Every month, hundreds of those who survived the horrific genocide known as the Holocaust die due to disease and old age. Even those who somehow survived as tiny children, who have no living memory of their experience, are now well into their 70s. And with each death, the world loses another story—a story of terror, struggle, separation, fear, hope, faith, resilience, love—each one unique but each a part of an essential history that many family members, historians, and authors are working desperately to preserve before it’s too late.
This was the mission of Gloria Moskowitz-Sweet, the daughter of Polish survivor Moishe Moskowitz, who died in 2019 at the age of 92. In the notes at the end of this slim but powerful book, she discusses the difficulty her father faced for many years in telling his story, but that once he started to share, he shared it with everyone: with his children; his grandchildren; and, like many survivors, with local middle school students. I know from personal experience the profound effect that listening to a survivor’s story told by the survivor can have on a room full of young people.
Also telling Moishe’s story here is award-winning poet and author Hope Anita Smith, who recounts Moishe’s experience through 65 short, lyrical, free-verse poems. The poems follow young Moishe from his life before the war, facing the everyday discrimination that he and his fellow Jews had to deal with in Poland even before the Nazis arrived; to the fear that came from having to live in hiding after the German invasion; to the process of ghettoization and family separation; and eventually, to Moishe’s struggle to survive in Nazi labor camps and on the hideous death marches near the end of the war.
The title of this emotional story comes from one incident near the end of the war. Moishe and his fellow prisoners have been evacuated from Auschwitz, first by forced march and then by train, and have entered Czechoslovakia. The Nazis—“the wolves,” as Moishe refers to them throughout the story—know the end is coming and are seeking to hide the evidence of their crimes. At one point, the train stops in a town:
Through the boards we can see.
There is sky and grass and that thing we all cling to . . .
There is life.
The wolves stand tall,
hold their guns at the ready.
They hide their shame inside cattle cars.
Moishe then realizes that there are also civilians—Czech women—looking at the paused train. And that the presence of the German guards does not deter them, does not scare them off. They stand there in defiance, and then act:
They turn toward a bakery.
One runs inside.
They come out with arms full.
Something flies into the cattle car.
Our hands reach up
There is a sweet scent.
And then we know.
It is life.
It is bread,
still warm from the oven.
It is raining warm bread.
In a time when incidents of antisemitism are an almost weekly occurrence in our country, and as the survivor population continues to dwindle, stories like Moishe’s are more important than ever, especially when they are as well-told as this one.