Michael Salcman, A Prague Spring: Before and After, Reviewed by Christopher T. George


Michael Salcman, A Prague Spring: Before and After. Evening Street Press, 2016, ISBN: 978-1-937-34733-8, 98 pages. Price $25.00.

Michael Salcman, the son of Holocaust survivors, was born in 1946, the year following the end of the Second World War, in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia. He emigrated to the United States with his parents three years later, in 1949.  In this reflective book, Salcman confronts his past and not surprisingly, as he confesses in a note toward the end of the book, it “is an exorcism of sorts.” He states in the essay included in the collection, “How I Missed the Prague Spring, A Sort of Memoir”: “Now most of my poems are informed by the war years and the Czech struggle for freedom.”

This is a book about doors and windows:  Doors to do with the writer’s family history, as explained below, and Windows with the peculiar and idiosyncratic history of the Czech nation, as related by the author in said essay, which is also revelatory because Salcman admits, “My father returned to Prague long before I did; I never found a medical or literary organization to sponsor me and when young, was too afraid of being taken captive.”

As the author states, the Prague Spring of 1968 was that tantalizing window of freedom shown briefly to the Czech people under an enlightened Communist leader, Alexander Dubček—a mirage of possible release from the brutal stranglehold of Soviet control, snatched away just as suddenly as were the similar promises of the Hungarian Revolution of Fall 1956 and Tiananmen Square in Biejing, China, in April 1989.

Of course, history is full of such cruel teases and yet that Spring of 1968 was one more wrinkle to the tragic history of a nation that had known Soviet oppression following Nazi rule, the latter including the grotesque Nazi eradication of the village of Lidice as retribution for the assassination of Reichsprotektor Rudolph Heydrich by Czech partisans.

In the centuries before those twentieth century episodes of ugliness, the history of the Czech nation is significant for a history of defenestrations—the practice of throwing political opponents out of windows, beginning with the First Defenestration of Prague that occurred in 1419 during the Hussite Rebellion and the Second in 1618 during the Thirty Years War. The first instance proved bloodily fatal for a number of unfortunate souls and was part of a pattern of gruesome executions, although the Second Defrenestration, as Salcman notes proved “almost darkly comical”: Protestants hurled two Catholic counselors from a window, only for them to be saved by the men landing in a dung heap.  In the twentieth century, a fatal defenestration took place in 1948 when Czech democratic hero Jan Masaryk fell from an office window in the Foreign Ministry—a “suicide” according to the Communists, but a death believed to be murder by patriotic Czechs. From 1948 onward, the Soviets took over, leading twenty years later to the promise and tragedy of Spring 1968.

Happily, following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, democracy returned to Czechoslovakia, although at the cost of breaking into two nations: the Czech Republic and Slovakia.  Salcman writes, “Perhaps because they are so versed in the ironies of history, the Czechs have twice made writers (Tomas Masaryk, Václev Havel) President of their country.  What other nation has been brave enough or foolish enough to do the same?”

An epigraph at the beginning of the book helps to set the tone for the entire collection and establish the theme of doors. Salcman explains in an end note: “I am indebted to my cousin Arnold Polak for the epigraph; I heard him say these words at his 80th birthday party in August 2007.” The words are:

……When you knock on the door of strangers,
……There are three possibilities: they will send you away,
……They will take you in, they will report you.

The words repeat as the final tercet in the opening poem of the volume, one of a cycle of ten poems titled “Spring, 1944”:

……(The Dead)

……These dead have no faces: Father’s five brothers-in-law,
……all but one sister, his own father and mother,
……my mother’s father, my little cousins.

……God knows why a family as large as a town
……was erased; smoke and fire belched
……from Moloch’s mouth and the earth shook.

……After they were gone, I never looked again
……at the old brown photographs, nameless and worthless
……like the deeds of blown-up houses,

……without my father forcing me to,
……me forgetting the first while he spoke
……of the last.  How dark a sun will set with him.

…… When you knock on the door of strangers,
…… There are three possibilities: they will send you away,
…… They will take you in, they will report you.

These words sound a sinister note at the outset, a tone maintained as poem after poem of the opening cycle resounds with episodes of death and near death, Jews betrayed and sent to their doom, or almost sent to their deaths.  No wonder the poet repeats the same words in the ninth poem:

……(The Pinkas Synagogue)

……When you knock on the door of strangers,
……There are three possibilities: they will send you away,
……They will take you in, they will report you.

……I didn’t know where to find their names,
……the farmer and his wife, the two daughters,
……the righteous gentiles my cousin had them inscribe
……on the walls of the Pinkas Synagogue,
……close by the names of those they couldn’t save.
……Then a flood came and wiped the walls clean

……for a bit as if God wished too to erase them.
……Outside this wall and old Jewish cemetery,
……the Czechs have built a Museum of Decorative Arts,

……the stacked stones and red letters like shards
……of Bohemian glass, cutting the soul.  Like knives.

One of the most important poems in the collection is “Everything but the Ashes,” about famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal (1908–2005), who Salcman correctly states in an end note “did what the nations refused to do.” The poem is somewhat edgier than others of Salcman’s poems, departing from the more languid, lyrical style which characterizes many of the poems in the book.  I quote from the opening epigraph, the last lines from stanza one, and the last lines of the second and final stanza of this outstanding poem, as the poet describes what this outstanding man did:

…………If a man saves a single life
…………it’s as if he saved the entire world—The Talmud

……. . . . I will repeat and repeat and repeat this year’s inventory:
……bound for Berlin, twenty-five freight cars of women’s hair,
……248 of clothing, a hundred boxcars filled with shoes
……and jewelry taken from the Jews;
……400,000 watches, four thousand carats of diamonds,
……one hundred and sixty tons of wedding rings—
……the Germans shipped everything but their ashes.
……He knew how a grand indictment like this might fit
……on a lading slip, how a number might hold a memory.

……. . . . All in all, he spent fifty years in Vienna,
……a city that hated him like a poke in the eye,
……surrounded by file cards and photos, affidavits and writs—
……not a scrap was wasted.  This was the life he had to give
……and the metabolism of starvation its special gift.
……When he died in his sleep at ninety-six
……everything was shipped but the ashes.

In addition to poems inspired by the poet’s family history and the Second World War, there are other poems on Czech history and a number of pieces written by the author’s life in Brooklyn.  Even here the poems can have a haunted quality, as when Salcman remembers being in a synagogue fifty years earlier, in a poem titled “Lech Lecha” which I partially quote:

……Fifty years ago today I set out, a small knit cap on my head,
……the curve of my skull echoed
……in the great bowl of the Talmud Torah’s dome
……on Coney Island Avenue.

……I am creeping up on Abraham, almost as old as he was
……in Lech Lecha, my Torah portion, ready to set off with Lot
……and Sarah, and all their wealth, and the souls they had made
……in Haran, the place they were leaving for Canaan. . . .

……Fifty years ago this day, I gave a little speech about the awe I felt
……standing before the Ark and speaking directly to God.
……It was prettily done, without humility and without fear.

……But now I am counting souls, those made and unmade,
……those given and withheld, in the land to which I’ve been taken.  Or led.

In addition to allusions in various poems to World War II Jewish history and Biblical passages, the poet makes passing references to such luminaries as Czech national hero and religious reformer Jan Hus (c. 1369–1415), Einstein, Kafka, Shakespeare, James Joyce, court painter Master Theodoric (active 1350–1370), known as “the Czech Giotto” who “decorated Karlstein Castle with jewel-encrusted portraits of saints,” and German artist Gerhard Richter (born 1932), who “has used both realist and abstract paintings to critique photography.” In short, this is an erudite and highly rewarding collection. For many reasons, it is arguably Michael Salcman’s life work.  And bravo for it.

A selection of subtly understated black and white photographs by Lynn Silverman are placed at strategic intervals throughout the book.  They depict Czech streets and memorials often shown in shadow. Ms Silvermann’s photos lend a noir and stark feel, forming a perfect counterpoint to Michael Salcman’s engaging poetry and prose.

© Michael Salcman and Christopher T. George

Michael Salcman was born in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia in 1946, the son of Holocaust survivors, and came to the United States in 1949. After finishing the Six-Year Combined Program in Liberal Arts and Medical Education at Boston University, he was a Fellow in Neurophysiology at the National Institutes of Health and trained in neurosurgery at Columbia University’s Neurological Institute in New York Former chairman of neurosurgery at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, his early medical career was profiled by Jon Franklin and Alan Doelp in Not Quite A Miracle (Doubleday, 1983). Former president of the Congress of Neurological Surgeons, the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore and the CityLit Project, Salcman lectures widely on art and the brain and on the brain and creativity. He currently serves as Special Lecturer in the Osher Institute at Towson University. He is a poetry editor at The Baltimore Review. Salcman is the author of five chapbooks, the most recent of which is Stones In Our Pockets (Parallel Press, University of Wisconsin, 2007), and two previous collections, The Clock Made of Confetti (Orchises Press, 2007), nominated for The Poet’s Prize in 2009, The Enemy of Good Is Better (Orchises Press, 2011), and A Prague Spring: Before and After (Evening Street Press, 2016), winner of the 2015 Sinclair Poetry Prize.  Salcman has also published a widely-praised anthology of classic and contemporary poems on doctors, patients, illness and recovery, Poetry in Medicine (Persea Books, 2015).

Christopher T. George was born in Liverpool, England in 1948 but is a long-time resident of Maryland where he lives with his wife Donna and two cats.  Chris recently retired as a medical editor in Washington, D.C. Besides being an editor of Loch Raven Review, Chris serves as editor at the on-line poetry workshop Desert Moon Review at http://www.thedesertmoonreview.com/. His poetry has appeared in publications worldwide. He is also a songwriter, artist, War of 1812 historian, and Ripperologist.  With Northern Ireland historian Dr. John McCavitt, he recently published The Man Who Captured Washington: Major General Robert Ross and the War of 1812 (Oklahoma University Press, 2016).

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