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.

Military Exercises

Imagine for a moment that I live
right here, was born here, that my parents always
have had a shop here, and on Boulevard
du Temple there’s a bistro with a nice

young waitress—I’ll be there. Imagine that
there’s no such thing as Eastern Europe, no
cellars for hiding neighbors, no transports,
no round-ups, never any dreams of going

from house to house—for a moment suppose
it looks like this: a cat stretches its neck
in sunlight on a porch, a secret game
of chess unfolds between the waitress and

that guy. He tracks her moves, she brings him coffee,
as if by chance her hip jostles the board.

— Tomasz Różycki
(Trans. by Mira Rosenthal)

Polish poet Tomasz Różycki grew up in Opole, Silesia, in southwestern Poland. When Silesia was awarded to Poland after World War II, an estimated 4 million citizens of German descent were expelled from the region. Silesia was resettled by Poles, including Różycki’s family, who were forced out of eastern cities such as Lviv (present-day Ukraine) during the post-war re-drawing of European boundaries.

The Envoy of Mr. Cogito

Go where those others went to the dark boundary
for the golden fleece of nothingness your last prize

go upright among those who are on their knees
among those with their backs turned and those toppled in the dust

you were saved not in order to live
you have little time you must give testimony

be courageous when the mind deceives you be courageous
in the final account only this is important

and let your helpless Anger be like the sea
whenever you hear the voice of the insulted and beaten

let your sister Scorn not leave you
for the informers executioners cowards — they will win
they will go to your funeral and with relief will throw a lump of earth
the woodborer will write your smoothed-over biography

and do not forgive truly it is not in your power
to forgive in the name of those betrayed at dawn

beware however of unnecessary pride
keep looking at your clown’s face in the mirror
repeat: I was called — weren’t there better ones than I

beware of dryness of heart love the morning spring
the bird with an unknown name the winter oak

light on a wall the splendour of the sky
they don’t need your warm breath
they are there to say: no one will console you

be vigilant — when the light on the mountains gives the sign — arise and go
as long as blood turns in the breast your dark star

repeat old incantations of humanity fables and legends
because this is how you will attain the good you will not attain
repeat great words repeat them stubbornly
like those crossing the desert who perished in the sand

and they will reward you with what they have at hand
with the whip of laughter with murder on a garbage heap

go because only in this way will you be admitted to the company of cold skulls
to the company of your ancestors: Gilgamesh Hector Roland
the defenders of the kingdom without limit and the city of ashes

Be faithful Go

— Zbigniew Herbert
(Trans. by Bogdana and John Carpenter)

Zbignew Herbert quote

Plaque from the ground-level-installation “Path of Visionaries,” Berlin.
Image: Manfred Brueckels / Public Domain

Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert was a member of the Home Army (resistance) during World War II. After the war, a few of his poems circulated via the underground press, but most were published after 1956, the year of the so-called Polish Thaw.

Independence

Oh, snow, snow in all the gardens and
recollected yards, a bed of snow freshly
made along the river. An entirely new
country. Watching from the stairs, closing

my eyes. I don’t take a step. It’s also snowing
inside, white in all the rooms, snow in all
the voluminous books. It’s building pyramids,
erecting new schools. Let the children begin,

let them print the first letters of the law.
If our state survives till Sunday,
it will be immortal.

— Tomasz Różycki
(Trans. by Mira Rosenthal)

Polish poet Tomasz Różycki grew up in Opole, Silesia, in southwestern Poland. When Silesia was awarded to Poland after World War II, an estimated 4 million citizens of German descent were expelled from the region. Silesia was resettled by Poles, including Różycki’s family, who were forced out of eastern cities such as Lviv (present-day Ukraine) during the post-war re-drawing of European boundaries.

[Research note: Tomasz Różycki, The Forgotten Keys (Brookline, MA: Zephyr Press, 2007), p. 43]

Guardian Angel

I felt his hot breath
On my neck
As I ran up the narrow staircase
Flight after flight

But then he tripped
And fell

As far as Icarus
With a dagger of sunlight
In his back

Today all that remains
Is his body dried in a schoolbook
A giant butterfly
With the twisted face of an injured child

Today the ones who follow me around
Have walkie-talkies instead of hearts
The small change of their humanity
Rattling in their pockets
From what kind of heaven did they fall

— Tomasz Jastrun
(Trans. by Daniel Bourne)

Tomasz Jastrun was an activist in the 1980s Polish labor movement Solidarity. He went into hiding from December 1981 to November 1982 after martial law was declared, but was eventually located by the authorities and arrested. He remained active in the Solidarity movement as an underground poet and editor of samizdat magazines. He lives in Warsaw today.

[Research note: from The Beloit Poetry Journal Vol. 39, No. 3 (Spring 1989): 30.]

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).]

We Survived Them

For a solemn opening
of his post-mortem exhibit
he will arrive and stand by me
in his old grey sweater.
Stooping,
strong.

Nobody will see him
only I will look at him.
He will say:
— We survived them.

— Anna Świrszczyńska
(Translated by Czeslaw Milosz)

An editor and poet, Anna Świrszczyńska (Swir) joined the Polish resistance movement during WWII, where she wrote for underground publications. She worked as a nurse during the 63-day Warsaw Uprising against Nazi occupation forces. More than 650,000 people joined the Polish resistance against the Germans in one way or another.

To Remember!

sala

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.

sima

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]