Introduction and explanation.
I’m just going to read one poem to you but it requires some explanation.
The poem is called “Mermaid”. Now I am fully aware that some of your reactions may be an instinctive outrage – what can a mermaid possibly have to do with the Holocaust and how dare this woman suggest it? But I would like to explain to you how.
When I was a little girl it wasn’t long after the War and all through my childhood from time to time I would hear my father discussing their various war experiences with his friends. When I was about 7 a man he knew, who I only ever knew as Bill, came to redecorate our living room. During his break he was talking to my father and I was there, the unnoticed little listener.
Bill had been a prisoner of war in France for several years. The camp he was in was near a big railway terminus – I can’t remember where – where there were many sidings with goods trains constantly in and out. Although they were prisoners of war the Germans made them work; every day they were marched down to the railway terminus and forced to unload the wagons of these goods trains.
One day they opened the wrong wagon and it was crammed to the roof with dead Jewesses – that’s how he described them, Jewesses, not a word you hear today – naked and stinking to high Heaven. The Germans were so angry with them because they had opened this wagon and seen what was inside and, although it was a genuine mistake on their part, they were punished for it.
I never forgot this but never told anyway about it until about fifty years later, I did tell someone and the following morning I woke up with a very strong image in my head of a woman with long dark hair in a metal tank. This poem was the result of that vision and it can be taken at face value or as an extended metaphor for imprisonment.
The Holocaust is still extending its tentacles out in the most extraordinary ways, to unexpected people with unexpected results and this poem is one of those results.
I caught a glimpse of her myself,
when the fishing nets had caught her.
Plucked from the ocean’s sandy shelf,
floating in the sparkling water.
They had to chlorine it of course,
but in a kindly way – no force.
Her flowing hair obscured her breast,
skin gleaming opalesque and pale.
But more intriguing than the rest,
her strongly thrashing, scaly tail.
A fish’s iridescent mesh,
linked with a woman’s living flesh.
They showed her all around the town
and everywhere she was a hit!
Some did complain she wore a frown
and thought she should have smiled a bit.
Trapped in that place – the boring hours.
Of course, they don’t have brains like ours.
Eventually they set her free.
Oh yes, I’m almost sure we knew
they would release her out at sea,
it was the humane thing to do.
But by then the creature stank,
in a vivisection tank.