Walking down the road I saw a man in tattered clothes.
I couldn’t help but wonder what had led to his defeat.
Tell me, if you would, about this life that you have chosen,
or did you have no choice except this life, upon the street?
I handed him a buck or two and said, “Here, take a seat.”
Upon a rusted old park bench we hunkered in to meet.
You’re curious, my boy, he said, why do you want to know?
I want to understand you, sir, to see what makes you so.
That money that I gave to you, I know you’ll give to others.
I wonder, how do you survive while giving to your brothers?
A smile broke across the wrinkled landscape of his face,
the pain I’d seen inside his eyes seemed suddenly erased.
You may not really want to hear the story I will tell,
it happened many years ago—a place not far from hell.
The name, you’ve heard—‘twas Auschwitz, a camp they took us Jews
the horrors that surrounded me tempted me to choose
to take my life before they could subject me to a death
without the grace of dignity. I wanted to be free.
But then some words came tumbling from the darkness of my mind
Words spoken by a holy man I heard in years behind.
The teacher’s voice was strong, it traveled straight into my core
of all I understand of God, of what we’re living for.
Such good there that can be done in Auschwitz late at night—
your hope can be a gift to those who tremble in their fright.
And what I learned back then—the truths that saved me from despair—
I carry them within my soul, there’s so much need to care.
So I refuse to see my life a symbol of defeat.
Much good there is, my son, that now awaits me in that street?
The old man stood and shook my hand and left me with his smile
I sat, transfixed, upon that bench, alone, for quite a while.
Now I withhold my judgment when I see another homeless guy
and wonder still at wealth, within, that money cannot buy.
I often find myself thinking about the subject of homelessness, wondering at the stories behind those who face such a lifestyle. Eons ago, when I was a student nurse, before the decentralization of Mental Health facilities, I trained for psychiatry in a State hospital in California that cared for 5000 patients. It was a city in its own right, with farmland, manufacturing facilities and its own economic system. Many of the “patients” we housed were diagnosed as “simple schizophrenic,” meaning simply that they were not able to function in society. After the government released these people from institutional care, the streets were flooded with the homeless–and so it is today.
I wrote this poem a few years ago based on a true story of an elderly man who had been held in Auschwitz during WWII. It’s a tale reminiscent of the story of Viktor Frankl, the author of Man’s Search for Meaning–the account of a man who survived the atrocities of a concentration camp by focusing on helping others.
I’m currently reading a book about a Christian couple who dedicated themselves to helping their Jewish neighbors in Poland during the occupation of the Nazi’s. I can’t help but reflect on their willingness to put themselves and their family at risk and to realize that that is exactly what Jesus would have done. What would I do? And what am I doing to help the homeless?