William Heyen (1940-)
A Visit to Belzec

From Erika: Poems of the Holocaust, by William Heyen. Copyright © 1991 by Time Being Press. Reprinted by permission of Time Being Books. All rights reserved.


This is Belzec,
in the East of Poland,
in the Lublin region
where the fumes of Sobibor,
Maidenek, and Treblinka still
stain the air:
smell the bodies
in the factories' smoke,
smell the sweet gas
in the clover and grass.
This is Belzec
where the death compound's gate
proclaims in Hebrew,
«Welcome to the Jewish State.»
This is Belzec.
This is SS humor.
Curse them forever
in their black Valhalla.


«At 7:20 a.m. a train arrived from Lemberg with 45 wagons holding more than 6,000 people. Of these, 1,450 were already dead on arrival. Behind the small, barbed-wire windows, children, young ones, frightened to death, women and men. As the train drew in, 200 Ukrainians detailed for the task tore open the doors and, laying about them with their leather whips, drove the Jews out of the cars. Instructions boomed from a loudspeaker, ordering them to remove all clothing, artificial limbs, and spectacles....

«They asked what was going to happen to them.... Most of them knew the truth. The odor told them what their fate was to be. They walked up a small flight of steps and into the death chambers, most of them without a word, thrust forward by those behind them.»


Listener, you have walked
into the smoke-streaked mirror
of my dream, but I can't,
or won't remember.
Did my jackboots gleam?
Did I fill out quotas?
Was it before, or after?
Did I close those doors,
or did I die?

I can still feel
iron and cold water on my fingers,
I remember running
along the bank of a river,
under trees with full summer
stars in their branches,
the sky lit up with flares
and the slight murderous arcs of tracers,
the night air wet
with the sugary odors of leaves.
Dogs barked.
Were they mine?
Were they yours?
Was I running from,
or after?


«Inside the chambers SS men were crushing the people together. `Fill them up well,' [Hauptsturmführer Christian] Wirth had ordered, `700 or 800 of them to every 270 square feet.' Now the doors were closed....

«The bodies were tossed out, blue, wet with sweat and urine, the legs soiled with feces and menstrual blood. A couple of dozen workers checked the mouths of the dead, which they tore open with iron hooks. Other workers inspected anus and genital organs in search of money, diamonds, gold; dentists moved around hammering out gold teeth, bridges and crowns....»


Listener, all words are a dream,
You have wandered into mine.
Now, as workers rummage among the corpses,
we will leave for our affairs.

This happened only once, but happened:
one Belzec morning, a boy in deathline
composed a poem, and spoke it.
The words seemed true, and saved him.
The guard's mouth fell open to wonder.

We have walked together
into the smoke-streaked
terror of Belzec,

and have walked away.

                                        Now wind,

and the dawn sun,

                                  lift our meeting

to where they lift the human haze

                                        above that region's pines.


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