Jerzy and Cyla

Jerzy, a Polish teen in World War Two,
Arrested for suspected membership
Of the resistance, faced a one-way trip
To Auschwitz. There, where womenfolk were few,

Labouring in a storehouse used for grain
He witnessed the arrival of a crowd
Of girls. One, by extremity uncowed,
Appeared to wink at him…. These plucky twain

Schemed, for weeks, to exchange a daily phrase
And fell, of course, in love, which prompted him
To promise that, within an interim
Of no more than a smattering of days,

He’d win their freedom…. From a prison tailor
Came Nazi threads, from someone else a pass
Plus written sanction to escort the lass
To offsite work. Determined not to fail her,

He marched, one day, trussed-up Cyla behind,
Out of the gates…. For near two weeks they hid
By day and tramped through nighttime fields, their bid
For freedom hinging on his will to find,

Aided and hindered by the fitful moon,
An uncle’s house, where she at last took cover.
Murmuring ‘God-be-with-you!’ to her lover.
On a hot, airless morning late in June,

Pledging to come for her, when war was done,
He strode away to join the Partisans….
As was so often true of suchlike plans,
Before a life together could be won,

Each received tidings of the other’s death….
Fast forward forty years. In New York City,
Cyla was overtaken by self-pity,
After listening, with abated breath,

To a stirring radio docudrama
On Jerzy’s life who, far from being dead,
Lived in Poland, the founder, once, now head
Of a mechanics’ school. Her short-lived trauma

Swept away by the urge to reunite,
Chafing at the bit to be Poland-bound,
Within one exhilarant day she’d found
His number, been invited, booked a flight.

Over the next few otherworldly days,
They visited the Auschwitz cenotaph,
Reminisced, over many a carafe
Of wine, wrapped in a recollective haze,

But when she said, ‘Jerzy, come back with me,’
He sat in doubtful silence, then replied,
‘Cyla, our time’s gone by: I thought you’d died.’
Eyes looking downward, ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘I see….’


Poet’s Note: Cyla lost her whole family at Auschwitz. In 1985, Jerzy was declared a righteous gentile. She died in 2005, he in 2011.




Helga Goebbels was Hitler’s favourite child,
Though she, in turn, from him would always shrink
(In the photograph, there’s a forehead kink,
A rigidness of jaw while he, beguiled,

Looks down on her who’s captive on his knee).
Her father, Josef, brought her no more pleasure—
Doling his presence out in meagre measure,
Bungling a leg-pull, awkward as can be.

In forty-five, on April twenty-second,
Joseph and Magda went down with their brood
To Hitler’s bunker. An internal feud
Caused by certainty that extinction beckoned

Soon drove her, in tears, from her children’s side
Leaving Hitler’s sekretär in control
Who (herself unchilded) took on her role
With an unassuming maternal pride.

She later said they were good as could be,
Telling Hitler, over a mug of hot
Chocolate, with childish earnestness, the plot
Of some book or other, remaining free

Of anxious puzzlement at his behaviour—
Unpredictable, shrill tirades about
The fickle generals, who chose to flout
The bestellungen of their would-be saviour!

Of only Helga did she note a triste,
Knowing expression in her big, brown eyes,
As if, beyond her twelve years, she was wise,
For whom all hope of happiness had ceased….

Hitler’s suicide being, by May first,
Just a day old, Joseph and Magda (she
Still from a nervous collapse far from free)
Enacted a scene several times rehearsed:

Their kids, told they were being vaccinated,
Were given morphine by a doctor friend
(Only Helga appeared to apprehend
The deception). Mother and doctor waited

Till sleep came (Goebbels had, by now, withdrawn);
Then, in between six pairs of lips, they eased
Cyanide pills and, by compunction seized,
Slunk silently away…. When came the dawn,

Russian soldiers, in the Chancellery grounds,
Came on Goebbels and Magda lying dead.
Descending to the bunker, soft of tread,
Listening in vain for the slightest sounds,

They discovered the children, blemish free,
Except for Helga. Her face was contused
And, from a rash of scratches, blood had oozed.
A fighter to the very end was she….


Poet’s Note: Goebbels gave Magda cyanide and then shot her and himself. Bestellungen means orders.



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

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10 Responses

  1. Margaret Coats

    How amazing that Cyla’s “short-lived trauma” could be “swept away”! It would include losing her entire family and forty years of thinking she had lost the man she loved (who had saved her life). And then she loses him again, despite the “otherworldly days of recollection,” and without fault on the part of either of them. Their true story is longer and more complex than the fiction of Romeo and Juliet. The loss of love (not to mention its unexpected development) is more profound, and less tragic only because neither one dies before meeting again. Time, and passage through the horrific circumstances of the Holocaust, then through lengthy separate recoveries, take away the “our time” Jerzy mentions. Well told, Peter. You stir up reflection on all that is lost to human souls in ways that cannot be measured.

    The picture of Helga and her end does the same. It seems this child had the potential to blossom from evil roots, but she is overwhelmed by the surrounding wickedness, and ultimately killed by the very parents who had given her life. These Holocaust poems expand thoughts about the cost of the abhorrent idea and the means that put it into practice.

  2. Stephen M. Dickey

    Nouns in standard German are capitalized, it has been this way for centuries. The word for a military command/order in German is Befehl, and was a very prominent word in the Nazi era, occurring in notable compounds such as Führerbefehl.
    You might want to reconsider your German word here.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      In the German Army they always say (sarcastically) “Do you want your orders boiled or fried?” Befehl is the standard military term.

      • Stephen M. Dickey

        I hadn’t heard that one. Kind of reminds me of “The Book of Instructions” in “Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines,” which surely needs trigger warnings now for ethnic stereotyping and sexism.
        Earlier I neglected to mention that Sekretär can only be a man. For a woman Sekretärin is needed.

  3. Phil L. Flott

    Finally, a wonderful tale, in each poem. These are about reality. They are not simply playing with words. Rather, they use words to grip our feelings, our sensations. Triple kudos!

  4. Cheryl Corey

    I believe there’s an error in the photo caption. It has Jerzy’s name twice, but Cyla’s on the right.

  5. Paul A. Freeman

    Two moving poems that go behind the horrors of the Second World War and focus on the people affected.

    Thanks for the reads, Peter.

  6. Roy Eugene Peterson

    These are two amazing poems that captivate our attention and stir our emotions. These stories are stark reality told in excellent classical form with historical insight and knowledge that you have captured in detail.

  7. David Whippman

    “Jerzy and Cyla” is both a well-crafted poem and a gripping, and tragic, love story. I found it engrossing and uplifting. Thank you Peter.

  8. BDW

    Mr. Austin proves, by example, Canadian literature is not as dead as one might believe from the countless bad verse one finds in books and on the Internet. I wonder what his thoughts about Canadian literature could tell his readers.


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