Away from Babi Yar

Of the Holocaust poems submitted, this was the most haunting to me, as it evoked, simultaneously, a family about to be massacred, and a daughter who, by abandoning her family, will escape. Do we judge her? — Alicia Ostriker

They will never come for citizens like us,
Zahar would say, while most of Kiev fled
far west into unarmored steppes.
His family stayed to watch him polish
citrine and amber rings, display them
in his storefront, and sell them to the few
remaining Russian wives who refused
to show they’d turned to widows.
By September 1941, the soldiers too
came for the jewels; they dressed
the family in gold, and walked them
glowing through the streets
where a crowd had gathered:
a city of stone in lines of beryl stars.
The father and mother, dark, precise
features, wealthless now, were set in rows
behind others who looked the same,
but their daughter was light enough to slip
yellow off of her dress. You don’t belong
with dirty Zhids! spoke a medaled man, his gun
pointed beyond where she could see.
Rayachka! Her father’s words flew up
like bits of earth as she began to fade
farther from that name. Where are you going?
His echo slapped against her nape –
the strike of dirt over a Jewish coffin
with the back of a shovel blade:
courtesy to the dead, a reluctance
to let them go. She disappeared, calling,
I will be right back. Her faint reply
just hovered in the dust.