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Wednesday, January 28, 2015


by Philip C. Kolin

Leave quickly. Pack the remnants
of your human dignity: a change
of underwear, a toothless comb.
Put name tags and addresses
on your luggage to make sure
it is returned. "Take care of yourself."
"Don't stay away too long."

Expect to be stomped, squeezed into cattle cars.
Sing the national anthem
through the rattling slats.
But into what country is escape possible?
There is no Poland anymore.
"Your journey is outside history.                                        
With history comes understanding."                                    
Disfigured bodies look like question marks.      

Children start kindergarten on this journey.
Lesson one: teddy bear arms and eyes
ripped off;  classmates' heads
smashed against train wheels.
Lesson two: classes never end.

The trains always arrive in the fright of night.
Demons dressed in midnight and truncheons yank
fouled bodies from the car.
A woman drops her suitcase;
a dead baby falls out.

Dogs gnaw toes and fingers
into bloody stubs.
"The air smells like burnt sugar. "                    
You breathe in the hearts
and minds of  your neighbors from Lodz
who arrived before you.
The selection process starts:
Death now or death later—that's the choice.

But death will not free you
from Auschwitz. Each night
the dead are  counted
in the lineup at the Appelplatz.
Their bodies searched
for crumbs of green bread,
but their pockets are always empty.
Prisoners  prop them up
in the barracks to get their share
of thin soup and lice-thick bread.

A man with typhoid
and no eye for his socket
whispers to the corpse next to him:
"You must remember when I can't."

A voice across the shadows warns,
"We were not brought here to think.        
We are here to survive."

Author's note: This poem is indebted to and quotes from the survivors of the Holocaust whose interviews are included in Broken Silence, a series of five foreign language films collected by Steven Spielberg and the Shoah Visual History Foundation and produced by James Moll.

Philip C. Kolin, University Distinguished Professor in the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Southern Mississippi, is the editor of The Southern Quarterly and has published more than 30 scholarly books on African American playwrights, Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee. Also a poet, Kolin has published five books of poems, the most recent being Reading God's Handwriting: Poems (Kaufmann, 2012), as well as hundreds of poems in such journals as the Michigan Quarterly Review, Louisiana Literature, South Carolina Review, Christian Century, Spiritus, Seminary Ridge Review, America, and has co-edited Hurricane Blues: Poems about Katrina and Rita (Southwest Missouri UP, 2006) with Susan Swartwout.