The Story behind “Alma” and “Fritz,” by Elizabeth Switaj

EKSwitajHeadshotPlease welcome Elizabeth Kate Switaj, whose poetry we published in our Fall 2013 issue.

The Story Behind “Alma” and “Fritz”

by Elizabeth Kate Switaj

Alma” and “Fritz” belong to a longer project of mine that takes on the stories of Aktion T4, the Nazi “euthanasia” of disabled people that preceded—and in many ways laid the groundwork for—the Holocaust.

I wanted to write about the atrocities of this program because they make up an often forgotten part of the history of Nazi Germany and because the continuing discrimination against disabled people makes remembering these stories important.

Writing about Nazis is, of course, a shortcut to outrage, but that shortcut presents its own aesthetic challenges, even beyond any echoes of Godwin’s Law. Because I could not expect readers to know how people were killed, and selected to be killed, as part of Aktion T4, I had to make these people’s deaths part of the poems. I could not just have them describe their lives prior to their selection. Spending too much time on their deaths, however, risks becoming maudlin or at least resting in easy, non-transformational anger. Here, ethics and aesthetics are inseparable. Get the mix wrong and the poem is ugly, the representation dishonest.

The refrain of “Alma”—“before I tell you how I died”—comes directly from the challenge of balancing the stories of people’s death with the stories of their lives. In the end, though, she would rather not have this story to tell at all. I would rather not have the easy outrage to call upon.

Another challenge related to balancing out the stories of death with the stories of life is that the historical record has much more to say about how people were murdered than about their lives before Aktion T4. Both of these poems are based on real people. All I knew about “Alma” is what I related in the penultimate verse: that the administrators of her widow’s pension were still looking for her after her death. All I knew about Fritz was that he was convicted of political dissidence (the details of why were not provided) and, on the word of a court-appointed expert, determined to have a disability and sent to Eichberg, one of the locations where the killings of Aktion T4 took place.

Because I had to invent so much of their lives, I chose not to use these people’s full names. Their full stories had been erased; I don’t want, in addition, to distort them on a factual, even if some empathetic imagination is required in order to get at the truth of what, and whom, Aktion T4 destroyed.

About the Author

Elizabeth Kate Switaj is a Humanities Instructor at the College of the Marshall Islands and a Contributing Editor to Poets’ Quarterly. She holds a Ph.D. in English from Queen’s University Belfast and an M.F.A. in Poetics and Creative Writing from New College of California. Her first collection of poetry, Magdalene & the Mermaids, was published in 2009 by Paper Kite Press. Recent poems have appeared in UCity Review and Coldnoon. For more information visit

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