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,
unaccountably,
elsewhere.

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.
Never.

— 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.

La Pathétique

I put on La Pathétique
the sound invades my skin
enlarges my heart

the notes drop
into channels
of sadness

piercing
puncturing
pain

Beethoven
must have been
brokenhearted
when he wrote this sonata

I hum
I nod my head
I conduct the performance
from my car

this listening
to music
is new to me

for years
I required silence

I was listening
for murderers

I was expecting
menace

I was prepared
for peril

I was waiting
for disaster

and
couldn’t be disturbed.

— Lily Brett

An unidentified family in the Łódź Ghetto, c. 1940-1941.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Raphael Aronson

Australian poet and novelist Lily Brett was born in Feldafing Displaced Persons Camp, Bavaria, in 1946. Her parents had been living in Łódź, Poland, when the German army invaded their country. They were confined to the Łódź Ghetto for four years before being sent to Auschwitz. The couple was separated but (miraculously) survived camp and were reunited late in 1945.

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.

The Black Messiah

A black GI stood by the door
(I never saw a black before)
He’ll set me free before I die,
I thought, he must be the Messiah.

A black Messiah came for me . . .
He stared with eyes that didn’t see,
He never heard a single word
Which hung absurd upon my tongue.

And then he simply froze in place
The shock, the horror on his face,
He didn’t weep, he didn’t cry
But deep within his gentle eyes
. . . A flood of devastating pain,
his innocence forever slain.

For me, with yet another dawn
I found my black Messiah gone
And on we went our separate ways
For many years without a trace.

But there’s a special bond we share
Which has grown strong because we dare
To live, to hope, to smile…and yet
We vow not ever to forget.

— Sonia Weitz

weitz

Sonia Weitz’s identity card from the displaced-persons camp.

Holocaust survivor Sonia Schreiber Weitz was eleven years old when Germany invaded Poland. In 1941, her family was forced into the Kraków ghetto. From the ghetto, Sonia’s mother was sent to the Bełżec extermination camp, where she was murdered. In 1943, Sonia, her sister Blanca, and her father were sent to the Plaszów forced labor camp. Sonia and Blanca were then sent to Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Venusberg, and finally to the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp. Sonia was 16 years old when U.S. troops liberated her and Blanca, together with 85,000 other prisoners, from Mauthausen in May 1945. Sonia and Blanca spent three years in a displaced-persons camp after the war, waiting for relatives to claim them, but no other family members survived.

[Research note: Sonia Weitz, 81; Holocaust survivor kept history alive]

The Butterfly

The last, the very last,
So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow.
Perhaps if the sun’s tears would sing
against a white stone …

Such, such a yellow
Is carried lightly ’way up high.
It went away I’m sure
because it wished
to kiss the world good-bye.

For seven weeks I’ve lived in here,
“Ghettoized.”
But I have found what I love here.
The dandelions call to me
And the white chestnut branches in the court.
Only I never saw another butterfly.

That butterfly was the last one.
Butterflies don’t live in here,
in the ghetto.

— Pavel Friedmann
Terezín, 4 June 1942

Pavel Friedmann wrote the poem “The Butterfly” in 1942 in the Terezín Ghetto when he was 21. He was murdered in the Auschwitz extermination camp in 1944.

[Research note: original manuscript at the Jewish Museum in Prague: http://collections.jewishmuseum.cz/index.php/Detail/Object/Show/object_id/2131 ]

Reconstruction

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]

Trees of the Years

What’s it like to grow, trees of the years?
From start to finish, I understood
you can only be watered by tears,
and are made of wood
so flame burns you with ease,
so even a half-blind eye sees
you are burning, trees,
trees of many years.

In you, the beasts could hide,
in you was the happiness denied
to me by the merciless lion tamer. In you
went everything I had. From you
comes spring water, from you
comes morning which dawns, in you
the sun goes down to dust
trees, years, full of rust!

If I could look a little longer at least,
could look straight up at the heavens and stare,
watching the clouds as they turn red.
Let a feast begin, and at that feast
let my liberty hand me wine.
Don’t let that thing tear apart my bed,
that thing I wanted so to repair
with these twenty-two years of mine!

— Jiří Orten
August 8, 1941
(Trans. Lyn Coffin and Leda Pugh)

Jiří Orten.Public Domain

Jiří Orten.
Public Domain

Forbidden by anti-Jewish laws to publish his poetry, Czech poet Jiří Orten tried to publish his poems under a pseudonym in the early years of World War II. In 1940, the Nazi authorities tracked the false names back to him and prevented his work from circulating in public. On August 31, 1941, he was hit by a car but was refused medical treatment because he was Jewish. He died few days later at the age of 22. Trees of the Years is thought to be Orten’s final poem.