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Famous Holocaust Poems

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

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 may have found the right page. But anyone who loves good poetry and wants to know more about the Holocaust should find this page of interest and profit from reading it. I particularly recommend the poems of Miklós Radnóti, who in my opinion is the greatest of the Holocaust poets. Other notable writers of Holocaust poetry include Yehuda Amichai, Bertolt Brecht, Paul Celan, Jerzy Ficowski, Pavel Friedmann, A. M. Klein, Yala Korwin, Janusz Korczak, Primo Levi, Dan Pagis, Nelly Sachs, Wladyslaw Szlengel and Elie Wiesel. The Holocaust appears either directly or indirectly through allusion in the work of other poets, including 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" and "September Song"), Randall Jarrell ("A Camp in the Prussian Forest" and "Protocols"), Denise Levertov ("During the Eichmann Trial"), Czeslaw Milosz ("Preparation"), Sylvia Plath ("Daddy," "Mary's Song" and "Lady Lazarus"), Adrienne Rich ("Yugoslavia, 1944"), Anne Sexton ("After Auschwitz"), Louis Simpson ("A Story about Chicken Soup," "The Bird" and "The Silent Generation"), W. D. Snodgrass ("Magda Goebbels" and "A Visitation") and Stephen Spender ("Memento"). But I will lead off with the most famous Holocaust poem of all time ...

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 and theologian 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. After Niemöller's former cellmate Leo Stein was released from Sachsenhausen, he wrote an article about Niemöller for The National Jewish Monthly in 1941. Stein said that when he asked Niemöller why he had ever supported the Nazi Party, Niemöller replied: "I find myself wondering about that too. I wonder about it as much as I regret it. Still, it is true that Hitler betrayed me. I had an audience with him, as a representative of the Protestant Church, shortly before he became Chancellor, in 1932. Hitler promised me, on his word of honor, to protect the Church and not to issue any anti-Church laws. He also agreed not to allow pogroms against the Jews, assuring me as follows: 'There will be restrictions against the Jews, but there will be no ghettos, no pogroms, in Germany.' I really believed, given the widespread anti-Semitism in Germany, at that time—that Jews should avoid aspiring to Government positions or seats in the Reichstag. There were many Jews, especially among the Zionists, who took a similar stand. Hitler's assurance satisfied me at the time. On the other hand, I hated the growing atheistic movement, which was fostered and promoted by the Social Democrats and the Communists. Their hostility toward the Church made me pin my hopes on Hitler for a while. I am paying for that mistake now; and not me alone, but thousands of other persons like me." After the war, Niemöller was one of the initiators of the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt, which acknowledged that German churches had not done enough to resist the Nazis. Niemöller also became an ardent pacifist and campaigner for nuclear disarmament. His meeting with North Vietnam's communist ruler Ho Chi Minh at the height of the Vietnam War caused an uproar. In 1961 he became president of the World Council of Churches. He was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize in 1966. He died at Wiesbaden in 1984.

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 version of Niemöller's famous 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 or too apathetic
to defend my sisters and brothers?

Today all around the United States right-wing conservatives are proposing and passing new legislation which strips minority groups of basic rights. Some of those minority groups may seem small and perhaps insignificant, but together they represent tens of millions of Americans: legal immigrants, homosexuals, Muslims, union workers, teachers who engage in collective bargaining, et al. We need to remember that the Holocaust began when German laws and courts were subverted to deny "undesirable" people basic rights. Before long, if people just "looked wrong" they could be arrested on suspicion alone, and held indefinitely without charges, hearings or trials. When President Obama signed the new National Defense Authorization Act into law, he in effect gave the U.S. military the "right" to arrest and indefinitely detain American citizens on suspicion alone, without charges, hearings or trials. In the opinion of someone who has studied the Holocaust and its roots, this is a disturbing step in a terrible direction: away from the light of equality and the rule of law, toward the darkness of discrimination and lawlessness.

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 below was published by The Times and The Sunday Times in Frye's obituary on November 5, 2004: Mary Frye wrote the poem in 1932. 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 said that the words “just came to her” and expressed what she felt about life and death.

Postcard 1
by Miklós Radnóti
written August 30, 1944
translated 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
translated 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
translated 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
translated 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."

The Burning of the Books
by Bertolt Brecht
translated 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 fierce 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
translated 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
translated 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.

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.

While I can't claim that my Holocaust poems are "famous," they have been widely read, 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

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.

Related page: Best Poems about the Holocaust

The HyperTexts