When It Happened

I was playing, I suppose,
when it happened.
No sound reached me.
The skies did not darken,
or if they did, one flicked
away the impression:
a cloud no doubt, a shadow perhaps
from those interminable aeroplanes
crossing and recrossing
our sunbleached beaches, Carbis Bay
or the Battery Rocks, where
all summer long we had dived
and cavorted in and out of
the tossing waters, while
the attention of the adults,
perpetually talking,
seemed focused,

No sound reached me
when it happened
over there on that
complicated frontier
near Geneva. (Was the sun
shining there too?)
I did not hear you cry out,
nor feel your heart thump wildly
in shock and terror. ‘Go back,’
they shouted, those black-clad figures.
‘Go back. You are not permitted to cross.’
Did the colour drain from your face?
Did your legs weaken?
‘You are under arrest,’ they barked.
‘Go back and wait.’ Back to the
crowd waiting for the train, the train. . .East?
Did you know what it meant?
Did you believe the rumours?
Were you silent? Stunned? Angry?

Did you signal to them then,
When it happened?
To the welcoming committee
one might say, on the other
side of the border.
To your husband and his friends
just a few yards away,
there, beyond the barbed wire,
beyond the notices saying,
‘Illegal refugees will be shot.’
They called across, they said,
‘Run, jump, take the risk,’
the frontier is such a thin line,
the distance so short between you and us,
between life and death,
(they said afterwards).
How was it you lacked
the courage (they said
afterwards, drinking tea).

No sound whatsoever disturbed me
when it happened.
I slept well. School
was the same as usual.
As usual I went swimming,
or raced down the hill
on my scooter or on foot
laughing with friends.
Often at night
in the dark of my bed,
I would hear the trains being
shunted down at the station,
their anguished whistling
stirring my imagination
drawing me towards oblivion.
At last, no more embarrassing letters
arrived in a foreign language
witnessing my alienation
from the cricketing scene.

Distracted and displaced
when it happened
I did not hear you ask
which cattle truck to mount,
nor, parched in the darkened
wagon, notice you beg for
a sip of water. On the third day,
perceiving the sound of Polish voices,
I did not catch you whisper to your neighbour,
‘It is the East. We have arrived.’
Nor, naked and packed tight
with a hundred others
did I hear you choking
on the contents of those well-known
canisters marked ‘Zyklon B Gas’
(It took twelve minutes, they say.)
I was not listening
when it happened.

Now I hear nothing else.

— Hilda Schiff

Hilda Schiff arrived in the United Kingdom as a seven year old school girl, sent from Germany with her sister Gitti (Gisela) on a Kindertransport in February 1939. In London, she was separated from her sister and was eventually evacuated to Penzance. Schiff’s father escaped Germany to Switzerland and survived the war. Hilda Schiff’s book, Holocaust Poetry, grew from her efforts to learn the exact circumstances of her mother’s death during the war. Schiff died before she could publish the book she was writing about her mother and the Holocaust.

[Research note: Hilda Schiff, Ed., Holocaust Poetry (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995)]

Never Shall I Forget

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long
night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed
into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith for ever.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the
desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned
my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live
as long as God Himself.

— Elie Wiesel

A deserted street in Sighet Marmatiei after the liquidation of the Jewish ghetto. Taken May 1944.
Image courtesy: US Holocaust Memorial Museum & Albert Rosenthal

Along with the rest of the town’s Jewish population, fifteen-year-old Elie Wiesel was confined to a ghetto in Máramarossziget (Sighet), Hungary, in March 1944 when the German army occupied the country. In May 1944, the Wiesel family was sent to Auschwitz, where Elie’s sister and mother were murdered. Elie and his father were later sent to Buchenwald, where Elie’s father subsequently died — taken to the crematorium in the middle of the night.

How We See

After Treblinka
And the spezialkommando
Who tore a child with bare hands
Before its mother in Warsaw
We see differently.

Men taken from workshops and farms to fight for kaiser and king
Lived in a world asleep in mist
The spezialkommando lived in a world of electric lights cinemas planes and radios
We see racist slogans chalked on walls differently
We see walls differently.

— Edward Bond

Polish Jews captured by Germans during the suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Photo from Jürgen Stroop Report to Heinrich Himmler, May 1943.

Edward Bond is best known as a playwright. His experimental plays, which often featured scenes of violence linked to themes of social injustice, imperialism, war, and apartheid, tested the limits of censorship and morals laws in the U.K. in the 1960s and 1970s.

Leave Us

Forget us
forget our generation
live like humans
forget us

we envied
plants and stones
we envied dogs

I’d rather be a rat
I told her then

I’d rather not be
I’d rather sleep
and wake when war is over
she said her eyes shut

Forget us
Don’t enquire about our youth
Leave us

— Tadeusz Różewicz
(Trans. by Adam Czerniawski)

Children of Lodz Ghetto

Children digging for food scraps in Lodz Ghetto, c. 1940-44.
Image: Public Domain / United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Muzeum Sztuki w Lodzi

Polish poet Tadeusz Różewicz was a member of the Home Army (resistance) during World War II. Tadeusz survived the war, but his older brother, Janusz, was murdered by Gestapo in Łódź in November 1944.

I Was Not There

The morning they set out from home
I was not there to comfort them
the dawn was innocent with snow in mockery-
it is not true
the dawn was neutral
was immune
their shadows threaded it
too soon they were relieved that it had come
I was not there to comfort them

One told me that my father spent a day in prison
long ago he did not tell me
that he went
what difference does it make now
when he set out
when he came home
I was not there to comfort him
and now I have no means to know
of what I was kept ignorant

Both my parents died in camps
I was not there to comfort them
I was not there
they were alone
my mind refuses to conceive the life
the death they must have known
I must atone because I live
I could not have saved them from death
the ground is neutral underneath

Every child must leave it’s home
time gathers life impartially
I could have spared them nothing
since I was too young-
it is true they might have lived to succour me
and none shall say in my defense
had I been there to comfort them
it would have made no difference

— Karen Gershon

Karen Gershon

British poet Karen Gershon (Kaethe Löwenthal) was born in Bielefeld, Germany in 1923. After Kristallnacht (September 9-10, 1938), she was sent to England with the Kindertransport. Her parents died in a Nazi prison camp in Riga, Latvia.


All it takes is a five-year-old in pale blue overalls drawing in a coloring book for a door to open into the light, for the house to be built again and the ochre hillside covered with flowers.

— Max Jacob

Max Jacob, Cows in a Landscape (Vaches dans un paysage), 1943.Image: Musée des Beaux-Arts de Quimper

Max Jacob, Cows in a Landscape (Vaches dans un paysage), 1943.
Image: Musée des Beaux-Arts de Quimper

Painter and poet Max Jacob was arrested by the Gestapo in Nazi-occupied France. Though Catholic, Jacob was persecuted for his Jewish heritage. In 1944, he died in the Drancy internment camp.

[Research note: from William Kulik, trans. The Selected Poems of Max Jacob (Oberlin: Oberlin College Press, 199): 129]

Lackawanna Elegy

   The tongues of your rivers burn with thirst
   The coal in your mountains goes mad with sunlight
   The arms of your sequoias ask pity of the storms
America America

     Your heart’s drum
     Eats its own bones
     The eyes of your clocks
     Turn counter-clockwise seeking the past

And on her crumbling headland the Indian woman
Turns toward you eyes weighed down with asphalt
Her mercury and orange head shrinks just slightly
Her small breasts bared to the gnawing white ants

     She paints on the sand
     The oracle which a night effaces
     A rattlesnake gripped in her teeth
     She exorcises the white ghost
     Locked in the Kiva of hate

A shiver of feathers down the reed of the spine
Stirs your ash body America
A thorn is stuck in your twilight brow
A thorn is sown in the fields of hemp
A thorn is screwed into the heel of your dancers

America beware of your past
Of the Katchinas filled with menace
For wrath ripens its fiery apple
In the orchards of the Appalachians
In the desert colored by witches

In the rose-garden of your sick soul
The holocaust waits to begin.

— Yvan Goll
(Trans. by Galway Kinnell)

Cover Lackawanna ElegyBorn on the border of Germany and France, poet Yvan Goll worked in both French (Surrealist) and German (Expressionist). Worried because of his Jewish background, he fled Europe for New York at the beginning of World War II. In 1945, he returned to Paris, where he died of leukemia in 1950.


My mother drives the goat
never has she owned her
over the green leaf-tops
my father’s clocks strike
one after another in the night
my brother died very young
his flowers grow wild
since he no longer counts
My city went up in flames
people ran into the churches
and burned up with the pictures
unafraid I saw them lying
I was small and mornings gleaned
ears of grain from the fields
when the midday hot was over
I practiced on the bike
or sat in our garden
wound jasmine to circular wreaths
laid them on the pretty
raised mounds of drowned birds
clatters the garden door now barks
this wandering dog
ah the father of my mother
drives me out of the full trees
and I stand before the rows
where the cold asters glisten
trample their late heads
under my postwar shoes

— Sarah Kirsch
(Trans. by Wayne Kvam)

German poet Sarah Kirsch changed her first name from “Ingrid” to “Sarah” during World War II to protest her country’s anti-Semitism. After the war, she was forced to emigrate to West Germany from East Germany because of her support for banned poet and songwriter Wolf Biermann.

[Research note: “Widely regarded German lyricist Sarah Kirsch dies,” Deutsche Welle, May 22, 2013]

Keep Quiet

Keep quiet
I won’t keep quiet,
as long as injustice speaks,
the ground is wet with blood
look, they shot them dead.

Now keep quiet
I won’t keep quiet,
as long as injustice speaks,
proclaim child and grass,
the birds that fly today,
I won’t keep quiet.

Just keep quiet
I won’t keep quiet,
as long as injustice speaks,
every morning is night,
their hatred will be sent,
by us, on a verdant voyage.

— Wolfgang Welsche
(Trans. by  S. N. Johnson-Roehr)

Wolfgang Welsch was twenty years old when he was arrested by the East German Stasi for attempting to escape to West Germany and for “incitement hostile to the state” (the charge for reading his poetry in public). In 1970, six years into his imprisonment, a message he’d written on a cigarette paper was smuggled out of prison, eventually making its way to the Leeds Amnesty International group in the United Kingdom. Welsch was released from prison on March 24, 1971, after months of international pressure.

To Remember!


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.


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]