Living on a Star in Terezin: a Poem

terezin-aerial-view
Terezin Concentration Camp

Living on a Star in Terezin

When I was young I’d lie
upon the cool grass at night
and gaze upon the sky.
And sometimes I would wonder why
I could not live there, on a star,
and in the heavens dance!
Clean and bright, and pure they are,
I thought, to my earth-bound sight;
tiny, shining beacons of the night.
Now, no longer young, and soon
perhaps to die,
now indeed I live upon a star,
between the river and the plains
that stretch as far
between here and home
as if among the starry skies I’d roamed.
A fortress battle-star of brick and earth:
the tortured turf now sick with sorrow,
void of mirth or stellar dance;
Eight pointed prison bastion of a star,
that is an ugly scar
upon a battered dream.

© 2017, Walter William Melnyk

It Must Be The Hat – A Poem

Tevye

It Must Be The Hat

Why the hat?
Why do we always wear a hat?
What’s with that, I asked,
with the hat?
He looked at me with eyes
as brown as the hat, wise
as the Good Book.
“Look,” he said. “Look,”
and touched the brim
of his brown hat.
“It’s not a whim,” he said,
“of man or God, that
I wear a hat, a hat as brown
as any clod of clay.
It reminds me, in a subtle way
that, like this hat I, too,
am like that bit of clay.
Anyway,” (he looked at me
and winked an eye,
and raised his pointed fingers
to the sky) it keeps the sun off
and the rain.
And otherwise I can’t explain it:
the hat, I mean.”
He tipped the visor up,
and scratched his head.
“Of course it just might be,” he said,
“we never get a chance to put it down
before we’re yet again
run out of town.”

©2017 Walter William Melnyk

Passing Out the Shit: A Poem

Cattle car 2

Passing Out the Shit Bucket
at Zgorzelec Station

Pass out the shit bucket, he said,
on the siding, in the rain.
The stench had closed our lungs for hours,
for miles, as the wheels clacked
over crumbling rails.
Stumbling, stumbling over emptied pails
of shit the nazi cursed
and shot old Josef for the fun of it.
And Josef, tumbling out the door,
rolled in the stinking stuff, but he
was dead already, and cared no more.

©9/3/2017 Walter William Melnyk

from ch 32 of Pavel’s Violin

The Dark Place Under the Stairs

In the main hospital at Terezin concentration camp, the dead bodies were stacked in a dark closet under the stairs, awaiting transport to the Crematorium.  The young boys had a game they played . . .

ovens

The Dark Place Under the Stairs

They put the bodies there,
the dead ones,
in the dark place under the stairs,
To wait their turn
in the crematorium.
No sheet for the dead, nor urn
for the burned.
Naked, whether flesh or ash.
We played games with them,
the dead, we kids.
Creeping in the dark,
hands outstretched,
to keep the dead we had to touch away.
Touching cold and waxen lips and lids,
not a game for young boys to play,
but it was Terezin, after all,
with little else to pass the day.

© 10 August 2017, Walter William Melnyk

The Violinist of Auschwitz

Alma Rose, director of the Auschwitz Women’s Orchestra, plays her violin softly in the night, as, across the train tracks,  diesel trucks ferry the people of the Terezin Family Camp to the Auschwitz gas chambers, 8 March 1944.

gas

The Violinist of Auschwitz

Across the strings a song of sorrow
plays in mourning
for a dark tomorrow,
for an empty morning
that will not come,
that will not ever come again
for the hundreds on their way
to the gas tonight.
No tune can ever after set aright
this wrong,
No tender bowing
ever craft a song of hope
for those whose hope is lost
to death.
Yet still she plays the tender tune
as oily smoke from ovens
clouds the moon;
despairing cries o’erwhelm
the softness of her strings.
She cannot hope, but still she plays,
that even in the darkest days
some beauty might remain
against a final victory of hate.
Against a final victory of hate.

© 10 August 2017, Walter William Melnyk

Dying at Auschwitz – an excerpt from Pavel’s Violin

An excerpt from “Pavel’s Violin,” chapter thirty, “Naked in the Night.”

(C) 2017 Walter William Melnyk, All Rights Reserved.  Do not duplicate.
Use the link to the right to purchase “Pavel’s Violin” on Amazon.

Auschwitz BarracksMira looked to her left, through the chain link fence and barbed wire, across the train tracks and the infamous arrival ramp, to the barracks of the Women’s Camp. Despite the hour, one building still had a light burning in one window. Mira had once been told the building was the Music Block, the barracks of the Auschwitz Women’s Orchestra. She had seen or heard them occasionally, from a distance, over the past six months. Often playing as work details left in the morning, or returned in the afternoon. Sometimes they gave concerts for the Nazi SS officers. Occasionally she had seen them playing on the arrival ramp, as Jews exited a new transport and were selected for life or death by the feared Doctor Mengele. She fixed her eyes upon the one lit window, the one that often remained lit when all else had gone dark. She had been told the room belonged to the conductor of the orchestra, the world famous violinist Alma Rosé. How Mira had wished she could talk with Alma! How she had wished she could play her own Violin beside her in the orchestra. But it could not be. The Women’s camp was in a different world.

“Still, I have been able to play for the families,” Mira thought. “Still, I have been able to teach Beáta, who is getting quite good.”

There was a momentary lull in the rumbling of the trucks, and Mira could hear the faint sounds of a violin coming from that lighted window in the Music Block. She strained to hear the tune. Chopin’s Etude in E, Tristesse. It was rumored to be Alma’s favorite piece, and she often played it late at night. Sometimes it could be heard drifting across the silent camp, a song of lost love, of hopeless resignation.

A song lives in me,
a lovely song,
it stirs up memories
within my heart.
My heart was still.
Now that tender song cries out again,
calls me, everywhere!

Life was far off,
dreams gone away,
My Heart! how calm
you were so long ago,
so long ago.

Now it all wells up again,
all my joy, my heart’s desire,
deepest yearning, sleepless anguish
lives!

I just want peace,
peace within my heart,
never to recall
that song.

Mira remembered the words, as the music drifted across the horrible selection ramp. She would never see Joseph again. Had she ever wished to forget the pain by forgetting him? She would not have thought so. Who was it Alma had loved so dearly, that she so longed to forget? Longed to forget, as the only way to find peace?

“Well,” Mira thought, “I will find peace soon enough tonight.” She hugged Beáta and Mirek closer. They had been so strangely quiet. “I hope it will come quickly, when it comes.”

Look at us! The almost dead.

Jewish women and children arrive at the “Selection Ramp” at Auschwitz-Birkenau.  In less than an hour, they will all be stripped naked and die in one of the gas chambers.  Look closely at each face.  Never forget them.

arrival auschwitz

 We Are Almost Gone

Released at last
from the dark cattle cars,
the nightmare past
we hoped. Ours,
a futile grope for ended dreams.
The sun is bright,
the blue sky hurts our eyes,
and dark smoke, still beyond our sight,
where horror down a narrow pathway lies.
Look at us! The almost dead.
You cannot hear the muffled cries,
the silent miseries of dread.
The few short minutes left
before the gas, bereft, bereft
of hope. Our waning minutes pass
without time; eternity already lies
before us: blue skies,
and keening chorus.

© 27 June 2017 Walter William Melnyk
All Rights Reserved.

An Evening in Terezin

terezin transport

Evening

Original German by Ilse Weber  in Terezin, c. 1943
translated by Walter William Melnyk, 2016

When we leave work in the evening,
home lures us with no colorful, shimmering lamplight.
We stand, hesitating, before the door
at the horror of our darkened room.

They have taken our light in punishment,
because someone has done something wrong;
what, exactly, the camp has not learned.
We’ve been living in the dark now for weeks.

So you stand on the porch
looking up at the sky with all the stars.
The evenings are now so beautiful and long –
the whole barrack agrees.

Thus we have only now learned to understand
how wonderfully the golden stars shine.
And above all that you should go to sleep,
so you will not have to cry all night.

The Way to Theresienstadt

As it appears in “Pavel’s Violin”

This is the Way to Theresienstadt
original German by Ilse Weber c. 1943
Translation by Walter William Melnyk, 2017

This is the road to Theresienstadt
trodden laboriously by a thousand,
and every one of the thousand has
suffered the same injustice:

They marched him with bowed head,
the Star of David over his heart,
his tired feet sore and dirty,
his soul tormented with pain,

hands bruised with a heavy burden,
driven by harsh commands,
an endless road in the burning sun,
his throat tormented with thirst.

This is the road to Thereseinstadt,
which has drunk our lifeblood,
where many a weary old man collapsed
and died on the rocky road.

It is a road full of misery and darkness
where streams of tears flow;
complaints of children, and moans of women,
are shed in helpless yammering.

Here an old man with poor sight stumbles
in the ruts of the herd.
How many never again return,
because the earth encloses them.

Where Is My Home?

“Where Is My Home?” is the National Anthem of the Czech Republic.  This English translation is by Walter William Melnyk.

Where is my home, where is my home?
Streams are rushing through the meadows,
Midst the rocks sigh fragrant pine groves,
Orchards decked in spring’s array,
Scenes of Paradise portray.
And this land of wondrous beauty,
Is the Czech land, my home!