Night Over Birkenau

Night again. Again the grim sky closes
circling like a vulture over the dead silence.
Like a crouching beast over the camp
the moon sets, pale as a corpse.

And like a shield abandoned in battle,
blue Orion — lost among the stars.
The transports growl in darkness
and the eyes of the crematorium blaze.

It’s steamy, stifling. Sleep is a stone.
Breath rattles in my throat.
This lead foot crushing my chest
is the silence of three million dead.

Night, night without end. No dawn comes.
My eyes are poisoned from sleep.
Like God’s judgment on the corpse of the earth,
fog descends over Birkenau.

— Tadeusz Borowski
(Trans. by Tadeusz Pióro)

Journalist and underground poet Tadeusz Borowski was arrested in February 1943 and taken to Pawiak, a Warsaw prison used by Nazis to interrogate Polish citizens under torture. From Pawiak, Borowski was sent to Auschwitz, where he was condemned to forced labor. He was later transported to a subcamp of Natzweiler-Struthof and then to Dachau. After the war, he spent time in a displaced-persons camp in Munich before returning to Warsaw via Paris in 1946. Once in Poland, he joined the Communist Party, but felt betrayed when the Party arrested and tortured a close friend of his  because of alleged “rightest-nationalistic deviations.”  Borowski committed suicide in 1951. He was 28 years old.

[Research note: Tadeusz Borowski, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (London: Penguin Books, 1967).]