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15 seconds


I came across this story of a girl the same age my daughter is now. She was born on the 15th August 1928 in Poland. And died at the tender age of 14 on 12th March 1943. When I say ‘died’, she was murdered in Auschwitz by the Nazis. Because she lived in an area of Poland earmarked for resettlement.

I was so taken by her image and her story – her absolute innocence, that I felt compelled to write a poem about her. To honour her tragically short life in some way. I know it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference if I write a few pathetic lines of poetry 77 years later. But it matters to me. It could’ve been my daughter, but for circumstance. Or yours. It still could be, the way the world is going.

Czeslawa Kwoka.

15 seconds.

For Czeslawa Kwoka.

There’s this girl.

Her nose and cheeks are pink,

like she’s just come in from the cold.

She’s looking up at the camera

with fear in her blue-grey eyes.

Her fair hair is roughly shorn,

and she wears an over-sized

blue and white striped tunic,

held together with safety pins.

She doesn’t understand what they are saying,

she doesn’t speak the language.

So the Kapo beats her about the head with a stick.

Her lips are thin and cut

like they’re trying to still a tremble.

There’s a badge sewn over her heart

with the serial number 26947 printed on it.

She has a name though. It’s Czeslawa.

She is 14 years old.

The same age as my daughter.

But she looks much younger.

Like a terrified little girl.

She hasn’t done anything wrong.

Except, be Polish.

And Catholic.

And ill.

Probably typhus or T.B.

The cause is irrelevant.

She’s too ill to work.

So she’s surplus to requirements.

The doctor will see you now.

He’s going to inject a final solution

of phenol directly into her heart.

It will kill her in 15 seconds.

Or not.

It’s not an exact science.

If he misses the ventricle it could take up to an hour.

Once administered, she will be thrown

onto the pile of bodies in the room next door.

Where her body will turn a shade of livid pink

for the next 60 minutes.

Because that is too long to wait,

to see whether the procedure was a success.

They are only allowed two minutes

and 22 seconds

per murder.

So she lies on the pile of dead people,

gulping for oxygen.

Knowing that she too, is soon to be one of them.

Photographer: Wilhelm Brasse

Colourist: Mirek Szponar.

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