Asarah beTevet: Two Poems

Sackcloth and Ashes
The manifestation
of Your divine presence –
besieged and set ablaze.

Myriad innocents
garbed in striped sackcloth
trapped in the carnage.

And when the smoke cleared
a vagrant wind dispersed the ashes
and no trace was left.

According to II Kings 25:1-4, on the 10th day of the 10th month (Tevet) in the ninth year of Zedekiah’s reign (588 BCE), the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezer began the siege of Jerusalem. A year and a half later, on the 17th of Tammuz in the eleventh year of Zedekiah’s reign (586 BCE) (Jeremiah 52.6–7), he broke through the city walls. Three weeks later, on the 9th of Av, the siege ended with the destruction of the Temple, the demise of the kingdom and the exile of the Jewish people to Babylon.

The Chief Rabbinate of Israel chose to observe the fast of the 10th of Tevet as the “Yom HaKaddish HaClali – the general Kaddish day” for the victims of the Holocaust, particularly those for whom there were relatives to say the prayer but no known date of death, and those for whom there was no relative to say Kaddish but it would be recited by others.

My Mother’s Uncles
My mother’s uncles had no faces,
nor had their wives and children.
I think I might have seen them
in photos on the walls at Auschwitz:
haggard features filled with pain;
bewildered women
with uncomprehending stares;
solemn children with large dark eyes.
My mother’s uncles never visited,
nor did their wives and children.
I think I might have visited them
at the hill of ashes at Majdanek.

My maternal grandmother Sarah Leah Klinger was born in 1908, the youngest child of Shmuel Yaakov HaCohen, a timber-merchant from Vienna and his wife Haya Hulda. Sarah Leah was preceded by an older sister Leah, who died before my grandmother was born, and four much older brothers: Bernard; Feivel; Adolph and Jehudah.

The family moved to Lvov in Poland when my grandmother was a child. At some time in the early 1920s, my great-grandfather had a vivid dream which foresaw the coming of a terrible regime to the region and it influenced him so greatly that he sent one his sons to Palestine, to “spy out the Land”. And like the biblical spies, his son returned with a negative report: “It’s not for us!” he declared. His father was unconvinced and was adamant that they should leave.

In the meantime, Haya Hulda became sick and died. Shortly after, Shmuel Yaakov remarried, and, taking his new wife and his 14- year old daughter, departed for Palestine. His sons, their wives and children (whose names we do not even know) all remained in Poland. At the age of 18, my grandmother met and married my grandfather, Emanuel Cramer, who was 10 years her senior. He had been born in England and fought in the First World War. He was gassed in the trenches at Ypres and subsequently came to Palestine to recuperate in a warmer climate. My grandmother returned with him to England, where my mother and her two siblings were born.

When the smoke of the Holocaust started to recede over Europe, it became apparent that none of my grandmother’s brothers, sisters-in-law or their children had survived. My grandmother never spoke of them but she did fill in testimony papers at Yad Vashem. We have no idea of when or where they perished. We had other great-uncles, great-aunts and cousins whom we knew. As I grew older, I became aware of this branch of the family tree which was severed so savagely and so completely, leaving no traces – no photos, no family gatherings, no family legends, no Yahrzeits…

This poem is one of several that arose out of a school visit to Poland in 2011, when I travelled as an accompanying parent with one of our sons.


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