About his life before I knew him,
Before my mother and uncles were,
Before he came here,
This much he told,
How he slipped across the border;//,
He was twenty-one and a draft dodger.//Twenty-one and …
Jews sat shiva when Tsars took their sons,
Though he said his own father had served
And returned, allowed then to live
Outside the pale, managing the estate
Of one of those leading Russia to war.
And so he was hidden beneath straw
In the back of an oxcart,
Tsarist gold coins sewed in his vest.
He still had them years later,
And a diary written in pencil,
In Russian he could no longer read
When I was a child. He sold the coins
After the Tsar’s overthrow;
The diary in a kitchen drawer
Was gnawed by mice years ago.
The story I heard as a boy no more
Than ten years younger than he was when
He took the journey that brought him here
Was simple enough in its outline :
The year was 1904; his new wife left
Behind, his brother waiting in America,
He left Odessa, crossed the border
And walked across Europe to Hamburg
Where he set sail on the Koenig Albert,
All the while making notes. I was told
What lay behind; I know what lay ahead,
But of the time between, he never spoke.
It’s about a thousand miles from Odessa
To Hamburg. If a car traveling sixty
Leaves on a Tuesday and there are
Highways enough, it will arrive well before
I’ll ever know what it must be like
To be so utterly alone.