Poetry of Genocide

In honor of Yom Hashoah (“Holocaust Remembrance Day”), here are two poems by survivors of genocide: one by the great Jewish/Italian writer Primo Levi (who died twenty years ago this month) and the other by Emtithal Mahmoud, a 13-year-old Darfur native who now lives in Philadelphia.

Please participate in the upcoming Global Days For Darfur – you can find information at SaveDarfur.org. I also encourage you to check out “Crisis In Darfur,” the remarkable and important new project by Google Earth and The United States Holocaust Museum. “Crisis” is the first project of the Museum’s “Genocide Prevention Mapping Initiative” that will include information on potential genocides allowing citizens, governments, and institutions to access information on atrocities in their nascent stages and respond.

May the memory of the lost be for a blessing.


by Primo Levi

You who live secure
In your warm houses
Who return at evening to find
Hot food and friendly faces:

Consider whether this is a man,
Who labours in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.
Consider whether this is a woman,
Without hair or name
With no more strength to remember
Eyes empty and womb cold
As a frog in winter.

Consider that this has been:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts
When you are in your house, when you walk on your way,
When you go to bed, when you rise.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house crumble,
Disease render you powerless,
Your offspring avert their faces from you.

Translated by Ruth Feldman And Brian Swann

internally_displaced_persons_in_darfur.jpgWhat Would You Do?

by Emtithal Mahmoud

What would you do if
your town was bombed

And everything near it was gone?

What would you do if
you were cold and alone,

And cast to the streets without a home?

What would you do if
someone killed your mom and dad?

And you had lost everything you had?

What would you do if
you were shattered and broken

Because you have witnessed
the unspoken?

If you run, where would you go?

If you died, would anyone know?

I myself would pray
And hope for a better day.

8 thoughts on “Poetry of Genocide

  1. Andrew Johnson

    In Iraq and Sudan there is civil war killing thousands, their plight and names seen across the world.

    In Nazi Germany thousands had numbers instead of names, and no nation demanded Hitler close his camps.

    In 1962 the United Nations and Netherlands sold the West Papuan people to Indonesia; in September 1963 Indonesia declared West Papua was a “quarantine territory”; from 1966 Indonesia began aerial bombing of Arfak Mountain, Ayamaru and Teminabuan homelands.

    In 2004 the Yale University Law School published its report “Indonesian Human Rights Abuses in West Papua:
    Application of the Law of Genocide to the History of Indonesian Control”. Yet, no nation has called for Indonesia to stop its forty years of genocide, or close its Laskar Jihad and other Jihadist training camps.

  2. Mercedes

    i am doing a school project on the holocaust and i found that the way the Nazis treated Jews (seemed) unreal like – how could someone ever do somthing like that to someone.

    1. chrispa

      Have a look at the Stanford Prison experiment on youtube. It’s a bit like “Lord of the Flies”. People can assume roles of authority or submission very easily. It doesn’t take too much to do something a little mean at first… and keep moving them further along until one day, you have completely dehumanized someone, and their life doesn’t seem to matter. It’s important for people to do something earlier to stop that sort of thing.

  3. Andrew

    Mercedes to answer your question, it is because some people are sick and able to treat other human beings like unwanted insects; unfortunately my own sister after my father’s death has turn out to be like this, and that it how the Nazi’s thought of the Jewish race and how the Indonesian Generals think of the Papuan race.

    As for Darfur, I should cut out the rhetoric and put things simply for people.

    What the victims of Darfur’s conflict need is action; either military or policing action. Wasting more time on more media does not help the people; either send the military if you think you have entitlement, or otherwise implement a massive Policing aid package. Australia sent Police to the Solomon’s and the US could send armed Police to help Darfur; stop the flow of weapons and organising of the militia.

    The good people of the US have been crippled by Washington getting them to spend too much time repeating never ending stories about Darfur to the exclusion of other important issues. There are US corporations and military involvements in Iraq, Afghanistan, Indonesia, and elsewhere that the good people of the United States need to pay attention to.

  4. Chelsea

    I am directing a play and doing some research. One of the actors in my play that is set in the Holocaust emailed me about Primo Levi and that is how I got to this site today.

    So my question is this, and of course, education and by knowing about what is going on in the world, that is a way to change things, like talking about it, making it real to ourselves and others, but other than that- what can we do? We should do something clearly.

    What is it that we should do? One person can originate thought, can speak to others, can do what else?

    What is the concrete thing that needs to be done by the individual? If someone can say, then people can do.

    The words that of Primo Levi were compelling.
    They cannot be denied.

  5. Ana

    We didn’t stop the wine from spilling,
    Maybe we spilled it ourselves.
    We watched the glass empty on the ground,
    And then we closed our eyes.
    We looked into the mirror and smiled.
    We walked away from the stain,
    But the blood is on our hands now.


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