World War II Poetry

A Paper Comparing World War II Poetry

A Web Page by Sorelle Friedler

Manzanar War Relocation Center from guard tower


This is a paper that I wrote for a school project. These are my opinions and are to be taken as such. Please visit my Annotated Bibliography to find out more about the sources that I used to write this.

During World War II there were at least two groups of people confined for no reason other than their race or religion. These people, the Japanese in the internment camps in the United States, and the Europeans (mostly Jews) kept in ghettos and concentration camps in Europe, sometimes wrote poetry about what they were experiencing. For comparison, this poetry can be broken into four categories; poetry written by children in the Japanese internment camps; poetry written by adults in the Japanese internment camps; poetry written by children in the concentration camps and ghettos of Europe; and poetry written by adults in the concentration camps and ghettos. Surprisingly the largest difference in the poetry is not found between what was written in the different locations across an ocean but rather across generations.

From 1942- 1945 people of Japanese ancestry living in the United States were relocated to internment camps. The Gila Relocation Center in Rivers, Arizona set up Butte High School and the students there wrote a booklet of poetry called "Cactus Blossoms". The poems in "Cactus Blossoms", while they do reflect what was going on in the lives of these students, are not despairing. A wonderful example of their writing is:


Kimii Nagata

Let not harsh tongues, that wag
in vain,
Discourage you. In spite of
Be like the cactus, which through
And storm, and thunder, can

All of these children found a way for their spirits to live and for hope to overcome fear and despair. This was also true for the children living in ghettos and concentration camps.

"They saw reality, but they still maintained their childish outlook, an outlook of truth which distinguishes between night and day and cannot be confused with false hopes and the shadow-play of an imaginary life."2

These children were going through more than the children living in the relocation camps, and so while some of their poetry is more sad, more about death, it is still very hopeful:


He doesn't know the world at all
Who stays in his nest and doesn't go out.
He doesn't know what birds know best
Nor what I want to sing about,
That the world is full of loveliness.
When dewdrops sparkle in the grass
And earth's aflood with morning light,
A blackbird sings upon a bush
To greet the dawning after night.
Then I know how fine it is to live.
Hey, try to open up your heart
To beauty; go to the woods someday
And weave a wreath of memory there.
Then if tears obscure your way
You'll know how wonderful it is
To be alive.
Anonymous Child
Written in Terezín Concentration Camp

Much of the poetry written by children in ghettos and concentration camps also seems to be about the outdoors, and not much of it is about God. The poetry written in the Japanese internment camps by children was often about nature and also often about God. Perhaps the children in the ghettos and concentration camps had given up on God and did not feel a strong connection to God because their beliefs about religion were the reason they were in those horrible places.

There is, however, another type of writing by the children in both of these situations. In this writing they portrayed what they were seeing around them through their grown-up eyes. This writing is even more sad and in it the children seem innocent yet old.

At Terezín4
When a new child comes
Everything seems strange to him.
What, on the ground I have to lie?
Eat black potatoes? No! Not I!
I've got to stay? It's dirty here!
The floor- why, look, it's dirt, I fear!
And I'm supposed to sleep on it?
I'll get all dirty!
Here the sound of shouting, cries,
And oh, so many flies.
Everyone knows flies carry disease.
Oooh, something bit me! Wasn't that a bedbug?
Here in Terezín, life is hell
And when I'll go home again, I can't yet tell.
Written in Terezín Concentration Camp

The poetry written by adults during World War II is very different than the poetry written by children. The poetry written by adults was very straight forward, describing facts and situations and letting their anger and sadness speak through descriptions. Again, the only difference between the poetry written in the relocation camps and the poetry written in the ghettos and concentration camps is that the adults in the ghettos and concentration camps had more horrors to describe:


What did the Old Doctor do
in the cattle wagon
bound for Treblinka on the fifth of August
over the few hours of the bloodstream
over the dirty river of time
I do not know
what did Charon of his own free will
the ferryman without an oar do
did he give out to the children
what remained of gasping breath
and leave for himself
only frost down the spine
I do not know
did he lie to them for instance
in small
numbing doses
groom the sweaty little heads
for the scurrying lice of fear
I do not know
yet for all that yet later yet here
in Treblinka
all their terror all the tears
were against him
oh it was only now
just so many minutes say a lifetime
whether a little or a lot
I was not there I do not know
suddenly the Old Doctor saw
the children had grown
as old as he was
older and older
that was how fast they had to go grey as ash
Jerzy Ficowski
(translated by Keith Bosley)

Another thing that brought down the spirits of the adults in the concentration camps and ghettos was seeing their children suffer and die. This is reflected in many of their poems.

The poems written by the adults in the Japanese internment camps also describe what is around them and what is going on, but they were not having as gruesome and horrible experiences as the people in Europe were:



This is our barracks, squatting on the ground,
Tar papered shacks, partitioned into rooms
By sheetrock walls, transmitting every sound
Of neighbor's gossip or the sweep of brooms
The open door welcomes the refugees,
And now at least there is no need to roam
Afar: here space enlarges memories
Beyond the bounds of camp and this new home.
The floor is carpeted with dust, wind-borne
Dry alkalai, patterned with insect feet,
What peace can such a place as this impart?
We can but sense, bewildered and forlorn,
That time, disrupted by the war from neat
Routines, must now adjust within the heart.

 Tojo Suyemoto Kawakami

The poems written by children and adults during World War II in internment camps, concentration camps, and ghettos show what the authors were going through and how they were dealing with it. These poems reveal that even though the children experienced the horrors that the adults did, the children's spirits survived better in some ways.

"the children saw too what the grown-ups didn't want to see- the beauties beyond the village gates, the green meadows and the bluish hills, the ribbon of highway reaching off into the distance"7

The children also did not feel the responsibility for their families that adults did. Adults wrote poems about what was going on around them and expressed their emotions through the telling of stories or describing of settings while the child poets of World War II wrote poems encouraging memories, perseverance, and hope.



1 Downing, Ferne (Editor), Cactus Blossoms. Pasadena, California: b s.n.,1945?
2 Volavková, Hana (Editor), I never saw another butterfly., Schocken Books, 1978, p 60.
3 Ibid, p 54.
4 Ibid, p 10.
5 Schiff, Hilda (Editor), Holocaust Poetry, St. Martin's, 1995, p 62.
6 Daniels, Roger, Sandra L. Taylor, and Harry H. L. Kitano. (Editors), Japanese Americans: From Relocation to Redress, University of Washington Press, 1986, p 28.
7 Volavková, Hana (Editor), I never saw another butterfly., Schocken Books, 1978, p 60.


The World War II Poetry Main Page

A Paper Comparing World War II Poetry

World War II Poetry

Annotated Bibliography

Other Sites That May Be Of Use

The Japanese Internment

Concentration Camps and Ghettos

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