Poetry: “Except Following the Rules Will Kill You”

“The Auschwitz Album is the only surviving visual evidence of the process leading to the mass murder at Auschwitz-Birkenau.” — www.yadvashem.org

He looked like a man I could have spent my time with. Relatable, handsome even. Dapper and tall with pants a little too loose on his lean frame. A good Jewish boy. I could have brought him home to my mother except he’s in black and white. Except he happened 70 some odd years ago. Waiting patiently to approach the commander on a small platform. Second in the endless line of men with brimmed hats settled politely against their sides. From here I want to scream out his name but I don’t know it. Except following the rules will kill you. I’m staring. From here I’ve decided to claim this man as my good Jewish boy. Absorbed in his lips twisted to one side. He’s smirking. He’s beautiful and smirking while he’s waiting in line with the thousands of men of all shapes and sizes in their best rumpled winter attire. I think it’s summer. My good Jewish boy. Except following the rules will kill you. He’s beautiful and he’s next up and looks like he’s already cleared his throat. Ready to reason with the commander. Understand what this procession is all about. That the train ride was days of hell. And the last few years leading up to it were like treading water. Except following the rules will kill you. I’m staring and I can’t stop. Except he’s in black and white and I can’t reach back to tell him. I’m staring and my skin is prickling sour and I can’t stop. Body clenching. Pain sharpening through my bones. Heart throbbing in a thick monotonous rage. My Jewish boy. I don’t even have his permission to claim him. He has no idea. They have no idea. From here I can’t stop what’s already happened. 70 some odd years later. How could anyone believe it to be true. Except following the rules will kill you. My Jewish boy. My people hold shame like wine overflowing through cupped hands, like blood hemorrhaging without a way to stop the bleeding. He has no idea. They have no idea. Except following the rules will kill you. From here I see there are so many more of them, than them. From here I see the giant pits of fire and limbs and babies and ash. From here I’m dying to tell them to break their ranks and take over even if the result is still the same. Fight back I scream with the bluntness of the back of my throat. Even if the result is still the same. From here I know he’s dying. They are all dying and they have no idea. My Jewish boy. Except all that’s left of him is this photograph from Yad Vashem’s website called “Auschwitz album.” Except I will never know his name, their names. People who were here that were matter with alive bodies, blood running through them. Except the worst thing about the past is that it is still here and following the rules will kill you.

Lilith Poetry Editor Alicia Ostriker comments: Reading Gabriella Theisen-Jacobowitzr’s prose poem “Except Following the Rules Will Kill You” was for me a stunning experience, in which a woman’s voice very like my own seems just short of crack-up. Irrationality—illogic—rules this poem, beginning with its title, which becomes its obsessive refrain. What can “except” mean? If the fragment of a sentence were a full sentence, would it say “A civilized person should obey custom, should respect how things are done, should follow the rules, except following the rules will kill you?” What are we looking at? The behavior of the man in the photo who is like a good Jewish boy ready to argue rationally with the Nazi officer? The speaker’s own irrational response to a man dead seventy years as if she could take him home? Or her horror that “he has no idea. They have no idea” as if the horror were still going on? The speaker’s awareness does not lessen her anguished helplessness—or mine, or yours.