auschwitz.[9] Some years before Alfred died of complications arising from diabetes, I was speaking with his wife, Helen, who is also Jewish, and mentioned that on a few occasions Alfred had described to me some of his memories of Auschwitz. I asked if he often shared such experiences with her and confided that I felt a responsibility to write about the Holocaust. "Don't trust Alfred's memories," she insisted. "His memories are confused and not to be trusted. Don't try to write poems about this. Just keep on writing about Tilman Riemenschneider." She knew that Alfred, whose mother's family, Catholics, came from the Würzburg area, was moved that I had dedicated "Homage to Tilman Riemenschneider" to him. By that point, I knew it would be sure death to keep repeating the Germany poems I had already written and that if I was ever to publish a book of poems about Germany, it would have to include some poems making an attempt to face the horror of the Holocaust.

      In the fall of 1988, when my disillusionment with the poetry scene and disgust with the world of publishing were at their most intense, my family and I moved to Erlangen, Germany, about an hour by car from where my ancestors lived, for my second Fulbright grant. At that point, I vowed I would send no more full-length poetry manuscripts to the national competitions or to small, medium, or large publishers. In fact, I vowed I would write no more poems unless I absolutely had to write them. I would write no more ancestor poems, no more Dürer, Riemenschneider or Cranach poems, no more poems of returning to ancestral haunts.

      By November of that year, however, my resolve to remain silent was already breaking down. It was the fiftieth anniversary of the Crystal Night, there was a lecture series on the Nazizeit at The University of Erlangen, where I was teaching American literature, there was an exhibit at the city museum on the Jews of Erlangen during the Third Reich, and there was an exhibit on the history and culture of the Jews of Bavaria opening at the German National Museum in nearby Nuremberg. My daughter, who was attending a local Grundschule, went on a walk with her fellow third-graders and their teachers to the Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of Erlangen, not far from the apartment in which we lived, and had to complete a homework assignment on the significance of their excursion. She was just beginning to learn German, needed help, and my frustration and sense of inadequacy in trying to explain the meaning of the Holocaust so that she could complete the assignment made it necessary for me to write a poem about the situation. There was no other way for me to clarify and understand the conflicting emotions swirling within me. This poem, "Stones for the Dead," was the first in a group of new poems about the Jews of Erlangen during the Nazi period. This includes "The Woman in the Erlangen Photograph (1938)," "Franconian Flames," " the later "St. Martin's Day" and "Tannenbaum, 1940," and the pivotal "Dream of a Cave," which takes place in Erlangen on the fiftieth anniversary of Crystal Night, but recalls the Vietnam War. I see this poem, which I carried within me for twenty years before I could write it, as a dark gift from the subconscious. After I had written this poem, it was as though I was liberated to write poems about the treatment of the Jews of Erlangen.

      What could I possibly mean by using a world like "liberated" in this context? More than a few commentators have observed that the Holocaust is a difficult, if not impossible, subject to write about well; some have claimed it is a subject so difficult, even sacred, that it is a violation to even try to write about it.[10] I felt I had no choice but to confront the subject, but also had no right to lay blame, point the finger, be self-righteous. My life in Erlangen in the fall of 1988 was forcing me to think more and more about the Holocaust, and these thoughts triggered a recollection of a secret buried in my memory: of my brother participating in the destruction, by grenade, of innocent Vietnamese civilians as they huddled in a cave. To admit to this dark family secret, to confront it in a poem, somehow made it possible for me to begin to confront the treatment of the Jews in my ancestral Franconia.

      After a Fulbright year in Freiburg (1980-81), I had written "The Summer the Poppies Bloomed," after reading Wendelgard von Staden's Darkness Over the Valley,[11] and during a 1985 visit to Germany, when Ronald Reagan visited the military cemetery at Bitberg, I had written "The Name of the Place," about having taken my parents to Dachau in 1976.[12] These poems, a narrative poem I wrote in Erlangen about the death of my uncle in Germany in 1945, "On a Hill Near the Rhine," and the new group of Erlangen poems justified, I felt, the making of a book of poems about Germany. I assembled the manuscript of Blue-Eyed Grass, began to send it to American publishers from Erlangen in early 1989, but soon made a discovery that led to the writing of a cycle of poems that gave the manuscript the wholeness and completion it still lacked.

      In January of 1989, my family and I went to the Nuremberg exhibit mentioned above. The last part of this impressive exhibit, for which an excellent catalogue was published, dealt with the treatment of Bavarian Jews during the Third Reich.[13] Near the end of this comprehensive exhibit, as narrated in "The Name on the Wall," I discovered that a Jewish woman named Klara Krapf, born in the village of Wonfurt 12 April 1869, was deported from Würzburg to the concentration camp Theresienstadt, where she died 18 January 1943. In the museum book shop I also found a helpful book, Die Würzburger Juden, by journalist-historian Roland Flade, who, after I contacted him, put me in touch with friends doing research on the Jews of Unterfranken.[14] Klara Krapf's hometown of Wonfurt is just a few miles across the fields from Tugendorf, a hamlet where my day-laborer Krapf ancestors lived from 1833 into the 1840s. I wondered if Klara might be a relative, wondered if there was perhaps a Jewish line in my father's family.

      After returning to the U.S., I read everything I could find on Theresienstadt, including Ruth Bondy's extremely detailed Elder of the Jews: Jakob Edelstein of Theresienstadt and Ruth Schwertfeger's excellent Women of Theresienstadt: Voices from a Concentration Camp. This was very heavy reading, of course, even more overwhelming and painful if you are thinking about a particular human being who was there. In the summer of 1991, I received a letter from Roland Flade with news that a woman he knows, Cordula Kappner, had succeeded in finding information on Klara Krapf and her family. Klara's father's name was Wolf, her mother's maiden name was Babetta Reinstein (of nearby Gochsheim), Klara's grandfather was Meier, she had five brothers and sisters, all of whom supposedly emigrated to America.[15] I found out that Klara was born in Hausnr. 41 on the Hauptstraße, that her father and grandfather were farmers and Kleintierhändler and thus sold goats, rabbits, ducks, and chickens. By then, I already knew that Klara lived in a Jewish nursing home in Würzburg when she was deported to Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia. With such details to ponder, I could imagine Klara's life in a more concrete way. That name I discovered on a wall at a museum exhibition in Nuremberg took on a more particular sound and assumed a more individual identity.

      I began to plan a trip to Germany, with my family, for the summer of 1992. In the fall of 1991, while my imagination was so taken with the newly uncovered facts about Klara Krapf, Time Being Books of St. Louis accepted for publication two poetry manuscripts, Somewhere in Southern Indiana, the Indiana collection those earlier editors had suggested I might want to put together, and Blue-Eyed Grass, my Germany collection. (A third, Bittersweet Along the Expressway: Poems of Long Island, is also complete.) The publisher made just one stipulation about the Germany manuscript. He felt that the last section, dealing with World War II and the Holocaust, was not quite complete and asked if I would consider writing more poems. I replied that I already planned to write a cycle of poems about a Jewish woman named Klara Krapf but could not write the poems until I went to Germany first, visited her hometown of Wonfurt, saw her house on the Hauptsraße, and walked the streets of Theresienstadt. The publisher also helped me solve a structural problem by suggesting that I separate the poems inspired by German art into a section by themselves. As soon as he made the suggestion, I could see my final structure: Part I, "Waking in Europe," poems of revisiting the land of my ancestors; Part II, "Landscapes of the Masters," poems inspired by German art; Part III, "Stones for the Dead," poems of World War II and the Holocaust, concluding with the thirteen poems I wrote about Klara Krapf during and right after our 1992 family visit to Lower Franconia and Theresienstadt.[16] I hope it is clear to the reader of Blue-Eyed Grass that in these poems I try to speak to Klara Krapf, communicate with her, approach her as closely as is humanly possible. There is no way I could begin to speak for her, her family, and/or her people.

      In conclusion, I have not been trying to make a claim for the success of Blue-Eyed Grass as a work of art. What I have tried to show is the stages that the poems, or groups of poems, went through on their way to becoming what I hope is a well-integrated whole. To repeat, this development was not a straightforward, chronological progression (though the poems in section three were the last ones written). Rather, clusters of poems emerged, only after time identified themselves as discrete groups, and then declared themselves as sequences that follow one upon the other. The first section begins with a romantic return to the ancestral landscape; the second explores a more remote but parallel northern European past as reflected and refracted by art of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance; and the third section descends into the darkness and divisions of World War II and the Holocaust. Without a doubt, any book of poems that takes on the sensitive, controversial material of section three as the conclusion of a search for German heritage is not going to please everyone.

      When I wrote the ancestral poems in section one and submitted them to magazines in the 1970s and 80s, "ethnic literature," as it was called, was attracting critical and popular attention; but I soon learned that what I thought of as my "ethnic" material was the polar opposite of what was coming into fashion. When I wrote the poems inspired by great artists that came together, in time, as section two, I was told more than once that one should not write poems about other people's art, and I found more than one editor informing me that he or she did not publish poems about art. When I wrote the poems about World War II and the Holocaust that conclude the volume, I knew that I was entering dangerous, if not forbidden, territory. Perhaps what I have succeeded in accomplishing, without being aware of what I was doing, is making a book of poems about Germany that contains at least one section of poems to offend some group of readers, or individual readers who share a particular aesthetic. It is not hard to imagine readers enthusiastic about the ancestral search in the first section resisting, if not resenting, the Holocaust confrontation in the last section.

      I would not lay claim to any courage in pursuing the obsession with "things German" that has culminated in the publication of this book of poems. Stubbornness and obsessiveness are not always to be equated with an intention to challenge and/or offend the reader. At the same time, I will not deny a sense of satisfaction at having arrived, perhaps unwittingly, at the point where this "cycle of New World songs," as Martin Greenberg calls it, is now in print and of a piece with the poems in Somewhere in Southern Indiana, the legends in Beneath the Cherry Sapling, and the historical documents in the revised, expanded Finding the Grain. I savor the irony of being able to see Finding the Grain and Blue-Eyed Grass, both the product of more than twenty years of work, done in different fields during the same period of time, find their way into print within four months of one another, from publishers whose programs bear no relationship whatsoever. Some readers may find these to be different kinds of books addressing different kinds of concerns. In my view, however, the historical documents in Finding the Grain and the poems in Blue-Eyed Grass speak to one another. I hear the voices in all four of these books speaking to one another, across the fields and fences that supposedly separate them, in an attempt to create, as though from various sides of one complex self, the chorus of a German-American whole.[17]

 


 

FOUR POEMS FROM BLUE-EYED GRASS: POEMS OF GERMANY

 

ST. MARTIN'S DAY

In damp dark, we parents and children
line up in groups behind teachers
in the Pausehof of the Grundschule

to walk in procession to the park
behind the baroque palace. As we
move forward in unison we sing songs

to celebrate the legend of a knight on horseback
who cut his cloak in half with his sword
to comfort a beggar on foot. The children

carry tiny flames through the dark
in lanterns they have made in school
and hooked to the end of sticks.

"Laterne, Laterne, Sonne, Mond und Sterne,"
they sing. In Elizabeth's blue box burns
a candle illuminating a paper angel, an apple,

a moon, and a star cut out in construction
paper she glued together. Before the arched
Orangerie in the park, the children stand

in semicircles to sing. Some play recorders,
some play violins, some tap rhythm
on tambourines. Behind them, facing

us parents, is a big illuminated sheet
before which silhouetted children
actors mime the action of Martin

and his beggar as classmates narrate their
lines. At the end, all sing the round
"Hebet die Laterne/ Lift the lanterns,"

repeat the refrain "Um Licht zu bringen
in dieser Welt
/ To bring light into this
world," and follow a rider on horseback

into the dark. As they wind along geometric
walkways in the Schlosspark, stringing
beads of light through the dark with their

handmade lanterns, I remember the first question
Elizabeth asked after we arrived in Erlangen:
"Daddy, do they celebrate Channakuh here?"

Fifty years after the Kristallnacht, I see
burning beads of light along looping walkways
merge into Mennorah held in uplifted hands.

 

STONES FOR THE DEAD

Fifty years after the Crystal Night
my daughter and her third-grade classmates
hike up the Berg where we live, with teachers
and principal, to visit the Jewish Cemetery.

A note from mayor to teachers and parents
explains that from the Crystal Night in 1938
until early the following summer
many of the tombstones were vandalized.

The Jewish Cemetery, he explains,
is not only a historical site,
but serves as a reminder of a "fanatical
destruction of graves done only because

the dead were of the Jewish faith...
an act of boundless intolerance."
And now, back home, my daughter must
fill in the details on a tombstone

outlined on the bottom of the mayor's
note that I must sign as proof
that she understands why her class
has visited the jüdische Friedhof.

I translate the directions, and she
draws a Star of David at the top.
Then she copies the Hebrew characters
for "Hier ruht," "Here rests."

Now she must make up a first name
and she selects "David," perhaps because
of the star she has drawn, perhaps
because of a story in the Bible.

I suggest "Stein," perhaps because
of a famous American writer who lived
in Paris, then decide it's too obvious
to write that name on a Grabstein.

We lengthen the name to "Steinberg,"
perhaps because the cemetery is up the Berg,
and I tell her to write below the name
the dates 1900-1942. But that can't be.

A man with that name from this town
who died in that year would never have
been buried here, would never have received
his own tombstone. He would have disappeared

into a mass grave at some European site
with a name I hate to pronounce. I
think of what my friend who survived
fourteen months in a concentration camp

told me about what his job was there,
that when he can't sleep at night
he counts the number of bodies
of people who were Jewish

that he had to haul in a wagon
to a ditch, that the total
always comes to many thousands.
I tell my daughter to change

the death date to 1936, even
though I find it hard to explain
why she should. Then I see I have
made the man die too young so he

could be buried here at home.
But it is far too late to correct
this kind of mistake. My daughter's
assignment is too difficult for me.

 

THE NAME ON THE WALL

--At an exhibit of The History and Culture
of the Jews of Bavaria, Bavarian National
Museum, Nuremberg, January, 1989
--

Almost at the end, I pause in a replica
of a small plain building that feels
like a train station located

near a concentration camp. When I move,
gravel crunches beneath my feet.
My Colombian-born children have fled
ahead after covering their eyes
before a blow-up of victims reduced
to skin stretched across bent

and twisted bones. Those who enter
this forlorn station do not stay
for long. Not many Germans stand

here with me. On the walls,
the names of all the Jews of Bavaria
who were deported to the camps.

The sound of any voice in this
hushed station sounds too loud.
Though we are Catholic, though

we left Bavaria 150 years ago,
though we should have known by now,
I can never not look. Can you ever

be sure exactly where you stood
or might have stood? When do you
ever know for certain who you

have been or what you might have
become? I can never not look.
Like many of my poems, the names

on the wall are grouped by place:
No Schmitts taken from Lohr am Main,
no Krapfs taken from the villages

of Hesslar, Kreuzthal or Tugendorf.
Near the end of the alphabet I find
myself drawn to my favorite Franconian

city, Würzburg, where I always return
for Frankenwein and the woodcarvings
of Riemenschneider and the statues

of the saints on the old stone bridge
across the Main. And there on the wall
is an entry I hear myself read in a language

I once knew, lost, and worked hard to re-
cover: Krapf, Klara. 12.04.69. Wonfurt.
18.01.43 Theresienstadt
. But the name

on the wall has no face for me to view,
no voice to tell me her story. The simplest
questions multiply the fastest and can
be the hardest to answer. This familiar
yet strange name on the paper wall of
a replica of a train station in a museum

in the city where Albrecht Dürer walked
and worked has no voice to give
the details I need to hear, but raises

a chorus of questions I don't know
if I'll ever be able to answer:
Who was she? Why did she leave

her village for the city? Who were
her parents? Were they both Jewish?
Did she have brothers and sisters?

Was she married? Did she have children?
Was she my relative? One thing I know:
relationships run deeper than blood.

 

SONG FOR KLARA KRAPF'S ASHES

Because I do not know
exactly where they emptied
the big cardboard urn
into the Ohre River
to escape detection
two years after you died

because I do not know
what else to do
to give you back
what you deserved

I come to stand
in the evening rain
on this bridge
over a muddy river.

Because they would not
give you your own space
within the earth
and the signpost
of a tombstone
to mark your life

I bring a small stone
I found beside a door
of the barracks where
you were quartered
in the ghetto.

Looking down at the swift
currents below, I lay
the stone on a column
of the wall preventing
old people and children
from falling into the waters.

Because no one must ever
be allowed to disappear
without words of farewell
and commemoration

because I do not know
how to say Kaddish
because I knew
I must do something
I have come from
America to sing
this sad song
for you, Klara Krapf.

I would give you
the hand of a brother
or sister as you lay
on what you knew
must be your last bed,
if bed it could be called.

As you look up
for your last glimpse
of a world which
should not have turned
away as it did
in the last years
of your life

I would give you back
the look of someone
who understands
and appreciates
what you have been
and will always remember
the value of your life.

Because I have nothing
else to give you, Klara,
no blood relative
but kin nonetheless

I give you
this song

I float toward you
in the rain
across the waters.

 


 

[1]. This essay is the concluding chapter in an unpublished manuscript with the working title of Where It All Began: Essays on Poetry, Place, and Ethnicity. The first part of this literary memoir discusses the influences and circumstances that led me to begin writing poems about my Midwestern German origins after I moved from Indiana to Long Island in 1970.

[2]. (St. Louis: Time Being Books, 1997).

[3]. (Indianapolis: Max Kade German-American Center, Indiana University Indianapolis, 1996).

[4]. (New York: Fordham University Press, 1988).

[5]. (St. Louis: Time Being Books, 1993).

[6]. Shadows on the Sundial: Selected Early Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke (Northport, N.Y.: Birnham Wood Graphics, 1990). The Katrine von Hutten translations appeared in England in Stand 21.3 (1980): 14-15.

[7]. See the following books of translations by Martin Greenberg, Marquise of O and Other Tales (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1960); Heinrich von Kleist: Five Plays (New Haven: Yale Univ. Pr., 1988); Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust: A Tragedy, Part I (New Haven: Yale Univ., Pr., 1992); and the critical studies Kafka: The Terror of Art (New York: Horizon Press, 1983) and The Hamlet Vocation of Coleridge and Wordsworth (Iowa City: Univ. Iowa Press, 1986).

[8]. I tell the story of my uncle's death in The Sunday Before Thanksgiving: Two Prose Memoirs (Chicago: Rain Crow Publications, 1998) and in the first poem in the last section of Blue-Eyed Grass, "On a Hill Near the Rhine."

[9]. We collaborated on Circus Songs (Point Reyes, CA.: Floating Island Publications, 1983). As I explain in the Afterword, included as part of the memoir mentioned in note 1, Alfred came to me with his cycle of ten continuous-line drawings of circus figures already completed and asked me to write poems to accompany them.

[10]. There is the famous statement by Theodor Adorno in "Engagement," in Noten zur Literatur III (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1965), that after the Holocaust it would be barbaric to write a poem, a point of view discussed by Laurence Langer, The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975), 1-3. In Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1991), editor Charles Fishman titles his first section, "After the Holocaust--No Poetry?" My admiration for William Heyen's ground-breaking Erika: Poems of the Holocaust (New York: Vanguard Press, 1984, rpt. by Time Being Books, 1991), is recorded in "William Heyen's Obsessive Ghosts: Erika and the Holocaust," Holocaust and Genocide Studies, II, No. 1 (1987), 165-169, included as a chapter in the memoir referred to in the first note.

[11]. (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1981), translated by Molle Comerford Peters.

[12]. Fishman, Blood to Remember, includes this poem, p. 333, and quotes from a letter I wrote to him about the experience behind the poem, p. 393. He also includes three of Alfred Van Loen's Auschwitz poems, pp. 64, 85, 88, written in Dutch in 1946 and translated into English in the U.S. in 1948, and, p. 401, quotes from a letter in which my friend, whose name was originally Lowenthal, records the murder of his grandfather in Munich in 1941, his grandmother's death in Bergen-Belsen after being transferred from Theresienstadt, and the murder of his uncle, a poet, in Auschwitz. He concludes: "These facts and stories told by survivors prompted the writing of these Auschwitz poems. In my dreams, I felt like I had been with my relatives and shared their suffering. As long as I live, I will never be able to forget or forgive the Nazi horror."

[13]. Gerhard Bott, Siehe der Stein schreit aus der Mauer: Geschichte und Kultur der Juden in Bayern (Nürnberg: Germanisches National-Museum, 1989).

[14]. (Würzburg: Stürtz Verlag, 1987).

[15]. In the summer of 1997, after reading from Blue-Eyed Grass in Würzburg, I learned that Klara had an older sister named Sophie, born 1865, who 1906-1935 was treated for psychological illness in the Fachklinik für Psychiatrie und Psychotherapie, Schloss Werneck, that in 1835 her condition had improved enough that she could be transferred to "Heilanstalt Römershag bei Bad Brückenau," a mental asylum where she died in 1939, and that before she was institutionalized in 1906 she had twice visited relatives in New York and Baltimore. This information was documented in a letter of 23 July 1997 by Thomas Schindler, Archivist of the Gemeinde Wonfurt, who also sent me a photograph of Klara Krapf taken from her identity card found in the same archives. I hope to establish contact with the Jewish Krapfs in the U.S.

[16]. Not until my family and I visited Würzburg, Wonfurt, and Theresienstadt in 1992 did I learn, from Roland Flade, that Klara Krapf could not have been a relative. Her family took the name of Krapf in 1817, when the Jews of Unterfranken were required by law to take Christian last names. As I theorize in the last poem of Blue-Eyed Grass, "Franconian Vision: An Epilogue," however, it is possible that my day-laborer ancestors, who lived in the hamlet of Tugendorf in the 1830s and into the 1840s, may have known and done business with Klara's grandfather, who sold small animals in villages around nearby Wonfurt.

[17]. The following poems, "St. Martin's Day," "Stones for the Dead," "The Name on the Wall," and "Song for Klara Krapf's Ashes," are from Blue-Eyed Grass: Poems of Germany by Norbert Krapf, c 1997 by Time Being Books; all rights reserved, reprinted by permission of Time Being Press.

 


 

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