Not one of them knew how it got there, that stray prayer shawl in the remotest corner of the densest forest in Belarus, but when the straggling herd eight- hundred strong had passed through the swamplands, the Nazi-infested villages, there it was—awaiting them like a flag, a country. They bided their time three hungry days, until gunfire trailed off like thunder, birds. Wandering out, they found German-language newspapers, empty cigarette packets, a transistor radio someone had left in a clearing. They read the papers, listened to their propaganda, learned what the Germans told themselves in private, then balled the newspapers up beneath a pile of sticks and lit a fire to warm themselves, cook a chicken, sing a Yiddish song. These were the forest Jews, magicians of survival. On Yom Kippur, the devout carried the shawl on their shoulders, intoning the noises of devotion, while armed companions prowled the forest roads for an enemy kill, an opportune ambush, a convoy of golden-haired young soldiers, drugged and sleepless, half-drunk on samogonka, rumbling past unawares with God on their side.
Note: This poem is based on a story reported in Peter Duffy’s The Bielski Brothers (Harper Collins, 2003), about a group of Jewish partisans operating in the forests outside of Lida, Belarus during World War II. My maternal grandmother was born in Lida.
Marc Alan Di Martino is a Pushcart-nominated poet and author of the collection Unburial (Kelsay Books, 2019). His work appears in Rattle, Baltimore Review, Rust + Moth, Valparaiso Poetry Review and many other journals and anthologies. His second collection, Still Life with City, will be published by Pski’s Porch in 2020. He lives in Italy.