Poetry about the persecution of Jews in Austria

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Persecution of Jews poetry / poems

Poems about the persecution of Jews in Austria by Austrian born writer Susi Savill

A fifteen-year-old reflects on her visit to Auschwitz:

They lied by Rebekah Coomber

Rebekah introduces her poem:

This is my poem. I am fifteen years old.

A year ago, I visited Auschwitz with a group of friends from England and some that we had met in Germany through the Cross of Nails charity.

I was inspired to write a poem reflecting my views on the Holocaust and this is from a Jewish perspective:

They lied


Sent to a better life, they told us. They lied.

Packed to go, our lives in a suitcase.
Forced on a train, sardines in a tin.
Destination? Unknown.
We'll be there soon, they told us. They lied.

Half of us dead, most of us dying.
We arrived, our lives thrust into Nazi fists.
Families separated, people alone.
You'll see them again, they told us. They lied.

They picked us out, worthy from useless.
Was this just a sick game?
Who were they to say? Who were they to judge?
It'll be over in a while, they told us. They lied.

Fear for our lives.
People left and never came back.
Our backs broken, our bodies broken, our hearts broken.
"Heil Hitler, he will save the world," they told us. They lied.

No bravery in our eyes anymore.
Only tears.
Sore from weeping, sore from sleeping.
"Work will set you free, harder," they told us. They lied.

The innocent forsaken.
The faithful destroyed.
How so uncompassionate? How so empty? How so cold?
You are all bad Jews, they told us. They lied.

I am God's child, I told them.
I am a light in the darkness, I told them
It's just a shower, they told me.
They lied. They lied. They lied.

Rebekah Coomber

Poems about the persecution of Jews in Austria by Austrian born writer Susi Savill

These thoughtful and moving poems express the anguish of being an Austrian citizen who is sensitive to the knowledge of her fellow citizen’s complicity in a crime against the Jews.

Susi Savill’s introduction

The night of 24/25th March 2005 was the 60th anniversary of the death (the cold blooded murder) of 180 Jewish labourers in a small town of Eastern Austria.

I got to know about these murders through a Jewish colleague whose father was one of the Jewish labourers from Hungary. He survived.  A film called 'A Wall of Silence' was made by an Austrian film company and her father was asked to testify, but he could not remember the exact location of the graves.  The film was about the efforts of the Jewish religious community to locate the mass graves of these 180 labourers in a town called Rechnitz.It also deals with how the population does not want to and claims that they cannot remember. The graves have not been found to this day.

I did my BA dissertation of this subject and have since written 50 poems to express my feelings and my anxieties of dealing with mass murder in Austria in obvious and full view of the civil population just two weeks before the end of the war.

It would be good to share these poems with some readers on this anniversary.

Susi Savill

March 2005



I see no stone

no cross

nor sign

yet here are graves

I see them not

bloody trenches

became graves

of men

shot dead

in cold blood

no memory

Oh ivory sky

like a tent hide this earth

Oh howling wind

blow gently

this is holy ground

Oh golden sun

do not touch this earth

with rays of warmth and light

lest you wake the dead

before we find them

and bury their bones

with decency

in blessed earth




Margareta Heinrich

and Eduard Erne

directed the documentary

they called it

' A Wall of Silence'

they could not find the memory

they went to Rechnitz

and they asked them all:

where were you

on the 24th of March in 1945

what did you hear

or see

or think

they could not wake a memory

some said they saw labourers

come to build the south-east wall

some saw

the one hundred and eighty

who were too old too weak

too sick to work

some said

they heard shots ring out

in the dead of the night

yet they dared not think

thinking had been abolished

under the Nazi regime

and the bloody memory

cannot be found




city in Burgenland

Austria's most eastern province

some say

last stronghold

between east and west

police patrol

this border

day and night

keeping watch on those

who try to walk their life

into a future in the west


are not welcome here

they are the 'Other'

might they wake

a memory

of a stranger inside

a stranger

so strangely disturbing

they fear him

they have chosen

to banish

bury and forget



Silence holds the key

sixty years of silence

sixty years we did not hear

the victims call:

murder - most foul murder

here we lie dead

unjustly dead

we living cannot undo death

yet two things we can do

for the dead

for our dead

one:  give them justice

two:  accord them burial

but why have silence

and loss of memory

securely locked the secret

of the whereabouts of graves



Jews are not strangers

in this town

five hundred years ago

they first dwelled here

Rechnitz was theirs

as much as ours

this their homeland

and their culture

they were welcome here

they contributed to wealth

and cultured learning

Christians and Jews

lived in harmonious relation

this changed

enter the Nazis

April 1938:

'Gauleiter'  Portschy found a quick

a national-socialist solution:

overnight  by command

respected citizens

became non-persons

their documents were confiscated

and stateless

without right

to the protection of any country

they were rounded up

and quickly

with true national-socialist efficiency




This is my country

how do I bear

the burden of this legacy

this war with its atrocious homicide

and systematic Judeocide

unique in human history

civilisation wears a thin veneer

and anti-Semitism has a long tradition

we need the memory

we need to ask you





please talk to us

you must talk

and we must learn

what happened

in every town

in every village

of this land

did you have no presentiment

of death and murder

do bloody trails like rivers

run through this land

is it the fear

that locks your tongues

and turns decent men and women

into for ever silent witnesses

of such horrendous crimes



'Guilty Victim'

Hella Pick called

her book on Austria

the victim theory

actively encouraged

by four occupation powers

Austria she says

was useful as a pawn

of cold war politics

and over those political manoeuvres

we quite forgot

we cannot purge the past

we have to face it first

however ugly

and disturbing it may be

my own

dear little

sweet little


Mozart and Strauss-waltzy


has a history

a Nazi history

which we must look at

before it is too late

and all the ones

who would have known

and could have told

have died



I did not know

how I should start to look for answers

too many questions crowded in on me at once

this Austria

which I had left

so young and quite naive

so many years ago

this Austria

my homeland

where was my love

I was no longer sure of that

yet how else

should I explain

the pain I felt

when first

I heard

and read

and learned

of the murders in Rechnitz

through a testimony

of a man I did not even know


where are the keys

which will unlock the secrets

how many secrets

are there still to tell


how far

should I look back

to understand

even the smallest part

of Austria's involvement

in the holocaust




end of 19th century Vienna

city of music

fertile ground

fine arts flourishing

and influence

of  our Jewish artists

shaping the character of Austria

the language sensibilities


sense of humour

and melancholy

so distinctly

from our German neighbour

this very Vienna


of so many

great men and women

and of discourses

of racial theory

Houston Stewart Chamberlain's

influential writings

on the incompatibility

of Aryan and Jewish race

Brigitte Hamann writes:

a  Zeitgeist littered with distortion

Nietzschean concepts

of 'Untermensch'

and 'Herrenmensch'

civilisation levels



the German-Austrian the standard

and popular newspapers

calling for

anthropological marriage and breeding politics



The Great War

in which our Jews

our fellow-Austrians

fought patriotically

for our common land

Austria truly their home

Stefan Zweig so movingly

calls Austria his 'Heimat'

and tells how much

he wanted to be part

of the rebuilding of a new Austria

a desperate rump

of a once prosperous Empire

now starvation


and hopelessness

was daily fayre

Jews the obvious visible alien presence

the scapegoats

the 'Jew' the subverter

of the old order

and the destroyer

of a glorious past

idealised and destorted

by myth and legend




This is the time

when racial theory

becomes political reality

the German-speaking Austrians

can not define themselves

superior any longer

as they had done for centuries

within the multi-culturality

of Habsburg Empire

and with the loss

of these 'inferior' nations

the 'Jew' conveniently

becomes the 'Other'

the new inferior being

against which

the Austrians proceed

to shape themselves

a new identity



Frantz Fanon asks:

how does a system

which sets standards

that define humanity

deform those

who shape themselves to fit those standards

Otto Weininger


of such deformation:

Jewish - he converts to Christianity

and forthwith blames

a 'Jewishness'

for all the ills of modern life

Weininger connects this 'Jewishness'

to feminisation sexualisation and modernity

all these alleged subversions

of an established 'valuable' order

yet he himself

becomes the sad victim

of  this crisis of identity

he ends his life


at the age of twentythree



Michel Foucault has shown

how knowledge is a tool of power

discourses on disease


are now connected

with the 'Jew'

the 'body' is a site of power

the 'Jewish body'

becomes a stereotype

combining myth and prejudice

with pseudo scientific knowledge

a 'knowledge' so powerful

that it devalues

and finally proceeds

to scientifically declare

this 'Jewish body'

less than human



As Jews acculturate

become less visible

the public consciousness

is with great impact

graphically reminded

of their otherness

caricatures define

the character of  'Jewishness'

the  urban 'Jew' connected

to socially stigmatising diseases

Jews are portrayed as risk

to nation wealth and health

the city dwelling 'Jew'

comes to be seen

as the arch-carrier

of syphilis



The time between the wars

became a struggle

two diametrically opposed world views

Fascism and Communism

a population without hope

hungry and unemployed

desperately holding on

to an old order

which reassured

and promised continuity

they were afraid

of  a democracy

in which they would be faced

with that strange phenomenon:

political responsibility

they were even more afraid

of radical ideas

like communism

it was so easy

not to think or act

just  blame the 'Jew'

subverter of an order

which had long passed

its 'sell by date'



Is it a game

to look at history

with the great benefit of hindsight

factors come together

patterns emerge

a puzzle slowly reassembled

we see how cultural practices

consistently devalue Jewish life

yet still we lack so many pieces

because we cannot talk

because of silence

and of memories lost

by every man and every woman

of this land

we are afraid to ask

and volunteers are rare

to tell us truly how they felt

or what they thought

why nothing could be done

to prevent  the enormity of such homocide

people alone make history

all the people of a land

we must find

the pieces of history

all the pieces

which memory has lost

and which will shape

how we think or act today

or tomorrow



I asked my mother:

she talked

about fear

and how they did not mind

when Hitler marched into Bohemia

for centuries her people had believed

that this was German land

they had been well conditioned

by popular propaganda

they wanted to be part of a 'Reich'

a great German nation

and yes

they knew Jews

they were sad and confused

when they were taken

but self-preservation

and fear and control

had become all pervading

keeping your head down

and not wanting to know

was the daily motto of life

their own fate

was already written into the stars:

they themselves

the German Bohemians

were deported in animal transporters

at the end of the war

their land no longer German

an experience

which brought them closer

to the suffering

of those they let go

without daring

to raise a hand

or a word

in open protest



You want to blame us she said

this is why you keep asking

but how can I blame

I was not there

I do not know

how much of a hero

I would have been myself

most likely no hero at all

yet I do need to ask

I need to know every detail

she can remember

every thought she thought

all the fears she feared

all the compassion she felt

every protest she made

however silently

I need to know the signs

the prejudices and the dangers

so that I can be vigilant

and examine myself

and arm myself

against being part ever

of such crimes

against humanity



I never asked my father

I waited too long

he had died

when I learned how much there was to ask

I saw the documentary


its German title so poignant

'death' and 'silence'

only then did I find out

how close the homicide

had come to Austria

this is my land

I have not  lived here

for over thirty years

I was not prepared

or shielded in any way

against the shock

the lasting anguish and the pain

murders - cold blooded murders

in  my own country

two weeks before the end of the war

and now I know

I have to find out more

I never asked my father

because I waited too long



Erne and Heinrich

made the film

in 1992

I did not know of it

until a friend brought it

to my attention

while I was stunned

my eyes had opened

to a period of Austria's history

which education had denied

and curiosity had shunned.



'A Wall of Silence'

documents the efforts

to find the graves

of  one hundred and eighty

Hungarian labourers

who had survived

the inhuman marches

of Hungarian Jews due west

they survived

to be shot in cold blood

when they reached Rechnitz

a final destination indeed

in Austria



In March 1944

the Germans entered Hungary

427 000 Jews

were finally removed

under conditions most inhumane

the bulk of them ended in Auschwitz

and 50 000 were marched due west

to build the southeast- wall

the useless wall

to slow the steadily advancing Red Army

the very army

who liberated Rechnitz

just fourteen days

after the massacre



The marches west

of these Hungarian labourers

are much described by eminent historians

and yet

it  makes us sick to see

just what mankind

is capable of doing

to other human beings:

the freezing cold

the overnight in paper tents



of starving bodies

barely alive

death and shootings

constant and daily companions

the agony of hours

of standing and waiting

for body searches

in case someone had managed

to smuggle into the camp

the tiniest crust of bread



Heinrich and Erne

asked  the population of Rechnitz

did you see the Hungarian Jews

yes - they saw them

unfortunate sad  thin and starving

crowded into cellars stables barns

some women said

they threw out boiled potatoes

into the road

where the labourers routinely walked

they pitied them

they saw the beatings of prisoners

caught stooping

picking up potatoes

any scrap of food

the only morsel of compassion

the women of Rechnitz

were able to offer

to help their suffering

fellow humans



A cross shaped barn

reminder of the place

where onehundredandeighty people died

1993 finally declared

a memorial to mass murder

it took till 1991

for Austria's chancellor Franz Vranitzky

to officially acknowledge

our country's Nazi past

yet a discussion

of the complicity

or even the passivity

of people in this country

in every place

however small and insignificant

is even at this date

distinctly far from forthcoming



Austria's post war antisemitism

is marked by a distinct absence of Jews

who only make a mere percent of our population

yet if we study opinion polls

we find a clear distrust of foreigners

including Jews

there is no popular or obvious discussion

in contemporary Austria


is the most  revealing discourse

of antisemitic prejudice



It is a thin veneer

which lies upon this past

all keys to memory seem lost

anti-Semitism has a firm

and possibly subconscious hold

political events of our time

play strongly on the re-awakening

of this despicable

still very present prejudice

one such event :

the election propaganda of 1970

the right-wing 'Volkspartei' invited Austrians

to give their vote to their own candidate

"a real Austrian" Josef Klaus

and with the knowledge

that  the socialist contender Bruno Kreisky was Jewish

the implications are all too obvious

later in 1986 the famous

and widely discussed 'Waldheim-affair'

took its toll upon Austria's reputation

I watched it unfolding from afar

and never understood my fellow Austrians

how could they close their doors and ears and eyes

to any civilised and free discussion

on the nature of the involvement in a Nazi past

of  an intended President

the head of state of Austria



The Freedom-Party of Jörg Haider

achieved success in 1999

a sign of political immaturity

of the contemporary

Austrian electorate

Haider's smiling picture

in the national press

in his brown 'Waldjanker' jacket

displaying the Carinthian flag

gaining his votes on xenophobia

and nationalism:

Austria for Austrians

Carinthia for Carinthians

potent propaganda in a province

where immigration

from a broken former Yugoslavia

was perceived as a great threat

to national integrity and livelihood



Prejudice is a cultural sentiment

anti-Semitism and xenophobia

are close companions

with a long tradition

the disavowals and denials of murders

in a small town like Rechnitz

stand here as paradigm

of an emotional defence

against acknowledgement

of painful or distressing truths

history informs our actions of today

and in the context of a history

in which a nationalistic and anti-Semitic prejudice

was clearly one important element

which lead to and allowed World War II's heinous atrocities

such sentiments as those of one Jörg Haider

are not respectable

and politicians of his ilk

are not or should not be




That murderous night

the 24th of March in 1945

there was a party

in the castle

up above Rechnitz

fifteen people left the party

in the dead

of the night

weapons handed out

and shots

rang out

in the vicinity

of that cross shaped barn

that night

they had to dig the trenches

that night

even more beating

and shouting than usual

a deadline to be met

and as the labourers

are finally ordered to stop digging and to leave

soldiers arrived in cars

with skulls on their lapels

insignia of the dreaded SS



Next day

the area of the ditches

soiled with blood and ammunition

one man

Nicolaus Weiss

barely alive

found by a local woman in the ditch

so nearly his grave

a Rechnitz family

courageous enough

to hide him two weeks

until the liberation

he came back in 1946

to this place of horror

to testify for a local commission

yet he would never talk

of what he knew

or saw or suffered

on his way to Rechnitz

his car was ambushed outside of town

and Nikolaus Weiss the eye witness

who had survived that fatal night

was cruelly murdered

so he would never talk again



The trials began in 1947

the witness Stefan Beigelboeck declares:

around two hundred Jewish labourers

arrived in Rechnitz about six o'clock

on the 24th  March 1945

they were

he says

in an inhuman and pitiable state

sick  - dirty - full of lice

and totally exhausted

so much that some died there and then

on their arrival at the station

Franz Podezin of the Gestapo

employed the usual tactics of confusion

to calm the prisoners

he promised food

medical care and hygiene

and yet he would have known

the murders were already planned

at ten o'clock that night

twenty Hungarian labourers

were forced to dig more trenches

the very trenches

the very graves

for one hundred and eighty

frightened sick and shivering human beings

who were too weak to be 'useful'

they could not work

they could not dig

so their lives were deemed

to be just simply




The murderers

first intoxicate themselves

at the grand party at the castle

held for the Nazi entourage

they say there was much drinking

and much dancing

the murderers themselves

among the guests

the commando of men

which left the party

to commit the crime

returned promptly

to the castle

after the bloody deed

their  victims' blood' not dry upon their hands

and never dry upon their hearts and souls

those murderers

went back

and carried on

more gay and heartless celebrations

in what can only be described

as an act of sheer unbelievable atrocity and callousness



The verdicts of the murder trial

are not conclusive

the sentences remarkably mild

one by one the witnesses

withdraw or weaken their testimonies

and many refuse point-blank

to appear in court at all

the main suspects have fled

the spectre

of a second murdered witness

one Franz Muhr

sufficiently terrorises the population

so much that they decide

that for their own sake

it will  be wiser

to throw away the memory

and to keep 'stumm'  for ever more

and without testimonies or witnesses

many a guilty man

may even now be walking free

and masquerading

as respectable and blameless citizen



After decades of opposition

in 1991

Rechnitz finally acknowledges

the national-socialist terrors in their midst

they hold the first memorial celebration

in which they honour

the memory of the dead

they remind themselves

of centuries of tradition

of Jewish people in their town

public display of grief

may be honourable

yet it is not enough

while yet the secret

the identity of that firing squad

is not revealed

Erne and Heinrich

only found their 'Wall of Silence'

vague references

and not one person

who would admit that they remember

the exact location of those graves



Fear and denial

hold this community imprisoned

soon those who were there

and saw and knew

will die themselves

without confession

they will die

to face their judgement

in another world

their memory of blood

upon their hands and hearts and souls


may never let them rest

in all eternity



Some interviewees in 'A Wall of Silence'

say that they think

the past is best buried and forgotten

their memory of this past

can no longer tell

the truth from myth

or shed the old now innate fear

of swift reprisal

spectres the legacy

of those horrendous crimes

can never rest

until all that is 'knowable'

has been revealed

one hundred and eighty restless souls

whose bodies

have not had decent burial

still fill the air

above this town of Rechnitz

with cries of pain and woe



The documentary

reminds us

of that dark night in 1945

the labourers were forced

to dig the trenches

just like they had been digging

steadily and endlessly all winter

their aim the building of the wall

digging and digging

beatings and beatings

and hunger and cold

and fear and death

that night the 24th March

digging zigzag shaped trenches

150cm deep and 70cm wide

and late that night

the shots

endless shots

that rang out eerily  

from the direction of those trenches

that night

they could not know

they had been digging graves



Would anyone remember

the topography

of that horrendous place

those trees were old

they would bear witness

and there on the left

the cross shaped barn

the trenches must have been

just here - they thought

and aerial photography

bore out this testimony

again more digging

Rabbi Simon Anschin took up the search

machines moved in

the Rabbi says

that any place where Jews are buried

is holy ground

until their Messiah comes


walk gently

and talk more silently

for somewhere near

lie dead

one hundred and eighty

unjustly dead

here somewhere

just here - or over there

there must be holy ground



They did not find the holiest bit of ground

they could not find those graves

however hard they tried

where is the key

to the memory

a memory which haunts

and traumatises

it will not rest while it is lost

why can no one tell the secret

in this important minute detail

in  sixty years

a landscape changed

by an unfeeling nature

has robbed us

of a memory

where are those

who hide their memory

and saw and heard and knew

and still may know

and will not

or dare not tell



Can we in our human limitation

lift any corner

of the veil of eternity

do our screams of pain

fly up into a universe

in which they float as breaths of air


that our lives were not in vain

does our pain

appeal to any feeling presence

in this endless impenetrable eternity

can our soul be at peace

while yet our body

lies violated horrendously

in unholy unmarked ground



The cross shaped barn lies here in winter

covered in snow like a big white cross

the earth is frozen

like unfeeling hearts

sky covers earth like an ivory tent

the air is filled with dread

here is no life no breath no hope

just death

Oh unfeeling world

will not our tears melt this frozen ground

eternal scream

silently scream

from the depth of your heart and your soul

silently - ever so silently

for here is holy ground



They showed the film 'A Wall of Silence'

in Rechnitz

a poignant moment

first public discussion

of a horrendous past

a film confronting

an older generation

who knew and did not want to

or were too scared to talk

a younger generation

who learned with horror

how close the enormity of homicide

had come to Rechnitz

their own town

only the questions they will ask

their mothers






friends and foes

can break the wall

however painstakingly it be

brick by brick

somewhere inside that wall

there lies a key which can unlock

everybody's memory



In summer

the field by the barn

bears wheat

a farmer on his tractor harvesting

completely unconcerned

unfeeling nature

do you not care on what you feed

here lie the dead

so many unjustly dead

yet  the earth will not yield them

every year

this field yields harvest

will it ever yield

the proof

of a horrendous secret

if nature were just

it would be barren

no germ should germinate

in such a ground

until the time

this earth returns to us

our dead



All pain

begins and ends in such a place

is death the end

or is it the beginning

can the dead forgive

can they forget

or have they moved to such elated heights

of an existence

where human concerns

concern them no more

yet what has been will always be



in time and space

our grief will never cease

and neither will our deeds

testimonies of human

oh such inhuman failings



Austria is my country

and Rechnitz is a paradigm

of past history unfaced

it cannot remain unchallenged

we must wake up

and we must talk

and we must face our prejudice

how can we  

with the knowledge of such history

still not have learned

that there is

a universal humanity

regardless of skin-colour

ethnicity or race or faith

or dress or culture

will history help us

to find the courage

to face the enemy

the stranger within

so that united


can face as one

the enemies without



Earth to earth

ashes to ashes

Rabbi Anshin says the search goes on

he sees it as an obligation

to find those graves

and still we wait

old secrets yield

their news increasingly reluctantly

hope - is there still hope

yes says

Eduard Erne

when old and young begin to talk

that is the first ray of hope

Margareta Heinrich and Eduard Erne

have achieved so much

they have opened

a platform of discussion

in a place where previously

there was only secretive silence



When we buried my father

I was broken and cold

we laid him with dignity

in holy ground

six men carried him through his village

beloved place

where he had lived and worked

and knew everyone in sight

the sky was blue

the sun was golden

on this bitterly cold January day

our faces were masks

I read him the 'Trakl'

and said good-bye

and I threw him my roses

white roses as kisses

into his grave

death is inevitable

yet I could not have borne it

if I had not known

where his body lies buried

or if I had not had the chance

to stand by a grave

and whisper to him

my very own good-byes



When I thought

of this burial

in dignity

I began to understand

how death anonymous unmourned

and without proper burial must feel

one hundred and eighty dead

no mourners no honours

no coffins no flowers no graves

just ditches hastily dug ditches

the living who are still

searching for their dead beloved

find this grief too great to bear

how can they cease the search

for a memory which lies buried

while the bodies of loved ones

have even now

after sixty years

not been buried

decently and with dignity



Can we

all mankind united

in one scream of pain

not wake them from their painful sleep

alas - we are too feeble

and too human

and do we dare to start this scream

lest we wake them

and all the millions of millions

who died unjustly

what if we wake them all

to another life of suffering and pain

the key - the key

where is the key

the memory must be unlocked

the graves be found

one day not too far away

so that silently

ever so silently

we can read them

their own lament

and throw them roses

with dignity

we can bury their mortal bodies

so their immortal souls

can finally rise

high so very high

away from this earth

away from

their place of suffering

and woe

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Susi Savill

Copyright © 2005 Susi Savill

Free use on the internet/web and small-scale not for profit publications. Please acknowledge author, Susi Savill, and this web site, and notify the editor.

Web site Copyright © 2005 David Roberts

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