Jun. 1, 2005

The Enigma We Answer by Living

by Alison Hawthorne Deming

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Poem: "The Enigma We Answer by Living" by Alison Hawthorne Deming from Genius Loci. © Penguin Poets. Reprinted with permission.

The Enigma We Answer by Living

Einstein didn't speak as a child
waiting till a sentence formed and
emerged full-blown from his head.

I do the thing, he later wrote, which
nature drives me to do. Does a fish
know the water in which he swims?

This came up in conversation
with a man I met by chance,
friend of a friend of a friend,

who passed through town carrying
three specimen boxes of insects
he'd collected in the Grand Canyon—

one for mosquitoes, one for honeybees,
one for butterflies and skippers,
each lined up in a row, pinned and labeled,

tiny morphologic differences
revealing how adaptation
happened over time. The deeper down

he hiked, the older the rock
and the younger
the strategy for living in that place.

And in my dining room the universe
found its way into this man
bent on cataloguing each innovation,

though he knows it will all disappear—
the labels, the skippers, the canyon.
We agreed then, the old friends and the new,

that it's wrong to think people are a thing apart
from the whole, as if we'd sprung
from an idea out in space, rather than emerging

from the sequenced larval mess of creation
that binds us with the others,
all playing the endgame of a beautiful planet

that's made us want to name
each thing and try to tell
its story against the vanishing.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1942, a newspaper in Warsaw published the first account of Jews being gassed to death in a concentration camp. This was the first time the news of the Nazis' "Final Solution" became public.

Hitler had been in power for nine years, had never made a secret of his anti-Semitism. He had passed laws firing Jews from government jobs, dismissing them from public schools, and burning their books.

The first concentration camps were set up not for Jews but for political dissidents, unionists, social democrats; then homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses and Gypsies. The first people the Nazis exterminated were the mentally and physically disabled.

It wasn't until after the invasion of Poland, with its enormous Jewish population, that Hitler began to consider what he called the "Jewish question." There was a plan for a while to ship all the Jews to the island of Madagascar, off the coast of Africa, but that was scrapped.

By 1941, many thousands of Jews had already been rounded up and shot in Eastern Europe, as the Nazis marched north into Russia. Historians aren't sure precisely when the decision was made to systematically exterminate the Jews in death camps, but it was Himmler's idea to use gas chambers, after he'd witnessed a mass execution by gunfire, which he found shocking.

The newspaper that broke the story of the death camps was an underground Polish Socialist paper called the Liberty Brigade. A young man named Emanuel Ringelblum had escaped from the death camp, and his story was published on this day. The story was picked up by the London Daily Telegraph a week later. Around the same time, secret Polish agents began to send messages to the allies about Auschwitz. They met with Churchill and Roosevelt, but when the story reached the public, it was met with disbelief, even by many Jews.

British and American intelligence experts knew it was happening because they had cracked the Nazi codes, but they were reluctant to make their knowledge public because they didn't want to signal the fact that they'd broken the codes. And Roosevelt and Churchill were reluctant to turn the war into a "Jewish war."

It was not until American soldiers liberated the camps in the spring of 1945 that the full truth came out. The word genocide was not even coined until after the war. It wasn't until 1957 that people began to use the term "the Holocaust."

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