Ilona and Henryka Karmel

Ilona and Henia (standing) Karmel. Photo from the family archives.

Ilona and Henryka Karmel

Song behind the wire


Austeria 2015

A Memoir

I. Childhood
The story’s start is a banal one
A childhood, simple and ordinary
Smelling of milk and flowers
When the world was so small
Enclosed with four walls.
The story’s start is an opposite one
A childhood, bright, sweet, and quiet
When the world was so large
When my mother’s beloved hand
Shone bright over the world
And the world was so large.
Listen! There was a children’s room
Blue walls and a blue ceiling
Behind the window, the world was wheeling
The vault became one with the sky
And everything was blue in my eyes
The day was clear and smiling
And it held wonders upon wonders
Too many to remember.
The mother’s room (in pale lily)
A country of much different marvels
Hidden in the depths of vast drawers
Among ribbons, tulles and veils
Laces of yellow (ecru), a word
With the scent of waltz and violets
In a (mostly broken) fan
Adorned with – believe me! – ostrich
Feathers. In silks, ottomans, velvets
Oh, words cannot express it!
I know, that on Długa Street sixteen
Crammed between other houses
There still stands, yet undisturbed
My childhood home. The Planty maples
Blossom and drop down again
Only I don’t know where did it wane
The childhood suddenly came to pass
It disappeared, it didn’t last
The world around me shrunk, it’s small
Now there are no secrets, there’s none at all
The passage of time did not spare
The water nymphs, their faces pale
The dwarfs, the elves, and now the drawer
Is not full of magic anymore.
The flower of legend slowly drops down
It’s harder still, its harder now.[…]

The Tiny Madelon

Why are you sad, tiny Madlone? 
Tiny, pale Madlone.  Why tears?
Did a tango blow into your dreams?
Toulon remembered
in its sweetness makes you weep?
On Madlone, tiny, pale Madlone,
I hardly know you
but guess it must be good
to have a home in Toulon
where someone pines for you.
How could I know, Madlone,
tiny, pale Madlone
how great such sorrow is.
Homesickness and trust
in the existence of your beloved Toulon?
To have someone to miss,
like you do, Madlone,
so tiny and pale,
is surely awful.  The white letter
brought your cries for Toulon.
This evening the mist
is heavy.  It is fall
and on days like these
it is worse, still,
to have no letters at all.
Please smile for me, Madlone,
tiny, pale Madlone,
sister, though foreign,
remember at least that Toulon
is waiting for your return.
Nowhere for mine.   

University of California Press, Oakland, 2007

Austeria 2015


Ilona and Henryka Karmel

The Karmel sisters were students of the Hebrew Gymnasium in Krakow, under the supervision of an exceptional teacher, poet and humanist, Juliusz Feldhorn. They lived with their parents at Długa 16, then moved to Józefa 1. In 1942, they wound up in the Krakow ghetto, and from there they were transported to the Płaszów concentration camp. In 1943, they were moved to a concentration camp in Skarżysko-Kamienna, and just a year later to Leipzig. After the end of World War II, they spent 2 years in Stockholm for treatment and rehabilitation, provided by the Swedish Red Cross. In 1947, they debuted with a jointly written collection of poems Śpiew za drutami (Song Behind the Wire), published in New York City by a group of Polish Jewish refugees under the imprint 'American Friends of “Our Tribune.”' . In 1948 Henryka immigrated to the United States. Ilona followed her in 1949. Henryka married her friend from school, Leszek Wolf. She published an autobiographical novel Baderowie z ulicy Jakuba (The Baders of Jacob Street), and before her sudden death in 1984, she also published Marek and Lisa: A Love Story. The other sister, Ilona, graduated from Radcliffe College (the women’s college of Harvard University) and later taught creative writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which named its annual writing prize for her. She married Hans Zucker, a renowned scientist of Austrian descent, and lived in Boston. Ilona also wrote and published books – "Stefania", which became really well-known at the time of its release, followed by Estate of Memory, which was deemed to be one of the most important accounts concerning the experiences and lives of Jewish women during the Holocaust. She died on the 30th of November 2000 in Belmont, Massachusetts.  

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