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The Sisters' Story

May 1, 2008 By:
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The story behind A Wall of Two, a stirring collection of poems by two gifted sisters, is quite moving, filled as it is with heroism and deep sorrow. The American poet Fanny Howe, who has done what are called "adaptations" of the poetry gathered here, has also provided an introduction to this edition, published by University of California Press, and it fills in the background of the sisters' lives and helps heighten the already charged imagery at work in their verse.

Henia and Ilona Karmel came from an affluent Krakow family that made its mark in the metal business, though there were scholars, writers and rabbis in the family tree who lent "intellectual stature" to the Karmel name. Being more assimilated than the generation that preceded them, parents Mita and Hirsch Karmel gave their daughters a first-class education in the standard government schools, supplemented by instruction at a Hebrew gymnasium. Writes Howe: "The school system was so bicultural a student might never have to ask, 'Am I Polish or Jewish?' Their days were passed on streets teeming with churches and Catholic liturgy and the chiming of bells on the hour and images of Christ and crucifix."

Both women spoke Polish, Yiddish and German, and read widely, being conversant with Hebrew and Western classics, as well as with the works every Pole held dear, like the poems of Adam Mickiewicz and more contemporary native writers.

In 1939, when Henia was just 18, a recent graduate, she met a young man named Leon Wolfe in Zakopane, a mountain resort town. As Howe notes, it was a brief, memorable encounter; then the war began.

At the time of the Nazi invasion, there were 68,000 Jews in Krakow, and many immediately left for Russia. The Karmel family, however, went to the southeastern border of Poland in search of relatives. The Russians there tried to convince them to choose asylum in their country, but Mita, who was of Russian heritage, refused, notes Howe, insisting that she preferred being killed by Germans to being saved by Russians. In reality, the Karmels would have been better off if they had crossed the border, and Mita's decision would have tragic consequences.

'Go Ahead Without Him'

Unable to find their relatives, the family returned to German-occupied Krakow, where Jews' rights were swiftly being curtailed. The Karmels avoided being registered like other Jews and somehow managed to scrounge up menial work.

Henia met Leon Wolfe again, just as the Krakow ghetto was being established. Leon argued that they all should leave the city, and Henia persuaded her parents and Ilona, then 15, to come to Brzesko, a small village not far from Krakow. Shortly after moving there, Henia and Leon were married; she wore a wedding dress paid for with money sent by American relatives.

But trouble began almost immediately. Jews were told to leave the village, forcing the five to live for a brief time in the woods. Leon managed to get Aryan papers, and they all moved on to Siedlicka, where cousins owned a farm. It was there that they were arrested, along with some Polish peasants, and accused of abetting partisans in the area. They were held overnight in a barn and told to dig their graves.

Only the intervention of a cousin who worked for the Judenrat, the Jewish council, saved them. They were told to make decisions quickly. "Hirsch hesitated," writes Howe, "and told his wife, Leon and his daughters to go on ahead without him; hurriedly they said goodbye and returned to the Krakow ghetto to find work. They never saw him again, and all were haunted by guilt at having left him. Ilona especially blamed herself for this event throughout her life, measuring all her subsequent actions against the moment when she impatiently hurried her family away from him. Once when her nephew asked her how, since she was so young at the time, she could have possibly decided to stay behind, she replied tersely, 'Many did.' All they learned later was that Hirsch had been taken to Treblinka."

Leon, the sisters and their mother worked for a time in the Krakow ghetto at a paper company, but, soon after, the crushing round of concentration camps began. All of them were in Plaszow, which was depicted in the film Schindler's List, and overseen by the sadistic Amon Goeth; then, the women only were sent to the forced-labor camp at Skarzysko-Kamienna in central Poland. (Henia and Leon had promised if they were ever separated, they would both return to Krakow after the war and search for one another.)

It was in Skarzysko-Kamienna, where much other literature and music was written clandestinely by inmates, that the sisters began writing their poems. According to Howe, "a non-Jewish worker in the plant gave Henia and Ilona extra worksheets to write on. Using the blank side of the worksheets, the sisters composed their poems in pencil ... and then concealed them. There was an invention of cultural life at this camp, really a form of reminiscence that included prayer, drawing, song, poetry -- all with references and sources instantly recognizable to those present."

By the summer of 1944, the Germans began to retreat, fearing the advance of the Red Army, but not before they began a series of mass killings. The sisters and their mother survived, and were part of a selection of 6,000 prisoners sent to one of the multiple forced-labor camps aligned with Buchenwald. Henia and Ilona still had their poems with them, Howe tells us, "sewn into the hems of their dresses. Long afterwards survivors would remember the two sister reciting them, Henia's voice being particularly memorable for its musical quality."

How these poems survived the camps and were eventually read in the outside world is, according to Howe, a story in itself. In April 1945, the evacuation of Buchenwald began, with the SS sending prisoners on death marches. "Nearly 28,000 prisoners were forced by the Germans to walk in circles along the roads and through the forests outside the camp," explains Howe. "In this process, many of them were deliberately crushed by Germans in tanks and shoved into a pile. Henia and Ilona and her mother were three of these. They were pushed into a field of corpses and abandoned. Shortly thereafter another group of prisoners passed by, one of whom was a cousin of the Karmels. In the chaos Henia was able to tear open her dress and hand her cousin all of the poems. She repeated her husband's name to her cousin and begged her to get the poems to him in Krakow if he was still alive."

The next day, which happened to be the last day of the war, a Polish woman who'd been working as a slave laborer on a nearby farm came upon the pile of corpses and saw that some people were still alive. She got her boss to come, and this was how the sisters, their mother and a Hungarian woman were driven by cart to a hospital, where there was just one doctor left. Each of the sisters had a leg amputated. Their mother died there.

The women were eventually taken to a hospital in Leipzig, where they lay for six months, Henia wondering always if Leon had survived.

Directly after the war, Leon went to Krakow, as he'd promised, to search for Henia and Ilona. The Jewish community had set up a relocation and reunification center, where he met other former prisoners who told him that Henia, Ilona and Mita had died in an "accident" when the camp was being evacuated. Leon, unable to believe the worst, persisted in his search. When the sisters' cousin found him and gave him the poems, Leon asked if the women had been alive when she last saw them. She said yes, but did not think they could have survived, considering the extent of their injuries.

Leon eventually learned in late September 1945 that a memorial service had been planned for the two girls by family and friends, to be held at a large cinema in Krakow. Heartsick, he gave his approval to the event. But, as it turned out, two days after the service, a man in Leipzig, hearing about it, notified the Jewish Historical Commission that the sisters were alive. Leon received permission to travel to see them. The reunion was overwhelming for all three, notes Howe.

But Leon had to return almost immediately to Krakow for work. Once there, he began seeking better medical treatment for the sisters. An acquaintance from Stockholm got three Swedish visas and managed to have the women brought there,where reconstructive surgical techniques were far more advanced.

Soon Henia began walking again with a prosthesis, but Ilona's injuries were far more severe and needed two more years in the hospital to heal properly. In 1948, Henia and Leon moved to New York with their new son John. Ilona followed in 1949. Having taken an English-language correspondence course from Oxford during her hospitalization, she eventually enrolled at Radcliffe College. There she fell in love with the philosopher and physicist Francis Zucker, and they were soon married.

The sisters would continue to write, but only prose fiction in English -- possibly, conjectures Howe, "because English was exempt from the source of their experiences." Both Henia and Ilona wrote two novels each (Henia also wrote short stories), while their poems stayed in a drawer. Henia often spoke proudly of them, while her sibling brushed them off as "worthless." Henia always said that Ilona was a better novelist than she, while Ilona judged her sister to be the better poet.

Over the years, though versions of the poems circulated in Hebrew and Polish, the full manuscript lay in a drawer until 2000, after Ilona's death (Henia had died some years earlier), when a family member passed on the 180 pages to Howe, who had been an old friend of Ilona.

The skill behind these poems is evident instantly -- and remarkable for writers so young -- but because of the circumstances behind their creation, they also reside in another realm entirely. One can understand how they moved fellow inmates listening to them recited in those wretched circumstances. Their emotional power has not lessened over the years.

Here are just two examples, the first by Henia, the second by Ilona.

The Mark on the Wall

Praxia Dymitruk, Praxia, Praxia 
why did you write your name all over the walls? 
Is this pain written down 
or resistance to life's passing?

Were you, too, afraid to disappear? 
Without a sound? No one to miss you 
because you belonged to no one? 
Is your name all you owned, Praxia?

I understand you, little Russian one. 
Such a sweet stem of a name. 
For a girl so familiar though never known. 
Praxia Dymitruk, Praxia, Praxia.

The Origin of a Poem

First there is a soul and a seed 
Swelling, secret, deep. 
A troubled premonition. 
Dusk, germination.

The seed is sharp, patient. 
It spreads into words, 
Strophes, sound, branches. 
Then you are its gardener.

Its rhythm comes like a gale 
That sways in your soul.

Your pen is your shovel 
Transplanting these words 
Into ridges on paper where 
They flower in air, tear off and disappear.

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