Sonnet of a Dying Woman in a Concentration Camp

a poem by
RITA SIMMONDS | Mother + Poet 


Many years ago, I was moved by this passage from Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, who was put to work in the concentration camp hospitals:

This young woman knew that she would die in the next few days. But when I talked to her she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge. “I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard,” she told me. “In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.” Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, “This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.” Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. “I often talk to this tree,” she said to me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. “Yes.” What did it say to her? She answered, “It said to me, ‘I am here-I am here-I am life, eternal life.’”

Frankl said that this story seemed like a poem. Since my love for the story has only increased over time, I thought I’d like to try and turn it into a sonnet.

MY earthly days are tending toward a reach
of blossomed limbs cascading lacy white.
The chestnut tree outside my window speaks,
“I’m here! I’m here! I am eternal life!”
Where evil deeds and misery invade,
each whitened petal turns a spot of red—
an open wound on purity displayed
on wood that keeps its word beyond my bed.
I’m grateful that I’ve come to such a place
of loneliness but for this gifting tree
redressing all my ways of wear and waste,
its flowing fragrance making way in me.
Eternity is rooted in the ground.
It bends and bleeds, but never breaks a bough.



Mother + Poet

Rita A. Simmonds was born in Rochester, New York. She received her BA from Hofstra University and her MA from Teachers College, Columbia University. For several years, she worked for the City University of New York, teaching English as a Second Language. Simmonds is a three-time winner of the Best Original Poetry category at the annual Catholic Press Association Awards (2011, 2010, 2004), as well as a winner of numerous second and third place CPA awards. In 2012, fourteen of her poems were featured in the bestselling MAGNIFICAT Year of Faith Companion, and 49 original poems in MAGNIFICAT Year of Mercy Companion. Her poetry books include Souls and the City, Bitterness and Sweet Love: The Way of the Cross and Other Lenten PoemsGreeting the Season: Poems for the Holidays. Simmonds lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her two sons.