a poem for remembering

Dear friends,

I hope you are well.

Today, 27 January, is Holocaust Memorial Day. 75 years ago today, Auschwitz-Birkenau – the largest Nazi concentration camp, where 1.1 million people were killed – was liberated. The day calls us to remember the six million who lost their lives to anti-Semitism and intolerance during the Nazi Holocaust, as well as those killed in the genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, and Darfur.

It’s difficult to know how to respond to such brutality. What is the appropriate reaction to such evil? Is there one? How do we remember something that is so painful to remember? In this poem, Andrew Motion takes on that monumental task with extraordinary sensitivity.

Anne Frank Huis, by Andrew Motion

Even now, after twice her lifetime of grief
and anger in the very place, whoever comes
to climb these narrow stairs, discovers how
the bookcase slides aside, then walks through
shadow into sunlit room, can never help

but break her secrecy again. Just listening
is a kind of guilt: the Westerkirk repeats
itself outside, as if all time worked round
towards her fear, and made each stroke
die down on guarded streets. Imagine it—

four years of whispering, and loneliness,
and plotting, day by day, the Allied line
in Europe with a yellow chalk. What hope
she had for ordinary love and interest
survives her here, displayed above the bed

as pictures of her family; some actors;
fashions chosen by Princess Elizabeth.
And those who stoop to see them find
not only patience missing its reward,
but one enduring wish for chances

like my own: to leave as simply
as I do, and walk at ease
up dusty tree-lined avenues, or watch
a silent barge come clear of bridges
settling their reflections in the blue canal.

◊◊◊

This poem traces a visit to the Amsterdam house where Anne Frank, her family, and 4 other Jewish people hid from the Nazis for two years. I think poem is brilliant for its focus on Anne’s ‘ordinary love and interest’, ‘displayed above the bed / as pictures of her family; some actors; / fashions chosen by Princess Elizabeth’.

It cuts through one of the most tragic stories of the twentieth century to remind us that Anne was just a normal young girl. And her ordinariness reminds us of all the others who suffered like her, but whose stories were unwritten or erased. Motion’s quiet appreciation for his freedom ‘to leave as simply / as I do’ invites to notice the luxuries we often take for granted – to ‘walk at ease’ and observe the tiny details of life as they happen around us.

Take care, my friends.

All my love,

Tanvi

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