November 5, 2016
Last night I dreamt of Ilse Koch, who looked so much like my great-grandmother.
They were born only six months apart in 1906, only a hundred and twenty miles apart.
They were born with the same first name: Margarete.
In Ilse’s trials, they renamed her Red Witch and Butcher Widow.
Today many call her the Bitch of Buchenwald.
My great-grandmother escaped the Nazis with her children in 1939.
Four years later, Ilse ordered prisoners skinned, collected their tattoos for research.
They say she kept her favorite ones as souvenirs.
In my dream, Ilse arrived at my door and handed me a red bouquet.
I called her Margarete and welcomed her inside, placing the Shabbat candles still burning in the cabinet.
We drank tea together as the house turned to ash, her bare face and mine shining from the heat.
At their trial, Ilse’s husband was sentenced to death, and Ilse instead to life.
She killed herself in prison fifteen years later.
Perhaps the jurors saw a woman sitting in the defendant’s chair and imagined only her tenderness.
And in my dream, she wiped the sweat from my brow so gently, Naomi.
She whispered Jedem das Seine: the iron phrase from the gates.
To each what is theirs, she said,
everyone gets what is theirs.
November 10, 2016
I used to wonder if my great-grandfather pulled the glass from his storefront out of his shoe
If he stood for a while in front of the swastikas hanging on Kronenstraße
I’d have left the shards of my home in my heel Naomi
I’d have saved them for later in case of
Of course my great-grandfather could not linger there or mourn Berlin continued
The untouched stores opened beside the piles of glass
Naomi I’d thought we escaped it—the children at play, writes Amichai are my children
And the life my life—
Are you safe where you are Where are you Naomi
(I have imagined your death for the first time this morning)
Each letter I write to you starting today
I will end each poem wondering the same
the children at play are my children and the life my life
Where are you Naomi Are you safe Naomi my life
RACHEL MENNIES is the author of the poetry collections The Naomi Letters, forthcoming in 2021 from BOA Editions, and The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards, the 2014 winner of the Walt McDonald First-Book Prize in Poetry at Texas Tech University Press and finalist for a National Jewish Book Award. Her writing has recently appeared at The Believer, Kenyon Review, American Poetry Review, The Millions, The Poetry Foundation, LitHub, and numerous other outlets. She took over for Robert Fink in 2016 as the series editor of the Walt McDonald First-Book Prize in Poetry. She also serves as the reviews editor for AGNI. She lives in Chicago, where she currently works as a freelance editor and writer.