See the St Louis

The St Louis sailed from Hamburg in May, 1939. The 938 passengers were refused entry by Cuba’s president, Federico Bru, and by the USA and had to return to Europe, where most ended up in Nazi hands. In Bamberg, in 1628, a chain-reaction witch hunt led to the burning of several hundred victims.

See the St Louis, departing from Hamburg,
Jewry, her passengers—spat upon, spurned,
Fleeing the land where the witches of Bamberg,
Centuries earlier, gibbered and burned.

Hear, in Havana, the rumblings of riot:
‘No! to asylum for job-stealing Jews!’
President Bru, to subdue the disquiet,
Sends an aviso: Regret; must refuse.

North to Miami, these sea-wearied sailors
(Surely to God, in the land of the free…?)
See, though, the coastguards, with braying loud-hailers,
Herding them round, till they face out to sea.

Back, then, to Europe (for all but a quorum,
Gone, in extremity, over the side);
Hundreds will burn, like the witches before them;
Most (thanks to gas) will already have died.



The Doctor

Dr. Mengele is reported as having behaved exactly in this fashion.

The doctor who presided at the birth
Wore cap and gown so white, had skin so clean
That, watching him at work, you’d swear you’d seen
A man who held on high his patients’ worth;

He personally supervised the nurse
Who sterilized the instruments, and woe
Betide her if their antiseptic glow
Were speckled; yes, and woe—or even worse—

Betide the churl who swept and mopped the ward
Should leavings meet his eye…. ‘Now, push,’ he urged,
And now those hands, how carefully deterged,
With what precision snipped and tied the cord;

And mark these now: the hark for infant breath,
The slap—so urgent—if he heard it not,
The order, like a muffled pistol shot,
Dispatching babe and mother to their death.



The Lesson

The ghetto: dawn. A deathly light
Distempers, in the cobbled square,
The spindly scarecrows, stiff with fright,
Assembled at attention there.

A truck, usurped for Nazi use,
Brings lumber, men who hammer, brace,
Raise up a gallows, hang a noose,
Depart. The kapitän, his face

A mask of granite, spits commands.
A stick man, while his fellows watch,
Is frog-marched to the gibbet, stands,
A pee stain darkening his crotch.

‘A loaf, a life [the hands make mime]
Possess, in Warsaw, equal weight.
That contrabandage is a crime
Who dares to question shares his fate!’

The hangmen, by a finger cued,
Lift stick-man with impassive eyes;
Too flaccid, he’s at last lassoed,
Left there to shimmy till he dies.

They could have snapped his neck, no doubt
(It’s how they would have killed a hen),
In no time put the crowd to rout,
But who’d have learned a lesson, then?



Peter Austin is a retired Professor of English who lives in Toronto with his younger two daughters.

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15 Responses

    • Peter Austin


      Thank you very much for the encouragement. It goes a long way.

  1. Joe Tessitore

    FDR, who twice refused to sign anti-lynching legislation into law, did not respond to their request for asylum.

  2. James A. Tweedie

    An acquaintance of mine (who shared the same given name as my wife) died earlier this year. She was a French Jew who, as a girl, was the only member of her family to survive Auschwitz. Her family’s chateau was used by the Nazis as a provincial headquarters during the French occupation. It was not returned to her after the war. She told me she didn’t want it so didn’t fight a legal battle to get it back. Injustice on top of injustice. She refused to talk about what she saw or experienced during her years in the camp and wore long sleeves to cover the tattooed number on her arm.

    The late husband of another woman I knew had been a one of the GIs who liberated that same camp. No doubt he and my Jewish friend saw each other that day from opposite sides of the fence. I was privileged to read his diary where he gave a terse, but vivid description of what he saw and felt that day and the days following.

    Like our WW 2 vets, those who lived through and survived those days, will soon all be gone. These poems and others like them, will help remind us of the evil, hatred, and depravity that we, as human beings, are capable of inflicting on others while, at the same time, justifying it as part of some ism or other.

    Recent videos of rogue cops and anarchists show that, as individuals and as a society, we are still capable of such things today. The Bamberg and St. Louis citations reveal that history does repeat itself and that the problem is both systemic and endemic—a symptom of Sin that, while it cannot be eliminated, can and must be restrained.

    Hopefully, poems such as these will inspire us to search our own hearts, to repent, and to commit ourselves to say, “Never again” and “Not on my watch.”

    That’s the way I see it.

    Thank you, Peter, for the reminder.

    • Peter Austin


      Many thanks for your thoughtful response to my poems. I am encouraged by it.

  3. C.B. Anderson


    I don’t know whether to describe these poems as horrifyingly beautiful or beautifully horrifying. By some accident, or by fate, most of my best friends are and have always been Jewish. I can understand why Israel takes the stances that it does, but it’s beyond my understanding why so many of my liberal Jewish friends think that Israel sometimes goes too far in drawing a clear line in the sand. James Tweedie is correct in his observation about the inhumanity humans are capable of inflicting on other humans. But it’s not just about Sin. It’s also about the ability of those in power to manipulate their underlings. Can you imagine an ordinary German assigned to a concentration camp refusing to obey the orders from his superior officers? Such a person would probably have been dealt with in a manner as bad as that accorded Jews, and it’s anyway likely that this person had already bought, to some extent at least, the Nazi party line. Quite a party it was, for a while, that they had there in Der Vaterland. I was no party to it any more than I was a slaveholder in old Dixie.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      The Israelis who vote for Likud and who support Netanyahu are intelligent enough to realize that the requirements of power-politics are more important to a nation’s survival than moralistic whining and virtue signalling.

      As for liberal Jews, an Israeli friend once said this to me: “They aren’t really adherents to the Jewish religion. Their religion is Left-Liberal Globalism, and they are Jewish merely by an accident of ethnicity. That’s why they have no problem selling Israel down the river, and destroying its Jewish identity.”

      The Nazis famously said that the Jews were incapable of establishing a state. The Israelis have exploded that myth — but the Israelis also learned very quickly that you don’t establish and preserve a state with moralistic whining and abject apologies.

      • C.B. Anderson

        And, Joseph, unfortunately such a posture seems to what a large portion of the American public are adopting right now. God help us!

      • Dave Whippman

        You are right. To paraphrase a Jewish writer (it may have been Amos Oz, but I’m not sure): I’d rather have Israel, and be hated, then Auschwitz, and be pitied.

    • Peter Austin

      Thanks! ‘Horrifyingly beautiful’ is what I aim for with poems of this sort. As regards the ‘theoretical ordinary German assigned to a concentration camp refusing to obey orders’, I recently heard (during a documentary about Oskar Groening, but I’d also heard it before, somewhere), there is apparently no evidence of any underling in such circumstances actually being punished. I guess that takes away that excuse. I think it was more about buying the party line.

    • Dave Whippman

      C.B., as a Jew myself, I share your bewilderment at a lot of Jewish criticism of Israel. Especially given the implacable hostility of Hamas, Hezbollah, and many Muslim states.

      Your remarks about those Germans detailed to serve in the camps brought to mind a short story by CS Forester, “The Psychology of Fear.” Worth a read.

  4. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    All three of these impactful poems are very well crafted, immersing the reader in history’s depths of depravity – events that should never be forgotten.

    “The Doctor”, in its pertinent portrayal of pristine clinical precision, is chilling. Its controlled, calculated build up to the shocking closing couplet is a masterstroke. “The Lesson” evokes haunting images with admirable use of literary device. Those “spindly scarecrows, stiff with fright” send a shiver, and the “lesson” in the closing stanza should serve as a lesson to all.

    Thank you, Mr. Austin.

    • Peter Austin

      Thank you very much for you comments: it’s encouraging and uplifting to have my poetry appreciated. I have actually written a complete collection of Holocaust poems but have no idea as to a likely publisher. You don’t happen to have any suggestions do you?
      Peter Austin

      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        Peter, I am intrigued by your collection and would most certainly purchase it if it were available. As I said in my comment, these historic atrocities should never be forgotten and you have a gift for conveying them poetically.

        I don’t know of a publisher. I haven’t published any of my poetry. I intend to, but I think the only way to go about it is to self-publish. Although, I am not certain and would really appreciate others’ advice. I know there are many here who have published works.

        Wishing you every success in your endeavors.

  5. Rod Walford

    Peter I thought your poems were indeed very well crafted. They gave me goosebumps. They are more than worthy of publication as are, I am sure, the rest of your collection. However, I fear that in today’s P.C. world you may have difficulty finding an established publisher and that, as Susan suggests, self-publishing may be the way to go. Man’s inhumanity to his fellow man should never be forgotten. Lest we forget – thank you Peter for the reminders. Best wishes – Rod


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