:: Article

The Well & other poems

By Paul Polansky.


CZECH REPUBLIC (in the voice of a Rom Holocaust survivor)

Everyone at Lety had to work,
even us children.

Every morning we were
taken to the forest
to pick up dry wood.

We had to stack this wood
next to the dead bodies
so they could be burned.

Behind the camp a deep
trench was dug so
when Gypsies escaped
they would fall in.

If a prisoner was found
in the trench he was shot.

Then we had to bring wood
to burn his body too.

We also had to bring wood
to burn the naked bodies
of the women the guards used,
and those who died of typhus,
and those the guards drowned
in the rain barrel and in the lake.

When children got sick
the doctor gave them
an injection over the
heart, and we had to
burn their bodies too.

I remember when I had
to bring kindling
to burn the body
of my baby brother.

I gave him my bread,
but it wasn’t enough.


SERBIA (my own voice)

An old woman
with only one tooth left in her mouth
a gold one
leaned over my seat
stuck her finger
in the red birthmark
on the back of my neck and
shouted, “Your mother stole watermelons
when she was pregnant with you.”

“My mother stole coffee beans,”
said the woman, sitting next to her.
“See all the brown moles on my arm.”

Everyone in the van
turned to look at the old Rom
sitting in the last row
his face covered in bits and pieces
of hanging gray flesh.

“My mother always told me
she stole some pig livers
from a Serb butcher,” he confessed
“But after I was born
she never stole again.”

“Don’t talk such rubbish,”
the gold tooth woman said.
“Everybody steals,
until they die.”


SPAIN (my own voice)

I never ran across Gypsies in the mountains,
unless they were buying a horse from a shepherd,
or looking for old things in an abandoned farmhouse
to sell as antiques.

I always found the Gypsies living in hovels or caves
dug out of a hill next to a town dump.
No one bothered them there.

Kilometers away, I knew I was nearing a Gypsy
community when I heard loud music. Every hovel,
every cave, had a radio blaring a different station.

Gypsy kids and their skinny dogs always rushed
to meet me, until they saw Chulin. Then the dogs
ran back, their tails between their legs, while

some kids showed how brave they were,
letting Chulin lick the dirt off their hands and faces.

Chulin loved kids but had an instinct for anybody
with bad intentions. He didn’t hesitate to chase a person
who smelled like a thief. Beggars he could put up with.

I often stayed with Gypsies. It was their tradition
never to turn away a stranger, esp. one with a dog they
valued more than his mule.

I preferred to stay in their caves. Always cool in the
summer, warm in the winter. The floor, walls and ceiling
were always white-washed. Very clean homes until
the kids came inside, smelling of garbage.

But after their mothers washed them with a hose,
they were just normal inquisitive kids asking a thousand
questions about the trails I took, riding from
America to Spain.


(in the voice of a young Romani man)

They caught me in the marketplace
where my people used to sell clothes,
where Albanians now sell contraband.

Four men threw me into the back seat
of a blue Lada, yelling, “We told you,
no more Gypsies in Prishtina.”

As I was pushed down on the floor,
I felt the gun barrel in my left ear. It was so cold
I jerked just as someone pulled the trigger.

Blood splattered the side of my face
from the wound in my shoulder.
I collapsed, pretending to be dead.

I prayed to my dear, deceased mother, to all
mulos1, that these men wouldn’t see from where
the blood was oozing. When we arrived, they
dragged me out by my feet. My head crashed on
the ground, bouncing over several stones.

They threw me head-first into a well.
I never reached the water.
There were too many bodies.

I lay crumpled up, almost unconscious
until the smell and sting of wet lime
brought me back to my senses.

I held my breath until I heard
the car leave, then choked
on the stench around me.

With only one hand, I pulled
myself over stiff legs that became
my ladder to climb out.

My face, my hands, my whole body
burned from the lime. I used grass
to wipe off what I could,
then stumbled down a dirt road
toward a long line
of slow-moving lights.

Twenty minutes later I was on the highway
watching olive-colored trucks and jeeps,
driving past as if I were a telephone pole.

I finally collapsed in front of two headlights.
I couldn’t tell if the last sound I heard
was a screech or a scream.

The next day in a military hospital
NATO interviewed me for a few minutes.
The Albanian interpreter made the soldiers smile.

By mid-day I was walking
through a woods following a wagon trail
nobody uses anymore,
except Gypsies

escaping a country
where they have lived
for almost
seven hundred years.

Paul Polansky is an American author and activist working for the rights of the Roma people in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. He has also lived with Roma for the past ten years in Eastern Europe, collecting their oral histories and writing several books about their lives in the Czech republic and Kosovo, Serbia, and Macedonia. Today he heads the Kosovo Roma Refugee Foundation (KRRF), an NGO working with the afflicted residents of the UN Camps in north Kosovo. From July 1999 until September 2009 he was head of mission for the Society for Threatened Peoples in Kosovo and Serbia. On December 10, 2004, the City Council of Weimar awarded its ‘Human Rights Award’ to Polansky. He has published 27 books, including 18 books of poetry, and a number of non-fiction books including UN-Leaded Blood, which denounces described the inaction of UNMIK, as many children died from lead poisoning in the UN camps in north Kosovo.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, February 20th, 2013.