I Was There
Holocaust survivor Iby Knill reads from her harrowing poem, I Was There
England, February 2017
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,
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
ARBEIT MACHT FREI – WORK GIVE YOU FREEDOM.
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!
Poem by Iby Knill