When the Tree of Life Burns

110
A huge tree with the sun peeking through the leaves, multiple trees in the near distance.

I don’t know
how a god could write
so many names in the Book of Death,
scribble their letters into murder,
perhaps pen their endings too early
like unfinished poetry,
their final heartbeats the iambic pentameter
of genocidal tragedy.

In a library full of death and empty shelves,
ash compacts together and smears like
after-fire over words, names, memories
all lost to history
I have to believe that the millions of names
were inscribed in the Book of In Between…
their fates left up to the world,
judgment suspended
in between life and death
and so when the Hashem closes the books,
גְמַר חַתִימָה טוֹבָה
may you be inscribed in the Book of Life;
is no longer a possibility.
because life has never been a promise for my people,
only the hope for survival.

My great-grandmother and her brother
were part of the 3% of Jews who made
it out of Warsaw alive.
Their parents and sisters and cousins were carted
out of the ghetto on trains to Auschwitz and Treblinka,
and stuffed into gas chambers and crematoriums.
In my dreams, I watch them die and feel the ash
coat my tongue when I try to tell their stories…

My great-grandmother was my age,
sixteen, when she left her home,
a runaway from the law of abandoned trains and sickness,
she traded labor for life…
frail hands picking cotton and mashing strawberries
trafficked,
yet escaped through the terrible truth of luck.

She gave birth…
my Savta, my מִשׁפָּחָה, my family
remained stateless for 8 years.
Haunted barracks are no substitute for a home
and a home is not a reversal of loss.

What makes a home, anyway?
Is it life, is it death, is it the liminal space
of in between, knowing the Tree of Life
is growing rings, but never knowing
how many more years will circle around your soul?
Unsure if your layers will be peeled back
Into paper to inscribe your stories.

עֵץ חַיִּים הִיא לַמַּחֲזִיקִים בָּהּ וְתֹמְכֶיהָ מְאֻשָּׁר
She is a Tree of Life to those that grasp her,
and whoever holds onto her is happy.
To cut down a Tree of Life is to uproot
a family
sprawled across branches of
wishes and what could have been’s
My roots, anchored to death with a course
of undeserving survival snaking through them
I don’t understand why my family was able
to bloom seedlings from the rocks we put
on gravestones.

There are centuries of persecution bearing down
on their legacies
but we’ll never get to read
every book in the library
of tragedies.
And hope.
I hope one day there will be the words
to say: כִּֽי־כִימֵ֚י הָעֵץ֙ יְמֵ֣י עַמִּ֔י
For as the days of a tree shall be the days of my people.

 

Glossary

May you be inscribed in the Book of Life (Literally: a good final sealing) G’mar chatima tova גְמַר חַתִימָה טוֹבָה
Family Mishpacha מִשׁפָּחָה
She is a Tree of Life to those that grasp her, and whoever holds onto her is happy. Eitz chayim hi lamachazikim bah, v’tom’cheha m’ushar. עֵץ חַיִּים הִיא לַמַּחֲזִיקִים בָּהּ וְתֹמְכֶיהָ מְאֻשָּׁר
For as the days of a tree shall be the days of my people. Ki chi-may ha-eitz y’may ami כִּֽי־כִימֵ֚י הָעֵץ֙ יְמֵ֣י עַמִּ֔י
What do you think about this topic? We want to hear from you!
Join the conversation!
Myaan Sonenshein is a member of the Class of 2025 at the Kinder High School for Performing and Visual Arts in Houston, TX. She is a spoken word artist, slam poet and member of Meta4 Houston, the champions of the 2023 Brave New Voices competition. In her free time, Myaan trains as an aerial artist and enjoys baking, walking, writing/reading poetry, thrifting, and being around all the people who make her happy.
Accompanying photo: “Shadows” by Caroline Koppel