The HyperTexts

Famous Holocaust Poems

Which poets wrote the most famous Holocaust poems, and why do the poems still matter today?

I have created this page with students and educators in mind, giving background information on some of the very best Holocaust poems and the poets who wrote them. If you're researching the Holocaust for a school project or paper, you have probably found the right page. But anyone who loves good poetry and wants to know more about the Holocaust should also find this page well worth exploring. I particularly recommend the poems of Miklós Radnóti, who in my opinion is the greatest of the Holocaust poets. Other notable writers of Holocaust-related poetry and prose include Yehuda Amichai, Margaret Atwood, Chaim Nachman Bialik, Bertolt Brecht, Paul Celan, Anita Dorn, Albert Einstein, Jerzy Ficowski, Erich Fried, Pavel Friedmann, Ber Horvitz, A. M. Klein, Yala Korwin, Janusz Korczak, Primo Levi, Dan Pagis, Nelly Sachs, Wladyslaw Szlengel, Bronislawa Wajs (the Romani Gypsy poet known as Papusza, or the "Doll"), and Elie Wiesel.

The Holocaust also appears either directly or indirectly through allusion in the work of W. H. Auden ("Refugee Blues"), James Fenton ("A German Requiem"), Thom Gunn ("Innocence"), Anthony Hecht ("More Light!, More Light!" and "The Book of Yolek"), Geoffrey Hill ("Ovid in the Third Reich"), Randall Jarrell ("A Camp in the Prussian Forest" and "Protocols"), Denise Levertov ("During the Eichmann Trial"), Samuel Menashe (several epigrams), Czeslaw Milosz ("Preparation"), Sylvia Plath ("Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus"), Adrienne Rich ("Yugoslavia, 1944"), Carl Sandburg ("Grass"), Anne Sexton ("After Auschwitz"), Louis Simpson ("A Story about Chicken Soup" and "The Silent Generation"), W. D. Snodgrass ("Magda Goebbels" and "A Visitation") and Stephen Spender ("Memento").

I will now begin with the most famous Holocaust poem of all time ...

compiled by Michael R. Burch, a translator, editor and publisher of Holocaust and Nakba poetry

First They Came for the Jews
by Martin Niemöller

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.

The most famous Holocaust poem, "First They Came for the Jews," was written by Martin Niemöller, a Lutheran pastor who was born in Germany in 1892. At one time a supporter of Hitler’s policies, he eventually came to oppose the Nazis and as a result was arrested and confined to the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps from 1938 to 1945. After narrowly avoiding execution, he was liberated by the Allies in 1945. Niemöller was not a Holocaust denier, nor did he deny his own personal guilt for supporting Hitler and thus racism. As an editor and publisher of Holocaust poetry, I am alarmed to see eerily similar things happening today in the United States, so I have written a contemporary American paraphrase of Niemöller's poem:

First They Came For The Muslims
by Michael R. Burch

First they came for the Muslims
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Muslim.

Then they came for the homosexuals
and I did not speak out
because I was not a homosexual.

Then they came for the feminists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a feminist.

Now when will they come for me
because I was too busy and too apathetic
to defend my sisters and brothers?

The poem above was recently "adopted" by Amnesty International and will be distributed through their Words That Burn online anthology to educators and students, free of charge. I wrote my poem before Donald Trump launched his bid for the presidency of the United States, and I'm afraid that he may turn me into a prophet. (I call him the Trump of Doom: "He who has ears to hear, let him hear!") Today in the US right-wing politicians are proposing and passing legislation that strips minorities of basic human rights. Some of the groups affected may seem "small" and perhaps insignificant, but together they represent tens of millions of Americans: immigrants, homosexuals, Muslims, union workers, teachers who engage in collective bargaining, et al. We should remember that the Holocaust began when German laws and courts were subverted to deny "undesirable" people any semblance of equality. Before long, if people just "looked wrong" they could be arrested on suspicion alone, and held indefinitely without charges, hearings or trials. In the opinion of someone who has studied the Holocaust and its roots, what we are seeing in the US is a very disturbing step in a terrible direction: away from the light of equality and tolerance, toward the darkness of discrimination.

Postcard 1
by Miklós Radnóti
written August 30, 1944
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Out of Bulgaria, the great wild roar of the artillery thunders,
resounds on the mountain ridges, rebounds, then ebbs into silence
while here men, beasts, wagons and imagination all steadily increase;
the road whinnies and bucks, neighing; the maned sky gallops;
and you are eternally with me, love, constant amid all the chaos,
glowing within my conscience — incandescent, intense.
Somewhere within me, dear, you abide forever —
still, motionless, mute, like an angel stunned to silence by death
or a beetle hiding in the heart of a rotting tree.

Miklós Radnóti [1909-1944], a Hungarian Jew and fierce anti-fascist, is perhaps the greatest of the Holocaust poets. He was born in Budapest in 1909. In 1930, at the age of 21, he published his first collection of poems, Pogány köszönto (Pagan Salute). His next book, Újmódi pásztorok éneke (Modern Shepherd's Song) was confiscated on grounds of "indecency," earning him a light jail sentence. In 1931 he spent two months in Paris, where he visited the "Exposition coloniale" and began translating African poems and folk tales into Hungarian. In 1934 he obtained his Ph.D. in Hungarian literature. The following year he married Fanni (Fifi) Gyarmati; they settled in Budapest. His book Járkálj csa, halálraítélt! (Walk On, Condemned!) won the prestigious Baumgarten Prize in 1937. Also in 1937 he wrote his Cartes Postales (Postcards from France), which were precurors to his darker images of war, Razglednicas (Picture Postcards). During World War II, Radnóti published translations of Virgil, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Eluard, Apollinare and Blaise Cendras in Orpheus nyomában. From 1940 on, he was forced to serve on forced labor battalions, at times arming and disarming explosives on the Ukrainian front. In 1944 he was deported to a compulsory labor camp near Bor, Yugoslavia. As the Nazis retreated from the approaching Russian army, the Bor concentration camp was evacuated and its internees were led on a forced march through Yugoslavia and Hungary. During what became his death march, Radnóti recorded poetic images of what he saw and experienced. After writing his fourth and final "Postcard," Radnóti was badly beaten by a soldier annoyed by his scribblings. Soon thereafter, the weakened poet was shot to death, on November 9, 1944, along with 21 other prisoners who unable to walk. Their mass grave was exhumed after the war and Radnóti's poems were found on his body by his wife, inscribed in pencil in a small Serbian exercise book. Radnóti's posthumous collection, Tajtékos ég (Clouded Sky, or Foaming Sky) contains odes to his wife, letters, poetic fragments and his final Postcards. Unlike his murderers, Miklós Radnóti never lost his humanity, and his empathy continues to live on through his work.

Postcard 2
by Miklós Radnóti
written October 6, 1944 near Crvenka, Serbia
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A few miles away they're incinerating
the haystacks and the houses,
while squatting here on the fringe of this pleasant meadow,
the shell-shocked peasants quietly smoke their pipes.
Now, here, stepping into this still pond, the little shepherd girl
sets the silver water a-ripple
while, leaning over to drink, her flocculent sheep
seem to swim like drifting clouds.

Postcard 3
by Miklós Radnóti
written October 24, 1944 near Mohács, Hungary
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The oxen dribble bloody spittle;
the men pass blood in their piss.
Our stinking regiment halts, a horde of perspiring savages,
adding our aroma to death's repulsive stench.

Postcard 4
by Miklós Radnóti
his final poem, written October 31, 1944 near Szentkirályszabadja, Hungary
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I toppled beside him — his body already taut,
tight as a string just before it snaps,
shot in the back of the head.
"This is how you’ll end too; just lie quietly here,"
I whispered to myself, patience blossoming from dread.
"Der springt noch auf," the voice above me jeered;
I could only dimly hear
through the congealing blood slowly sealing my ear.

Translator's note: "Der springt noch auf" means something like "That one is still twitching."

It seems the fourth and final Postcard poem above was the last poem written by Miklós Radnóti. Here are some additional biographic notes, provided by two of his translators, Peter Czipott and John Ridland: "In a small cross-ruled notebook, procured during his labor in Bor, Serbia, he continued to write poems. As the Allies approached the mine where he was interned, he and his brigade were led on a forced march toward northwest Hungary. Laborers who straggled—from illness, injury or exhaustion—were shot by the roadside and buried in mass graves. Number 4 of the "Razglednicak" poems was written on October 31, the day that Radnóti's friend, the violinist Miklós Lovsi, suffered that fate. It is the last poem Radnóti wrote. On November 9, 1944, near the village of Abda, he too was shot on the roadside by guards who were anxious to reach their camp by nightfall. Buried in a mass grave, his body was exhumed over a year later, and the coroner's report mentions finding the "Bor Notebook" in the back pocket of his trousers. Radnóti had made fair copies of all but five poems while in Bor, and those had been smuggled out by a survivor. When his widow Fanni received the notebook, most of the poems had been rendered illegible, saturated by the liquids of decaying flesh. However, the only poems not smuggled out—the four Razglednicas and one other—happened to be the only ones still decipherable in their entirety in the notebook. In late summer 1937, Radnóti had made his second visit to France, accompanied by Fanni. Although this was a year before Kristallnacht, Hitler's move into Czechoslovakia, and the first discriminatory "Jewish Law" in Hungary, there was plenty of "terrible news" in the papers, as mentioned in "Place de Notre Dame": the Spanish Civil War, the Japanese invasion of China, and of course the increasing threats from Hitler's Germany. Nevertheless, most of these poems, at least on the surface, are innocent snapshots that justify their French title, referring to picture postcards such as tourists mail home. Radnóti was likely alluding ironically to this earlier set with his final four poems, which have the Serbian word for postcard—in a Hungarian plural form—as their title. Reading the two sets together darkens the tones of the five earlier poems, and makes the later four all the more poignant."

As Camille Martin wrote, "These last poems, written under the pressure of the most degrading and desperate circumstances imaginable, unfurl visions of delicate pastoral beauty next to images of extreme degradation and wild, filthy despair. They give voice to the last vestiges of hope, as Radnóti fantasizes being home once more with his beloved Fanny, as well as to the grim premonition of his own fate. This impossibly stark contrast blossoms into paradox: Radnóti’s poetry embraces humanity and inhumanity with an urgent desire to bear witness to both. Yet even at the moment when he is most certain of his imminent death, he never abandons the condensed and intricate language of his poetry. And pushed to the limits of human endurance and sanity, he never loses his capacity for empathy."

Speechless at Auschwitz
by Ko Un
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

At Auschwitz
piles of glasses
mountains of shoes
returning, we stared out different windows.

Ko Un speaks for all of us, by not knowing what to say about the evidence of the Holocaust, and man's inhumanity to man.

The Burning of the Books
by Bertolt Brecht
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

When the Regime
commanded the unlawful books to be burned,
teams of dull oxen hauled huge cartloads to the bonfires.

Then a banished writer, one of the best,
scanning the list of excommunicated texts,
became enraged: he’d been excluded!

He rushed to his desk, full of contemptuous wrath,
to write fiery letters to the morons in power—
Burn me! he wrote with his blazing pen—
Haven’t I always reported the truth?
Now here you are, treating me like a liar!
Burn me!


Bertolt Brecht [1898-1956] was a German poet, playwright and theater director. He fled Germany in 1933, when Hitler rose to power. A number of Brecht's poems were written from the perspective of a man who sees his country becoming increasingly fascist, xenophobic and militaristic. The first poem below is an English translation of a poem written by Brecht in German about the book burnings of the Nazis, which were orchestrated by propaganda-meister Joseph Goebbels. The Nazis burned the books of writers they considered "decadent" and "un-German," including those of Thomas Mann, Ernest Hemingway and even Helen Keller. Also among the books burned were those of the great German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, who in his 1820-1821 play Almansor accurately predicted, “Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen." ("Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.")

Parting
by Bertolt Brecht
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

We embrace;
my fingers trace
rich cloth
while yours encounter only moth-
eaten fabric.
A quick hug:
you were invited to the gay soiree
while the minions of the "law" relentlessly pursue me.
We talk about the weather
and our eternal friendship's magic.
Anything else would be too bitter,
too tragic.

The Mask of Evil
by Bertolt Brecht
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A Japanese carving hangs on my wall —
the mask of an ancient demon, limned with golden lacquer.
Not altogether unsympathetically, I observe
the bulging veins of its forehead, noting
the grotesque effort it takes to be evil.

Der Himmel
"The Heavens"
by Ber Horvitz
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

These skies
are leaden, heavy, gray ...
I long for a pair
of deep blue eyes.

The birds have fled
far overseas;
tomorrow I’ll migrate too,
I said ...

These gloomy autumn days
it rains and rains.
Woe to the bird
Who remains ...

Do not stand at my grave and weep
by Mary Elizabeth Frye

Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft star-shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die.

"Do not stand at my grave and weep" is a Holocaust poem and elegy with a very interesting genesis, written in 1932 by Mary Elizabeth Frye (1905-2004). Although the origin of the poem was disputed for some time, Mary Frye's authorship was confirmed in 1998 after research by Abigail Van Buren, the newspaper columnist better known as "Dear Abby." The version above was published by The Times and The Sunday Times in Frye's obituaries on November 5, 2004. As far as we know, she had never written any poetry before, but the plight of a young German Jewish woman, Margaret Schwarzkopf, who was staying with her and her husband at the time, inspired the poem. Margaret Schwarzkopf had been concerned about her mother, who was ill in Germany, but she had been warned not to return because of increasing anti-Semitic unrest that was erupting into what became known as the Holocaust. When her mother died, the heartbroken young woman told Frye that she never had the chance to "stand by my mother’s grave and shed a tear." Frye found herself composing a piece of verse on a brown paper shopping bag. Later she explained that the words "just came to her" and expressed what she felt about life and death.

Grass
by Carl Sandburg

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work―
          I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and the passengers ask the conductor:
          What place is this?
          Where are we now?

          I am the grass.
          Let me work.

Carl Sandburg is one of America's best-known penners of free verse. Here "grass" may refer to Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, in which the first American free verse poet suggests that if we want to find him after his death, we can look for him under our boot soles. While this is not a poem about the Holocaust, per se, every time I read it, I am reminded of the mass graves discovered by Allied troops as they freed Europe from the Nazis. Also, the similarity in sound of "Austerlitz" to "Auschwitz" creates an aural link of sorts.

Pity Us
by Samuel Menashe

Pity us
Beside the sea
On the sands
So briefly

O Lady
by Samuel Menashe

O Lady lonely as a stone
Even here moss has grown

Survival
by Samuel Menashe

I stand on this stump
To knock on wood
For the good I once
Misunderstood

Cut down, yes
But rooted still
What stumps compress
No axe can kill

Daily Bread
by Samuel Menashe

I knead the dough
Whose oven you stoke
We consume each loaf
Wrapped in smoke

The Family Silver
by Samuel Menashe

That spoon fell out
Of my mother's mouth
Before I was born,
But I was endowed
With a tuning fork

Samuel Menashe was born Samuel Menashe Weisberg, the child of persecuted Ukrainian Jews who emigrated to New York, living in Brooklyn and Queens. His first language was Yiddish, English his second. Menashe served in the military during World War IIincluding the Battle of the Bulge―and that affected his worldview forever: "For the first few years after the war, each day was the last day. And then it changed. Each day was the only day." I'm not sure if the poems above are specifically about the Holocaust, but I think they serve well whatever their origins and intentions.

Yala Helen Korwin was born on February 7, 1933 in Lvov, Poland and died May 30, 2014 in New York City. She was a poet, artist, author and teacher. She created over 400 paintings and sculptures, some of which can be viewed in museums such as the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. As a young girl, Yala Korwin survived a Nazi labor camp in the heart of Germany. Having no place to return to after the end of WWII, she let the winds carry her to France, where she lived as a refugee for ten years. In 1956 she emigrated to the United States with her husband and young children. Her book To Tell the Story— Poems of the Holocaust was published in 1987 by the now defunct Holocaust Library. A poem she hopes to be remembered by is "The Little Boy with His Hands Up." It has been included in the documentary film produced in Finland; discussed in an essay by M. Hirsch in Acts of Memory, published by Dartmouth College; used by Prof. R. Raskin of Denmark in his forthcoming scholarly study of the famous photograph; and included in the curriculum unit created by the Westchester Holocaust Education Center. You can read it below.

Passover Night 1942
by Yala Korwin

not a crumb of leavened
or unleavened bread
and no manna fell

no water sprang out
of the bunker’s wall
the last potato was gone

we sat and we munched
chunks of potato-peels
more bitter than herbs

we didn’t dare to sing
and open the door
for Elijah

we huddled and prayed
while pillars of clouds
massed above our heads

and pillars of fire
loomed like blazing traps



The Little Boy with His Hands Up
by Yala Korwin

Your open palms raised in the air
like two white doves
frame your meager face,
your face contorted with fear,
grown old with knowledge beyond your years.
Not yet ten. Eight? Seven?
Not yet compelled to mark
with a blue star on white badge
your Jewishness.

No need to brand the very young.
They will meekly follow their mothers.

You are standing apart
Against the flock of women and their brood
With blank, resigned stares.
All the torments of this harassed crowd
Are written on your face.
In your dark eyes—a vision of horror.
You have seen Death already
On the ghetto streets, haven't you?
Do you recognize it in the emblems
Of the SS-man facing you with his camera?

Like a lost lamb you are standing
Apart and forlorn beholding your own fate.

Where is your mother, little boy?
Is she the woman glancing over her shoulder
At the gunmen at the bunker's entrance?
Is it she who lovingly, though in haste,
Buttoned your coat, straightened your cap,
Pulled up your socks?
Is it her dreams of you, her dreams
Of a future Einstein, a Spinoza,
Another Heine or Halévy
They will murder soon?
Or are you orphaned already?
But even if you still have a mother,
She won't be allowed to comfort you
In her arms.

Her tired arms loaded with useless bundles
Must remain up in submission.

Alone you will march
Among other lonely wretches
Toward your martyrdom.

Your image will remain with us
And grow and grow
To immense proportions,
To haunt the callous world,
To accuse it, with ever stronger voice,
In the name of the million youngsters
Who lie, pitiful rag-dolls,
Their eyes forever closed.

Peggy Landsman (Holocaust poetry by an American poet who was touched by pictures of the "little boy with his hands up")

And while I can't claim that my Holocaust poems are "famous," they have been widely read over the years, and I have the advantage of being able to explain how and why I wrote them ...

Something
by Michael R. Burch

for the children of the Holocaust and the Nakba

Something inescapable is lost—
lost like a pale vapor curling up into shafts of moonlight,
vanishing in a gust of wind toward an expanse of stars
immeasurable and void.

Something uncapturable is gone—
gone with the spent leaves and illuminations of autumn,
scattered into a haze with the faint rustle of parched grass
and remembrance.

Something unforgettable is past—
blown from a glimmer into nothingness, or less,
and finality has swept into a corner where it lies
in dust and cobwebs and silence.

Unnecessary cruelty and brutality are horrible enough, but when innocent children are the victims, words begin to fail us. The poem "Something" tries to capture something of the heartbreaking loss of young lives cut short, even as the poet admits his inability to do anything more than preserve a brief flicker of remembrance, an increasingly ethereal memory. What happened to millions of children during the Holocaust was a horror beyond imagining. Children who had been "born wrong" according to the Nazis—whether Jewish, Polish, Gypsy, Slavic, Russian or otherwise "inferior"—were either killed outright or stripped of their human rights and consigned to abysmal conditions in concentration camps and walled ghettoes. But as the poem below points out, even today completely innocent children continue to be stripped of their human rights and consigned to abysmal, terrifying conditions in refugee camps and walled ghettoes, while the world watches and does little or nothing to help them.

Epitaph for a Child of the Nakba
by Michael R. Burch

I lived as best I could, and then I died.
Be careful where you step: the grave is wide.

The Hebrew word for the Holocaust is Shoah; it means "Catastrophe." The Arabic word Nakba also means "Catastrophe." Today millions of completely innocent Palestinian children and their mothers and grandparents languish within the walled ghetto of Gaza, the walled bantustans of Occupied Palestine (the West Bank) and refugee camps across the Middle East. Why are people who are obviously not "terrorists" being collectively punished for the "crime" of having been "born wrong," just as Jews  were once collectively punished by the Nazis? If it concerns you that such things continue to happen today, and in this case are being funded and supported by the government of the United States, please visit our Nakba Index and read what great humanitarians and Nobel Peace Prize winners like Albert Einstein, Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Jimmy Carter have said on the subject. The most admired Jewish intellectual of all time, the man most responsible for the advent of modern nonviolent resistance, the two men best known for ending South African apartheid, and the president who helped negotiate peace between Israel and Palestinians have all spoken firmly and eloquently against the racism and injustices that resulted in this new catastrophe, the Nakba.

Here are three translations of the Holocaust poetry of Paul Celan ...

Death Fugue
by Paul Celan
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Black milk of daybreak, we drink you come dusk;
we drink you come midday, come morning, come night;
we drink you and drink you.
We’re digging a grave like a hole in the sky;
there’s sufficient room to lie there.
The man of the house plays with vipers; he writes
in the Teutonic darkness, “Your golden hair Margarete ...”
He composes by starlight, whistles hounds to stand by,
whistles Jews to dig graves, where together they’ll lie.
He commands us to strike up bright tunes for the dance!

Black milk of daybreak, we drink you come dusk;
we drink you come dawn, come midday, come night;
we drink you and drink you.
The man of the house plays with serpents; he writes ...
he writes as the night falls, “Your golden hair Margarete ...
Your ashen hair Shulamith ...”
We are digging dark graves where there’s more room, on high.
His screams, “Hey you, dig there!” and “Hey you, sing and dance!”
He grabs his black nightstick, his eyes pallid blue,
screaming, “Hey you—dig deeper! You others—sing, dance!”

Black milk of daybreak, we drink you come dusk;
we drink you come midday, come morning, come night;
we drink you and drink you.
The man of the house writes, “Your golden hair Margarete ...
Your ashen hair Shulamith ...” as he cultivates snakes.
He screams, “Play Death more sweetly! Death’s the master of Germany!”
He cries, “Scrape those dark strings, soon like black smoke you’ll rise
to your graves in the skies; there’s sufficient room for Jews there!”

Black milk of daybreak, we drink you come midnight;
we drink you come midday; Death’s the master of Germany!
We drink you come dusk; we drink you and drink you ...
He’s a master of Death, his pale eyes deathly blue.
He fires leaden slugs, his aim level and true.
He writes as the night falls, “Your golden hair Margarete ...”
He unleashes his hounds, grants us graves in the skies.
He plays with his serpents; Death’s the master of Germany ...

“Your golden hair Margarete ...
your ashen hair Shulamith ...”
 
O, Little Root of a Dream
by Paul Celan
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

O, little root of a dream
you enmire me here;
I’m undermined by blood —
no longer seen,
enslaved by death.

Touch the curve of my face,
that there may yet be an earthly language of ardor,
that someone’s eyes
may see yet see me,
though I’m blind,
here where you
deny me voice.

You Were My Death
by Paul Celan
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

You were my death;
I could hold you
when everything abandoned me —
even breath.

Here are two translations of Holocaust poems by Primo Levi ...

Shema
by Primo Levi
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

You who live secure
in your comfortable houses,
who return each evening to find
warm food,
welcoming faces ...

consider whether this is a man:
who toils in the mud,
who knows no peace,
who fights for crusts of bread,
who dies at another man's whim,
at his "yes" or his "no."

Consider whether this is a woman:
bereft of hair,
of a recognizable name
because she lacks the strength to remember,
her eyes as void
and her womb as frigid
as a frog's in winter.

Consider that such horrors have been:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them in your hearts
when you lounge in your house,
when you walk outside,
when you go to bed,
when you rise.
Repeat them to your children,
or may your house crumble
and disease render you helpless
so that even your offspring avert their faces from you.

Buna
by Primo Levi
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Wasted feet, cursed earth,
the interminable gray morning
as Buna smokes corpses through industrious chimneys.

A day like every other day awaits us.
The terrible whistle shrilly announces dawn:
"You, O pale multitudes with your sad, lifeless faces,
welcome the monotonous horror of the mud ...
another day of suffering has begun."

Weary companion, I see you by heart.
I empathize with your dead eyes, my disconsolate friend.
In your breast you carry cold, hunger, nothingness.
Life has broken what's left of the courage within you.

Colorless one, you once were a strong man,
A courageous woman once walked at your side.
But now you, my empty companion, are bereft of a name,
my forsaken friend who can no longer weep,
so poor you can no longer grieve,
so tired you no longer can shiver with fear.

O, spent once-strong man,
if we were to meet again
in some other world, sweet beneath the sun,
with what kind faces would we recognize each other?

Note: Buna was the largest Auschwitz sub-camp.

After My Death
by Chaim Nachman Bialik
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Say this when you eulogize me:
Here was a man — now, poof, he's gone!
He died before his time.
The music of his life suddenly ground to a halt..
Such a pity! There was another song in him, somewhere,
But now it's lost,
forever.
What a pity! He had a violin,
a living, voluble soul
to which he uttered
the secrets of his heart,
setting its strings vibrating,
save the one he kept inviolate.
Back and forth his supple fingers danced;
one string alone remained mesmerized,
yet unheard.
Such a pity!
All his life the string quivered,
quavering silently,
yearning for its song, its mate,
as a heart saddens before its departure.
Despite constant delays it waited daily,
mutely beseeching its savior, Love,
who lingered, loitered, tarried incessantly
and never came.
Great is the pain!
There was a man — now, poof, he is no more!
The music of his life suddenly interrupted.
There was another song in him
But now it is lost
forever.

On The Slaughter
by Chaim Nachman Bialik
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Merciful heavens, have pity on me!
If there is a God approachable by men
as yet I have not found him—
Pray for me!

For my heart is dead,
prayers languish upon my tongue,
my right hand has lost its strength
and my hope has been crushed, undone.

How long? Oh, when will this nightmare end?
How long? Hangman, traitor,
here’s my neck—
rise up now, and slaughter!

Behead me like a dog—your arm controls the axe
and the whole world is a scaffold to me
though we—the chosen few—
were once recipients of the Pacts.

Executioner!, my blood’s a paltry prize—
strike my skull and the blood of innocents will rain
down upon your pristine uniform again and again,
staining your raiment forever.

If there is Justice—quick, let her appear!
But after I’ve been blotted out, should she reveal her face,
let her false scales be overturned forever
and the heavens reek with the stench of her disgrace.

You too arrogant men, with your cruel injustice,
suckled on blood, unweaned of violence:
cursed be the warrior who cries "Avenge!" on a maiden;
such vengeance was never contemplated even by Satan.

Let innocents’ blood drench the abyss!
Let innocents’ blood seep down into the depths of darkness,
eat it away and undermine
the rotting foundations of earth.

Al Hashechita ("On the Slaughter") was written by Bialik in response to the bloody Kishniev pogrom of 1903, which was instigated by agents of the Czar who wanted to divert social unrest and political anger from the Czar to the Jewish minority. The Hebrew word schechita (also transliterated shechita, shechitah, shekhitah, shehita) denotes the ritual kosher slaughtering of animals for food. The juxtapositioning of kosher slaughter with the slaughter of Jews makes the poem all the more powerful and ghastly. Such anti-Semitic incidents prompted a massive wave of Eastern European emigration that brought millions of Jews to the West. Unfortunately, there have been many similar slaughters in human history and the poem remains chillingly relevant to the more recent ones in Israel/Palestine, Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo.

Here is Yala Korwin's translation of a Holocaust poem by Bronislawa Wajs aka Papusza ("Doll") ...

Tears of Blood
by Bronislawa Wajs
translation by Yala Korwin

(How we suffered under the German soldiers in Volyň  from 1943 to 1944)

In the woods. No water, no fire — great hunger.
Where could the children sleep? No tent.
We could not light the fire at night.
By day, the smoke would alert the Germans.
How to live with children in the cold of winter?
All are barefoot…
When they wanted to murder us,
first they forced us to hard labor.
A German came to see us.
— I have bad news for you.
They want to kill you tonight.
Don’t tell anybody.
I too am a dark Gypsy,
of your blood — a true one.
God help you
in the black forest…
Having said these words,
he embraced us all…

For two three days no food.
All go to sleep hungry.
Unable to sleep,
they stare at the stars…
God, how beautiful it is to live!
The Germans will not let us…

Ah, you, my little star!
At dawn you are large!
Blind the Germans!
Confuse them,
lead them astray,
so the Jewish and Gypsy child can live!

When big winter comes,
what will the Gypsy woman with a small child do?
Where will she find clothing?
Everything is turning to rags.
One wants to die.
No one knows, only the sky,
only the river hears our lament.
Whose eyes saw us as enemies?
Whose mouth cursed us?
Do not hear them, God.
Hear us!
A cold night came,
The old Gypsy women sang
A Gypsy fairy tale:
Golden winter will come,
snow, like little stars,
will cover the earth, the hands.
The black eyes will freeze,
the hearts will die.

So much snow fell,
it covered the road.
One could only see the Milky Way in the sky.

On such night of frost
a little daughter dies,
and in four days
mothers bury in the snow
four little sons.
Sun, without you,
see how a little Gypsy is dying from cold
in the big forest.

Once, at home, the moon stood in the window,
didn’t let me sleep. Someone looked inside.
I asked — who is there?
— Open the door, my dark Gypsy.
I saw a beautiful young Jewish girl,
shivering from cold,
asking for food.
You poor thing, my little one.
I gave her bread, whatever I had, a shirt.
We both forgot that not far away
were the police.
But they didn’t come that night.

All the birds
are praying for our children,
so the evil people, vipers, will not kill them.
Ah, fate!
My unlucky luck!

Snow fell as thick as leaves,
barred our way,
such heavy snow, it buried the cartwheels.
One had to trample a track,
push the carts behind the horses.

How many miseries and hungers!
How many sorrows and roads!
How many sharp stones pierced our feet!
How many bullets flew by our ears!

Translated from the Polish by Yala Korwin.

Cleansings
by Michael R. Burch

Walk here among the walking specters. Learn
inhuman patience. Flesh can only cleave
to bone this tightly if their hearts believe
that God is good, and never mind the Urn.

A lentil and a bean might plump their skin
with mothers’ bounteous, soft-dimpled fat
(and call it “health”), might quickly build again
the muscles of dead menfolk. Dream, like that,

and call it courage. Cry, and be deceived,
and so endure.  Or burn, made wholly pure.
One’s prayer is answered,
                                         “god” thus unbelieved.

No holy pyre thisdeath’s hissing chamber.
Two thousand years agoa starlit manger,
weird Herod’s cries for vengeance on the meek,
the children slaughtered. Fear, when angels speak,

the prophesies of man.
                                  Do what you "can,"
not what you must, or should.
                                             They call you “good,”

dead eyes devoid of tears; how shall they speak
except in blankness? Fear, then, how they weep.
Escape the gentle clutching stickfolk. Creep
away in shame to retch and flush away

your vomit from their ashes. Learn to pray.



Related pages: Best Poems about the Holocaust, Miklos Radnoti Holocaust Poems, Parkland Poems, Sandy Hook Poems, Aurora Poetry, Columbine Poems

Other Pages: What is Poetry?, The Best Books of All Time, The Best Writing in the English Language

The HyperTexts