I miss you God


                                 who stands far away

And in the evening air, in the evening



I want to burn myself out,

Like you are burning out.


I want to settle into the sun,

As you settle down.


I want to plunge my head into wet ferns.


I want to blend into the color of the leaves

like a moth or a ladybug.


I want to fall asleep, fall asleep in the shade

Of quiet, feeling peace circulating

In the veins as in the roots.


But you are so far away, and in the desert. I have lost

All my paths, wandering in the sand’s whiteness.


God! What have you done to me—

What have you done to me?

If you can, take this cup from me. 



My dear dead,


   my dear living—

In longings and strange dreams—

They haunt me in crowds.


My heart in vain wants to understand

That you all still exist,

That you are  happy already,

And others, somewhere in the distance,


Are fighting for existence.

And maybe they miss now,

Or maybe they think of now.

At least they did not want to die so badly.

They are gone and will not come back,


Entangled in shadows—

My living and dead—both

Just as lost, just as unreachable, ghostly.


Who knows if I will come back

To the dead or the living?

Who knows which ones I will see first?



Just grit the teeth, just clench the fists


Just don’t think constantly about the day’s everyday dirt.

About the fact the suffering body weakens more and more.

About how very angry people are.

About hunger and cold, about lice since there’s no soap.

And that we are being beaten by the mean guard-whores.

That cabbage with water has entirely repulsed us.

And about those bickering over more.

And about the fact that guards will rush us to work on Sunday.

About the fact that the hospital has no medicine for the sick.

That there are so many rumors. So little truth.

That the fifth winter is coming.

Just grit the teeth, and don’t get lost.

Don’t get lost in this sea of hate.

Don’t give into longing, so the heart

Doesn’t follow the trail of the last fallen leaves.



I miss


 my country and you,

Miss the rustle of old trees in the park,

I miss the house near the linden trees

With the jasmine bush blooming in front.


I long for that sad birch on the hill

That still rustles its green leaves,

The meadow, cornflower in the grain.

The wind that caressed my face.


Singing birds, the smell of the lime tree

On a hot summer afternoon,

And under the roof the swallow

That has made a miraculous nest of clay.


The mysterious darkness of the forest,

Its damp depth, a veil of moss,

A white lily-of-the-valley by the stream

In the sunshine. Flowers in a glade.


I want to see the morning’s golden aurora,

And four beautiful black horses,

Which plow the earth in dawn’s light,

And the shepherd chasing a herd by the path.


I want to come back from work

In the evening, worry over black bread,

Endeavor to follow the everyday road,

Deal with everyday troubles.


I miss the moonlit night

That promised us so much,

The fragrant one, the May one

Which has already taken my heart.


I miss my book by the chimney,

The rain singing against the windows,

And you playing the piano—

Somehow sweet, somehow tender.


I miss, oh, I miss that cottage.

I burn—so brutal, my heart aches.

Life is hard outside these bars,

But life is hard and barren in this prison.



Medical examination


Weary of the road, we stood

Five by five, and stretched

Into one long row,

And I dreamed of resting


In a quiet harbor somewhere on the shore.

More and more women disappeared

Behind the bathroom door.

I imagined a bath, alone time


At the end of this tormented day.

It was my group’s turn. We went in.

A voice screamed, Hurry! Hurry!

And shameless strange hands


Began tearing off our clothes.

Many women: mature, proud, and old,

Shapeless bodies. Crippled and sick.

A proper lady. A little girl held


Her mother’s hand until she was forced

To let go. All exposed to rape

By a modern man. He was called

Doctor. He was the master here.


Narrow mocking eyes that pretended

This was a medical examination.

He sat down. In front of him stood a row

Of naked women. He began to laugh.


He asked, What did you know?

Standing naked, you had to give him a statement

What did you do? he asked.

Here in this camp, violence broke


Me, crushed me—

First, bared our bodies,

Then it reached for our souls.

They gave us prison clothes.


I entered this suffering as a human being.

I left as a number, a thing.



I know you’re thinking about me again 


I know you’re thinking about me again,

And today it hurts me that your thoughts

Flutter towards me like a sail.


The winter day emerges in this small

Piece of heaven, the sand so gray, the sky so bare.

Today, my body—not strange, inert, or animal—


Senses your thoughts circling in space,

Tugging at me like someone’s careless hands.


Today, don’t think about me in the lush greenery.

Let your world grab you and carry you away 

With the flow. I’m only a shadow you must not darken.


I’m just a stone, a heavy ballast.

Throw it overboard and raise the anchor.


Time passes impatiently, and you keep

Bending down, still in that one distant moment,

When I left into the winter evening street.


Dear, don't think anymore. I’ve made you sad too long.

Smile and leave the shadows, let them grieve.


Like in nature, it’s hard. Not all swallows

Return to the nest. What will happen tomorrow

Is unknown, but the day will carry a burden of tears.


Your long waiting hurts me. So please,

Do not wait anymore. Please,

Don’t wait anymore.



To the sisters in the rewir1


We can see your pale faces through the windows.

Sometimes someone’s hand will send us a signal,

Some kind of silent sign or greeting,

Sometimes a page slips through a gap in the window.


And every day in hope and fear we ask,

Who’s in the camp hospital? What do they feel?

Are they suffering? Are they wasting away?

And (God Almighty!) is anyone missing?


Weeks and months pass. More and more

Victims go under the executioner’s knife.

There is an unheard-of crime in the history of this world,

And bloody syllables write your names’ glory.


And when I think about your hard misfortune,

About your poor legs,2 your terrible wounds, about those

Who’ve died and won’t come back to us, a shudder

Of pain and anger seizes my heart.






1. Rewir—the camp hospital.

2. “Poor legs” refers to the sisters of the poem’s title, nicknamed the Rabbits, a group a women forced to undergo medical experimentation on their legs to test the efficacy of certain drugs, to aid Nazi soldiers in the field. The gruesome experiments caused deformities, life-long pain, and in some cases death. Many prisoners did what they could to help the Rabbits, such as smuggling bread to them or creating handmade gifts from factory scraps.





Translator's Note

These translations of Polish poetry were originally composed by prisoners at the Ravensbrück Concentration Camp, a slave labor camp in operation from 1939-1945, located north of Berlin and built specifically for the incarceration of women. Although the camp population came from over thirty countries, the majority of prisoners were young Polish Catholic women from various backgrounds and educations—from royalty to blue collar, from professors to students, from philosophers to prostitutes, from aerialists to opera singers. Lund University houses documents and artifacts from these women due to the Swedish Red Cross rescue of the prisoners at the end of WWII. Its archives is considered “one of the world’s foremost collections of original material stemming from Nazi concentration camps.” These poems derive from a handwritten “anthology,” described as “The Striped Uniform Book.” Located in Lund’s “Witnessing Genocide,” the poems were transcribed from other sources, likely other manuscripts, documents, and/or oral recitations.


It was compiled at the camp and includes multiple women’s work, largely unattributed to any specific woman. Sometimes there are initials attached to particular poems and occasionally a name will appear; however, there is no certainty as to authorship. In parts of the book, initials appear on the right-hand top of a page, followed by pages and pages that are blank. We will probably never know what interrupted this particular woman’s plan to fill the pages with her poems. But the intention was there. Someone set aside that space for her to fill, for her words. The women were often careful to protect their anonymity since within the camp, a discovery of forbidden poetry could mean punishment or even death for the poets. And yet they continued to write and share their poems with others.


According to my research and my conversations with the Lund University archivists, these poems have never before been translated into English and have remained largely unexplored and unavailable to English-speaking audiences. I travelled to both Sweden and Germany where I researched the primary documents, some of which can only be found on site. I was also able to handle artifacts that belonged to the previously imprisoned women.


While most translators can communicate with a living poet or read a biography or a body of work, none of that was available while I was working on these poems. The lack of specific knowledge was a blessing and a curse. I could know nothing about a woman’s background to help guide me. I could only know her through her words on the page, which means that the poem must stand alone as a testament to her life and experience.


Polish poetry of this era often rhymed, and I decided to pay attention to sound and rhythm, but ultimately, I chose to privilege sense over sound in the final versions.


The poems are rich with description of the camp and document a woman’s individual experience there; however, other poems are about loved ones, home, religion and country. Many women continued to create art. The dancers danced. The painters painted. And the writers wrote.


Jo Brachman 

Jo Brachman


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