Jason Lester Atkins, born in Hampton, Va. was gunner on a torpedo bomber during World War II. Then for 40 years he served as an executive with the giant A. O. N. Corporation. In the meantime he became also a published poet.
“In 1995, I wrote a series of ‘prose-poems’ to remember the horrors of my time,” Atkins said in an interview with the Lake Placid News and the Virginia Gazette.
He did so primarily for his grandchildren, instructing them, to read those poems on January 20th 2042, the one hundredth anniversary of “The Wannsee Conference.”
The conference was held in an elegant villa in the Berlin suburb of Wannesse. High-ranking Nazi officials gathered there to finalize plans for the “Final Solution.” It resulted in the murder of six million Jews, from all over Europe.
In the foreword to his volume of prose-poetry, “Unworthy Lives,” Atkins wrote: “These horrors were of my time: My time in the military service: Serving unaware in another sector: Viewing later, news reel account of Eisenhower’s visit to the newly freed camps: Seeing the piles of unburned corpses: Seeing skin stretched, starving survivors with their blank frightened stares: awakened my sleeping memory: Memory of visiting Dachau camp in Southern Germany… Listening, first hand, to old survivors tell of Auschwitz and Treblinka in their own voices.”
He explained that by creating “verse pages,” he intended to give “voice beyond forgotten graves.” Noting that there are shelves of well written documentaries of The Final Solution, he penned, “No one needed my contribution, but me.”
He was wrong. A friend in Boston read the manuscript, and as a result, Atkins, was invited to visit Israel on the 50th anniversary of the Holocaust. His poetry was seen as a description of the “route my generation has taken so no succeeding generation can destroy the maps.”
In the fist poem of the volume, Atkins brings alive the voice of a survivor of the Chelmo massacre, in Poland.
“I am Motke. I am the last Jew standing. I have returned to this tree-covered peaceful spot to kneel and kiss a holy ground, to hear the humming beat of four hundred thousand human hearts. By pressing my ear to spirit earth, I hear the beat of Mama’s pulse, I hear the sound of Itzhak’s scream and Papa’s moaning curse at murder’s gun, causing in time, the rocks themselves to chant.”
In seven chapters, Atkins invokes the voices of survivors of such concentration camps as Sobibor and Treblinka. But he also summons the voice of Elfriede Karner, from Vienna, Austria. She was nine years old when she died.
“I am Elfriede Karner: Today is my birthday: I am nine years old today; I will always be nine years old: They gassed our school today, December thirty first, nineteen forty-four: We all died today: screaming: It takes only three soldiers, a sergeant and two men, to end our unworthy lives: We are not Jude or Gypsy: We are afflicted Catholic souls: Unworthy lives- by State’s decree:”
Atkins read about her case in an Associated Press dispatch from Vienna. Elfriede, was among the 75,000 people, including 5,000 children who were pronounced mentally or physically deficient and killed because they didn’t fit Hitler’s vision of a perfect race.
He wrote in the prologue: “These are the words of living survivors. These are descriptions of destruction they have survived. Their names have been changed. The deeds are not. Theirs is a record of human depravity. There is blood on the crust of earth known as Chelmo, Sobibor, Treblinka, Auschwitz.”
He warns, “When all records disappear, when all denials are accepted, these denials build the new foundation for repeated history,” then he added: “Grandchildren, you have a choice not to see your face in the mirror of our history of hate.”
His warning of the danger of seeing “mass torture and murder as bureaucratic banality” is as valid now, on the 69th anniversary of “The Wannsee Conference,” as it would be on Jan. 20, 2042, on its 100th anniversary.
Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from The Virginia Gazette.