Poem | “The Last Jew in Vinnitsa”

How can we teach history—or learn from it—if we can’t agree on facts? “The Last Jew in Vinnitsa” revisits the harrowing photo of that name and asks what “other perspectives” could bear upon its content. To consider such evidence, to look at it squarely and refuse to turn away, is a first step toward knowledge—whether the event it documents occurred far off or close to home. —Jody Bolz, Poetry Editor

“THE LAST JEW IN VINNITSA”

Said to be on the back of a photo found in a German soldier’s album,
                                   these words have attached themselves to the image itself.

The man who kneels at the edge of a pit heaped
with bodies, the man who kneels at the edge of a pit
heaped with bodies—the man who kneels at the edge
of a pit heaped with bodies—is looking up
at the crowd of German soldiers watching him.
They stand like lynch-mob casuals
around their day’s achievement. Bespectacled,
a German soldier, behind the man, leans
slightly to extend a gun, trigger ready.
In the kneeling man’s lap bunches his coat,
a pile of ordinary warmth he maybe
thought he’d need. I can imagine him,
the fact of him, before this day. I don’t
have to imagine this photo—

­                                              ­I’ll give them
their own opinions, not their own facts,
the Senator said. And yet, a pliant official,
telling Texan teachers about new law,
advises, If you assign a book about
the Holocaust, also assign “one
that has opposing…other perspectives.”
But what “perspective” beside this view across
the pit where a second soldier stood
to click his shutter a moment before the killing
shot? Did that soldier bring his exposed
film to a shop and later spread his snaps
across a tabletop to scrawl his slanted
notes on their backs? Perhaps. No one now
can say, but the photo of that name still frames
the fact: a thin man, hair rumpled,
collar buttoned, hands clenched, who, kneeling
on the edge, briefly watched the German soldiers
standing around his almost slaughtered town.

Sandy Solomon is writer in residence in creative writing at Vanderbilt University. Her poems have appeared in a number of magazines, most recently The New Yorker. Her book, Pears, Lake, Sun, won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize. 

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