The Book of Yolek
Wir Haben ein Gesetz,
Und nach dem Gesetz soll er sterben.*
The dowsed coals fume and hiss after your meal
Of grilled brook trout, and you saunter off for a walk
Down the fern trail. It doesn’t matter where to,
Just so you’re weeks and worlds away from home,
And among midsummer hills have set up camp
In the deep bronze glories of declining day.
You remember, peacefully, an earlier day
In childhood, remember a quite specific meal:
A corn roast and bonfire in summer camp.
That summer you got lost on a Nature Walk;
More than you dared admit, you thought of home:
No one else knows where the mind wanders to.
The fifth of August, 1942.
It was the morning and very hot. It was the day
They came at dawn with rifles to The Home
For Jewish Children, cutting short the meal
Of bread and soup, lining them up to walk
In close formation off to a special camp.
How often you have thought about that camp,
As though in some strange way you were driven to,
And about the children, and how they were made to walk,
Yolek who had bad lungs, who wasn’t a day
Over five years old, commanded to leave his meal
And shamble between armed guards to his long home.
We’re approaching August again. It will drive home
The regulation torments of that camp
Yolek was sent to, his small, unfinished meal,
The electric fences, the numeral tattoo,
The quite extraordinary heat of the day
They all were forced to take that terrible walk.
Whether on a silent, solitary walk
Or among crowds, far off or safe at home,
You will remember, helplessly, that day,
And the smell of smoke, and the loudspeakers of the camp.
Wherever you are, Yolek will be there, too.
His unuttered name will interrupt your meal.
Prepare to receive him in your home some day.
Though they killed him in the camp they sent him to,
He will walk in as you’re sitting down to a meal.
* We have a law, and according to the law he must die.
The compelling sestina by the late, great Anthony Hecht is a good example of the old Medieval form., the sestina, which consists of 6 six line stanzas and a tercet (three lines at the end).
The sestina is governed by the 6 end words, or syllables, which pop up in each stanza according to a preordained arrangement.
Hecht’s six words are:
to (2, too, tattoo)
Notice that all 6 appear in the final tercet. Also note that the final word of each stanza becomes the final word of the first line of the following stanza.
The first two stanzas of “The Book of Yolek” depict a peaceful and almost opulent scene: a midsummer camper is enjoying a walk after a meal of grilled trout and then remembers a childhood summer camp and the sense of homesickness.
Then there’s a segue: “No one else knows where the mind wanders to”.
The next three stanzas are dedicated to the speaker’s thoughts of a young boy named Yolek who perished in a concentation camp. During WWII, Hecht, an American serviceman, was in a division that helped to liberate the few survivors of a concentration camp. Because he knew a few languages he interviewed and transcribed the statements of the survivors. That’s my theory as to where he got the story of Yolek. But his fecund imagination would have sufficed.
According to Poetry: “Much has been written about Hecht’s experience as an infantryman in wwii, both in combat and at the liberation of Flossenbürg concentration camp. “The place, the suffering, the prisoners’ accounts were beyond comprehension,” Hecht said of the camp, an annex of Buchenwald, in an interview with Philip Hoy. “For years after I would wake shrieking.” The survivors were naked, skeletal, their yellowed skin stretched over bony frames; contemporary reports note that the smell was unbearable. Hecht explained to Hoy how he let go completely [of] illusions of heroism when on another occasion he saw American soldiers mow down a group of women and children who were attempting to surrender.”
This poem is daunting to write about because it is so powerful; Hecht must have worked at it for a long time to achieve such a breath-taking, heart-breaking effect. I think he’d like us to always be prepared to receive Yolek in our thoughts, at our tables, in our souls.
Be kind, for you never know who might be a Yolek. And even if you don’t know him, and you possibly don’t, keep a place for him.