What the Bookkeeper of Auschwitz Knew

by Meisha Rosenberg Issue: Fall 2018 Special Issue on Justice
Oskar Gröning used to be a bank clerk. He addressed the court:
            I am this one, 94. I ask for forgiveness 
            from a higher judge

He believed God was justice
in the same sure way he felt the sustenance
of sardines and ham, vodka and rum,
and coins he counted: the Zlotys, Rubles, Deutschmarks,
Lira, and Drachma at the camp.
He inventoried the luggage of the departed,
knew peaceful sleep under their checkered quilts.

He was smart enough to appeal the 300,000 counts
of accessory to murder, knew he did not wield
a knife or a gun. How large numbers
accrue, quietly compounding interest.

Oskar Gröning knew digits add up
in a column, zeroes are round, life and death
succinct, one fulfilling plus, the other, minus.

Absolute value only God keeps, so what
could a bookkeeper know when he saw another SS
smash a baby into an iron truck?
Gröning went to see his boss:
          My precise formulation was: ‘If things like that are always happening here,
          what a shitty dump this is. And I want out.’
He sent its parents’ money to Berlin.

He was taught how to stay, pacing,
so now he counts before sleeping,
the pills lined up like soldiers
two for each night.

He stood by what he told his wife in 1948:​ don’t ask​.
Three angels on their mantel watched as she
made cheese sandwiches, cake,
left before the interviewer arrived,
before Gröning refused to look at the photographs,
saying,​ I know what corpses look like​.

This bank teller who knows how to guard
chose a home with pristine landscaping,
collected stamps. And he knew the birds, loved them.

He found out a bird was shot—
perhaps by some neighborhood boys.
Its nest tucked in his mailbox
where the final sentence never arrived:
I could have wept,​ he said.

Meisha Rosenberg

Meisha Rosenberg is an award-winning nonfiction writer published in AlterNet, Salon, Bitch, Print, the Women's Review of Books, Literary Mama, the Saranac Review and others. She has poetry appearing or forthcoming in the Connecticut River Review and Caesura. She earned an MFA in writing from New York University, and a BA in English from Reed College and has taught creative writing and literature at the college level. You can find out more at: https://meisha-rosenberg.squarespace.com/.