Sic Transit 1944: For Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, April 7, 2013

by Dr. David Mandler

The following poem was inspired by a documentary I once saw about the way Jews were deported from Hungary in 1944 to various death camps in sealed cattle cars. Especially moving was the account of an old woman who tried to describe what it felt like to be packed into a cattle car for three days. In this poem, I try to imagine the unimaginable through the voice of an old woman haunted by the memories of those times. The title of the poem alludes to the Latin phrase “sic transit gloria mundi” (thus passes the world’s glory) while also carrying the homophonic meaning of “sick” transit, a journey that is quite sickening. 

Sic Transit (1944)

By David Mandler

We were rotting sardines in a can
Floating in a stew of sickening ooze
My throat a screaming furnace I began
To drink cold piss my make-believe gold booze

For three scorching days I was stood up by
Small and large sardines surrounding me
Eyelids tightly sealed I sensed the sky
In my parents’ ballroom yearned to be

His vibrating blue eyes carve a smile
Deep within my dehydrated lips
We dance like snails just thrown into the Nile
His slender hands guiding my swaying hips

Ghosts of laughter swoop into my head
He steps on my toes it’s no accident
Someone blew his brains out he lies dead
I can’t breathe the vision shakes I’m bent

Next to me a smelly pee hole gapes
Every minute a stink bomb explodes
Grizzly groans for words men shit like apes
A stranger’s hands hang onto my earlobes

Those three days infuse eternity
I’ve grown fins and tails like all sardines
Sipping urine, tasting cups of tea
Our ends can’t justify the means

Dancing in the ballroom once again
I step left and right tangoing fast
Eyes of cloudy skies move in my man
His seventeen years gone with a blast

Some sardines begin to decompose
My violin teacher has just died
His bent hands now quietly repose
Right under his eyes he cannot hide

Dogs are barking and a marching band
Wails a tango I knew how to play
The lid opens we’re no longer canned
Stiffened corpses once more dust and clay

Shouting men bark orders fast and loud

Sixty years I’ve lived to say todah
When I close my eyes and see a cloud
The wheels shriek the sound  tuh-duh tuh-duh