Rumors and Stones: A Journey


"In the summer of 1993 I began a self-imposed journey into the blurred space between memory, story, and reality when I rented a car from Warsaw Avis and drove to the village in Poland in which my mother had lived before immigrating to the United States." So begins Wayne Karlin's Rumors and Stones, the haunting narrative of a writer's journey into his family's past in the small Polish town of Kolno whose 2,000 Jewish inhabitants were machinegunned in ditches in 1941. Karlin explores the tension in the role of the...
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"In the summer of 1993 I began a self-imposed journey into the blurred space between memory, story, and reality when I rented a car from Warsaw Avis and drove to the village in Poland in which my mother had lived before immigrating to the United States." So begins Wayne Karlin's Rumors and Stones, the haunting narrative of a writer's journey into his family's past in the small Polish town of Kolno whose 2,000 Jewish inhabitants were machinegunned in ditches in 1941. Karlin explores the tension in the role of the storyteller as a witness and keeper but also as shaper; it is a journey in space that becomes a journey into the past and into the truth that can only be found in the imagination; it is a journey into Karlin's own origins as a veteran of the Vietnam war and as a writer compelled in his work to always come back to that conflict and the net of connections from it he feels like a "cicatrix just under the skin of the brain."
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"I think that Wayne Karlin has more of a feel and understanding of the language than most poets I know." --Lucille Clifton

"The weakest writing about war and atrocities simply reiterates what we already know, but the best of it illuminates what we need to know and how it must be expressed, which is what this book is about. Karlin is one of our finest writers, and Rumos and Stones is the latest evidence of that fact." --George Evans

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In 1941, German troops occupying the Polish town of Kolno machine-gunned into ditches its remaining 2000 Jewish inhabitants. In this poignant narrative, Karlin, an American novelist and former helicopter gunner in Vietnam, reenacts his 1993 visit to Kolno, where his mother (who died in 1991) had lived prior to emigrating to the U.S. in her youth; his father, a boxer, died when he was five, leaving the family to struggle in Manhattan and White Plains, N.Y. For Karlin, the Germans' extermination of Kolno's Jewish community fused in his mind with the 1968 My Lai massacre, in which U.S. soldiers systematically raped, mutilated and machine-gunned into ditches 500 Vietnamese villagers. Novelistic flashbacks to the saga of Karlin's grandparents and their family in Poland and America are interwoven with history and sharp reportage as he visits the sites of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Treblinka extermination camp; in the camp, Jewish prisoners staged a revolt, killed guards, blew up the gas chambers and escaped to the forest. This is a haunting meditation on human courage and the erosion of morality by war. (Oct.)
Library Journal
Novelist and editor Karlin (The Other Side of Heaven: Postwar Fiction by Vietnamese and American Writers, LJ 11/15/95) takes a physical and spiritual journey to Kolno, Poland, where his ancestors lived before and during the Holocaust. Karlin re-creates his family's history and their suffering, describing the murder of the Jews by machine gun in Kolno in July 1941. As a Vietnam veteran, Karlin especially feels the horror of the Holocaust through the filter of his previous experience. He looks for answers as to why such events happened in the past, why similar events still happen, and how they affect people today. His book is unusual in relating personal history from Vietnam to family experience of the Holocaust, and his insights are keen and potentially helpful. Recommended for larger collections.Mary F. Salony, West Virginia Northern Community Coll. Lib., Wheeling
Presents 20 lectures and 74 papers, a few in French, from the July 1995 symposium on the precise determination and prediction of the positions and movements of celestial bodies. Contains sections on theory and ephemerides of the planets and the moon, satellites, and asteroids; Earth and deformable celestial bodies; the calculus of perturbations; general relativity; ephemerides representation; solar system astrometry; and reference frames in stellar astrometry. Topics include chaos and the evolution of the solar system, the history of celestial mechanics, and methods such as sympletic mappings, elliptic functions, CCD observations, VLBI and radar observations, and numerical integration of ephemerides. No index. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Kirkus Reviews
A deeply emotional, intellectual, and literary examination of the Holocaust, framed through one man's journey to a small Polish town in which 2,000 Jews were executed by the Germans in 1941.

Novelist Karlin (Lost Armies, not reviewed, etc.) took "a self-imposed journey into the blurred space between memory, story and reality" in the summer of 1993. The occasion was Karlin's visit to Kolno, a Polish town where his mother had lived before emigrating to this country—and the later scene of what Karlin aptly describes as "a small, almost casual `action,' a tiny thread in the tapestry of murder." Karlin uses this journey as a literary jumping-off point to chronicle his mother's life and times, his own experience as a Marine in Vietnam, and his postwar emotional upheavals. Jumping back and forth in time, Karlin also weaves into this narrative a meditation on the literature of the Vietnam War as it's been practiced by veterans of that conflict—both American and Vietnamese—and an examination of the American massacre of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai. The "rumors" of the title refers to Karlin's mother's family stories, which, he says, "grew from the real world" but also "were like dreams or rumors, their codes locked in her own references and memories, more riddles than guides." Karlin retells those stories and then fashions them into dreamlike fictional tales that he inserts among the book's more orderly and essaylike narrative chapters. There are several references to "stones," including those customarily placed atop gravestones by Jews and the ground-up gravestones used by the Germans to pave the roads at the Treblinka death camp. The literary "rumors" chapters are sometimes slightly disconcerting, but they are as powerfully evoked and as emotionally penetrating as are the reportorial sections.

A deft melding of disparate narratives, forming a unique and valuable addition to the literature of the Holocaust.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781880684429
  • Publisher: Northwestern University Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/1996
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 214
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 7.50 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Wayne Karlin has been called by Tim O'Brien "one of the most gifted writers to emerge from the Vietnam War." He is the series editor of Curbstone's Voices from Vietnam series of contemporary fiction. Karlin lives in Maryland, where he teaches at the College of Southern Maryland.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


In the game called Rumors, a sentence is created and whispered into the ear of the first child sitting in a row. He whispers what he heard into the ear of the next child, and the next, until, finally, the last child repeats the sentence out loud. It is always changed. The hard facts of it have passed from mouth to ear to mouth, been filtered through different perceptions and experiences and imaginations, and in this passage it has become rimed with all the truths it has seeped through, so that when the last child tells the story, it has become more than itself. It has become the story of everyone through whom it has passed.

This is the way it was with my mother's stories: they grew from the real world while at the same time they were like dreams or rumors, their codes locked in her own references and memories, more riddles than guides. I never knew what to trust. I live now in a part of Maryland where solid proofs of the past are everywhere: Indian arrowheads, settlers' middens, the bones of Confederate soldiers and Piscataway Indians and English tobacco planters suddenly poking through the exposed roots and red mud of the steep riverbank as if time were turning over in its sleep to show its other side. But my mother got on a ship and, after its departure, her world burned. A few photographs are the only physical evidence it ever existed.

The photograph is like a picture of a memory: it has a crack running through it, and its images have faded to a dark sepia. It is pasted on an oblong piece ofcrumbling cardboard. On the other side of the cardboard is a page cut from a Polishnewspaper, two columns of words bisected raggedly by a tear whose edges have been taped together. The words make the cracked, hardened paper into an undeciphered Rosetta stone. In the photograph, my grandmother, my mother and my mother's youngest brother are standing around my grandfather's grave in Poland. The gravestone is inscribed with Hebrew words, two columns of them, like the columns of the newspaper on the other side. Like the words on the other side, these also tease rather than illuminate; they form a puzzle in which my grandfather is locked. The mended tear in the paper locks the other figures in the photo into the same puzzle. Dressed in black, bent over or standing straight, they are as mysterious as letters in an alien alphabet.

My mother, a slight girl of twelve or thirteen, has a black hood half-hiding her thin face. She stands behind the gravestone. She looks so pale that she seems to begrowing from it. During the last year of he life, she dreamt that stone, felt its coldness growing inside herself. She did not accept the steadily increasing failures of her body with grace or with peace, but rather fought them with an astonished bitterness, as if she were the only person to whom this had ever happened. She fought with a growing abrasiveness directed at her second husband and sometimes at me, a sharp-edge of criticism and complaint that let us know she was still there. And she fought with her stories.

Her mother bore thirteen children, though many of them died at birth. Once, fearing that my grandmother's sanity would tip, the midwife took the dead child away, heated a stone, wrapped it in swaddling and brought it to her. My grandmother pressed its warmth to her breast until it turned cold and then knowing it was a stone, perhaps feeling its weight on her like the weight of the stillborn come outside her body, she still pressed it to her, as if she wanted to suckle it to life. In the photograph, her face as sharply cut as a cardboard silhouette, her head also hooded in black, she is kneeling by the side of the diminutive grassy mound of the grave. An air of impatience has been caught in the slightly strained awkwardness of her position, or perhaps in a slight upturn of her mouth; it is as if she had become as skeptical about death as she were about birth.

Her husband, my grandfather, smuggled clothand other goods from Germany to Poland in order to support his family. Sometimes he had his daughters wrap the material around their bodies; once over the border they would open their dresses and pull out, as if with midwives' hands, shapeless masses of gleaming linen, yards of silk that shivered like new skin. Yet in spite of the smuggling, my grandfather was a man learned in the Talmud and was also, my mother believed, a kind of doctor; that is, he did something, she told me, with people's eyes. People who wanted to go to America would come to him and he'd check their eyes with a candle and sign a paper. What did the paper signify? What exactly did he do? I wanted to know, but my mother wasn't sure. She only knew that people would come to the house and he would seat them in the parlor and draw the heavy, velvet curtain. The room would be dark as night. He would light the candle and hold it up to their faces, the way a flame is put next to an egg to see the life curled inside, as if he could see the soul itself.

My mother's younger brother, who in the photo stands to the right of the grave wearing a student's cap, a high-collared tunic, and leggings, became a movie projectionist in America. The RKO theatre on Main Street in White Plains where he worked was not some cramped multiplex box. Its high walls were painted a rich, Victorian drawing room red, their angles and seams crusted with gilt curlicues and ornate scroll work. Massive box balconies that no one ever sat in hung on each side of the screen, and a thirty to forty row deep balcony sloped down from the rear wall. The screen itself was a great expanse of waiting blankness, stained by suggestive shapes as if by the residue of visions andmemories. My uncle would take me with him to the very top of the theatre, to the sanctum of the projection booth—a dark, cool chamber that you entered with the sense of coming into a mind. In that pragmatic room of black metal beams and gray concrete floor hidden in the forehead of the red and gold temple, I would watch him work the heavy mechanism: the clicking, clanking, whirring contraption of cylinders and reels and celluloid that created dreams and stories. I would stand in the flickering darkness and watch through the slit-like window as he cast his light onto the blank eye of the screen, just as my grandfather would shine his light into the eyes of those who would go to America. Together we would watch how the light revealed the visions behind that white eye.

The year before we moved from Manhattan toWhite Plains, television came onto our block like a very subtle secret agent, offering no hint of the revolution it had come to effect. Small, unobtrusive screens appeared in two or three apartments in our building on 96th Street near Amsterdam Avenue, the way relatives from Europe would appear in my father's apartment on Henry Street when he was a boy. He would wake up, and they would be there, their forms and arguments and joys suddenly and seamlessly attached to the forms and arguments and joys of his family, as if they wanted to pretend they had always been there. My father would watch their eyes open on their first day in America and wonder what they saw—just as I sat in our neighbor's living room and watched someone turn a knob, a blink like an eye opening and did not have to wonder, for I saw the images etched onto that eye: shadowy gray shapes, ghosts of other lives and worlds—that eye looking inwards at its own dreams.

When I came back from our neighbor's apartment, laughing and excited, bursting to tell my mother what I had witnessed, she looked at me, her face wary with a knowledge that carved the joy out of the morning, a certainty that this event was simply another trap the world was laying for her. Over that year, I had watched her face take on lines of bitterness as if it were being poured into the mold of her own mother's face in the photograph she kept on the dresser bureau: herself as a girl standing with my grandmother and uncle around my grandfather's grave in Poland, a place and people about whom she would try to tell me stories, stories I did not want to hear, especially just then. That day, when I saw that she was going to respond to my discovery with a story, I turned and ran away, fleeing whatever knowledge about the world those faces in the photograph held, holding tightly inside me instead that small, bright, boxed image I had brought upstairs, even as I would try to hold onto a good dream in the hard light of day.

I ran. Outside, my father was skipping rope on the sidewalk in front of the building, his face hard and concentrated, the rope whizzing viciously, whipping the concrete with sharp pings, the empty, pinned-up left leg of his trousers bobbing up and down, so I could sense an invisible leg extending muscularly from it, a ghost ofa foot just missing the whirling rope. My father saw me and smiled reassuringly, but he did not stop jumping. Even with one leg, he still skipped rope with a beautiful precision. In his late teens and early twenties he had been a light heavyweight, one of that generation of tough, quick Eastside Jews who had dominated boxing for a time. Buthe had given up fighting, except for coaching Golden Gloves, when he married my mother, and I have no memory of him boxing or of very much else about him. The only picture I carry in my mind is of my father skipping rope on one leg in front of our building that day, his face grim and concentrated and tight with pain, as if he were getting himself ready for an opponent who would give him the fight of his life.

The Haskell apartment where I saw my first television set was in the basement of our building on 96th Street. As my father grew more ill, my mother left me for longer and longer periods of time in that dark, pleasantly filthy series of rooms where Timmy and Kevin Haskell and I sat and watched Froggy plunk his magic twanger and Ramar the Jungle Boy. The Haskells were the only Christian family in the building. Mrs. Haskell was from Wisconsin, a pale and plump Nordic blonde deserted by her husband, a plumbing fixtures salesman. Her flaxen hair was out of place in that building of dark heads; her two boys were wild as Cossacks, good at fixing our bikes and building rollerskate-crate cars, good at stealing free rides on the back of buses. The smells of Haskell food and the sounds of Haskell laughter were strange to the rest of the families in the building. The other mothers whispered disgustedly about how Mrs. Haskell let her boys keep a pet white rat. Yet an empathy existed between my mother and Mrs. Haskell, as if they were both knit by some hard-binding knowledge of the world and its tricks, and my mother left me with her for hours and days as she went to the doctor and to the hospital. I played with the rat, or with Kevin and Timmy. But mostly, I sat in front of the television, so that what I see now, I see as if on that small screen, its picture blurred by the comfortable fur of dust that lay over everything in the Haskell's apartment.

I see my mother entering the doctor's office, her eyes so intense that his eyes flee their question, seek refuge in the intricacies of the dismantled television set on a table against one wall of the room, its parts laid out like the parts of a patient he couldn't figure out how to put back together. The doctor sits behind a large white desk, its surface bare except for a heavy black telephone. His office is floored with a white carpet so thick that my mother's movement across the floor is silent; her weight leaves impressions that stay for a second, then disappear as the fiber springs up, and she imagines suddenly all the patients and patients' relatives who have passed and left no trace on this carpet. The doctor looks back to my mother, his face furious. He is a thin,severe man with a pencil-line mustache. He was, by all accounts, phenomenally incompetent. In the beginning he misdiagnosed the tumor on my father's leg as a boil. When it metastasized, he amputated the leg, though by then itwas too late. Even so, my parents kept coming to him. He was an American doctor; reputable, severe; they did not think to question his authority.

Have a seat, please.

My mother stands.

The doctor shrugs.

Your husband's new biopsy is back. He looks at her accusingly. I warned you not to hope for too much, that we may have waited too long to amputate.

My mother stares at the dismantled set. Yes, you were sure to warn me not to hope. The bitterness on her face twists her mouth into a small, triumphant smile; she is a prophet of doom who has been proven correct.

The telephone rings. The doctor looks at it with relief. Excuse me, he says, and picks it up. No, you're not, not at all, he says. I've been trying to get you all day. What? No, your man ran all the tests and said there was nothing more he could do. Then he just left, just like that. Listen, there's pieces everywhere, tubes and wires, a real mess.

He looks at my mother, as if inviting her to share his indignant disbelief. She is staring at him as if in fact she is doing just that. Her eyes are fixed on the telephone. Her hand reaches across the desk and snatches it from the doctor's hand. Holding it as if it were an ax, she draws it back and slashes at his face. A black crescent appears on his forehead over his welling eyes, and his head snaps back. A voice is yelling from the phone, although the doctor says nothing: it is as if his internal terror, once removed, is screaming from the telephone. She smashes at the face of the man who has stolen pieces of her husband from her until he has disappeared from her life. My grandmother's face, in the photograph on the bureau back in our apartment, is as angry and bitter as my mother's face. She had buried six of her children in that same Polish soil into which she had just put her husband. He died of astroke; before dying he had lost the use of his right arm. Bedridden for months, he was a terrible burden on a family trying to survive; if not for his illness, his wife and children would have left for America. On the day he died, he called my mother to his room and by sheer force of will drew his arm out of its death, as if out of a sleeve. He used it to point at the moon hanging outside the window. Now when she needs it, my mother feels the strength of that arm flow into her hand, the strength of her father to point the way to America, and the bitter strength of her mother's anger is burning in her arm and hand. The doctor crosses his hands in front of his face, and the telephone hits the back of his hands, a tiny, panicked voice screeching from it. She pounds at the doctor's face under his hands just as years later she will pound at the cold, empty face of her own death, drawing her strength from the stories that sat in her, as they sit in me, like anger.

tales of a cross-cultural family

By Robbie Clipper Sethi

Bridge Works Publishing Company

Copyright © 1996 Robbie Clipper Sethi.All rights reserved.

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