Issue 8,  Poetry

Josef Mengele Song by John Wall Barger

Every night we are afraid
we shut our eyes
we reveal ourselves 
to the night 
& to our blankets
as the dwarves of Auschwitz 
were revealed 
to Josef Mengele.
They took us 
from the orphanage 
in a dump truck
backed up to a fire pit,
we tumbled out,
Josef Mengele & the SS officers 
burst out of the forest
on motorcycles 
circling the flames.
To each other we call him
Angel of Death.
As he straps me 
to his table he is civil.
He chats, he smiles.
I shut my eyes.
Ugliness is a disease, 
he chirps. He cuts 
with a surprisingly 
light touch. Death 
is just nature, he says. 
Beauty is … more.
He isn’t bothered 
much. He cuts, he cuts. 
He asks a nurse, 
Do you think I look 
like Hemingway? Is a sprout
the disintegratedness 
of the seed? Would you
like to walk like 
a hermit crab? 
I do not know what to say.
He’s chatting away—
sawing my legs, 
needle after needle 
in my ear. My body a forge 
& he is Hephaestus. 
His eyes a blue sea 
& the brown-eyed Jew 
(he sings) a ship upon it. 
You want to know 
why I whistled 
while I worked. 
I liked cleft lips 
& chins. I liked twins, 
Who doesn’t like 
beauty? Do you 
like to ski? After the war 
I skied with Rolf, 
my son, in Switzerland. 
I was Onkel Fritz, 
to him. He was young,
what did he know?
At the café, a dwarf
brought tea & Lebkuchen.
The dwarf, a chatty one, 
asked, “Fun day 
with dad, Mäuschen?”
Rolf looked at me 
with pity, & said to the waiter,
“Father was a hero,
you fucking goblin.”


John Wall Barger‘s poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Rattle, The Awl, The Cincinnati Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Poetry Ireland Review, and Best of the Best Canadian Poetry. His poem, Smog Mother, was co-winner of the Malahat Review’s 2017 Long Poem Prize. His fourth book is The Mean Game (Palimpsest Press, 2019). John lives in Philadelphia and is an editor for Painted Bride Quarterly. (

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