I was in Cologne last week for work. Amidst a week of very hard work there were a few respites. On Saturday I spent the day with Jesse Seldess-Chicago poet and new resident of Karlsruhe, Germany.
It turned out to be a moving afternoon.
Jesse and I are very different poets and people- he is thin and I am fat we do not share ethnicities or religions but we what we do share is recent memories of being American. Jesse's family were refugees from Germany in the 1930's my family from Italy in the 1950's so unlike many poets being American is important for us and also a point of pain and memories.
Most German cities look like 1950's suburbs. Most of the cities in Germany were destroyed by Allied bombs and this in obvious in Cologne. Jesse and I first visited the Kathe Kollwitz museum in Cologne. Kollwitz is one of my wife Waltraud's favorite artists and her images of family and anguish of the First World War are profound. She was declared Degenerate by Hitler and died, heartbroken in Germany in 1945. Her museum was profoundly personal with dark prints and drawings a welcome respite from the hyper materialism of modern Germany.
Jesse and I then decided to visit the EL-DE Haus Cologne's Nazi museum. I have visited concentration camps but I was very much moved by the EL DE haus because of its banality.
Unlike a camp out in the woods this house is right on a main street a building that could have been a post office or a bank. But when you enter you are transformed.
In the basement are the torture chambers and cell. There is a smell of death and pain and on the walls are written the sames and graffiti of prisoners on their way to death. I spied one
Guiseppe Longarotti- 16-5-1944- what did he do to get put in that cell?
The museum tracks Nazism in Cologne a nice rich city that over a 10 year period destroyed four synagogues- and expelled 17,000 of their neighbors for being Jews. In fact the very fairgrounds that I spent my week at were used as a staging area for the Ravensbruck camp. I kept thinking about all the faces and people who were killed by their neighbors and I cannot get their images out of my mind. But I have no right to be selfrightious. America has never dealt with our evils the way the Germans have. No American child learns that we killed millions of natives and enslaved millions of others.
But one thing that Jesse and I agree on is that what makes America unique has been broken by George Bush and his henchmen. America is unique because only here could we create such people as Mark Twain, William Faulkner and Walt Whitman. We have no right to judge the Germans because while they burned books and people in the 1930's we careen down a similar road having learned nothing from the EL-DE Haus