Finding the Way Back

(Inspired by Robert M. Edsel’s The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History)

Mona Lisa smiles down the barrel of a German Luger.
The question: Is art worth a life?
Five thousand bells bear silent witness
stacked head high in a salt mine
next to barrels of gold fillings
extracted from humans alive or dead.
Auschwitz. Buchenwald. Ashes in the wind
covered the head of my grandfather.
Unlike Mona Lisa’s smile surviving the war,
there is no photograph, no painting to which to point,
to show you, Daughter. Here is your heritage:
A number, faded ink, A15429,
your great-grandfather’s father, reduced to
a black armband, a yellow star.
A tattered remnant entangled among 10 feet of
Torahs piled high, sacred scrolls askew
is the life I hand you.

Blood of my blood, your blond tresses
may have saved you from the gas
I would have breathed last.
My words, my gift, surely my undoing,
all I have to offer you, to guide you
through the coming dark. Always a shadow
accompanies the sun. Bone
of my bone, sharpen your teeth, file down
bone to spear, prepare for battle.

A brown leather-bound album is still
worshipped by those who feed on hate
like pomegranate seeds, spitting out
words like poison darts that
turn skin fair and dark alike to ash.

From the ash heaps you must rise,
mark your forehead in my memory and take
your place among the sisterhood reaching back
to Nefertiti, to Eve, to the Great Mother
who has no name. Like Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna,
The Ghent Altarpiece, Girl with a Pearl Earring, she is still
worshipped among ancient stones
once used to weigh down girls in the water
among chants of witch. Rise, Daughter, open your eyes
in the sunlight turning falling ash orange.

Is art worth a life?
Wear my words like a necklace, a talisman,
a prayer bead you brush with your lips.
Breathe in deep and blow my words out
across the blue universe. Let them fall
like dogwood petals flowering the ashen earth.
Let your lips speak my answer.
Let your daughter sing our song.
Unsilence the bells.
Unscroll the Torahs.
In the beginning was the word.
Find your way back.
Reclaim our garden.

Katherine Nelson-Born