Auschwitz Poems and the Act of Remembering

auschwitz 1

“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.” – Mary Elizabeth Frye

That was the day I saw and experienced death not just as an individual experience. Many philosophers almost always insist that death is a collective tragedy and any death, even a single one is a death too many. When several thousands die, a big part of us dies. So when millions die, our entire humanity dies with them and a vast emptiness pervades. There is a permanent void that is created and a sense of disembowelment happens to us profoundly.

One book that has an overwhelming presence in our bedroom is a voluminous one entitled “The Auschwitz Poems”. It is an anthology of poems translated to English edited by Adam Zych containing 400 poems by 250 writers about the Holocaust. It was published by the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. It is book that contains many voices of untold suffering, triumph over adversity, hope and love, discovery of beauty amidst the darkest moments, imperceptible songs that can’t be extinguished by violence, singular words written in their tongue that groan of man’s cruelty. It contains lines almost seared by the gas chambers, lines that can feel the biting coldness of the looming death and destruction, and elegies heaped on other elegies. Yes, there is unquenchable sadness and sometimes anger but there is also peace in some of the poems that allowed freedom of creativity and expression to blossom in the most difficult of circumstances. There is the gift of inner strength and faith in humanity etched in the sounds that come out from an imagined guttural reading of the poems.

Every time I read a poem there, I am reminded always of that visit to the largest Nazi German concentration and extermination camp of Auschwitz in Oswiecim, southern Poland. Every time I read a poem or two there from Czeslaw Milosz, Wisława Szymborska, Primo Levi or others who had survived the horrors of World War II, a deep-seated and staggering feeling envelop me. Every time I read a poem there, I am reminded always of that May cloudy spring morning, six years ago in that museum and memorial place of a tragic chapter of the 21st century that we are capable of inflicting on humanity, ourselves.

This Auschwitz Poems in my room is a book of remembrance. By reading a poem there, there is an active remembering happening to me internally. It is not just the remembrance of the thought of being there, but an act of remembering the experience of being there.

I remember entering the camp on that chilly morning. First, at the main camp of Auschwitz 1. We were told that Auschwitz 1 and 2 at Birkenau cover approximately 191 hectares. In that gate there is an archway with a slogan that’s written, “Arbeit macht frei” meaning work sets you free. I can relive that feeling of not knowing what to expect. People in our group were silent, looking at the red brick buildings looming and menacing in the background. We walked slowly towards the first building where the guide shared with us the story of the museum and memorial. The electric barbed wires stretched on wooden posts fenced the compound. We were told this is part of the whole area turned into a labor camp. This is the camp that exterminated more than a million Poles, Jews, some Germans, Romas, Soviet POWs and other enemies of the Third Reich.

I remember many black and white pictures of mothers and their children in queue who were about to be exterminated. It just shocked me to imagine how someone was able to take pictures of people for extermination. There were countless pictures of prisoners with tattooed numbers on their emaciated bodies. Their eyes stare at you.

I remember seeing a room filled with empty cans of Zyklon B, a cyanide-based pesticide used to kill the prisoners. I was appalled by the thought of such inhumanity.

I remember seeing rooms full of prisoners’ belongings left behind, a mountain of children’s shoes, clothes, hundreds of wheelchairs, hundreds of artificial limbs and crutches. One room was even full of human hair, tons of hair that were no longer fit for recycling as wigs. The latter, was so sickening and the thought of just closing ones’ eyes and be numbed about these things came to me. I persisted.

I remember the small cell, cell #18 of block 11 where St. Maximillian Kolbe was incarcerated and offered his life in exchange for the other person. It is redemptive that there were martyrs whose deaths became holy expressions of sacrifices.

I remember the sound of the gravel as we walk towards the remaining crematorium and gas chambers. It appeared like crackling sounds of bones being cremated. I saw the tall chimneys and I could imagine at that time the smoke that came out out from those chimneys smelled of human flesh.

I remember the sight of the gas chambers and the showers that were used to trick them of just going for ablutions. It is an enclosed place where poisonous gases are released and killed humans. All were done in efficient manner by SS soldiers and inmate functionaries.

I remember seeing the train tracks and the platform that brought hundreds of thousands of prisoners from different parts of Europe. The guide told us stories of families separated, young children from their mothers. Old people, weak people beaten to death as they march to their barracks.

I remember my wife weeping uncontrollably upon seeing the Wall of Execution where thousands were shot in that spot. I can only imagine how drenched that wall was with blood. I consoled her and prayed with her for the souls of the victims. On that day there were white flowers placed on the ground.

I remember the Birkenau wooden barracks in Auschwitz II that housed the prisoners that could only fit several horses but were used to accommodate hundreds of prisoners. These dark-looking wooden barracks stretched out in different directions in efficient structural and organized arrangement on that arable field that used to be a farmland.

These are the vivid things I remember and many more. These are the pictures of catastrophe made by man – pictures of death due to malnutrition, atrocious sanitary conditions, inhuman medical experiments, extreme hard labor, diseases and systematic executions. This is the evil that is mind-boggling and dizzying that we saw even if the liberation happened more than 70 years ago. This is an indictment to man’s capacity to fall into the unfathomable abyss of barbarity. All I felt was a soul-wrenching experience that was ready to explode from that emotional heaviness. It slowed me down as I walked containing my tears from barracks to barracks. There was undescribable shame. All I was able to do was to silence myself and utter prayers for the 1.1 millions who died in this camp.

Now looking at the book stacked on the shelf with other books, I am always compelled to do the act of remembering – to go through the poems because as the editor said, “this anthology of prison poetry proved that it is possible and imperative to remain a human person and a creative being in even the most difficult conditions, rather than an object doomed to contempt and destruction”. In one of the rooms in one barrack in Auschwitz, the passage from Santayana is plastered prominently on the wall. It is in both Polish and English written in white capitalized arial font against a black granite background, “those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it”. This line brings me always to a particular poem in the book reminding me to be vigilant and alert.

“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.”

from First They Came for the Jews by Martin Niemöller


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