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England, February 2017

I was there

Auschwitz-Birkenau, June–July 1944

Hundreds of women, their heads shorn, In ragged clothes,

standing  in rows of five, for hours and hours

in the rain. in the heat, being counted.

We are thirsty, so thirsty, but there is no water.

Thirst is worse than hunger.

Some fall down, limbs contorted

We do not dare to do more than whisper:

“Get up! You have to get up. Get up!

If you don’t get up, you’ll die.”

Mengele goes past, sees the fallen

Points to  others to pick them up.

Where have they gone? They’re never seen again.

I was there.

Night time -the hut –

the girl – frantic – diabetic –

knew she couldn’t survive – no medication..

Only the healthy might survive.

taken to the end of the hut – Doctors among us attend her,

talk to her – there’s no hope for her.

Went into a coma, died at dawn –  taken away.

I didn’t even know her name, but.

I was there.

Every day we stood and were counted

again and again.

Morning, noon, evening -for hours.

Nerves stretched to breaking point

Some couldn’t bear it, ran to the perimeter fence

Get stuck like spread-eagled butterflies

on a specimen board.

The fence is electrified.

This factory of death was Auschwitz – Birkenau.

I was there.

We stood, past being hungry, past being thirsty

Got thinner, feebler, more fell,

more disappeared.

Only the strong and the healthy now remained

One day we’re told to strip

to hold our rags above our heads,  prodded like cattle.

‘Don’t move, moving is dangerous

It singles you out, makes you vulnerable.

The secret of survival is not to be noticed, but

I was still there.

Now Mengele asked for doctors and nurses.

to go with a labour transport.

Could we trust this evil man

with his perverted sense of humour?

The man, who roared with laughter

when we got out of the wagon

We five, doctors and nurses, linking arms,

a scarf on the grizzled head of our aged doctor,

hiding her in the middle -marching ahead, singing,

through the portal which proclaimed


But led to death.

We five are still together, supporting each other

You need friends to survive.

I was there.

Now we stepped out together, volunteering,

We knew if we stayed we would not live long

Nobody does here in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Sooner or later you end up dead.

Gassed, ashes, made into grey coarse soap

bits of bone sticking out

to scratch, to remind you that

you’re still there.

This transport – was it real?

Or one of his jokes?

We  might get  out – or be sent to the gas chamber.

We took the risk –  wouldn’t you?

We were the fortunate few, the five hundred

went to work in armament factories

constantly bombed, but still alive, now living in hope.

Our hope was justified;

our hope was their despair.

But this was not to be the end –

March in the dark

Walk and totter towards perdition,

‘Don’t stop, don’t fall, they’ll shoot you.’

I was there


I am here – today;

What have I learned? What do I now know?

I do know that human cruelty knows no bounds

But I still don’t know why  I survived, when so many died?

Perhaps I survived –to keep the memory alive

to bear witness –  to talk to you

hoping you will listen.

So listen to me, please:

Be aware, be vigilant

Do not let differences in people

colour, religion, ethnicity. gender or class

be the deciding factors on how they’re treated.

Differences should be valued and respected.

I am different from you – you are different from me –

but that does not make me worth less than you,

it just makes me more interesting to you

and YOU more interesting to me.

I am not going to flay you

make a lampshade out of your skin

as they did in Auschwitz-Birkenau

to see what’s under the skin

because I know that under the skin

we are all the same.

Listen to me, please:

We all have rights and responsibilities.

The right to be heard,

the right to be listened to.

But we have to take responsibility

for what we are saying, what we are doing

or failing to do.

Listen to me, please.

I have faith in you, the young people of today

that you will listen and not make those mistakes

which led to the Holocaust

and are leading to genocide even today.

I believe that you will build bridges

not frail ones which will break in the slightest wind

but strong, sturdy ones

based on understanding and respect for each other

and the desire we all have

for mutual trust and genuine peace.

Remember two things, please:

Under the skin we are all the same

and – each of you can make a difference.

So do not disappoint me!


About this creative writing

Poem by Iby Knill