On 20 January 1942, the high-ranking Nazi Reinhard Heydrich convened the Wannsee Conference at a villa by a lake near Berlin, to organise the 'final solution to the Jewish question'. Present were 15 men, all officials from government agencies with powers to implement the 'evacuation' of all Jews to the east. Participants at this conference used euphemisms to obscure their agreed plan, which was the mass deportation of Jews to killing centres. This policy was carried out under the deceptive guise of 'Resettlement in the East.'
In railway cattle trucks they went,
Jews forced out by ‘resettlement’.
In locked and putrid trucks packed tight,
they suffered, travelling day and night.
At least a thousand trains were used,
in each, three thousand souls abused.
These numbers just statistics tell,
for all inside, the trucks to hell.
Such pain, vast numbers tend to hide,
but dare you join the Jews inside?
Pick any truck, they’re all the same,
and try to feel their awful pain.
Bewildered, hungry, bitter cold,
and sick with fear, both young and old,
save for the fretful babes that cry
because their mother's milk runs dry.
Their toilet, just an unscreened drum,
so much for them to overcome.
They helped each other brave this fear,
too private for the telling here.
The slow and jolting stopping train,
increased these anxious people’s strain.
And as there was no outside view,
their sense of isolation grew.
Most of the people on this train
from Czechoslovakia came.
Among the people bruised and sore;
a Jewish family of four.
Both Ivan (seven) and Judit (four)
crouched cold and hungry on the floor.
Their mother Sara stood nearby
with Marta (one), too weak to cry.
But Sara dared to hope and pray,
her husband Morris came this way;
slave worker, eastwards, sent last year,
perhaps they might resettle near?
Now two long days and nights have passed,
then silence: had they arrived at last?
Soon, shouted orders from outside
made Sara’s children, terrified.
The door flew open; blinding light!
The SS guard; a worrying sight.
“GET OUT, and leave your luggage near
and join that line AT ONCE you hear.”
All scrambled out as best they could,
their cramped legs aching when they stood.
And thus to Auschwitz II they came,
or Birkenau, its other name.
With luggage piled they joined the line,
but would the foul air clear with time?
Let’s hope these poor folk couldn’t tell,
the nature of that dreadful smell.
Among the thousands standing there
was Sara, with a mother’s care;
calms her children with affection
as they waited for ‘selection’.
‘Selected’ to the left or right,
determined their immediate plight.
Those ‘right’ were starved and worked to death,
those ‘left’; gas chambers; choking breath. . .
Then one by one by two by three,
they shuffled as a family.
Such dread in Sara’s heart that day,
should one be sent the other way.
A Nazi faced the shuffling line,
his casual wave, the trivial sign
that separated families there;
their parting grief, too much to bear.
Sara and Marta; ‘left’ they went,
Judit and Ivan too were sent.
I saw them hand-in-hand depart,
a picture that still breaks my heart.
Who knows what Sara thought that day,
as hand-in-hand she led away
her children to ‘resettlement’.
Who could imagine what that meant?
What happened next I will not tell,
this Jewish family went through hell.
‘The Holocaust’, man’s greatest crime,
should not be told in simple rhyme.
Save only this; ‘Let this place be
A warning to humanity,
Forever crying in despair,’
‘REMEMBER’ pleads the plaque now there.
Morris Steinberg (35); Sara Liberman (27); Ivan Hief (7); Judit Hirsch (4) and Marta Berliner (1), 'travelled' from Czechoslovakia to Auschwitz, where they were all murdered in 1944. I was a boy of 10 in 1944, and I well remember, perhaps just a little later, seeing a newsreel showing people walking to the gas chambers, and in particular a proud young woman holding a baby to her left shoulder, her right hand holding a little boy's hand who in turn was holding his even younger sister's hand. This picture upsets me to this day, and I have taken the liberty of creating a similar family with real people who suffered the same fate; I pray they will all forgive me. So many hoped to be reunited with their lost menfolk, that I hope Morris too will not feel used in any shallow way.
On 15 May 1944 mass deportation of Hungarian Jews began, and over the next 55 days some 438,000 Jews were sent to Auschwitz on 147 trains. Bearing in mind that one murder is a tragedy, I hesitate to do the 'statistical' maths; but 500 trains would barely account for the Auschwitz crime alone. My figure of 1,000 trains in the rhyme probably needs to be increased considerably.
As a tall young fair-haired boy in 1940, I often wonder what my role in this monstrous criminal tragedy might have been if Germany had invaded England. After all, I would have been ideal recruitment material for the Hitler Youth.
In one sense this poem has taken a long time to write; many times I tried, but it seemed that an extreme event such as this was beyond the reach of poetry. Then in 2011 I visited the Holocaust Centre in Laxton with my friend Paul Wojna, a Quaker, who has made the pilgrimage to Auschwitz three times. With Paul's helpful encouragement, I tried again to write a poem, but this time choosing a simple narrative rhyme about the journey and selection at Auschwitz, never trying to moralise or come to terms (whatever that may mean) with this most terrible of all crimes.
So many survivors reported that they heard the last plea from those who perished: 'Remember – do not let the world forget'. Holocaust survivors themselves make this heartfelt plea 'never again'. There is a plaque today between crematoria I and II at Auschwitz II – Birkenau, with these words in many languages:
Forever let this place be
A cry of despair
And a warning to humanity.
Where the Nazis murdered
About one and a half million
Men, women and children,
From various countries
Let Lord Sacks the Chief Rabbi have the last word: 'We cannot change the past, but by remembering it, we might just change the future.'
Acknowledgement: Yad Vashem, Holocaust Remembrance Authority, Jerusalem.