June 25, 2014KR Conversations

Philip Schultz

schultz-microinterview-carouselThis interview was conducted by Ronald A. Sharp at Philip Schultz’s apartment in New York on January 24, 2014, just a couple weeks before Norton’s publication of his The Wherewithal: A Novel in Verse.

Ron Sharp: When did the seed of The Wherewithal first germinate? Was it related to your reading of Jan Gross’s Neighbors, his 2002 account of the massacre at Jedwabne?

Philip Schultz: No, it goes back to 1969, 1970. I was living in San Francisco and, not being able to find a job because of my draft status, had to apply for food stamps in order to survive. No one was hiring someone who could be in Vietnam or Canada the next day.

I was out of school at the time, writing poetry and fiction and attempting to get by on part-time work, but like many young men in this situation, I had to supplement my income with food stamps. So I became familiar with the welfare building in downtown San Francisco. More familiar than I cared to be. It was a depressing but somehow necessary experience and when I heard about a job being available there I jumped at it. It was verifying medical applications and with all but an MA I got it and worked there for a little over a year.

I worked upstairs in the medical division but would hang out in the basement in the closed files department, a world straight out of Dostoyevsky, a labyrinth of miles of floor to ceiling files, everything alphabetical, a subterranean world dating back to the beginning of the welfare system. I’d read the files of people I knew, old girlfriends, my own, knowing it’d be a wonderful setting for a novel. Which I attempted to do from the time when I was twenty-five—I still have my I.D. card dating 2/10/70 with a photograph of me wearing what one friend described as my Russian Revolutionary moustache—into my forties; a year didn’t go by without my attempting one. But they all were failures. At least five of them were fully developed novels about the welfare building, several just beginnings that didn’t go very far. I had a great setting, interesting times, evocative characters, but no real story. And most important, although I didn’t know it then, I didn’t have a fully realized narrator/character. I just had an autobiographical “I” who didn’t understand what was happening to him anymore than I did at the time, which, I’m afraid, makes for disconnected writing.

RS: Your second poetry book, published thirty years ago in 1984, contains a wonderful poem called “Balance” that is also set in that same basement in the welfare building, which the speaker of the poem reflects about in ways not unlike Henryk’s observations. It was around this time that you pretty much stopped writing poetry and concentrated on writing novels. Wasn’t it a period of nearly twenty years?

PS: In all truth, I can’t tell you exactly why I didn’t publish another poetry book for eighteen years. The reasons I gave myself may have held some resonance for me then, that many of my poems were about failed relationships and dark feelings and that perhaps—and here we enter a realm of unidentified magical thinking—my writing about such things somehow perpetuated them.

All I really understood is that there was some kind of territorial dispute going on between the poet and fiction writer in me, each making byzantine claims on my time. With the perspective of hindsight, I now see that the fiction writer most likely resented the poet’s success and that my background probably entered into this dispute. What right did I, an only child of lower class uneducated immigrants, have in wanting to be a poet, even thinking of himself in those rather fancy terms? The soil I grew out of was the stuff of novelists perhaps, certainly not poets. To this day, I think, the poet feels unentitled, a counterfeiter waiting to be found out. Just as the dyslexic kid in me who couldn’t function in school believed the smart kids all learned Latin, math and chemistry, I probably believed I wasn’t smart enough to be a novelist, let alone a poet.

RS: So during all this time you were primarily attempting to write novels, unsuccessfully? What made you finally return to poetry.

PS: I started writing poetry again when I met my wife and got married in 1995. Love gave me permission and the calm to put buried inner struggles to rest. I felt emancipated by having someone else to live for. I can’t say this for sure, of course, since it’s all so mysterious and unconscious, but suddenly I was writing only poetry and dealing with many of the same subjects I hadn’t been able to in my fiction.

And in 2002 I read a book by the great Holocaust historian Jan T. Gross called Neighbors, about a pogrom in 1941 Poland, the German-occupied Poland, where the non-Jewish half of the population of a particular village, 1,600 people or so (the exact number is a matter of dispute), killed the other half, the entire Jewish population, in a massacre famous now for its brutality. The Jews that weren’t pitchforked, clubbed, and stabbed to death were rounded up and burned alive in a barn—men, women and children. The people who did it took the Jews’ property. The entire town kept this secret even after Gross’s book provided historical evidence for their crime. I was fascinated, if I can use so superficial a word, by the historical circumstances of Hitler’s invasion of Poland, after the Soviets occupied it, and by the amount of anti-Semitism there. The Jews and gentiles had essentially been neighbors for nearly five centuries. Yes, the Poles took the Jews’ clothes, furniture, businesses and homes, but was there something else behind such savagery? It didn’t seem like the material for a poem, but poetry was the only form I was interested in writing now, and so I went at it, knowing that it’d be a long and emotionally difficult journey.

RS: And the one true hero in your book, the main character’s mother, a very devout Catholic woman, who saved the only seven survivors by hiding them in a hole underneath her barn for two and a half years, at great risk to her and her family, she’s a real person, right? So you’re combining here historical characters and facts with fictional characters and situations?

PS: That’s the tricky part. I sought out the help and wisdom and historical perspective of holocaust historians like Saul Friedlander whose monumental books The Years of Persecution and The Years of Extermination tell as complete a story as I know, and Jan Gross to make sure I wasn’t overstepping myself by this mixture of fact and fiction. After being given their blessings, and encouragement, I sent my manuscript through my agent to Elie Wiesel for further affirmation. This feeling of being unentitled that I mentioned earlier persisted: what right did I have to write about a world I didn’t know firsthand and had to imagine from the safety of my home in East Hampton, NY? What right, indeed?

So now I felt free to imagine this character and his relationship with this marvelously heroic woman who was willing to sacrifice everything to save the lives of others, because she simply believed it was the right thing to do.

RS: And at what point did you put together the welfare material from these other uncompleted novels and this woman’s story?

PS: I’d been taking notes ever since I read Neighbors, since 2002, but I didn’t yet see it as a very long poem or even know the two stories were somehow connected. Then, in 2004 or ’05, when I was writing the long poem in Failure called “The Wandering Wingless”— a fifty page poem that picks up the themes of the rest of the individual poems in that book—I realized for the first time that perhaps something good had come out of all those failed novels: I’d learned something about narrative that might be helpful in writing long poems. I had been trying to write about 9/11 and separately writing about a dog walker. It wasn’t until I took the material from the dog walker and used that to indirectly address 9/11 that I had a full story. And now I realized I also needed a second equally important story in order to deal with Jedwabne, a second perspective to ground it in, to set it in.

And then I started to look at all that welfare material, all those novels. What if the guy who’s hiding out in closed files was the son of the Catholic woman who had saved the seven Jews and, in addition to avoiding the draft, was translating her diaries so the world would know what happened? It was as if I’d been holding my breath for forty years. I immediately knew I had my character, and his story, which also happened to be about Jedwabne, and the welfare system in America, another subject I’d been trying to deal with all those many years.

Suddenly having written all those novels had a purpose, and I understood my character’s long imprisonment, and mine.

RS: It all came together.

PS: Yes, and also the gloom and the depression of the welfare material, all those failed dreams and desires, another kind of hell, as if this basement was where they kept the files on all of Dante’s sinners. Combining these two stories allowed me to arm myself against, and withstand, the gloom and desperation of each one. The stories of the despised Jews and despised poor were becoming one larger story. And they provided a way to proceed.

RS: The Piranesi images that appear at the beginning of each of your six chapters are so powerful that Piranesi almost seems to be performing the function of a guide to the various underworlds of the poem, including the welfare system and the Holocaust. “I’m hoping,” says Henryk, that

Mr. Piranesi, who probably knew
all about hiding, might tell me
in his giant vaults, unsupportable balconies,
and menacing passages, under which
nothing lies but interminable darkness,
where I should go next. (150)

Is Piranesi something of a Virgil guiding Dante through hell? I realize that from another perspective Wittgenstein also performs this role as guide, but Piranesi’s images seem to capture the pointlessness and hopelessness of the welfare system, with its endless lines of bewildered victims filling out endless forms that end up in basement file cabinets like the ones that surround Henryk in his underground office.

PS: Yes, without a doubt, Piranesi’s great drawings of dungeons and hallways, of imprisonment and despair, provided me with the perspective I was missing; I could now peer into my own darkness without despairing. One of my part-time jobs at that time was framing etchings for a gallery that sold Piranesi prints and I kept a poster of a show of his work that now hangs over my desk in my studio. I framed it when I was twenty-three. So we’ve been together a long time. And yes, he was a guide, like Wittgenstein, my Virgil.

RS: Let’s return to the germination of The Wherewithal. How did the poem develop?

PS: Drenka Willen, my great editor at Harcourt and then Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, was about to publish a long sequence of poems called Living in the Past, about my childhood in Rochester. We were having dinner when I mentioned the Jedwabne story and she couldn’t have been more supportive and encouraging. I can’t say how lucky I’ve been, having her as an editor and guide for so long. She worked on this book even after I’d taken it to another publisher. I couldn’t have written it without her.

RS: Did you know at that point that you wanted to write a long poem about this or did you just know you wanted to write something about it?

PS: Yes, I think I always knew it’d have to be a very long poem. Not exactly how long but long. It wasn’t until Failure was done that I started working on The Wherewithal. I began by spreading over my office floor all the various manuscripts of the novels I’d written, looking for interesting scenes and characters. I knew it’d have to take place on a larger scale than “The Wandering Wingless,” because there were so many more characters and stories. It was in 2008, 2009, when I began working on it full-time.

RS: How troubled were you in the actual composition of the poem by the immensity of the task of writing about the Holocaust?

PS: A great question. The last thing in the world I wanted to do is write about the Holocaust. I mean, I didn’t know if you could do it successfully in a poem. I was familiar of course with Paul Celan and Nellie Sachs’ work, but they for the most part wrote short poems of great transforming beauty about their direct experiences. This was an entirely different approach, a long poem about the experiences of other people, one real and one invented. I was thrown by it. I went back and forth often, looking for excuses to abandon this idea, this book. But it stuck with me, like a perverse shadow. I found myself looking for the same thing my character was looking for in translating his mother’s diaries, the “wherewithal” with which to proceed.

RS: Exactly.

PS: And that’s when the two stories really came together for me, with all the others following. The story of the poor as a vast minority, the world’s largest, and the story of the Jews, another large minority, both equally despised throughout history.

And I should add that my dyslexia perhaps plays a part here. It’s been noted that the dyslexic mind can and even insists on juggling various narratives simultaneously, that it perceives things, even ideas, in a visual, narrative manner. This of course proved very helpful in writing this book.

RS: You’ve written a wonderful book about not learning how to read until you were eleven and only learning that you had dyslexia decades later, when, at fifty, you discovered that your young son was dyslexic. Can you talk a bit about the connections between your dyslexia and your sense of language and also your development as a poet? More specifically, is there a connection between your dyslexia and the elaborate narrative structure of The Wherewithal that you eventually improvised?

PS: Well, as a dyslexic, I find reading difficult. I read very slowly and the Holocaust is certainly a subject one has to know something about before attempting what I was, so I found myself being overwhelmed by the many books I had to read, something I don’t think I’d ever successfully asked myself to do before. At one time there were thirty books piled up on my desk with the bookmark moving slowly in only one of them. So I finally did what I always did in school when confronted with a lot of reading: I began to read piecemeal, five or ten pages from one book and then skipping to another, creating a kind of steeplechase of bookmarks, each moving up the course of their pages at their own distinct pace. Before long I’d finished one book and then another. This is the way I managed to complete English classes as a student by reading eight of Shelley’s poems and three of Byron’s and maybe four of Coleridge’s while never reading even half of what I was assigned. I always had to compensate for the things my brain refused to, couldn’t do. It wasn’t until my late fifties, when my oldest son was diagnosed with dyslexia, that I understood that there was a system behind my failings other than stupidity. I’d never asked myself to do this kind of research before . . .

RS: On the Holocaust.

PS: The more I read, the more I understood how profound my ignorance was and how necessary it was to know something about the history of the time. There was no way around all this reading. My central story was based on a true story about people burned alive in a barn by their neighbors. Gross’s book provided depositions of the trials that took place after the war, testimonies of eyewitnesses, the truth of what had happened. Gross warns his readers that there is no easy conclusion to be drawn from his book. That offering up meaning, conclusions wasn’t the job of the historian. It felt as if I were taking on that job, to imagine being there, and apply meaning, if any were possible. But I finally found myself speechless in the face of such horror, such evil. Although I understood early on that in order to write this story, I’d have to go into the barn.

RS: Which you do at the end of the poem.

PS: When I first realized this I became nauseous, sick to my stomach. I realized that if I did put myself through this it couldn’t just be a story about a man in one hell remembering an even worse one. There had to be lighter, comic moments; one can’t sustain a story of this length in poetry without a strong narrative, that the greater the disturbance the greater the engagement. People had to care about this character, Henryk Wyrzykowski, and want to find out what happens to him.

RS: As I understand it, all the reading that you did about the Holocaust and your reliance on humor and your attention to all the various complicated narrative lines that surround the story of the Holocaust—all of these provided a kind of buffer against the unremitting pain and darkness of the Holocaust. But they weren’t just a screen against it. They also ultimately provided a deeper way into it; they also provided some means of entry into a deeper understanding of the pain.

PS: Yes, that’s exactly right. Not only did I have to shield myself from this character’s misery, I had to stand far enough away from it to see it more completely, more philosophically than he did, or could. I had to—taking a page out of a writer like Bellow—mix grief and sorrow with humor and philosophy in equal portions. Which meant that Henryk had to have a life separate from his role in the story, he had to be as interesting, or as complicated, as the story he was telling or he would be overwhelmed by it, and so would the reader. The fact that this was the ‘60s with another war going on, not to mention an enormous carnival of rebellion and youthful jubilance, was one solution. And there had to be a romantic interest of something, to make him believable.

As with the old Chinese curse and prayer, these were interesting times. Times I’d never been able to write about before. So I used my own experiences in dodging the draft, all those part-time jobs driving a cab, working on the docks, filling the vending machines on an aircraft carrier, teaching foreign kids and soldiers English. I decided to start each section with a different job or adventure that took place on the streets, before he ended up in his basement.

The first adventure was a job I actually had around the time the Zodiac killer told all the papers he was going to kill a cabbie after killing people from various professions. I didn’t own a TV or read newspapers so I didn’t know this when I was hired to go take a taxi out one day. Memory plays tricks with the imagination so I can’t say exactly when this happened but I did fear picking up the Zodiac, all the drivers did. It was a time of great risk, temptation, and death. My fear of being sent to Vietnam and dying was constant, palpable, and to some degree, inspiring. I just had to wait four decades before I could find its proper psychological and emotional context.

RS: The poem is divided into six chapters.

PS: Six parts, or chapters. And each part is comprised of sixteen sections, with each section about the same character or situation. So there’s repetition, for the sake of forward movement, and musical propulsion.

RS: And that functions as still another formal structure which also acts as a buffer?

PS: There are fifteen different narratives in the poem—some comic, others tragic—and the interplay of these facets allowed me to maintain a narrative balance and distance from the material, as I said. But I could never lose sight of my main goals, to deal with the poor and the Holocaust, in aspects or pieces that would reflect on larger, more intangible realities.

This is why it was so important for me to find a persona narrator who wasn’t me. We’re always biased, either for or against ourselves, and sometimes these biases get in the way of objective truth, can be isolating. Henryk, an ex-Catholic son of a heroic woman, saw more as a child than he could bear. More perhaps than I could bear. On the surface that’s not my experience, though on some personal level, in a way I can’t consciously understand, it is when I’m impersonating him, asking myself to feel his pain.

RS: And how did you create this character, if he didn’t really exist?

PS: I knew that he had to own a personality that’s been formed by something other than his Jedwabne memories so I gave him his own personal drama: he killed his best friend during a reckless game of chicken that was his idea, an act he can’t forgive himself for.

RS: Rossy.

PS: Rossy, the son of a Jewish survivor of Treblinka. Henryk suspects he did it deliberately, that it wasn’t an accident, that he killed his best friend because his mother loved these Jews she saved more than she loved him, placing everyone, his entire family, in danger. Because of their Jews, or Jews. He suspects himself as being an anti-Semite. Another thing he can’t forgive himself for. This is Henryk’s existential crisis, the conundrum he’s trying to solve.

RS: Historically she didn’t actually have a son?

PS: I believe she did, though I could find nothing about him or his sister. I had to invent him in any case. There’s a great deal of guilt in surviving something so many others didn’t survive. In reading about the Holocaust guilt is at the center of so many stories; the real basement my character is imprisoned in, his dungeon. Cain couldn’t forgive himself for killing his brother and Rossy was Henryk’s brother. Though he didn’t know it, Henryk was translating his mother’s diaries as a way of escaping his quilt. His mother is the only character in the story who has no reason to feel guilty.

RS: And where does philosophy, especially Wittgenstein, come in? More buffer?

PS: Philosophy offers the kind of perspective I need to understand the larger context I was seeking, the larger story. Henryk and the other stories are all pieces of a much larger picture, and reality. Like all of us, he’s so busy trying to survive he doesn’t realize this, and wouldn’t know what to do with the knowledge if he did. I went to Nietzsche and then Kierkegaard. I tried Aristotle, and Buber, whom I used in the long sequence Living in the Past—but none of them gave me what I needed, which was a prism or language with which to view something larger perhaps than any human means of understanding. I needed a system of thought, and therefore feeling, that went outside of the rational, and logical, and dealt so directly with human pain. There was really only one thinker who satisfied these requirements that I knew.

One night I had a dream in which I couldn’t pronounce Wittgenstein’s name, an anxiety/dyslexia dream, and when I awoke, I began reading his second and final book Philosophical Investigations, realizing immediately that Henryk was studying him, doing his thesis on Wittgenstein. I never for a moment was naïve enough to feel I was seeking any real understanding of the Holocaust, I just sought a perspective, a ledge, from which to view it. Ludwig became not so much a guide as an accomplice, offering company along our journey through hell.

RS: The philosophical context. Did any of this have to do with anxiety on your part about trivializing the singularity of the Holocaust? The poem develops a very extended analogy between the treatment of Jews and the poor, as you’ve suggested, both of which involve elaborate bureaucratic mechanisms for exploiting vulnerabilities, inflicting suffering, and degrading human dignity. Were you ever anxious in developing those parallels about the possibility of trivializing the singularity or uniqueness of the Holocaust?

PS: Well, first of all, I’m moved by your understanding that. I mean, I can’t imagine putting it better. Yes, these bureaucracies of thought, mechanisms of structure—you never know what’s going to be understood by readers. But to answer your question simply: no. I trusted my feelings enough to think that I wouldn’t cheapen them in any way. The pain felt by so many over such a vast amount of time had to at least be represented in a cogent, believable manner. And I’d grown up on a street filled with DPs from the war. I translated, literally, their thoughts from Yiddish into English, struggling with language to be accurate, and truthful. I listened to their stories on porches, stories about life in places like Treblinka, Auschwitz. Perhaps the real question is why wasn’t it a worry?

RS: Right.

PS: You’re asking me to think about something for the first time: Why shouldn’t it have been?

RS: Well, I wonder if it doesn’t have something to do with that paradox that I was getting at earlier, that all the other stories, all the other narrative lines and the humor and the philosophical background do provide a buffer but they’re not just escapes. They’re also ways of entry into a deeper understanding of the Holocaust.

PS: Well, the one thing I got from my reading (Primo Levi’s, for example, or Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen) was the sense of entitlement: was I entitled to write about something I hadn’t survived myself? That was much more pertinent than any worry about whether I’d be able to. I was born in 1945, right after the war, so if I couldn’t write about it, who could, or would? Those who had suffered were getting older, dying off, and if my generation wasn’t entitled to write about it then it would die along with its generation.

RS: On the title page of your book, the poem is called “a novel in verse.” I wonder whether you’re comfortable with that designation or whether you would consider it more accurate to think of The Wherewithal as a long narrative poem.

PS: Calling it that was my editor, Jill Bialosky’s idea, because it wasn’t a collection of poems, or a sequence really. It used narrative techniques used in novels, and since it needed a description and everyone who read it thought it read like one, I agreed to this designation. But I never once saw it as a novel while writing it, I saw it only as a poem. I wasn’t interested in plot or character development, in the kind of enticement and seduction novelists employ. I needed to tie all my stories together and hold the reader’s attention so I invented this narrative means of moving things along. I revised it fifteen times, scanning every line, worrying about line breaks, so perhaps at first I wasn’t entirely comfortable using a term associated with prose. If others thought of this as a novel in verse, fine. It is what it is, finally.

RS: The titles of your two most recent books of poetry, Failure from 2007 and The God of Loneliness, your new and selected poems from 2010, sound a good deal darker than, for example, your first book Like Wings. Yet both of these most recent books reveal a new source of emotional strength, a sense of healing and moving beyond paralyzing grief and sadness.

I wonder if you would address the complex dialectic of grief and joy that has always figured centrally in your work. In some ways, this new long poem goes even further into the darkness, taking on the ultimate horror of the Holocaust, and yet you seem to have found a way of confronting the darkness without wallowing in it. You seem to have found the wherewithal, to borrow the title of your new book, to deal with this immensely challenging material without either trivializing it or sensationalizing it.

PS: That’s another good question. In my early work, I’d write an elegy mainly as a way of surviving some grief. Then I’d write something lighter, funnier to entertain myself, maybe combining humor and seriousness. But for the most part the emotion I was expressing was one or the other. Fiction was hard for me, I think, because I had trouble sustaining a mixture of the two over a long narrative. Bellow brilliantly mixed genres, themes and emotions into serio-comic/philosophical juggling acts so adroit it was impossible to look away. It all somehow only added to the gravitas of his work. The philosophical was tempered, seasoned with Borscht belt comedy, the high and the low a rapids the reader swam with great wonder and delight. Roth too, of course, but to a different extent. I tried this in “The Wandering Wingless,” a long poem in Failure about New York after 9/11, mixing humor with grief, jumping from a comic situation and scene to a grievous one.

But when you’re taking on a subject as complicated, as impossible as the Holocaust, the darkness has to stand by itself, without being diluted by anything that would lessen it. Mixing my scenes in the right portions and rhythms so they wouldn’t distract or lessen the impact of what I was doing was perhaps the single hardest thing in the poem.

RS: You referred earlier to the need you felt to find a strong character that wasn’t you, that wasn’t entirely autobiographical, as the protagonist here, and I wonder how you found your way to that.

PS: Well, the school I started and run, The Writers Studio, is founded on the idea of persona writing. I discovered early in my teaching career that students usually made the same mistake when they couldn’t connect to their material: they used the same autobiographical “I” as a narrator in their poems and stories that they used in their diaries and letters. There was no invented character and therefore little or no distance or narrative perspective. When I showed them the narrative advantages of using a Huck Finn or Holden Caulfield to tell a story, it usually made sense to them.

It’s the same in poems. Byron and Whitman certainly created a larger-than-life persona narrator; so did Berryman and Yeats. I did in “The Wandering Wingless.” I was never a professional dog walker; in fact, I used Walker Percy’s narrator, Binx Bolling, in The Moviegoer, his mannerisms and speech rhythms. It wasn’t my voice. Cheever would sometimes start a story in first person and if he didn’t think it was going well he’d change over to third person, using this same character to tell someone else’s story. There are various tricks. I spent nearly a year finding Henryk’s voice. I knew that it was crucial to the poem to have a believable character, an ex-Catholic who was a philosophy major. I first went to Ralph Ellison’s first person narrator in Invisible Man because it’s a guy in a basement looking back at how he got there.

RS: Exactly.

PS:But, except for his mother’s Jedwabne diaries, most of my story takes place in the present, and the recent past. And Ellison’s narrator is a little too elegant, the beautiful language a little too mannered. Brilliant and wonderful but not the right voice for my ’60s character.

So then I went to Coetzee’s Waiting For the Barbarians: the magistrate who’s a very decent guy, who’s trying to understand something larger and more amorphous than himself. A good, decent, humble voice but not the right voice for my basement-dwelling recluse graduate student. Next I tried Dostoyevsky’s crazed first person narrator in Notes from Underground. Here’s an underground man who is certainly zany and trouble enough but too frantic to sit still long enough to remember so much.

RS: Yet all those echoes from Invisible Man and Notes from Underground and Waiting for the Barbarians are clearly present in your poem.

PS: Henryk’s voice is a composite of all three. His voice is right for someone struggling to understand the frantic world around him, not to mention the tragedy of his mother’s time. I needed a serious, somewhat elegant, Ellison-like analytical personality who’s also zany and, yes, humble enough to survive in the ‘60s.

RS: While Rossi is dying, Henryk recalls—

his dream of hair, blonde, auburn
red/black, braided free hanging,
windswept, blue-tinged, henna-streaked
sun-light caressed
and adored hair
and falling follicles
of living light . . . (62-63)

The night before, Rossi’s father, a survivor of Treblinka, explained to his son what the job of a Sonnderkommando was in the camp: disposing of bodies and filling “suitcases / and freight cars” with an epic catalogue of the victims’ nail clippers and eyeglasses, toys, prayer books, and “salves / for nosebleeds,” and, above all, hair:

but he dreamed only of women’s hair
freight cars full of blond steel gray black
raisin still-braided beautiful women’s hair . . . (116)

This image of hair first appears early in the poem when Henryk is sitting with his mother, who as an older woman now has Alzheimer’s, on a park bench in Chicago, and he is remembering that

Only yesterday these fingers
pushed hair from my eyes
and pointed to the barn behind our house, (24)

I wonder if you might talk a little about the significance of this very powerful recurring image of hair in the poem.

PS: Some who survived were asked to do unmentionable things they would never have imagined they would ever do under any circumstances. But faced with extinction people do extraordinary things. Like cut and collect the hair of women gassed and cremated. Young and old women, girls and pregnant women, their hair was worth more to their murderers than they were; worth preserving, prizing, collecting. Imagine millions of once living follicles.

By itself this is an image worth long, serious consideration. A history of the Jewish people. The Nazis, Germans may have understood something of this. I gave this job to Rossy’s father, the Survivor, because I wanted him to do something he couldn’t forgive himself for. Guilt is the darkest level of evil. The Nazis created a situation in which people, in order to survive, became complicit with their murders, with evil itself. It meant the barest lowest form of survival. Paul Celan and Primo Levi and Borowski and even Wittgenstein are evidence of that.

The beautiful hair of a million Anne Franks. A history and testimony and kaddish worth at least this one small story. The hair is Henryk’s cross to bear. And mine.

Click here to read Ronald A. Sharp’s review of The Wherewithal by Philip Schultz.