Poems from a boy who didn’t grow up

December 16, 2014 • 11:04 am

I’ve just learned that there will be no internet where I’m staying for the next 11 days, so, barring a fortuitous Starbucks or any establishment with free internet, you won’t hear from me for a while. I’ve asked my emissaries to keep things going as best they can, so keep the faith. And here’s the last post for a while:

Over at her website, in a post called “A small tragedy,” Sarah Honig tells the story of Abramek (“Abraham”) Koplowicz (1930-1944), a Polish boy from Lodz who, because he was Jewish, was confined with his family in the ghetto by the Nazis. During that time he wrote poetry and painted, and was quite good at both, though he was only 13 when he produced what’s below.

The story of Abramek and how his poems were saved by his stepbrother Eliezer Grynfeld is fascinating, and given in detail by Ms. Honig.  Here are two relevant paragraphs from the longish post:

. . . the boy’s father, Mendel Koplowicz, labored at a workshop producing cardboard boxes for the Germans. An ordained rabbi, he became a confirmed atheist after reading many secular philosophy books. Abramek worked at a shoe-making workshop, occasionally showing up at his father’s workshop to entertain the laborers by reciting poetry and satirical skits in verse. The handsome boy delighted his listeners, who unanimously agreed that he was a genius. One of those who heard him was Haya Grynfeld, Lolek’s mother and Mendel Koplowicz’s co-worker.

When the Koplowicz family was taken to Auschwitz, the mother, Yochet Gittel, was immediately sent to the gas chamber. The father and 14-year-old Abramek were sent to forced labor. But as he left for work, Mendel Koplowicz left his son in the barrack in order to protect him from the ordeal. Upon his return, he found it empty. The Germans had come and sent all those inside to death.

It’s ineffably sad that such a child (or any child) was plucked from the tide of life by the Nazis. If you want a real gut-wrenching experience, go to Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam and see the pictures she pasted on her wall while hiding from the Germans in their “annex”. Also deeply moving is the “height record” on the wall that her parents kept of their children as they grew during the two years in the annex.

Anne and her family were, of course, also captured, and she died of typhus in the camps at the age of 15. The Diary of Anne Frank may be somewhat overexposed, and represents only one child among millions of the exterminated, but because she, like Abramek, left behind her words and feelings, we get an idea of what was snuffed out in the gas chambers.

Here are two poems by the 13-year-old Abramek, translated from Polish into English by Sarah Lawson and one of Hili’s staff, my dear friend Malgorzata Koraszewska. They are from the collection of Eliezer Grynfeld, and are published here with his permission.

A DREAM  (Marzenie)

When I am twenty years of age,
I will burst forth from this cage
And begin to see our splendid Earth
For the first time since my birth!
In my motorized bird I’ll soar so high
Above the world, up in the sky,
Over rivers and the seas,
With such stupefying ease,
With my brother wind and sister cloud, I’ll
Marvel at the Euphrates and the Nile;
The goddess Isis ruled the land that links
The Pyramids and the massive Sphynx.
I will glide above Niagara Falls,
And sunbathe where the Sahara calls;
If I want to escape the scorching heat,
I will fly up north to an Arctic retreat.
I will top the cloudy peaks of Tibetan fame
And survey the fabled land whence the Magi came.
From the Island of Kangaroos
I’ll take my time and cruise
To the ruins of Pompeii
At the edge of Naples Bay,
I’ll continue to the Holy Land, then seek
The home of Homer, the celebrated Greek.
More and more astonished will I grow
At the beauty of the Earth below.
In all my travelling I’ll be twinned
With my siblings, cloud and wind.

All those dreams were, of course, never fulfilled. Here’s part of the manuscript of the poem above:



The only picture of Abramek:

(From Sarah Honig): The only relatively clear remaining photograph of Abramek, showing him as a toddler with his parents.

SACRIFICE   (Ofiara)

In a peaceful hamlet Berele and his parents led contented lives
Until one fine day bad news arrives:
Mobilization! War has been declared!
Will they take her son? Deep in her soul the mother’s scared.
Suddenly her worst fears come true; Berele is called up to fight.
He bids his parents farewell. His throat feels strangely tight.
He tears himself away from the familiar domestic scene,
For Berele is a man now, not a boy; he’s turned eighteen.
Berele fights valiantly in the dark fog of war
And is promoted to a member of the officer corps.
Now a battle is raging, soldiers are dying;
Thousands have fallen, but the flag is still flying.
Cannons roar, grenades explode, the din is mad,
But in Berele’s heart he longs for home and mum and dad.
His homesick longing must be that pain in his chest,
But no, it’s a bayonet. The bullets fly—he’s going west.
He is trampled in the mud; he cannot rise.
“Goodbye mother and dad,” he whispers as he dies.
Back home in the hamlet, after many years hope still makes them run
To every man coming up the road; he could be their beloved son!
But it’s always a stranger. “Time heals all wounds”, but it hasn’t done.
The father dies from longing for his son, but the mother will not rest.
In her dreams she kisses him tenderly and clasps him to her breast.

One of Abramek’s artworks:

Prayer, c.1943, a painting by Abramek Koplowicz





37 thoughts on “Poems from a boy who didn’t grow up

  1. Astonishing. The poetry still flows and soars and rhymes even though it’s translated. One of many tragic losses of life.

  2. The part of Anne Frank’s house that really got me was the photo toward the end of Otto Frank. He is visiting the annex after the war. He was the only one that survived and there is so much profound sadness captured in the picture.

  3. A wrenching story. On a par with this and Anne Frank’s diary is Suite Francaise by Irene Nemerovsky. It too was saved, in this case by one of her daughters (the two were hidden in a convent during the occupation) who found the manuscript, then spent years transcribing it.

    One wonders how many other works of genius were lost to Naziism, and how amazing that these few survived.

    Also recommended: Sean Carroll’s Brave Genius, a study of the parallel lives of Albert Camus and Jacques Monod, comrades in the Resistance, and in life.

  4. Wow. The Shoah is an unspeakably awful chapter in human history, as is all genocide. It’s no less awful for the fact that every person lost was not a gifted artist, but remains like this evoke a humanity for the victims that should keep us wary of future holocausts.

    There is a lesson in this that Muslim apologists should note: Germany has recovered remarkably from the stain of the Nazi era, and Germans are as well regarded as any Western nationality (certainly in many quarters, more highly regarded than are us Americans).

    Nazism was resisted and defeated; Germans died, but it was Nazism that was the enemy. And the German religitimization is not just a function of German behavior but also of open-mindedness of the West.

    The so-called “Islamaphobes” are calling for resistance to evil Muslim ideas, not war against the people who suffer under it. Perhaps someday the Islamic nations, if not Islam itself, will have a German-style rebirth and welcome place among the nations. I’m hopeful though not encouraged.

    1. I have thought of the Hitler/extremist parallel many times. A large chunk of Islam, in the form of Arab countries, allied themselves with Hitler.

      I wonder if this isn’t an immediate source of the conflict between Muslims and Israel. Bad feeling left over from WWII. Prior to that, Jews lived throughout the middle east.

      1. Germany allied with Islam in WWI too, to take advantage of the Pan-Arab movement. At that point Germany was already gaining a reputation for its anti-Semitism. Jews mainly allied themselves with Russia. The International Zionist movement during WWI forbade their affiliates to ally with Germany.

  5. Beautiful and gut-wrenching. Such a beautiful “soul”, if I may use the term, lost.
    I feel ashamed to admit that even though I used to live in the area where the Litzmannstadt ghetto had been located, I didn’t really read up enough about its citizens.

    Wonderful translations. Thank you.

  6. It is also important to note that just about all of the Germans of this period (we call them Nazis) were christians of one faith or the other. So although many religious people today always refer to Germans of the time as Nazis and it was those Atheist Nazis who exterminated the Jews, it simply is not true. The hatred and bigotry toward the Jews is well documented in history and it did not come from Atheist.

      1. Luther was late to the game — millennia late. Antisemitism was blatant right there from the start, in the Gospels themselves. “Brood of vipers” / the (only) good Samaritan / the cursing of the fig tree / the riot at the Temple / the poo-flinging of the Sanhedrin / the herd of swine / and too much more to catalogue here.


  7. Heart-breaking is completely inadequate to describe this. So much that could have been added to our story, except for a relative few greedy, megalomanical, brutish thugs. And though the Reich was one of the most extreme examples, we can’t seem to keep such people from achieving the power to influence our societies for the worse. Witness Dick Cheney’s interviews regarding the Torture Report over the past few days (sickening).

  8. Tragic, and all the more poignant to be posted on a day when 132 more children (at latest count) have just been slaughtered in Peshawar by the modern-day equivalent of the Nazis.

    1. And the worst of all is that, then as it is now, the world’s response to such atrocities is lacking. When Jan Karski set out to inform the US, England, and others about the fate of Jews during the WWII, he was roundly ignored, and the killings of Jews deemed a “Jewish problem”.

  9. I have a 14 year old son, and sometimes I forget how capacious a mind and heart can be at that age. So much going on beneath the surface.

    How tragic this beautiful life (and every other) was wiped away so maliciouly.

  10. The poems are beautiful and tragic. Just amazing from such a young person.

    The fact that they were translated from Polish to English, and yet they still rhymed,
    has me intrigued: how does that work?

    Presuming the poem rhymed in it’s original Polish, I can’t imagine any particular connection between words that happen to rhyme in Polish and those that do in English, so I wouldn’t expect a strict translation to retain the rhymes.

    Would I presume correctly that the translator looks for English words that rhyme
    during the translation, sacrificing a more strictly accurate translation in the process?

    1. Thanks for the compliment. Translations are never word-for-word substitutions. We took some small liberties with the Polish originals, but our versions are nevertheless as faithful to them as we could manage. We reproduced Abramek’s rhyme schemes–rhymed couplets in these examples. The aim of poetry translation is to create a poem in English with the same form, meaning and tone as the one in the source language, and that sometimes requires a bit of juggling.

  11. It is heartbreaking to read this. There are tears in my eyes. It is so sad what some people can do to others. I don’t think I will ever understand it.

    Thank you for the wonderful translations.

  12. Sad beyond all words. So hard to look at that picture of the obviously beloved toddler with his doting parents, knowing what came to pass.

  13. It is at moments like these that we should all feel profoundly grateful to the whims of exorbitant chance that you and I were born, and furthermore that all of us reading this were born under extremely lucky circumstances. You are alive, I hope reasonably healthy, and you have fulfilled at least much of your aspirations for education.

    I think Richard Dawkins said it best in his essay We Are All Going to Die, And That Makes Us The Lucky Ones. If you have not seen this, you should.

    1. Here is the start of the book:
      “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?”
      — Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow

  14. I don’t know if it is still the case but I’ve been told that at one time the best seller lists in Poland were typically topped by works of poetry rather novels and the like.

    I can see why.

    Remarkable poems. Thanks for sharing them and his story. Speechless.


    1. Abramek’s poems were published in a book under the title “Utwory wlasne” some years ago. Unfortunately, out of print now. But there are some of his poems in original on the Internet. Sarah and I translated just five of them, the two Jerry posted and “The Gale” (Wicher); “The Clock” (Zegar); “The Beggar” (Zebrak). If you can’t find the originals, let me know and I will send those five to you.

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