wojciech grabowski licensed
Landmark: Sitra Achra confronts Arbeit Macht Frei
by Joanie HF Zosike

1. In 1995, while on tour with The Living Theatre,
my brother Bobby, our friend Mendel (the tzaddik), (1)
and I, took a bumpy drive in Mendel’s clunky VW
over unrestored rural roads of Malopolska province

to an innocuous town, just 50 km from Kraków
Here the Wisla and Sola Rivers intertwine
The train tracks terminal in front of an epic gate
I arrived. I arrive. I will always arrive there

1 million pilgrims come annually to witness
a hazy horror that refuses to fade
The gate announces an ignoble canard:
Arbeit Macht Frei

I was never on that train
but my blood was
This is history, everyone knows it
or dismisses it

Arbeit Macht Frei prattles over every camp
from Egypt forward and prehistory backward
Every difference is a provocation to gather bags
of alien bones, queer bones, state enemy bones

2. Three Jews from The Living Theatre stand
frozen at the landmark gate: Arbeit Macht Frei
Our friend Mendel, the tzaddik, as a child,
escaped with his mother to the U.S…
only to return later to Germany

Bobby and I, pulled by cellular memory
conveyer belt, look for traces of our
Great-Aunt Czivia, who perished in Aushwitz,
or so we believe, but aren’t certain…
We search for her name among the
scrupulous SS records but can find no entry

How ugly is this day with its gleaming sun
Glorious summer flowers taunt our encounter
As we enter, we look our Akedah (2) in the eye
Each step assaults us with the Kabbalistic charge:

Sitra achra, “the other side,” a force of ill that
comes from within…Try to balance, confront it
head-on…our ears fill with a ghostly chorus:
Shema Yisroel Adonai elohenu, Adonai echod (3)

We steel ourselves and enter the Museum
370,000 men’s suits, 837,000 women’s garments,
88 pounds of eyeglasses, 44,000 pairs of shoes,
hundreds of prosthetic limbs, 32,000 pots and pans,
7.7 tons of human hair, piles of valises, and
many, many, so many gold teeth….
Mein Unkempt

Paying homage as best we can to a stony silence
we wander through antiseptic barracks to—here it is
Cell Block 11, where prisoners were dragged for
summary executions to a still blood-soaked wall

The dead tug at our leaden feet, bodily fluids leak
from cracks in earth. Here the gallows, next to
crematoria, here gas chambers, chimneys, the smell,
the smell…Wait! The perfume of summer flowers
I nearly faint in the courtyard

Confront it! Can’t recall how long we stayed
Can’t measure how much we ached, questioned
our pain—how can it compare to that of
Jewish ectoplasm roaming empty barracks

Their sweat and scars, bodily waters soaked
into every crevice, crunch of eroded bones
We turn our backs and flee, flipping that
Blemmyae, Herr Arbeit Macht Frei, the bone

3. Suddenly voracious, almost giddy, get back
in the car and drive to picturesque Oświęcim
Find a diner and eat like barbarians to fill
the hungry hole, regain energy, reaffirm life

Showtime rapidly approaching in Kraków,
haul ass back to the hotel, beaten and numb
Smoke, talk, try to comprehend…can’t
The question lingers

Why must we bear witness so long afterward
What has our journey changed? Nothing
Except to attest that such gates still stand for those
who passed through them and never came out

4. Adolf Schickelgruber had a dream
To live in a world without Jews
One’s utopia is another’s hell

My brother Bobby, Mendel, and I
sweat our testaments that night
when we perform our play, Utopia

As we enter the stage in darkness
we hold up multi-colored lamps, moving
closer and closer to each other
20 actors in a comforting cluster
of human warmth
We thrust the globes skyward
into one inextinguishable ball of light


1. Tzadik (Hebrew: צַדִּיק [tsaˈdik], “righteous [one],” also zadik, ṣaddîq or sadiq; pl. tzadikim [tsadiˈkim] צדיקים ṣadiqim) is a title in Judaism given to people considered righteous, such as Biblical figures and later spiritual masters.

2. Referring to Abraham’s binding of Isaac. The Akedah became in Jewish thought the supreme example of self-sacrifice in obedience to God’s will and the symbol of Jewish martyrdom throughout the ages. (JewishVirtualLibrary.org)

3. “Hear o Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” The Hebrew prayer considered by many the seminal prayer in Jewish liturgy, and the ultimate declaration of faith, often uttered at time of death.

PHOTO: The gate of death at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, Poland by Wojciech Grabowski, used by permission. The legend above the entrance “Arbeit macht frei” translates in English to “Work makes one free.”


NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: On January 25, 1945, Monowitz, Auschwitz, and Birkenau camps were liberated, by happenstance, by Russian troops. Prior to their arrival, the SS Totenkopverbänd gathered up viable survivors, driving 60,000 deportees in tattered striped uniforms westward with truncheons, rage, and terror to cattle cars in trains bound for concentration camps in Germany. On that day, the Red Army found, aside from 600 corpses, 7,000 abandoned souls left behind, hiding in bunkers. Job’s cry of  “Lo, I cry ‘Violence!’ and am not answered,” rendered in Yiddish verse as “Ot shray ikh gevalt un ver nit geentfert” by the early 20th-century poet Yehoash (Solomon Bloomgarten), was never so apt. ¶ In his testimony quoted in The Liberation of the Camps: The End of the Holocaust and its Aftermath by Dan Stone, Red Army Colonel Georgei Elisavetskii spoke to a body of ravaged shades, peering through benumbed eyes, barely recognizing that, at last, rescue had found them. ¶ You are free, comrades. Do not be afraid. I am a colonel of the Soviet Army and a Jew. We have come to liberate you. They rushed toward us shouting, fell on their knees, kissed the flaps of our overcoats and threw their arms around our legs…and we could not move, stood motionless, while unexpected tears ran down our cheeks. ¶ Many inmates were too overcome to be moved to hospitals or shelters. Even after medical care and food, by June 1945, 300 survivors still remained, too feeble to be moved.

PHOTO: Sign at Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, Poland.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Joanie HF Zosike, 2019 Writer’s Hotel Sara Patton poetry stipend recipient, hosts Pandemic Poetry Workshop through School of Creative Judaism in New York City.  She is published in Between Ourselves: Letters Between Mothers and Daughters, Women In American Theatre, and 11/9: The Fall of American Democracy. Chapbooks include Character Poems (Chez Chez) and Bliss, Not Weight (anthologized in Ides: A Collection of Poetry Chapbooks, Silver Birch Press). A frequent contributor to Silver Birch Press’s blog, she also appears in Bastille, Dissident Voice, Heresies, Home Planet News, Jewish Forward, Levure Literraire, Maintenant, Public Illumination Magazine (PIM), and Syndic Literary Journal. Joanie received an Albee fellowship for her play Inside, produced at American Theater for Actors in New York, a NYSCA regrant for 12 Steps to Murder at The New Theatre, and a Foundation for Jewish Culture grant for …and Then the Heavens Closed, performed at The Jewish Museum New York City. She acted with The Living Theatre for 30 years, directs DADAnewyork, and co-directs Action Racket Theatre. She splits her time between the Lower East Side of New York City and Ocean County, New Jersey, where she’s a part-time caregiver to her 94-year-old Mom.