Tenderness in Hell by Vytautas Pliura

Passing by my bookshelf, I noticed 4 different copies of Vytautas Pliura's only published book, Tenderness in Hell, including the original 2001 edition which I bought used for over $100 together with the author's letter to a prospective publisher, two copies of the 2009 re-edition (bought five, I think, when they got out – and gave some away already) – plus a 2003 brilliant Russian translation by Linor Goralik and Stanislav Lvovsky, a 500 copies only edition, also a rarity. In pre-kindle times, there was a reason to stock up on Pliura's books – they were hard, impossible to get.

Haven't opened them for 3 years at least – and a quick thought blinked through my mind – Vytautas is dead. Struck by the thought, I rushed to google it and indeed, March 30, 2011, a year and a half ago almost, one of my absolutely favorite poets, if not the favorite, dead.

So in much belated memoriam, here goes his poem that I love so much. Rest in peace, Vytautas.


Tenderness in Hell

When my father spoke in his sleep
Often he would speak in German
Frightening us kids

We didn't speak German in our home
We hardly ever spoke Lithuanian for that matter
We were American
We spoke English
I learned English from my mother

As a little boy I remember my father speaking in broken English
“Throw me down the stairs the towel!” he said to me
one morning after his shower
I laughed thinking it was funny

When he spoke in German in his sleep
We kids knew he was dreaming that he was in the
concentration camp again
My mother
Would talk to him in a soothing way like a turtle dove
Telling him that he was at home
In our big Victorian house on the edge of the town
cornfields coming up to our swing sets
That he was safe
That no one would hurt him
She would speak in broken Lithuanian to hide this from us kids
But we knew anyway

When I picked up the phone one day
when Daddy's car had broke down
He told me he was calling from the “YUM-KAH!” hotel
I had no idea what he meant
Later my mother figured out that he was at the YMCA

When Daddy spoke in German in his sleep
We kids sensed something terrible
Something dreadful
German was so harsh
Not like Lithuanian which was soft as rose petals

He would cry in his sleep

One of his jobs in the camp
Was to take dead babies from their mothers
He was in charge of sanitation
Dead babies could spread disease
He would speak in German
Pleading with the woman to give up her baby
Being a medical student from Heidelberg and a prisoner himself
That was his job

Often women would nurse their dead babies, holding them up
to their breast, to fool Daddy

I pieced this all together years later
After my uncle told me about the camps and how he would outwit
the guards at the prison dairy by spreading the soft butter on
his chest and smuggling it out under his shirt
That's why Daddy didn't starve in the camp

Daddy never spoke of his time in the camp
He never breathed a word
At least not when he was awake

When he was dreaming