Grains of Light - A Poem by Sarah Hesketh

Excerpted from the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust website Keep The Memory Alive.

Poet Sarah Hesketh met Holocaust survivor Eve Kugler over tea in north London. Eve survived the Holocaust as a child, escaping Nazi persecution by fleeing France for America. The pair discussed Eve’s heartache at missing her family as she was displaced across the Atlantic, the significance of memory, the creative process, and whether art can capture human experience for future generations.

This is Sarah’s poetic response to Eve’s story – you can also listen to Sarah reading her poem aloud.


boots brown boots brown boots brown boots

this is how history advances

you now you now you now you

scarring the earth with its straight lines

carting a lusty song of rubble


impossible to say if this

is where the shatter started

if here in the swoop of a uniformed arm

you begin to come undone

such an exquisite child

such perfect Aryan features

a child of the fatherland, dear lady

you are to be congratulated


this night is sung

a vile opera of glass

your sister cracking

her fingers in the dark

as your father is led away


wherefore is this night different

from all other nights?


plug your memory as you

might plug your ears

the black notes will still

press in


years made of the white

squawk of paperwork


names fade to spaces as

the lists get longer and

unlit men in office chairs

commit a genocide

of envelopes and ink


this will take you to family

this to a town of mountains

and rain

it is enough to hear

your mother keep muttering

next year, in Jerusalem


to survive is just a matter

of being somebody else


live now, consent to forget

the way you must give thanks

for sickness

how you win at life

as other children rot


you suffer the breach

expect no forgiveness


make each one you leave behind

record their name in your autograph book


in Lisbon, a bitter ring

of sunshine sours your belly

the pineapple’s yellow sin

is all you can remember


years later, Aaron will

describe its flavour

and the bright taste suddenly

is yours to carry again


the new world is a pier

flashbulbs on the innocents

and everyone here

has a silky accent on war


you want to rewrite the label

round your neck:


the number 24 is too small

the word you don’t know how to spell

is murderers


Hebrew Orphans Asylum

all children are good at hiding

buttons smuggled like a pirate hoard

a glove that still holds

mother’s fingers in its grasp


your sister remembers everything

her treasure is a handkerchief

tied into a knot


you press between the pages

of your copy book

yellow and purple pansies


two rare and lucky

four leaf clovers


home begins again then again

you get lost in the wide beds

of others, you learn what it is

to walk a dog down the street


and the last thing to be forgotten

is the shape of home in your mouth

you swallow its din

those metal edges

so that when the letter

finally comes

the words of reunion

are broken runes

and the only thing

your father wants

is never to see Ger-man-ee again


sunny day

take a look over your shoulder

your shadow self

still isn’t there


here’s where she might be hiding:

in a tape spooling slowly from Ruth’s shy mouth

on papers the eagle’s claw grapples to the ground


and then your mother

lifts her eyes from the table

stops counting as if

her life depended on it


there was luck, but there were also


my pain no stronger

or smaller than yours


aleinu, it is our duty to illuminate

even now in this

ordinary dark

When Sarah met Eve

Sarah remembers that “When I first met Eve and heard her story, I was overwhelmed by just how much had happened to her and her family. Although Eve can remember nearly nothing of her childhood, there were so many striking details in what she had to say to me. There was so much for me to write about, at first I couldn’t see how I could possibly tell such a complex family story in just a single poem. The topic of the Holocaust too, is so large; it is terrifying for a writer or artist to be faced with contracting such a major event into a single piece of art.

Whilst Eve’s story is incredibly interesting as a narrative, what struck me most of all was her own battle with forgetting and remembrance. As a victim of traumatic memory loss, she has had to suffer a double tragedy, surviving both the horrors of Nazi Germany, and the subsequent undoing of her own identity.

In recovering her own story through the memories of her sister and her mother, as well as other child survivors and documentary evidence, certain images and incidents seem to have become touchstones for Eve: the time a Nazi soldier scooped her up and threw her into the air as a young child; the bad stomach she suffered whilst in transit to America; the small numbered tag she was wearing when she arrived in New York. I decided to structure my poem around these small ‘flares’ of memory. By writing a sequence of short poems, I felt that I could attempt to mirror Eve’s own experience of fragmented rediscovery. ”

Read more from When Sarah Met Eve.

Visit the Keep The Memory Alive homepage.

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