Eight Poems by Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah

On 21st February 2018, I spent a day that began at midnight, accompanying 200 Lower Sixth Formers from Brighton College – together with their Head Teacher, Deputy Heads and the Heads of the College Houses – on a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. On the plane journeys there and back and the following day, I wrote eight poems.

A day trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau

A day trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau?
I imagine that no one has ever slept there
except fitfully
or hungry for oblivion.

Journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau I

Gathering at midnight
in the Gala Bingo car park on Eastern Road
young voices
as we wait to begin
a sleepless day out of the everyday
with a coach ride to Gatwick.

As the plane speeds
a journey
dawn retreating
into an endless night.

Journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau II

On the plane
I glance at the video of the flight-path:
we have just left Germany
and crossing over the Czech Republic
we are heading towards Prague.

On the monitor
our plane is a broad arrow
pointing to Kraków.


Entering Oswiecim
McDonald’s beckons
and KFC.
The camp turns out to be
a few roundabouts along on the right.
But those ubiquitous signs remind me that
Oswiecim was also just like any other
ordinary town
back then

while 1.3 million people were murdered
1.1 million of them Jews
and the smoking crematoria
choked the skies
the people of
ordinary Oswiecim
continued to go about
their daily lives.

Pilgrimage to Auschwitz-Birkenau I

Our journey
by coach and plane and coach again
brings us
to stand on our own two feet
and walk
and walk
for hours.
Transported here swiftly
in comfort
I think of the harried and deported
And then
as we walk
I think of their steps
to the left
or to the right
to gruelling labour
‘in all weathers’
in the searing heat
in the freezing cold
or to death.

transported here
in cattle-trucks
that took several torturing days to arrive.

Pilgrimage to Auschwitz-Birkenau II

I am dressed in black
from head to foot
I have come here as
a mourner
to accompany the dead
and the living
of this Christian foundation school
who accompany me
their rabbi for one long day
alongside their priest.

At the end of our trek
over rough stone paths and frozen snow
and in and out of Hell’s interior spaces
we assemble for a moment of reflection
at the end of the tracks
that led to Birkenau’s gas chambers
and crematoria

The voices of 200 16 and 17-year-olds
reciting psalms
from our shared traditions
breathe warmth and solidarity
into the frigid wilderness
(a teacher remarks later that he felt
the temperature rise, as we stood there).

And then
as the snow begins to fall
amongst this gathering
of accompaniers
scattered voices
accepting my invitation
join me in reciting the Kaddish
and we become a congregation
of mourners

hastily-built to deal with the
mounting dispatches
and then hastily destroyed
as the Allies advanced.

The day after visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau

I wash the dirt
of Auschwitz-Birkenau
off my boots.
But not completely.
Traces trapped
in the fine tread of the soles.
I will walk now with
that contaminated soil.
As for a few days until I recover
I will walk with a limp
my right hip jarred
and the two small toes of my left foot
bruised from
hours of navigating
the jagged paths.

Of course
Auschwitz Birkenau
is now
But the Polish authorities
have left the roads and paths
as they were.
So, listening
in silence on headphones
to our guide
as she expertly shepherded us along
we walked the uneven stones
We could not avoid
the difficulty
of treading the paths
trod before us
by the captives
and the selected.

My feet will remember.

a tourist destination
complete with coach parks
and visitor facilities
alongside the museum displays.

Aid to remembrance

As I prepared to visit
I added ‘Oswiecim’
to the BBC weather app
on my smart phone.
We could expect temperatures of -5° C.
I selected clothing accordingly.

I’m going to keep ‘Oswiecim’
on my list of weather-places
alongside my Bishopstone home
Brighton and Hove
and my favourite destinations.

As the year turns
I want to know the temperature
in Auschwitz-Birkenau
so, I don’t just remember the grey cold of
a single day in my life
21 February 2018.
I want to be aware of
the changing temperatures
back then
month after month
through the seasons
of incarceration
and death.