The Phosphorus Bomb
1.‘Boys at Play'
Beyond the moat,
on the other side
of the barbed wire fence,
a group of Austrian boys
played a jolly game.
It was a bright sunny day
in late March of 1945
and the boys were cheerful,
boisterous and free.
I watched them silently:
hungry, tired and amazed.
The lager grass was green
And mother, given the chance,
could cook a soup from it for us.
We were prisoners
in a Nazi slave labour camp
called Strasshof, near Vienna.
I followed the movements
of the youths for a long time,
standing at the barbed wire fence
that separated slavery from freedom;
watching mesmerized the boys,
whom I could not join in their play.
During their game the young lads
found a thermos-shaped object,
which turned to be a deadly
It was unexploded ordnance,
one of those standard 1.8 kg
magnesium and iron-encased
white phosphorus fire bombs,
dropped from Allied aircrafts
all over Germany that had showered
the Third Reich with rains of fire.
One of the youngsters
lifted the live bomb, holding it
in his hand for a few seconds
and then had flung it away.
As the ordnance hit the ground,
the white phosphorus got exposed to
the air and combusted spontaneously.
The bomb erupted hissing, swishing
It exploded sprinkling and spouting
white phosphorus pellets.
Like a volcanic fountain, it belched
ferocious fiery sparks, spewed raging
yellow flames, escorted by dense
The boys watched for a while
the exploding fire bomb and then
decided to extinguish the flames
by urinating on it.
Sand would have had done the job,
The urine, however, only intensified
the fire and the white phosphorus
accelerated the heat, burning at
1,300 degrees Celsius.
Now the fire bomb was blazing
out of control and the boys ran
away to save their lives.
They fled the scene in panic,
scattering in all directions
as fast as their legs could carry them,
But not before suffering severe and
deep burn injuries from the flying
white phosphorous sparks, which can
penetrate skin and tissue readily,
searing right down to the bone.
2.‘The Russian Soldier'
The lager grass was green
in Strasshof and the sun shining.
Yet high in the blue stratosphere
hundreds of murmuring bombers
and fighter planes flew in formation
like dark porous clouds of giant
Freedom advanced slowly,
on the wings of combat.
It moved with the sounds of war,
the thunder of exploding bombs,
the roar of guns and the clatter
of tank treads.
I was imprisoned in Strasshof
from the summer of 1944 until
that cloudy spring day of early April
in 1945 when I was liberated
by the Russians.
It looked almost like an ordinary day
in the lager but I could hear the faint
roar of cannonade in the distance.
The Battle of Vienna raged in earnest.
And then, as if appearing
out of nowhere, I suddenly saw
a soldier dressed in a strange uniform,
a Soviet scouting patrol armed with
a submachine gun, advancing slowly.
He wore a black leather jacket
He paced unhurried and unchallenged.
By this time, the guards left
their posts in the watch tower.
The SS men ran away from Strasshof.
I followed with my eyes
the Russian soldier crossing the camp.
He walked with confident steps,
and as he moved, the front was
moving with him through the lager.
However, World War II
did not come to an end yet.
Brutal battles continued
in the European theatre
till Nazi Germany signed
an unconditional surrender
at Allied headquarters
in Reims, France,
taking effect on 8 May,1945.
3.'The Guns Fell Silent'
In my own personal life,
two weeks before the end of
the Second World War in Europe,
a tight-lipped minute
of a rolling April night
changed my age
from eight to nine.
But I was unable to grasp then
the difference between what life
expected from me and what I could
expect from my life.
I regained my lost freedom.
But not my lost childhood.
Now the guns fell silent.
But I did not understand
the long and enduring conflict,
the complexities of
the transpiring war,
the magnitude of the bloodshed,
the enormousness of destruction;
the convulsive torrents
of the hurricanes of history
that swept over the world and
carried me into the maelstrom
of the Jewish tragedy of the Shoah.
I was a prisoner in a Nazi camp
yet I was unaware of
the National Socialist conspiracy
to annihilate the Jewish people.
I had no idea that my ordeal was
part of what became known later
as the Holocaust, or that
a Holocaust occurred in history.
Poet's Notes about The Poem
On March 19,1944, Hitler's armies occupied Hungary. It did not take long and the then eight year old Paul Hartal and his family were deported to Nazi concentration camps. He was liberated from the Strasshof slave labor lager by the Russians in the spring of 1945. Two weeks earlier, on March 26,1945, the US Air Force bombed the Strasshof marshalling yards in the vicinity of Vienna. Unbeknownst to the pilots that hundreds of Jewish prisoners—among them Paul Hartal, his mother and sister—were locked in box cars of a freight train, the American planes destroyed the marshalling yards in a dreadful carpet bombing raid in which many people died. Ironically, the bombing almost killed the future poet, too, but at the same time it probably also saved his life, because it interfered with the ‘final solution' plans of the Nazis in the camp.
An amazing part of this story pertains to an emotional meeting that took place many years after the war. In the spring of 2004 Paul Hartal met in San Diego with Hal Rout and Larry Rosenberg, American aviators who participated in Mission 203, the bombing of Strasshof. Rout was the co-pilot and Rosenberg the bombardier of a B-24 Liberator in Mission 203. Ironically, Lt. Rosenberg, recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, happened to be a Jewish raider of Strasshof. The 'reunion' was reported by Fox News in California on March 27,2004.
For Further Reading:
Arthur Lightbourn, 'Three men whose lives crossed during WWII meet almost 60 years later in RSF',
Rancho Santa Fe Review, April 8,2004
B. A. Lanman and L.M. Wendling, 'On Heroic Wings', Foreword by President George H.W. Bush, San Diego: The Distinguished Flying Cross Society,2012, pp.64-67
Paul Hartal, 'Liberation', The 461st Liberaider (US Air Force) , June 2002, Vol.19, No.1
Becky Todd York, 'A Veterans Day Remembrance: My Father Survived the War, and Took its Secrets to His Grave', 'The Herald Leader', November 11,2012
Comments about this poem (The Phosphorus Bomb by Paul Hartal )
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