To Remember!

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Poem written by Sala Slomnicki for”Blemka,” Parschnitz Prison camp, July 25, 1943.
Image credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Harry Birnhol

With a joke always be careful
Because not everyone will recognize a joke
In a joke you could lose your heart.

Dear Blemka, to remember forever
From the old walls of the camp
Think of me sometimes
As I’m writing to you
Sala Slomnicki from Dombrowa

25-VII-1943 Parznitz

Born in 1928, Sala (Sally) Slomnicki was living with her parents, brother, and four sisters in Dombrowa Gornicza, Poland, when the German army invaded. Sala’s family was confined to the nearby Będzin ghetto until 1941, when her brother and father were arrested and killed (Sala’s father was beheaded at the Katowice prison camp on September 18, 1942). In August 1942, Sala was confined to the Parschnitz (Gross-Rosen) concentration camp. Her two older sisters remained as workers in Będzin. Her two younger sisters and mother were sent to Auschwitz, where they were subsequently murdered. The Soviet Army liberated Parschnitz in May 1945. In August 1947, Sala emigrated to the U.S. on board the ship Ernie Pyle. She met Leo Birnholz on board; they married December 9, 1950.

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Sala and her sister, Sima, 1940.
Image credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,
courtesy of Harry Birnhol

[Research note: http://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/pa1165759]

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Cup Poem 1

What kind of spring is this,
Where there are no flowers and
The air is filled with a miserable smell?

— Shaik Abdurraheem Muslim Dost

Religious scholar, poet and, essayist Shaik Abdurraheem Muslim Dost spent three years in Guantánamo prison with his brother, Ustad Badruzzaman Badr. While in prison, Dost composed thousands of lines of poetry in Pashto. Most of his poetry was seized by the U.S. military when he was released from prison in April 2005. During the first year of his incarceration, he wasn’t allowed pen and paper, so he scratched short poems on Styrofoam cups with pebbles or wrote them with toothpaste. The cups were passed from cell to cell and thrown away at the end of the day.

[Research note: this poem comes from Poems from Guantánamo: The Prisoners Speak (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2007), p. 35]

And When We Arrived at the Shore

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Wolf Biermann at a city festival, Hamburg, West Germany, 1977. Image credit: MoSchle / CC BY-SA 3.0

And when we arrived at the shore
And were long sitting in the boat
Then it was we saw the sky
Most beautifully in the water
And through the pear trees flew
A few little fish. The plane swam
Straight across the lake and gently
Crashed into the willow trunk
— into the willow trunk

What shall ever become of our dreams
In this torn land
The wounds just won’t seal
Under the filthy bandage
And what shall become of our friends
And what of you, and what of me —
I’d much prefer to be elsewhere
And much prefer to stay
— much prefer to stay

— Wolf Biermann
(Trans. by Peter Lach-Newinsky)

East German dissident Wolf Biermann grew up in Hamburg, where his parents were members of the Communist Party. In 1939, his father, Dagobert Biermann, was sentenced to six years for sabotaging Nazi ships; in 1942, Dagobert was sent to Auschwitz, where he was subsequently murdered (February 22, 1943). Wolf remained in Hamburg with his mother for the duration of World War II. After the war, when he was 17, Wolf emigrated to East Germany to study political economy and mathematics. He began to write poetry and songs in 1960, but in 1962 was banned from performing because of his criticism of the government. After several months, he was given permission to perform in public, but soon lost it again. In November 1976, Wolf was allowed to tour West Germany, but after his first concert, was informed that his citizenship had been revoked for “denigrating his country and the socialist cause.” He was not permitted to return to East Germany until reunification.

One Bird After Another

We saw it
A little reflection left on the glass
It had been printed there for a long time without leaving . . .
Every year on July 15 of the lunar calendar
The river would be covered with water lanterns
But they could not call back your soul…
The train heading for the concentration camp
Sobbingly ran over my body
But I could not hold your hand . . .

— Liu Xia
(Trans. by Yu Zhang)

Liu Xia has been under house arrest since her husband, Liu Xiaobo, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize prize in October 2010. She has yet to be charged with a crime.

(untitled)

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Japanese American Historical Plaza, Portland, Oregon, February 4, 2012. Image credit: Another Believer / CC BY-SA 3.0

— Shizue Iwatsuki / Lawson Fusao Inada

Shizue Iwatsuki was interned with her husband and daughter first at the Pinedale Assembly Center (Fresno), then Tule Lake Prison Camp (California), and finally Minidoka Prison Camp (Idaho). Lawson Inada was four years old when his family was also forced into the Pinedale Assembly Center in 1942. This collaborative “mini-poem” comes from the Standing Stones of the Japanese America Historical Plaza in Portland, Oregon.

[Research note: Lawson Inada talks about his work with Shizue Iwatsuki in Legends from Camp: Poems (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1992), in a chapter called Poems in Stone (see page 51). For more on the lives of Iwatsuki and Inada see the Densho Encyclopedia.]

Canzone, Written in Prison

The love of song what can impart
To the lone captive’s sinking heart?
Thou Sun! thou fount divine
Of light! the gift is thine!

O, how, beyond the gloom
That wraps my living tomb,
Through forest, garden, mead, and grove,
All nature drinks the ray
Of glorious day,—
Inebriate with love!

The jocund torrents flow
To distant worlds that owe
Their life to thee!
And if a slender ray
Chance through my bars to stray,
And pierce to me,
My cell, no more a tomb,
Smiles in its caverned gloom,—
As nature to the free!

If scarce thy bounty yields
To these ungenial fields
The gift divine,
O, shed thy blessings here,
Now while in dungeon drear
Italians pine!

Thy splendors faintly known,
Sclavonia may not own
For thee the love
Our hearts must move,
Who from our cradle learn
To adore thee, and to yearn
With passionate desire
(Our nature’s fondest prayer,
Needful as vital air)
To see thee, or expire.

Memorial to Italian Carbonari imprisoned at Špilberk Castle in Brno, present-day Czech Republic

Memorial to Carbonari imprisoned at Špilberk Castle in Brno, present-day Czech Republic.
Image credit : Millenium187 / CC BY-SA 3.0

Beneath my native, distant sky,
The captive’s sire and mother sigh;
O, never there may darkling cloud
With veil of circling horror shroud
The rising day;
But thy warm beams, still glowing bright,
Enchant their hearts with joyous light,
And charm their grief away!

— Silvio Pellico

In October 1820, poet and dramatist Silvio Pellico was arrested by Austrian officials, charged with being a member of the Carbonari, a loosely connected group of secret political societies devoted to unification and freedom of Italy. Initially, Pellico was sentenced to death for his seditious activities, but in February 1822, his death sentence was commuted to fifteen years imprisonment. He was released in1830. In 1832, he published My Prisons (Le mie prigioni), an account of his eight-year incarceration in Spielberg (Špilberk) Castle.

[Research note: this poem was taken from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed., Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes, Switzerland and Austria: Vol. XVI (Boston: James R. Osgood & Co., 1876–79). See http://www.bartleby.com/270/7/142.html]

The Account of a Recent Travel

The road is in constant digestion. A continual bowel
movement in sync with my recent pattern of being
behind the wheel of a car — cataloguing each roadkill
into my database, each scrap of litter, each pocket
of whispers like the garbage trapped in the barbed
fence barriers. My travels to the reservation filter

like a giant kidney. Congressional ink flittering, like
tattered American flags, reformulates nourishment.
A recalculation like a coyote trickster inserting road
signs on my path. And I am left pattering along
like distressed platelets bouncing and bumping,
pressing and pinching along fatty fluid. My travel

is acute like the early morning songs of a Blessingway
ceremony. My travel renews as the white dawn.
My travel satisfies like beauty all around me, like
a King’s longing for the sweetest water drawn from
the well of Bethlehem.

— Esther Belin

Artist and poet Esther Belin grew up in Los Angeles and describes herself as a U.R.I., or Urban-Raised Indian, “one of the myriad indigenous peoples on the planet to survive in urbanized areas.” Her parents were relocated from the Diné (Navajo) country (father: Birdsprings, AZ; mother, Torreon, NM) in the 1950s as part of the U.S. Federal Indian Relocation Policy.

[Research note: this poem came from Liberation, a poetry collection edited by Mark Ludwig and published by Penguin Books in 2015 to mark the 70th anniversary of the Nazi concentration camps.]

Arise George, Arise John!

It is not for the sake of a bread on your table,
it is neither for pastures and nor for the stock,
it is rather for living a peace which is stable:
arise brother George, arise brother John!

For the sake of your kinsmen who died in the ditches
for the hymns that you sang as you stood in the dock
for the tears of the heavens, as you pained in the shackles
arise brother George, arise brother John!

It is not for the anger resounding your body
it’s instead for the sake of your cry to the world,
for the distant horizons with a brimful of planets,
arise brother George, arise brother John!

If you wish to regain all the ancestral freedoms,
through the heavenly gates your admission to gain,
break to pieces the shackles which are cutting your body,
arise brother George, arise brother John!

As prostrate you may wish once again to embrace
all that’s left from the blaze of your family’s hearth
they all gently come back to take hold of your soul
arise brother George, arise brother John!

Arise brother George, by freeing your shackles!
Arise brother John, back again on your bones!
Alight to the Heavens, the tempest abated,
arise brother George, arise brother John!

— Radu Gyr
(Trans. by Roman Constantin)

In 1945, Romanian poet Radu (Demetrescu) Gyr was arrested and sentenced to 12 years in prison for anti-Communist activities. He was released in 1956, but re-arrested by the Securitate in 1958 for his poem Arise George, Arise John! (Ridică-te Gheorghe, ridică-te Ioane!), a call to resist agricultural collectivization. His sentence was later commuted to life in prison, and in 1964, he was released, possibly as a result of international pressure.

The Sun is Up

The Sun is up, and summer is here
And a terminalia tree stands in the middle of the courtyard
The prisoners bring out their blankets and clothes
To dry them on the high wires strung all over the yard
Their clothes and beddings are of course not new
For the most part they are in tatters and faded colors
But these people, in their condition
Tenderly caress them, thinking of tomorrow
Suddenly I feel an indescribable feeling
As I think of the days and months that go by
For all these things that are drying in the sun
Only mean a sad winter is coming in my case.

— Nguyen Chi Thien (1961)
(Trans. by Nguyen Ngoc Bich)

Nguyen Chi Thien spent a total of 27 years in Vietnamese prisons and labor camps for opposing the Communist government. The Sun is Up comes from Flowers of Hell, a collection of poems smuggled out of Vietnam via the British Embassy in 1979. Nguyen Chi Thien spent 12 more years in prison for this act of sedition.

A Child Speaks

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Michael Flack was imprisoned in Terezín Concentration Camp (Theresienstadt) with his sisters. He was later sent to Birkenau to do hard labor. Of the 15,000 children sent to Terezín, approximately 100 survived. Flack worked for the U.S. government after the war. He died in in Prague in 2011.