Don't Mention the Children

Michael Rosen is one of our best-loved and writers for children. He has written and edited over 140 books, including contemporary primary-school classics like Mind Your Own Business, Wouldn’t You Like to Know, Mustard, Custard, Grumble Belly and Gravy, You Tell Me, No Breathing in Class and Quick Let’s Get Out of Here. You Can’t Catch Me! won the Signal Poetry Award. We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, won the Smarties Prize.

Rosen’s poems for grown-ups are less well known, and Don’t Mention the Children is his first collection since Selected Poems (Penguin) in 2007. Fans of his children’s books will enjoy the way these poems combine the silly and the sinister to catch the surrealism of everyday life, somewhere between Jacques Prévert, Ivor Cutler and Adrian Mitchell. Few poets writing today can move so effortlessly between childishness and childlike seriousness. But at the heart of the book is a remarkable series of poems about anti-Semitism, Fascism and War, connecting the contemporary world – UKIP, Marine le Pen, Palestine (the title poem refers to the refusal of the Israeli broadcasting authorities to mention the names of children killed during the Israeli shelling of Gaza in 2014) – to the lives of Rosen’s parents and grandparents, the General Strike, the Battle of Cable Street, Vichy, Auschwitz.

Cover photo: Emma-Louise Williams

Sample Poems

Not just for them

a story for Holocaust Memorial Day


This is about France
This is about Germany
This is about Jews.
This is not about France
This is not about Germany
This is not about Jews.

In the family they were always the French uncles,
the ones who where there before the war,
the ones who weren’t there after the war.
The family said that one of them was a dentist
and the other one mended clocks and that’s it.
Not quite it. There was a street that the relatives
here and in America kept saying, which was:
rue de Thionville, rue de Thionville.
And places in France: Nancy, Metz, Strasbourg
and one of the brothers was Oscar and the other was Martin.
And that was it. Though Olga, in America
nearly as small as a walnut, said that she used
to write letters to them to learn how to write French.
And Michael here in England said that he used to
write letters to them to learn how to write French.
And that was it. That’s how it was, they said.
Michael knew how it was. His mother was the sister
of the French uncles and she waved Michael goodbye
when he was 17 and that was the last he saw of her.
And that was it. But I wouldn’t let it go and I
Started looking for the rue de Thionville and at an
airport I met a guy who came from Metz and he said
he would go to the Mairie, the town hall, and look
up Oscar and Martin, rue de Thionville and he did
or says he did and he wrote back to say he didn’t find
anything. And that was that. But then Teddy in America
wrote to say that some letters have turned up, a son
of a brother of a mother or something has got letters
from 1941.
And they’re from Oscar, and they’re from Michael’s father
And oh my god they’re asking for help, they’re letters
to their brother Max ,
(Look, I know the names won’t mean much to you,
I’ve been living with this stuff and I don’t even know why
I’ve tried so hard to find out about it, but there were these
brothers and sisters, all born in Poland, one of them is
Michael’s mother. That’s Stella, she stayed there,
married Bernard, there are the ones who went to France
that’s Oscar and Martin; there’s Max who went to America
along with Morris that’s my father’s father. I know the names.)
So when I see the letters I know who they are, Oscar asking Max
for help, Bernard asking that money should be sent to Michael
who was now in Siberia, Bernard doesn’t know that he’ll never see
his son Michael again, and I’m looking at the letters, and there’s
an address in France, not rue de Thionville, in Metz
or Nancy or Strasbourg. It’s 11 Rue Mellaise, (remember that)
in Niort in Deux-Sèvres. The other side of France.
And I start to read about how they all fled, everyone fled
‘L’exode’ they called it, the Exodus, everyone fled from the east
to the west, and here’s Oscar in the west in Niort
Deux-Sèvres...11 Rue Mellaise, (remember the address).
I find the house on google, there it is, a shop downstairs
a flat above, the French street, the shutters, the grey
render of the walls, the kind of place I’ve walked down
a thousand times on trips to the country I love to be in,
the place I discovered things I couldn’t buy or have
in England in the 1960s: ‘jus de pomme’ in big brown bottles,
fresh melons, blue vests, ‘espadrilles’, I didn’t even
know why it mattered and here was 11 Rue Mellaise,
the kind of place I would have liked to have stayed in
but this was the address for the last letter any of us have
from Oscar. And that was that. But I wouldn’t let go
of it, and I started looking for what happened to Jews
in Niort, in Deux-Sèvres and I found books which spoke of
‘rafles’, round-ups and a young rabbi who did all he could.
But it wasn’t enough and every time I found a book
I went to the index to look for the name, Rosen. It’s
something I’ve done, looking for my own name, or
the name of my brother or father or mother but now
I was looking for Oscar or Martin, and then, somewhere
I found something that I should have known about but
didn’t. ‘Le fichier juif’, the Jewish file, the document or dossier of
Jews. In France, there’s a job called ‘Prefect’ and ‘Sub-prefect’,
local officials and these prefects and sub-prefects
carefully wrote out the names of every Jew, date of birth,
place of birth, job, married to...names of children. And there
in one of the books was page 1 of the fichier juif for
Deux-Sevres. But where was this fichier juif? I wanted to
know, I don’t know why, and it seems as if most of the
fichiers juifs just disappeared after the war, they just
slipped away and would have been lost, vanished.
But for some reason a pile of them turned up in a
basement of a building and carefully and slowly
they had been put together and copied but all I
could see was page one. A facsimile of page one.
And that was that. But then at the back of a book
I found the name of another book: ‘Les chemins
de la honte, itinéraire d’une persecution, Deux-Sèvres
1940-1944’, by Jean-Marie Pouplain... The path of shame,
the account of a persecution, Deux-Sèvres 1940-1944
and I ordered it. It arrived into a house we were
on the verge of moving out of, so there was
something temporary and on the move about
us at that point, but the book arrived and I pulled
off the cardboard packaging and I did what I’ve done before
I looked in the index for Rosen and it said, 34, 65,
96,108,197,202,203,205,210,212,213,236,240,244.
And I turned to page 34 and there was the fichier juif
and number 40, it said, ‘Rosen, Jeschie, né le 23 juin,
1895, polonaise, bonneterie, marié à Kesler, Rachel,
née en 1910, 11 Rue Mellaise.’
Some things very right, some things not so right.
The name Jeschie, Oh I figured it was a nickname.
Jews have Hebrew names and sometimes their Christian
names are echoes of the Hebrew names, perhaps he was
Oscar because it rhymed with Yehoshua and the Yiddish
nickname of Yehoshua was perhaps Jeschie...?
But the job, ‘bonneterie’ it means the person who sells clothes
in the market. Not a dentist or a clockmaker. And I slowly
looked up each number and each page number told what
the prefect and the sub-prefect carefully wrote down, how
Jeschie and Rachel were given their yellow stars, how they
had to pin a sign saying ‘Entreprise Juive’, ‘Jüdisches Geschäft’,
Jewish business to their market stall, how everything they owned
was taken away from them in a process called ‘aryanisation’.
The business was Aryanised...whatever that meant, and there
on one of the entries it said that Jeschie was an ‘horloger de
carillon’ – a mender of chiming clocks. But what about the
last pages? and I turned to the last page numbers –
pages 234 and 236, 240 and 245 and Jeschie Rosen
was arrested outside of Deux-Sèvres, he seems to have tried
to get away, ‘clandestinement’ – secretly, but was picked up
somewhere else and then he and Rachel appear on another
document, the lists that the Nazis made in Paris of every Jew
they put on what the French called ‘convois’ – ‘convoys’
and there they are on convoy 62, leaving Paris on November
20 1943 going to Auschwitz.

And when I had read all that, as I stood there with the book
in my hand I knew that I was the first person in the family to know
all this and it felt like I had to tell everyone and I sat down
and started to write a letter to all the relatives which I
didn’t finish because I had to go and find out – and I knew
where to look – how many people were on that convoy, how long
did it take to get to Auschwitz, what happened the moment
the train arrived, how many never came back, how many
survived.

I read: ‘1200 Jews left Paris/Bobigny at 11.50 am on
November 20 1943. Arrived Auschwitz November 25, as cabled
by SS Colonel Liebenhenschel
1181 arrived.
There had been 19 escapees, they were young people
who escaped at 8.30pm Nov 20 near Lerouville.
In the convoy there were 83 children who were less than 12 years old.
Out of the convoy 241 men were selected for work and given numbers
164427-164667
Women numbered 69036-69080 were selected too.
914 were gassed straightaway
In 1945, there were 29 survivors – 27 men 2 women.’

I looked over what I wrote before I sent it off to my brother,
and to my cousins who would pass it on to Michael and to Max’s
son in America – who I haven’t told you is 103 years as I write this.
I thought about what kind of war was it, what kind of people
was it, who looked at a mender of clocks and his wife and put
them in a document, made them wear a yellow star, made them
put a sign up on their market stall, took their money away
from them, arrested them, put them in a transit camp,
put them on a train and sent them to a camp in Poland
where they were killed?

This is a story about France,
a story about Germany, a story about Jews.
This is a story
that’s not about France, not about Germany,
not about Jews.
I found these things out in order to know. I found these
things out, I know now, in order to tell other people.
I found these things out so that Jeschie and Rachel will be known.
But in the end I know that the point of them being known is
That this is a story not just for them and about them.

Mme Le Pen

the reason why
they gave a yellow star
to my father’s uncle and aunt

the reason why
they told them they had to fix a sign
saying ‘Jewish Business’ on their market stall

the reason why
they fled from their refuge in the rue Mellaise
in Niort

the reason why
they took refuge in Nice

the reason why
they were arrested and transported
to Paris, to Drancy, to Auschwitz and to their death

is because the officials of Vichy
made a ‘Jewish File’ of foreign Jews
and gave it to the Nazis
at the exact moment
that the Resistance was welcoming
Jews and was welcoming foreigners

and that’s the reason why
I am telling you these things
Mme Le Pen.

I Sometimes Fear...

I sometimes fear that people might think
that fascism arrives in fancy dress
worn by grotesques and monsters
as played out in endless re-runs of the Nazis.
Fascism arrives as your friend.
It will restore your honour,
make you feel proud, protect your house,
give you a job, clean up the neighbourhood,
remind you of how great you once were,
clear out the venal and the corrupt,
remove anything you feel is unlike you...
It doesn’t walk in saying,
‘Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments,
transportations, war and persecution.’

Reviews

‘hilariously funny as well as packing a punch.’

Stride

‘if these poems are unashamedly political, then good!’

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