John Wood

The Fiction of History

So, Zweig, the famous Buchenwald boy
really was protected, hidden from the guards,
saved by the Communist inmates—the four year old
finally carried out on their shoulders, compassion’s proof
lifted above nightmare in April of 1945.
And it actually happened just like that.
But only because the inmates substituted—somehow—
the name of Willy Blum, a sixteen year old Gypsy boy,
for Zweig’s on the transport lists to Auschwitz.

Even in the comfortable concentration of our lives
we demand history, need those ever shifting
chronicles of good and bad, the explanations
of our loss and gain: the back-stabber,
the turncoat, love’s traitor all with the poisoned rose
upon their lips. Or, luck and accident labeled
glittering insight, raw bravery, immeasurable generosity
all haloing our heads in humble orbits.

And all lies, of course. But that’s history,
a canonized, though changing lie,
honest in its deceit, miracle-making, proven
in its power, for no one crafts myth from truth—
or tedium, that bulk of one’s days. Effect
is what we pay for. We need the better story,
the brighter saint, the bloodier thug.

And we, the historians of our little lives,
are no worse nor better than those of the world.
Memory’s function is not to recall
but to reshape—to forget, to blur, erase, change,
and make the days livable to us
who’ve done hard time within these skins.

I’m glad Zweig still lives, that the boy he once was
was lifted and carried from that place in proof
of a kind of compassion, but a better proof, I think,
that it is easier to remember the fictive history
of our desires than the fate of another boy
once riding eastward, a boy who had to know
where the tracks would end.