Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was a contemplative monk who spent 27 years inside the walls of a Trappist monastery in Kentucky. Only in his last year was he permitted to travel at any length. Even though he was never at Auschwitz this poetry places him there so as to let a generous sensitivity and tenacious faith like his respond to this horrendous calamity. Merton stands for all those who, in the light of Auschwitz, ask the question: where was God, and in so asking expose their belief to severe trial. Merton's struggle with this question was lived out elsewhere. Only the location has been shifted in the poetry that follows.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Arrival Platform ~

Thomas watched what they did
With the child
Who fell from the cattle car
That brought the women
From Warszawa.
How the soldier grabbed it by the feet
And smashed it up against
The steel siding.

Someone saw Thomas rush over
To hold up a trough of tin
To catch consecrated chalicefuls
Of mothers' tears in.

Man with a Violin ~

Thomas saw one arrival
Carrying a violin case
And reaching him a hand
Asked what he intended.
Whereupon the man straightened
And answered with eyes shut:
To play but ten bars 
Of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Right then a black baton
Tapped on the case
To throw it on the pile.

The bullet entered
From behind the brain,
On bending  over
To open it to play.

Friend ~

As Thomas watched
He saw a tattered terrier
Run up to the gate and bark,
Saw an officer in black
Walk over to it, draw his pistol
And shoot it between the eyes.

Then turning to the waiting line
He saw an old woman sobbing,
Whereupon he walked back
To the dog, picked it up
And flung it at her full-force
Blurting out: God damn you,
Yiddish mother-bitch.

Thomas watched her fall
Heard her head crack
On damp asphalt,
And kneeling beside her
Heard her beg
"Dog, my dog"
Before her final gasp.

Rabbi ~

On a bitter cold evening
In the long latrine
Of wooden holes
He heard someone
Intoning Shabbat chants softly,
Saw children moving
To where a wasted old rabbi sat,
And Thomas on seeing this
Came closer
Then sank to his knees
And bowed down low
In reverence
As if before a monstrance
And a host.

Edith Stein ~

Was it Edith Stein he saw,
The dark figure in the throng
Treading lightly, gazellelike,
On snow
With head erect but blind,
Seeing nothing, being drawn only
Toward what looked like a bower,
Though oblong,
For nuptials, Merton thought,
Far down the yard
From where he stood watching.

Whereupon he hastened to follow
But was barred by guards with dogs
Who ripped the cowl off he wore
In search of the star
She had pressed
Into his palm while passing,
Her nod saying
She needed it no longer
For it had guided her
To where her Lover was waiting.

Crumbs ~

All night long he had coughed
Then silence before dawn—
Merton found him, dead,
His stockings gone,
But under his head
Some crumbs of bread
Still hidden there.

Whereupon Thomas took them
In his priestly hands,
Spoke words over them
And placed them
In outstretched palms
Of those standing round
To save them from starving.

Silence ~

He saw the kapo slam her head
With the flat side of a shovel
And now she lay there, dying.

Merton had been condemned
To bystanding in silence
But vowed, on seeing that
To defy them every minute,
Every second remaining him,
By crying out into violence.

They threw him in a cell,
Alone, to make sure
Their rituals of murder
Kept working on schedule.

But there his silence blared out
Even louder than his outcries
They thought they had stifled.

Hoess and Himmler ~

At the same time as Hoess and Himmler
Were squinting in through peepholes
At naked women gasping, and then
Started chuckling
After gas had started hissing softy
From tiny openings inside the chamber,
Thomas stood looking out a window
And saw a bird
With one bloated eye
And a broken wing
Staring in at him,
Making him fix his eyes on it
Without shrinking.

From then on he felt himself
Bearing the marks
Of that wounded bird.
He knew now the Christ
Whom he must reveal.

Canticle of Daniel ~

In half delirium he surveyed the masses
Moving in rows in gray darkness,
Seeing them as countless cantors
Or monks with tonsured heads lowered,
Singing in triumph Daniel's Canticle:
Praised be Thou, Lord, God of our Fathers.

They were singing with great ardor
So that Thomas knew it to mean
That this horde had emerged already,
Whole and unscathed,
From that cauldron's fire
Toward which it was headed.

Spring ~

Spring came.
The ice melted,
Flowers refused to show,
The birds skirted round.

And Thomas,
Sentenced to looking on,
Forgot contemplation—
Not yet acquainted
With the God required
To endure
What he saw happening.

Bernini ~

The Ecstasy of St. Theresa
Gianlorenzo Bernini  1652

Quite contrary to Bernini's sculptured ecstasy—
Thomas knew
These precious brides were standing naked
In pools of their own urine and excrement,
So fear-stricken were they
At the entry of the Bridegroom
To escort them to the blazing splendor
Just beyond the chamber
Into which they were being herded.

Desperation ~

They saw him
Standing there at the wire
Beside the moving lines
Weeping helplessly.

But then he rose and shouted
Through tears, loud
For all to hear:

He will die with you,
He will lie beside you
And tend you, tenderly.

Ladder ~

Thomas lay down to sleep
And saw a ladder
On which hoards of SS officers
Were scrambling down to grayish pits
Where riddled corpses of Jacob's sons
Were rising from the dead
Layer for layer and moving toward
That ladder to ascend.

And on waking Thomas took stones
That lay about
And set them one upon the other
Where the ladder had stood,
Held there by the Awful Presence
Hovering over its uppermost rung.

Looking up to the heavens
He heard no voice—
Only the muffled crack of rifles
Being fired on a mound
Onto which he saw them chasing
Staggering shapes
With unleashed,
Bellowing bloodhounds.

Melchizedek ~

Thomas, of Melchizedek, had no altar
On which to offer sacrifice,
Only empty hands held like a paten
On which he placed those being sacrificed,
Spoke the words
And gathered what strength remained him
To raise them to the Father.

It was the only way he had to help,
But already before his offering
They were being awaited
By Him
Whom the tormentors
Thought they were helping.

Except for one who stood there
In SS black
Watching Thomas's compassion
Radiate to the crowds.

On seeing it he stripped
And entered the lines
To be one with them,
And sang.

Face ~

She was fifteen when they dragged her
From a cellar window in Goettingen
Where she had spent
Three years in hiding.

She was not much to look at—
But she could love.
And now, in the line to the gas chamber
Her only thought was that of her Lover
Whom she knew was waiting
To engulf her in the heat of his love,
And while making her way to meet Him
She walked upright, bold and proud,
Longing to intensify the fire
Of His love with hers.

And Thomas, on seeing her face
Felt God closer here
Than in any other place.

Artist's conception of the poem

Scrap of Paper ~

In glossy black boots
The Sturmfuehrer stood
In front of the starving men
Eating a wurst wrapped in paper.

After he had finished he crumpled it
Then let it fall.
Thomas was ordered to pick it up
With his teeth
And deposit it in the trash.

He recognized what it was,
A page of the Torah,
And slid it into his sleeve.

That evening after dark
He passed it to an old man
And after midnight
Saw a group of them
Huddled at the far end of the block
Listening to him read it
Over and over again.

When daylight came
They were chased out
To a mound before an open pit.
Lining themselves at the edge
The Sturmfuehrer
Had them turn to him
And he shot them in the forehead,
One after the other.

Guilty Bystander ~

Merton's sentence was:
To have to stand there watching.
The Guilty Bystander, abandoned,
Condemned to being there in our stead,
Bearing the weight they laid on him
Without seeking a way out
Or an answer — other than the Father,
Who was asking him now
To allow what faith he still had
To be destroyed on that pagan altar
And brought to Him, burnt:
A sacrifice Abraham even
Had been spared
From offering.

Dream ~

In a dream Thomas saw a green landscape
On which four plain white houses stood,
Each of them empty, but with open doors.

On entering one he saw everything
Just as it had been
Before they had stormed in
Ordering the six of them out
With whips to waiting trucks.

Thomas ran his finger slowly
Along the rim of a cup, half filled,
Then moved over to a row of books
And felt their leather bindings.

Was this the family he saw
At the Auschwitz entrance ramp
Standing there clinging together,
Defying the whip Hoess was signaling
'To right, to left' with?

He ran them off for that offence,
As Thomas watched,
To the very next gassing
Where they clung together tighter yet,
Gasping twisted words like prayers
Until they themselves had passed over.

They pried them apart with rods
And broke those arms still clasping
To fit them through the furnace door
To be slid into fire—

Two nights later the dream returned.
The landscape still green
The four white houses
With open doors and Thomas,
Whose faith had crumbled,
Entered the one he knew
And was blinded by light.
Then he glimpsed the High Priest
At table with the six of them—
And Thomas, the broken monk, woke,
And on seeing Him for one blurred instant
Knew God,
And needed faith no longer.

Seen at Auschwitz ~

Thomas was seen at Auschwitz
Standing by guiltily
As brides were being led to altars
Where nuptials were taking place
And he, on being left outside the flow,
Stood clutching the wire
Looking at the snow on which
The brides' barefeet had trodden,
Determined to follow.

Now he was seeing those feet in snow
On a high mountain far off
And the brides coming to take him
To his chamber of fire
From which they would lead him
Into the blazing splendor
Of the wedding with the Bridegroom
To be the Brother Betrothed—
For he had come to know
The God of the Burnt Brides.