I’d watch him from the window
sitting in his armchair
Straying like a sailboat
drifting off somewhere

His face had no expression
I wondered where his smile went
Whatever happened in the past
Had clearly changed the present

One day I felt brave enough
To whisper in his ear
Whatever he was feeling
Caught him off guard in fear

“What are you thinking?”
I asked Papa Ben
“Oh, just thinking of a time
when I was eleven or ten”

“Do you still remember
those years long ago?”
“How could I forget?
Life reached an all-time low”

Papa Ben is my Grandpa
he’s 94 years old
He survived the Holocaust
that’s what I’ve been told

I always wanted to know
what it was like in the war
“Oh, you wouldn’t want to know
what life was like before”

His eyes looked down
and tears made them red
“I think it’s time
you got ready for bed”

“Oh, please, Papa Ben
please tell me your story!
Is it true your life changed
by the German army?

I want to hear
what happened to you
And are those pictures
in books really true?”

“Oh, alright then,” he added
while he tucked me in
“I’ll tell you my story
if you promise to listen

“I’m Polish from Poland,”
he said, “And Jewish, too
Just like your mother and father
and brother and you”

“But what does it mean
to be Jewish?” I asked
“Well, listen carefully
and I’ll tell you my past”

Papa Ben’s story
seemed light years away
But to him it was
as if it happened yesterday

“Everything and everyone
that was part of my life
Was taken away and swapped
for sadness and strife

“The Nazis took over
and killed most of my family
In the end, only two were left:
just Lolu and me

“I was sent to work camps
by way of cattle cars
With Lolu on the run
under the moon and stars
“We never saw each other
until after the war ended
When I saw her in hospital
by chance, unintended

“The day we reunited
we hugged like never before
Her escape was over
she would run away no more

“I was never so hungry
as when I was a lad
Imagine, stale bread and broth
was barely all we had

“Death was all around me
I could count them as they fell
The bodies of the dead
from the rotting flesh that smelled

“No, this is no fable
or some fiction from a book
Just take into account
the risk for freedom it took

“There were no knights or cavaliers
no nobles or squires
Just men and women and children
that the ovens required

“We were a people
so prominent and proud
That one asks today
How could this have been allowed?

“They burned their bodies
and let the ashes disperse
When you ponder their death
what could’ve been worse?

“So you see, my child
up till now I’ve been speechless
There are no words to describe
all these outrages
“You will forgive me now
I best go and rest my head
It brings back painful memories
of days I witnessed the dead

“Sometimes I think
it’d be best if I had died
At least I’d not be witness
of the Holocaust denied

“To think it was all a hoax
the figment of imagination
The slaughter of engineers
and medics and authors and musicians

“How could people forget
there’s just no reason or sense
What happened in the camps
within the barbed-wire fence?

“But I’m telling you, my child
not just because you asked
But because you need to know
what happened in the past

“You can’t forget what I’ve told you
no, that would be foolish
Of what happened to our people
just because they were Jewish

“You must carry on, my child
take my story to the furthest reach
So the dead will be remembered
and a tribute given to each

“Promise me, child, you’ll do it
unyielding in your purpose
Not in vanity or vainglory
but so as to preserve this”

“Indeed I will, Papa Ben,
I’ll keep the flame alight
I’ll tell anyone who’ll listen
So the candle will burn bright
“In memory of the millions
who died before your eyes
whose graves unmarked and missing
from the smoke of battle cries”

“Thank you, my child, thank you
you will have done a great service
To preserve the spirit of souls
to remember those who left us

“Now rest your head, my dear child
the night has fear of its own
At sunrise you’ve work to do
to plant seeds that are still unsown

My path has led you on
to honor those picked out and killed
Whose ashes scattered ‘cross Europe
whose bodies the pits were filled”

“And I will do it, Papa Ben
as you did it all these years
So the world will never forget
and sow from all those tears”

Copyright © 2022
Written by Michael Botermans