Four Poems by a Polish Holocaust Survivor

September 13, 2016
Quinn Dombrowski, “Velvet Flower,” 2008
Quinn Dombrowski, “Velvet Flower,” 2008

For more, read “The Renaissance of Zofia Romanowicz,” an essay by Alice-Catherine Carls. 

The Circle

Lion fangs, bear claws,
The circle tightens around us
Suffering we wander under
The walls’ vigilant watch. 

The terrible noose tightens,
The dark flood swallows us,
There is no name
For our martyrdom . . . 

Birds captured by a net,
Does caught in the snare,
This is our terrible dance,
This our wild terror. 

Today, as the melting snow
Happily splashes in the gutters,
We are still alive – like
Animals and plants at least.

Animals: when tomorrow
Is filled with suffering,
Listen to the birds’ squealing,
To the hoarse call of the deer. 

Plants: when dawn first brightens
These dark windows,
We will warm our ashen faces
In the reflection. 

                                                      Pińczów Prison, 1941


My Biggest Regret

It is not my youth that I shall most regret,
Or Mother, or you – neither the world nor springtime –
But the song that restlessly stirs within me
Waiting to unfurl like a sail.

The hardest part will be to die thinking
That the pain which rends my body
Will also slay the buried Word
Before it blooms on my lips like a flame. 

                                                      Pińczów Prison, February 1942


Prepare Me a Dress . . . 

Prepare me a dress, I’m coming back right away;
I left, but I shall return today or tomorrow,
I will want to strip off everything and put on only
What your kind hands give me at the door. 

I shall want to rip everything off me, cast away
Everything that is too heavy, dirty, and bitter –
The dress you give me will smell of green peas
Its folds will wash over my body like water. 

The dress will be blue like flowers by a stream.
It will surround me like a cloud, light and breezy –
Prepare me a dress, darling . . . I am certain
That I shall come back to you . . . very soon . . . 

                                                      Ravensbrück, 1942


To My Little Girl

I’ll make a set of dishes for my little girl,
I think it will be lovely;
I’ll mold goblets,
I’ll turn plates,
I’ll paint it with wonders,
Suns, stars, birds –
                  How my little girl will clap her hands! 

But if her little hand thoughtlessly
Bumps something and the set shatters,
Don’t cry, my little one.
Our life too is fragile!
More fragile than these goblets
With their painted stars –
                  Do you know – my heart is full of bloody shards . . . 

                                                      Neu-Rohlau, 1944


Translations from the Polish
By Alice-Catherine Carls & Daniel Simon

Courtesy of Barbara Romanowicz

Zofia Romanowicz (Radom, Poland, 18 October 1922 – Lailly-en-Val, France, 28 March 2010) was arrested by the Nazis in January 1941 and imprisoned for resistance activities. In April 1942 she was deported to Ravensbrück, and in September 1943 she was transferred to Neu-Rohlau. There, while working in a china factory, she wrote the premonitory poem “For My Little Girl . . .” She escaped in the spring of 1945 during an evacuation march and was taken to Rome. In 1946 she settled in Paris. Together with her husband, Kazimierz Romanowicz, they managed the bookstore and publishing house Libella and the Galerie Lambert for nearly fifty years. She wrote eleven novels and numerous short stories and poems. She was awarded the Kościelski Award in 1964 and the Prize of the Polish Ministry of Culture & National Heritage in 2001 for the totality of her work.

Alice-Catherine Carls is Tom Elam Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Tennessee at Martin. An internationally published diplomatic and cultural historian of twentieth-century Europe, she is also a translator and literary critic. She serves on several editorial boards and commissions in the United States and abroad.

Daniel Simon is a poet, essayist, translator, and WLT’s assistant director and editor in chief. His most recent edited collection, Dispatches from the Republic of Letters: 50 Years of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature (2020), was nominated for a 2020 Foreword INDIES Award.