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The Ghetto Poets—Translations from the Polish by Yala Korwin

The poems below were first printed by Warsaw’s Jewish-Polish underground press; they reached London’s organization of Polish Jewry in the form of a microfilm. In 1945 they were published in New York by the Association of Friends of Our Tribune, in a tiny anthology containing twelve poems, titled The Ghetto Poems – From the Jewish Underground in Poland. The Nazis were destroying, with equal zeal, Jewish literary treasures and their creators. Here and there a poem survived, unsigned, or provided with an initial. The names of the poets perished with them.

The Jewish Ghetto poets were victims of ethnic cleansing and genocide, which unfortunately continue to this day in Darfur and Palestine. If you are a student, teacher, educator, peace activist or just someone who cares and wants to help, please read How Can We End Ethnic Cleansing and Genocide Forever? and do what you can to make the world a safer, happier place for children of all races and creeds.

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. A survivor of the Holocaust, after WWII she settled in Paris where she married Paul Korwin, with whom she had two children, Danielle and Robert. The Korwins moved to Queens in 1956, where Yala earned a Master's degree Summa Cum Laude at Queens College. She went on to author six books. Her Holocaust poetry has been published in Haggadah for Passover, in textbooks, and set to classical music. Donations in her name can be made to the Holocaust Museum, Washington D.C.

One poem by an unidentified Ghetto Poet.
Translated from the Polish by Yala Korwin.

A Night in the Hut

You come at night, the hut spins
On waves of stench, dream, musing,
Your shadow wears a delicate scent
Of perfume, climbs the ladder.

Be careful, Love! The mattress is filthy,
The air foul, and all these people
Sprawled around, wrapped up in nightmares . . .
You brush it off: Don’t think of it,
One can be alone in a crowd.

Your blue eyes shine . . . I shudder
And take your hand in mine.
. . . Love, I wouldn’t have invited you
To such strange bachelor’s quarters.

From my plank-bed, through the grate-like panes,
You can see the roll call square . . .
There, each stone offends us . . . each stone . . .
But do not tremble at the sight,
And do not rush to Paris in your thoughts.
The Germans are raging in the Quartier Latin.

The moon laughs stupidly in the sky,
As in a grotesque modern play.
It shone like that, once . . . stop, my Love,
Don’t exhaust your memory . . . no, don’t!
The Germans are getting drunk in Montmartre.

In Kraków, our most beloved city,
Chestnuts are blooming, and acacias.
In the Planty,[*] then, after we talked . . .
Do you remember? But enough . . . Also there
Prussian boots trample the acacias.

Put your arms round my neck,
Don’t think of anything, my Love,
Be as you used to be, when tired,
But lively and strong, you were coming
To disarm, with kisses and talks,
The steep rampart of questions
Constructed in your head by books,
Microscope, and passion.
And now I will take you in my arms,
Slowly carry you down to the floor,
Softly lead you out of the hut.
Before you go your way, we will tarry
At the threshold. With a glance
You will open your heart to the night.
The distance will call you by your name,
Wind will ruffle your tawny hair.

You will leave with trust lighting up your face
That in Kraków, Paris, and everywhere else
Streets will blast with the dynamite of freedom,
Though you are no more, and I will be no more.

* Public gardens in Cracow

Two poems by M.B., an unknown ghetto poet.
Translated from the Polish by Yala Korwin.

My Heart's Wall of Concrete

My heart’s wall of concrete hardened,
Thoughts weigh each detail without self-pity.
Do not expect to see a tear in my eye,
I will not bribe death with a single spasm.

Driven to “the sands” [*] from the camp’s plank-beds,
My dearest friends’ fiery outcry is silence.
Their naked bodies, which no one will count,
Cover stratum of torments, like a leaden stone.

And when my turn comes, I firmly believe
The tyrant will deny me burial in vain –
In my funeral cortege will walk my young visions,
My unwritten song will strike at heaven.

To repel the nightmare of bloody crimes,
I will be faithful to my dreams till the end.
None will restrain them, tear them away,
Not death the harlot, sadism the pimp, not the pack of menials.

*Place of executions in Lwów


It was dark and cold; the pain froze to icicles
When the train carried you into terror’s storm.
Despair battered the walls. Large wormwood drops,
Like hailstones, pounded hope laid to sleep.

Again and again thoughts poisoned themselves
With memory of greening emotions, of unplayed parts . . .
Venomous is the taste of such remembrance.
Be calm, my love, I know it wounds.

You were lonely in that disheartened crowd,
Though the same thoughts tormented all.
You were silent knowing that, fenced in a circle
Of suffering, none would understand you.

So much defeat in each of these shadows,
So much crushing injury towering.
Bandaged by a burning tape of venom,
Blood flows, cries howl in helpless silence.

I don’t know where you are, but if you are –
You are still traveling on the same train,
As we all are; exhausted, sad,
Hopes shattered, heart sinking low.

Be calm, my love! Wipe your blue eyes.
Throw away despair, do not scold fate!
It’s so simple: we are all sacrificed
To mean times, the stupid avalanche.

Silence your aching heart; others are dying with us,
Condemned to destruction in rigid rows . . .
. . . Morituri . . . as we know . . . must not lie.
Therefore I will not console you with easy words.

Be calm, my love! What if in our cradles
Fate marked us for a particular destiny?
In our day, the grave and life are near neighbors.
Stop frowning, stop worrying, my love.

Into the pyramid of such immense crimes
The future breaks: listen carefully!
Tears will shine in the eyes of those
Who come after us, think of us in silence.
The day of reckoning will come! Fire burns the hand –
Not for us despair, not for us empty weakness.
We will die, or survive, but without tears or moans.
So, take heart, my love, be brave.

Four poems by M.J., a Warsaw ghetto poet.
Translated from the Polish by Yala Korwin.

A Funeral

The coffin – a crematorium furnace,
Lid – transparent, made of air,
Human body turned into smoke,
Blown through the smokestack of history.

How shall I honor your passing,
Walk in your funeral procession?
You, homeless handful of ashes
Between the earth and heaven.

How to cast a green garland
On the grave dug high in the air –
An ark of the world’s four corners
Under the invader’s fire.

Your coffin, which is not,
Will not slide from roaring cannons,
And only the column of air
Illumines your death with sunrays.

And here is such a great silence
On earth, like a trampled banner,
In the mourning smoke of corpses,
In the crucified outcry.


You saw blood of the homeless and innocent.
You heard the voices mocking them.
You saw a beast jumping out of the crowd,
Heard the laugh, looked into living eyes
When smoke enveloped the silence
Of other voices.

You came back to your homeland,
As one comes back to life. You see a flower
Growing in the fertile, too-fertile earth.
Traces of smoke become sky-blue, like a remorse,
The smell of burning disperses,
Even the shadows pale.

In the air – an aroma, like anticipation
Of new growth, of unknown words.
Chestnuts bloom, grasses are busy repairing the web
In the earth’s red wound.
Buds are sticky, water sinks into the bushes
And roars again.

Like tokens of pleasure and strength,
The nightingale raves in thickets of young trees.
Its song rises and bursts like fountains of light
Beating the sky. The earth’s beauty is unfriendly,
More indifferent, than inhuman mass-graves.
And if you become lost in the beauty of words,
As in an unseen face, their clean sound,
Too clean, will be outweighed by a mixture
Of earth and blood.

Burned Down

Beholding a burned down place,
I read in the black book of ashes
A law, subhuman, resurrected
From a mighty dusk of steppes.

What if today’s empires vanish,
Empty like gutted passageways?
Hachette will glisten many a time,
I’ll always die a stranger, alone.
What private shame will be revealed,
What music blackened with curses,
What words of insults invented,
Slanders from inflexible beast-like jaws?

What people will the future claim?
Whose homeless blood will flow again
In the gutters of streets repaved
With ancient cemetery stones?

To feed the hope with grandsons’ wisdom?
But generations are not like progressions
Of perfect numbers. History is bitter.
Anew they learn what’s a foot and hand.

Like children they acquire the words,
But in hate they are older than rocks.
In their frail hands a gravestone weighs
No more than their shadows.

Here Also, as in Jerusalem

Here also, as in Jerusalem,
Is a gloomy wailing wall.
Those who stood against it,
Will not see it again.

Empty night, empty home, deaf edifice.
From there they dragged them out,
Left darkness, fright,
And dwellings – wombs of death.

Buildings in a procession of stones
Under inexorable sky,
Seemed to be following a funeral
Of families, thousands.

Christians thrown to lions
Knew for what cause they were dying.
But you? – Behold your empty home
Taken over by that blind tenant, the fire.

No one cast a handful of dirt
On your mass grave.
Greeted by a silence,
Delivered from words of treason.

When thirsty, you implored,
Called out with wound-like lips,
No one brought water
To the wire-sealed wagons.

The earth was fleeing from under the damned,
Warsaw was sinking in the smoke of trains
When in the upper-floor window-panes
The sun announced it was dawning.

"Imprisoned behind ghetto walls and barbed wire fences, these poets continued writing till their hands, pens and breath were stopped forever, but never their words! In their verses we can read extreme bitterness, a feeling of abandonment, loneliness, and emptiness. Yet, also hope and presentiment of a new dawn."—Yala Korwin

If you are a student, teacher, educator, peace activist or just someone who cares and wants to help, please read How Can We End Ethnic Cleansing and Genocide Forever? and do what you can to make the world a safer, happier place for children of all races and creeds.

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