Paul Hartal

The Exercise - Poem by Paul Hartal

One day in the lager
I saw a young and arrogant SS officer.
I was then a prisoner near Vienna,
In Strasshof an der Nordbahn,
Strasshof on the Northern Railway
In Southern Austria.

This haughty Schutzstaffel (SS) man
Was dressed in a spiffy black uniform.
Under the eagled swastika symbol,
The insigne of the cross-boned skull,
Emblazed on his visor cap,
Stared menacingly at the world.
He wore his hat at a rakish angle
And in his right hand
He brandished a stick.

Like a conductor of an orchestra
He wielded the baton,
Entertaining himself jollily,
Using it to engage a dozen or so people
In military style drills.

He made them to crouch
And then to stand up together,
To squat and to rise,
To stoop and straighten up,
To bend their weary knees
And to crouch and stand
Time after time afresh.

The men and women, young and old,
Were exhausted and sick
And this Nazi officer forced them
To repeat the exercise
A hundred times over and over again.

He punished them
Because they dared to request
A break for rest.

I watched quietly the scene,
Standing adjacent to the wall of a barrack.
The SS man ignored my presence.

Although I was just a little boy,
He taught me an indelible lesson.
He gave me an edifying demonstration
Regarding the idea of man’s cruelty
To his fellow human beings.

Yet at the time
I just watched silently
The humiliating scene.
Stunned and dumbfounded,
I did not grasp its full meaning.

In the middle of the punished group
Was also my mother.

Gasping for air with her tired lungs
She crouched and straightened up
Along with the others.
I saw pride and dignity in her eyes;
Only her face was covered with tears.

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Poem Submitted: Thursday, October 13, 2011

Poem Edited: Thursday, June 20, 2013

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