Wounds of Witness

COLLECTION by Alexandra van Doren

This is a collection of poetry and prose, much of which can be found on my blog, Wounds of Witness. Written between July 2013 and January 2015, it is part of a larger project, a collection of poetry still in progress, that will be nearing completion during my travels in Poland in the coming months. The prose captures snapshots of my time spent living in Poland among the camps. The poetry assumes the voice of the birch trees surrounding the Birkenau death camp and echoes from other camp forests. With wide eyes on the flesh of their trunks and thirsty roots, this forest of witnesses, among many others, straddled the border between victim, accomplice, and rescuer. The trees often masked the horrors of the crematoria, but also harbored Jewish escapees from Auschwitz and Treblinka; indeed, the trees themselves were brutalized by deforestation to make room for the camps in the early years of the 1940s. I, we, they speak from the periphery. I speak of the dead, not for them.


Tired arms, outstretched, have shaken off their last buds before the resting season. The shards of leaves bury themselves in cold, compacted soil, finding respite beneath layers of ice and snow, giving over to the lull of sleep that comes to carry them into the warmth of the coming months.

But dormant is not dead; we are self-sewers, and this year there will be much sewing.



Required Evacuation
Forced Emigration
elastic terms
under the banner
Agricultural Acts of State.
European ash
a copse of birch
weeping willows
fields of pine
sotto voce
The historical tick of silence,
a violent collision
with the canopy of the accused.


“The first essential step on the road to total domination is to kill the juridical person in man.”[1] Hannah Arendt knew of the no-man’s-land outside of reality and inside a phantom world, the concentration camp universe.[2] Plunged into a lawless state by a political boundary deferring all known laws of language and life. Another no-man’s-land: between the world of moral and ethical codes as we know them and the world removed from every legal system: the liminal space just outside the camps. Willows and birches, the only living entities, neither prisoner nor SS, stood watch over the camps from construction to operation to abandonment. And finally, to memorialization.



Let us admit that we are diseased
wounded, twisted into
this posture of defeat.

You can honor suffering without
celebrating oppression.
I accept the Wound of History
My soul is laying down with Césaire

Our elocution is not to your liking,
an imported wash of language,
pidgin tongue
rendered mute.

Should we reject our
Natural history of man-made
Destruction? Or plead for elision,
years under erasure?

Resistance is an art
with a palette to paint us
when the colors of intervention
and submission meld into
the wretched hue of guilt

Sterile despair in our veins,
remnants of a nauseous fever-
dream, we know now
memory is a dictatorial space.


We are the exceptions. We are invincible. We are special. We are somehow exempt from the laws of nature, disregarding predetermined disciplines of knowledge: biology and economy.

We are not perishable goods. We would be survivors. We are healthy crafty clever rich intelligent useful. We are the exceptions.


Levy the charges inveighed
against us
blasted trees
already dealt a death sentence
decades long


I spent the afternoon at Birkenau. Even outside the gates, I felt trapped. I toured a museum. I did not live in the camp. I toured a museum and my body was evacuated of meaning and marrow. I have never felt a stinging weakness like I did at Birkenau.

People continued to live in towns like Oświęcim, towns around the camps. People in these places reckon more deeply than most with how to shed the shadow of trauma. These towns do not simply cease to exist because immeasurable acts of inhumanity occurred there. If that were so, there would be so little of the world left. Szymborska said “perhaps all fields are battlefields.”

Beneath cobblestone, interwoven networks of roots, and pavement, the whole earth is their grave.


Yet we grow
still responsive,
roots curling under the
dangling heavy scent of
cauterized flesh

Chests, trunks
contaminated with
death rattles,
blue spells stripping
the moonmad white from our tissue

ripe with plague,
heart rot
no donors willing to occupy
skeletons entangled in the scaffolding
of our contagion


I never wanted to visit Germany. It would be a betrayal to my Jewish history. There, I would have been lebenswert leben, life unworthy of life. I had sworn allegiance to my Polish blood. Setting foot in a traitorous neighbor’s yard was not a move I had the authority to make.

The younger generations in Berlin are confronted with a terrain that is difficult to navigate. What does it mean to inherit a dishonorable history?

I cannot judge a country’s character.


Book of Judges

In winter
the willows don’t weep
over yellow stones,
colorful storms,
symptoms of panic

the stones and the earth cried aloud
shoveled over graves
of human shells, shunted by
the last stirrings of the
advent of a new order

hollering winds contaminated
with scraping footsteps
and frozen echoes
guide you through this slaughterhouse
of silence
guarded by savage tribes of
paper monsters
baptized into the 20th century
by merchants of death

Deuteronomy plays dirty tricks.

We convene in mercy’s false court,
a breach of contract by the
Judges of Your Time
dealing fiendish punishments
unconnected to a crime.


I miss abandoned railway stations with no elevators to carry your Capitalist suitcases to the platform. Only thin whistles from Polish trains trying to outrun their legacy.

I miss mourning with a city, still pregnant with mountains of corpses. Wending my way through a world that strayed from history.

I miss whispers I could understand. Dirty secrets, shameful pleas, prayers for absolution, testimonies of innocence.


we have become junk space,
tissue of illusion,
copy without original,
shadow without body

in and out of the visible
cosmic consciousness
neglecting our febrile condition,
deaf to our
stinging song of exile

we are impossibly attached
to critical topography,
geopolitical boundaries,
engulfed by the noise
of incineration

foregrounded in violent interrogations
of authenticity, anti-documentary
demanding confession
with no right to redeem our wounds.


[1] Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966, 447.

[2] A phrase coined by French writer, political activist, and Buchenwald survivor David Rousset in his book L’Univers Concentrationnaire, in which he describes the conditions of the network of the Nazi camps.

All photos by Alexandra van Doren

Alexandra van Doren (MAPH’13) is a PhD student in the Department of Comparative and World Literature at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.  She is specializes in Polish, Spanish, American, and German literatures and poetry and Holocaust Studies, focusing on representations of the body and mass graves in documentary and literature. Alexandra holds a BA in English and a BA in Theatre Arts from Loyola Marymount University and an MA in Humanities/English from the University of Chicago. She is currently engaged in a book project concerning the birch wood forest surrounding the Birkenau death camp.  Taking the form of a trial, this particular series of poems arcs from indictment to sentencing while probing the limits of a mute witness, the coexistence of culture and cruelty, and the problem of language post-1945.

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