University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies


  • Haim Maor :
  • The Forbidden Library

    The Forbidden Library

    Words have turned into ghostly images
    And the questions remain unanswered.
    Scrolls hanging in the air,
    And the ink has not
    A blue number filters the light.

    I sit in a black chair,
    Looking at reflections -
    Is it I
    Or the others?

    On the table
    A Hebrew dictionary.
    Dry definitions:

    Camouflage cloth
    Shifts its spots.
    Prettily tattooed.

    Who will define forbidden words?
    Who will garner smothered stories?
    Who will grasp the disqualified scrolls?
    When the winds
    Giving no respite?
    We the dead.

    (Translation: Haim Finkelstein).

    Forbidden Words

    Food Luggage Work
    Love Train Hunger
    Mother Control Victim
    Father Danger Survive
    Dress Dogs Extermination
    Home Camp Gas
    Fence Selection Death
    Life Naked Silence
    Memories Hair Smoke
    Children Teeth Prayer
    Fate Skin Soul
    Transports Hower Witness
    Pain Boots Forget
    Fear Number End

    My parents met on board a ship that transported refugees,
    survivors of the Holocaust, from Europe to Israel.
    They married in Jaffa and made their home in an abandoned Arab ruin.
    There, in April 1951, I was born, their first child, named Haim-Benjamin
    after my father's father, who was murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1942.

    Thus, I became, unwillingly, a walking memorial-candle,
    lighting the windowsill of a well-guarded house,
    guiding the boats of the dead
    nightly approaching the harbor.

    When I was a young boy, I grew up in a new town
    situated between the sand dunes and a huge swamp
    where a million frogs lived.
    At night, jackals howled at the moon,
    and by day an orphaned raven circled around.
    I was different from all other children, reticent, shy, a dreamer,
    sketching legends and remote vistas,
    and sucking up anguish.

    Over the house hovered a deep silence
    that was oppressive and somber,
    a silence imprisoning forbidden stories.
    But - here and there - almost stealthily,
    the words escaped their prison.

    However, I well knew that had I uttered them - albeit jokingly –
    they were liable to cause a great disaster:
    links, rechts, Mengele, selection, gas, crematorium.
    A pack of guarded words, having a bizarre and unfamiliar odor,
    like all the words that came from there, smothered.

    In the beginning there was the number.
    Blue digits, faded, tattooed in freckled skin,
    mottled by brownyellowish stains and graying hair,
    bowed toward crackled skin, like ears of corn in the wind.
    As a child, I used to look at the muscular arm of my father and,
    again and again, recite the numbers: "seven, eight, four, four, six" . . .
    at first in a hesitant whisper, like a personal incantation:
    "seven, eight, four, four, six,"
    and then, uproariously with tempestuous conducting gesticulation:
    "seven, eight, four, four, six" . . .
    repeating over and over, repeating and shouting in a hacked syllabic rhythm.

    A few years later, I was innundated by a linguistic-kabbalistic urge.
    The dictionary I consulted explained the word tattoo as
    "a drawing or symbol etched into the skin,
    mainly by puncturing or burning the skin
    and spreading into these lacerations an indelible paint.
    Tattoos are very popular with some savage tribes, sailors and pilots,
    who usually engrave tattoos on their arms or chests.
    'Nor imprint any marks upon you' (Leviticus 19, 28)."
    But father, certainly, was not a sailor
    nor did he grow-up among savage tribes.
    "Father, is it true that you didn't want a number at all
    but were forced to have one?"
    Father is silent, his face expressionless.
    The wrinkles on his brow and cheeks are like the stripes
    on the tattooed face of an Australian aborigine in the dictionary.

    I was like a kabbalist or visionary staring at numerals and stars,
    trying to penetrate beyond what the eye sees.
    I was engaged in deciphering the signs and secrets
    of the numerals engraved in the flesh,
    as if they were the dates of birth and death on a tombstone,
    or a code in a riddle.

    I used to play with numbers, like a numerologist,
    searching for mysterious meanings.
    "Father, are you alive because of the secret combination in blue
    that bestowed magical power upon you -
    an open account in the checkbook of life?"
    In time I became acquainted with additional numbers:
    in the identity card, in a passport, military ID,
    telephone numbers at home and at work, bank account.
    But all these numbers did not have the same compulsory,
    unnatural attraction, as did the "seven, eight, four, four, six"
    connected with my father's image
    like a transparent and impenetrable Celluloid wrapping.

    Horrendous city of the dead, Auschwitz. A cursed place.
    When I arrived as a tourist, there was a snow storm
    striking forcefully at my face.
    A stench lingers there and the earth does not grow anything.
    Black ravens reposed on the electrified fences.
    Although I knew that at present the fences were no longer electrified,
    I instinctively recoiled from touching them.
    The most intimate articles manifest the atrocities:
    hair, shoes, toothbrushes, spectacles, hand-knitted children's clothes.
    Above it all there was a clearly perceived additional presence of a ghost town.
    An extensive plateau of millions of dead people who turned into smoke,
    earth, cinders and dust....

    In the Auschwitz crematorium, the devil assumed a shape.
    I physically delved into the mythical, the unknown and the menacing,
    and it remained mysterious and threatening,
    the supreme source of all evil and terror.
    Forty years ago, a Jew by the name of David Moshcovitz,
    born in the town of Plonsk in Poland,
    worked here in the Sonderkommando.
    Forty years later, his son stands on the same spot and "closes a circle."
    This is the whole story.

    "When I was a little girl," Suzanna told me shyly,
    "I grew up in a village screened by the shadows of a large forest.
    The Summer enveloped the village in gray,
    and winter swathed it in white.
    I was different from all other girls.
    'The red-headed,' they called me."

    In Suzanna's room, I asked to see the family albums.
    Suzanna went into the next room and brought out a dusty box
    laden with yellowing pictures arranged in brown envelopes.
    "These are photos of my grandfathers and grandmothers," she said.
    I looked at the photos and embarrassingly joked
    about their likeness to "Jewish faces."
    One picture froze my blood: a handsome man in an officer's uniform.
    "This is my grandfather, my father's father," said Suzanna, embarrassed.
    "No, he was not a Nazi. This is the uniform of a Wehrmacht officer, the Signal Corps.
    No, no one in my family was a Nazi.
    I have already looked into it. They knew nothing. . ."
    I held the faded photo, brought it close to my eyes.
    The black stain on the chest seemed, at a closer look, like a swastika.
    I replaced the picture and closed the box.

    When I was a child, my grandfather used to tell me
    how he cut tombstones in his village in Poland.
    There were plain, bare tombstones and luxurious marble tombstone
    with embossed gilded letters; their heads were adorned with lions and flowers.
    He was a renowned master craftsman and much in demand.
    At times the noblemen of the area commissioned him
    to design stained-glass windows for their mansions and to cut their tombstones.
    A Jew amongst gentiles,
    my grandfather who cut tombstones was a devout Jew.

    And my grandfather told me how peace was disrupted.
    Erev Rosh Hashanah (New Year's Eve);
    Jews are at prayer and the city square is chilled with anxiety.
    Flocks of ravens. Greedy talons and a route cut-off.
    My grandfather, steeped in faith,
    loses his eyesight at the hand of an armed soldier . . .

    Israel. Holon is a wilderness and stillness enclosed in white.
    An orphaned raven in a cloud. The chill of dawn on the porch.
    He brings me books to read, illustrated with wonderful pictures.
    "Haim'ke, read the books. Read them to me
    and describe what you see in the pictures."

    My blind grandfather taught me that racism is a sickness
    of people who see with their eyes.
    "When you are blind, your heart opens to all humans, wherever they are."
    No, I was not raised on hate.

    (Translation: Rachel Amir, Haim Finkelstein)