It was over in an hour
a thousand people in an hour.
Who dared count the weary passengers
disembarking cramped steerage (Zwischendeck)
lips cracked from sea salt.
Bribes, promises, as many illicit exchanges
as there were people, as there were dreams
not so much of something better, but of safety.
Someone has to survive to pass on the story.
They kept on moving, checkpoint to checkpoint
fingers probing hair (no lice), clothing (old, stiff)
cough, lean forward, raise arms, keep moving.
An empire was so easily erased, just like that.
They would never go back.
There were people left behind of course
in the ghettos of her youth, the shtetls
writing names in the air with a finger.
She might have sent them a handful of prepaid tickets,
if the streets really were paved with gold.
The words were cobblestones beneath her feet
thirty-one questions in a language she didn’t speak:
name, age, sex, nationality, health, how much money
was in her pocket, was she dangerous?
At five feet tall with arms like matchsticks, hooded eyes
concealing more pain than a malnourished body should
be able to hold, how do you answer?
She had already begun to forget
her mother’s wet eyes
her father’s hastily gathered bag of coins
sisters, cousins, uncles. Of course they existed
somewhere, but who knows what happened to them
their sacrifices, their losses.
They’re gone. They were never there.
Keep up the pace.
She tried to speak but words didn’t fit her mouth
there were no papers, only a brown tag pinned
to the shoulder, containing a number
like a price you might put on cattle.
She wasn’t for sale.
Her number wasn’t up this time.