Analysis of the Poem Auschwitz from Colombo by Anne Ranasinghe

photo credit: Wikipedia (on the left a disturbing picture at Auschwitz and on the right a gang assaulting a Tamil during riots)

Anne Ranasinghe, born in Essen, Germany, as Anneliese Katz was thirteen years old when her Jewish parents decided to send her to England for her safety as Nazi's rose into power in 1939. They had planned to follow her but five years later, they were murdered in Chelmno, Poland by the Nazi regime. In England, she trained as a nurse working in many hospitals in London. Anne married a Sri Lankan professor and became a citizen of Sri Lanka in 1956.

As her life experience is varied, her viewpoints are of several layers. In the poem, she contrasts her socio-cultural past with her cultural present in Sri Lanka. Her life has experienced inhumanity several times; once as a teenage girl and in Colombo as a matured woman, she experienced how ethnic riot blackened the city. Once she said during an interview: “People don’t realize… unless you have lived through, through that horrible period, the fear, the constant fear-fear that has really accompanied me all my life.” which summarizes the pile of agony she carried on her shoulder.

State-sponsored mass destruction of an ethnic group was the thing unleashed like in Auschwitz in Sri Lanka during the Black July in 1983. The poem moves back and forth between the two geographical locations where two identically-different holocaust taken place. 



Title: The title suggests that the poet moves from present location to a past location to draw parallels between the holocaust taken place in Auschwitz (is a concentration camp maintained by Hitlor’s Nazi soldiers where most of them were brutally murdered) and Colombo (the present residence of the poet)

Rhyme scheme: Unrhymed

Tone: suffocating, critical

Theme: inhumanity associated with ethnic violence or any form of violence.

Narration: The poetic persona seems to be the poetess herself. She juxtaposes her childhood experience of violence with the violence erupted in her present abode.


Deep-end Analysis

Colombo. March. The city white fire

That pours through vehement trees burst into flame,

And only a faint but nearing wind

Stirring the dust

From relics of foreign invaders, thrown


symbol: fire (destructive force, destructive emotions a recurrent force related to war and violence)

parallelism: Colombo. March. The city white fire (the capital city with large and diverse population, a hot March season and the heated environment are put together to set the scene for a massive destruction)

metaphor: city white fire (the foggy like environment in the city, might be because of vehicle gas, dust storms, excessive heat which can stir the nerves of city people), relics of foreign invaders (impact of colonialization in Sri Lanka, the country was under several foreign invaders for ages, last one was British empire; though they left the country they left behind a seed of racism which have been germinating and fanning into its culmination in 1983)

pathetic fallacy: vehement trees (violent passions of the people is projected to the nature)

personification: trees burst into flame, nearing wind stirring the dust

visual/kinesthetic imagery: city white fire, trees burst into flame, wind stirring the dust (the images create a hostile environment which creates a suffocating undertone)

foreshadowing: nearing wind (wind is a force, here the underlying meaning of wind can be the violence unleashed due to germinating hatred between Sinhalese and Tamil in the country)

enjambment: the stanza is a single line which extends up to the next stanza.


Poet starts the poem setting the scene for a violent story. The use of ‘nearing wind’ foreshadows the eminent danger to be outburst. As she reveals there has been triggering incidents to evoke violence in the people who have been burning with their restless lifestyle and the mistrust grew between each other. She hints of the colonial history of Sri Lanka which paved the way to the communal violence.    


On this far littoral by chance or greed,

Their stray memorial the odd word mispronounced,

A book of laws,

A pile of stones

Or may be some vile deed.


metaphor: their stray memorial the odd words mispronounced (the elite class who could gain higher positions in the country, after colonizers left Sri Lanka, the elite class who worked under them in state administrations, who spoke English and Tamil language)

anaphora/parallelism: A (this might draw parallels between vary laws which provided fuel for the violence)

This stanza unveils the reason for the out broke of violence in 1983. It had been a result of  a long term germinating mistrust between two communities and the certain acts and laws imposed by the government. A pile of stones seems to have two connotations, one might be a tomb which has a connection to the killing of soldiers or the stones used to attack people and properties by the mob. You can read the post about black July here to know about detailed reason behind the communal riots in 1983. Poet in the last ling makes a guess about morally bad or wrong nature of the people who unleashed violence upon fellow countrymen.


Once there was another city, but there

It was cold - the trees leafless

And already thin ice on the lake.


It was that winter

Snow hard upon the early morning street

And frost flowers carved in hostile window panes -

It was that winter.


visual imagery: trees lifeless, thin ice on the lake, hard snow on the morning street, frost flowers carved in window pane

alliteration: frost flowers

symbol: snow (death)

metaphor: hostile window panes (frightened onlookers in houses)

The juxtaposition of these scenes with "that winter" in a German city with its "tree[s] leafless" and frost flowers encrusting "hostile window panes" when Nazi violence was unleashed on "Kristallnacht" on a defenseless people, is quite startling. Ranasinghe moves to the inhumanity of Auschwitz.


Yet only yesterday

Half a world away and twenty-five years later

I learn of the narrow corridor

And at the end a hole, four feet by four

Through which they pushed them all - the children too

Straight down a shaft of steel thirteen feet long

And dark and icy cold

Onto the concrete floor of what they called

The strangling room. Dear God, the strangling room,


Where they were stunned - the children too -

By heavy wooden mallets,

Garroted, and then impaled

On pointed iron hooks.


She must be drawing parallels with the gas chambers in Auschwitz where people were sent through ‘narrow corridors’ into ‘four by four’ gas chambers. Similarly, the victims are sent to the rooms called ‘strangling room’ which as she describes situated underground like bunkers. As poet reveals the victims are descended to the pit by means of a steel pipe. She vividly presents the horrific murder of victims including children who were stunned by heavy wooden mallets, then cruelly "Garrotted and then impaled, on pointed iron hooks".


I am glad of the un-echoing street

Burnt white in the heat of many tropical years,

For the mind, no longer sharp,

Seared by the tropical sun

Skims over the surface of things

Like the wind

That stirs but slightly the ancient dust.


metaphor: un-echoing street (violence that is not recurrent – though the poet deceived her mind the echo lasted for about thirty years as a war between two communities) burnt white in the heat of many tropical years (accustomed to violence) ancient dust (history of violence)

visual imagery: burnt white (streets lose their black color under searing sun in the long run)

simile: like the wind


The poet seems to try forgetting things temporarily blotting out the memories of the past. As she says once a person has been exposed to violence for a long period of time, it becomes a part of his or her life. So, she or he loses rational mind about what is going on around. The mind refrains from probing beneath the "surface of things." That tells about the predicament of many present at that period of time in Sri Lanka. But the haunting fear is ever present that beneath the surface calm is violence waiting to be unleashed. As beneath the ancient dust lies a history of violence, so does the "unechoing street" mask the violence waiting to erupt in the mid 1980's Sri Lanka.

"Auschwitz from Colombo" is a piece of writing packed with meaning and complexity which links the violence of the 1980's Sri Lanka, the genocide in Auschwitz and the vile deeds that resonate in the colonial history of Sri Lanka.


Source: Two local voices in anthology that transcends time and geography, Sunday Times, June 21, 2009

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