Janet R. Kirchheimer: How to Spot One of Us

To read more of Janet R. Kirchheimer’s poetry and view publications by Clal click here for information and purchase.

Janet R. Kirchheimer’s moving collection of poems about the Holocaust, How To Spot One Of Us (2007), received endorsements from Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, Sir Martin Gilbert, and Rabbis Harold Kushner, and Irving “Yitz” Greenberg (Chairman Emeritus of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council), as well as poets Mary Stewart Hammond, Yerra Sugarman, and Jeanne Marie Beaumont.

In 2011, Janet was awarded a Certificate of Appreciation from the 261st Signal Brigade for her work in the 2009 Multi-National Forces Days of Remembrance Holocaust Memorial Service held at Camp Victory in Baghdad, Iraq. Approached by the U.S. military, she helped design the program, video-taped a talk and reading, and judged a poetry contest for soldiers. In 2010, she received a Citation for her work from The Council of The City of New York, was awarded Honorable Mention in the Tiferet Poetry Contest, and was a finalist in the Rachel Wetzsteon Prize from the 92nd St. Y. A recipient of a Drisha Institute for Jewish Education Arts Fellowship for 2006-2007, she was a semi-finalist in the “Discovery”/The Nation contest, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2007.

Janet’s work has appeared in journals including Atlanta Review, Potomac Review, Limestone, Connecticut Review, Kalliope, Common Ground Review, on beliefnet.com, and in anthologies such as 99 Words (Darton Longman & Todd, 2012) and Villanelles (Everyman’s Library, 2012). Her poems have been translated into Russian, and she has given bilingual readings at venues such as The New York Public Library. Her featured essays include “Make Your Selection, Please,” for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), and “Kristallnacht: How Will We Remember?” for The New York Jewish Week.

A frequent speaker at conferences and on radio, she recently appeared at a program on German-Speaking Jews and Their Lasting Impact on New York City, co-sponsored by the Leo Baeck Institute and The Jewish Studies Center at Baruch College. Janet has taught and given readings at a variety of locales including Yeshiva University, Fairleigh Dickinson University, ADL/Hidden Child Foundation, the Association of Jewish Family & Children’s Agencies, the JCC in Manhattan and Washington D.C., the Westover School, the YMCA, Hadassah, Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Bowery Poetry Club, The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, and many other places.

A Teaching Fellow at Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, Janet conducts leadership development seminars, text study and American-Jewish history classes, as well as workshops in which adults and teens explore their Judaism through creative writing and poetry. She also leads a “Poetry Shmooze” in which participants read and discuss poems and the art of poetry. To bring Janet to your community, phone: 212-779-3300 x111, or email: jkirchheimer@clal.org.


How I Knew and When

Age 8 – My father hangs upside down on a pipe that was part of a fence
that separated our street from the next. All of his change
falls from his pockets. He looks so young.
Age 15 – “There were one hundred and four girls
in the Israelitisch Meisjes Weeshuis orphanage in Amsterdam.
Four survived,” my mother says.
“I remember Juffrouw Frank, the headmistress. She made us
drink cod-liver oil each morning. She said it was healthy for us.”
Age 17 – My father tells me his father and sister, Ruth, got out
of Germany and went to Rotterdam. They were supposed to
leave on May 11, 1940, for America. The Nazis invaded on May 10.
Age 21 – My mother tells me Tante Amalia told her
that on the Queen Elizabeth to America in 1947, after she
and Onkel David were released from an internment camp
on the Isle of Man, she was so hungry she ate twelve rolls
every day at breakfast. She said it was the best time she ever had.
Age 24 – My father tells me, “Otto Reis got out of Germany
in 1941. He took a train to Moscow, the Trans-Siberian railroad to
Vladivostok, a boat to Shanghai, a boat to Yokohama, a boat to
San Francisco, and a bus to Philadelphia, his wife and three sons
staying behind. Carola Stein signed affidavits for them, but
the government said she didn’t make enough money.”
Age 31 – My mother’s cousin refuses to accept money a rich
woman left him. He says the money has too much blood on it.
My mother tells me that in 1939 her cousin had asked this woman
to sign affidavits for his wife and two daughters. She said no.
Age 33 – My father asks me to dial the number. His hands shake.
He asks my cousin Judy if she wants to send her three children out
of Israel during the Gulf War. She says she can’t let them go.
Age 42 – A waiter in a Jerusalem hotel tells my father
he should come to live in Israel, because it’s home.
My father tells him, “Home is anywhere they let you in.”


If You Were Lucky

you got a hat, my father said. Told to strip,
he stood in line, got examined by an SS doctor
for skin diseases and bruises, told to go,
then got beaten by an SS guard, stood
in line to get a blue-and-white-striped
cotton jacket and pants, yellow triangles
stenciled on each,
leather shoes with no linings,
a pair of cotton socks,
two patches with numbers,
a cotton blue-and-white-striped hat,
was marched to his barracks, given
a needle and thread, told to sew
one patch on his shirt,
the other on his pants,
and pass the needle to the next man,
and each morning was marched out to line up
between the barracks at four o’clock, was counted, stood
until the kapos marched him
to the Appellplatz, for roll call, stood
at attention for hours, was told by the Kommandant
to put his hand on his head, take off his hat and,
at the Kommandant’s command, slap it down on his thigh.
Thousands of us, my father said. Sounded like a cannon shot.

This Is How My Opa Strauss Died

He walked home from work in the blizzard of ’47.
My Oma opened the door.
“Natan, why are you carrying groceries in this weather?”
“I always bring you something, Jenny,” he said,
and collapsed in her arms.
But the dying began long before, when
he was forced to sell his butcher shop
after Hitler came to power, when
he saw his six-year-old daughter
beaten up by schoolchildren for refusing
to say “Heil Hitler,” when
he was forced to sell his beloved horses,
his home, his land, when
he was seasick on the S.S. Roosevelt
for the ten days it took to cross the Atlantic
from Le Havre to New York City, when
he stood on cold concrete warehouse floors
as a night watchman in Harlem, when
the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society got him
a job as a farmer’s helper in Connecticut and
he wouldn’t tell the owner he had a heart condition, when
he sat alone in a corner of the greenhorn section
of shul each Shabbos, when
he found out after the war he would never see
any of his nine brothers and sisters again, when
he worked as a meat cutter through each heart attack, when
he walked up Meadow Street and his neighbor Rose DeNegris,
eight months pregnant, saw him carrying a bag of groceries, asked
why he was out in such weather, he said,
“I don’t have long to live.”


How to Spot One of Us

We’re the ones who didn’t know our relatives
spoke with accents, the ones whose parents
got nervous if we didn’t come home
on time, were afraid to let us go
places by ourselves, who
told the neighborhood kids the numbers
on their forearms were their phone numbers,
who won’t visit Germany, who wake up
night after night from dreams, who never talk
about the past, or never stop
talking about the past, and we’re the ones
who dream about big families, who
wish words could just be words, wish “camp”
or “selection” didn’t make us flinch,
and sometimes we’re the ones
who do everything we can
so you don’t know who we are.

Grand Central Station
A packed subway car
at rush hour
more people try
to jam themselves
in before the doors
slam shut.
Move in move in make room
just one
more they shout.
How Mengele
would smile
if he could see this.

From the womb a fetus looks and can see from the beginning of the world to its end,
and when she emerges, God hits her under the nose and she forgets everything she saw.
—Adapted from Seder Y’tzirat Hav’lad.
I remember my father driving to the hospital, my mother
yelling at him to slow down, afraid the police
would stop them, the nurses telling him to go home,
it would be a long time, and the nurses wheeling her
into the delivery room, her screams, the drugs,
my father back after only two hours,
and I remember the red roses he brought her,
her asking how much they cost, they had no money, and
my mother’s face, her green eyes, her blond hair as she held me,
her olive-skinned girl with a mess of black hair, wondering
if they gave her the wrong baby, and hearing my name,
“Janet,” after Oma Kirchheimer, and “Ruth,” after my father’s sister,
and the woman in the next bed telling my mother
the nurses asked if a Jew could share her room.


My mother’s cousin Ilse went to school
with Margot Frank, Anne’s older sister.

Sometimes I dream that they met at Ilse’s home
on the Schubertstraat and Margot brought her little sister along.

Ilse’s mother served them tea and cookies,
and Hanni, Ilse’s little sister, played with Anne

and the older girls talked about the boys they liked,
the teachers they didn’t, what they would do
during summer vacation, what they would be when they
grew up. Ilse wanted to be a doctor.
Sometimes I dream they were all together
in the same barracks in Bergen Belsen, that Ilse begged
Margot and Anne to live after they contracted typhus, and
that Ilse told them they would get better and
they would meet for tea at a nice café in Amsterdam after the war.
Ilse returned, along with her mother and sister.
They lived in a small apartment, and Hanni, the one who
had been experimented on, rarely came out of her room.
Their father did not survive.
Ilse went back to school and became a doctor.