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New Poetry, Fiction, Essays

From the other side

By Phil Dunn

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In times of war it does not seem proper to concern ourselves very much with the opinions of our enemies.  In a war there is an obvious priority – to win – and as a rule the only message heard from the other side is that which suits the protagonists.  But after the conflict, when the need to caricature the enemy has passed, the varied thoughts of populations can be examined and seen as an aid to reconciliation.  I think this is especially true of the war against Nazi Germany.

 

One reason for this lies in the scale of the cataclysmic events in Germany and occupied Europe, which affected millions.  These included the war, the Holocaust, and the division of Germany and the displacement of 12 million German-speaking refugees from Eastern Europe after the war’s end.  Some reactions to these events from the perspective of German-speaking poets appear below.

 

Paul Celan (1920-1970) was born in Romania.  His parents were German-speaking Jews.  During the war Romania was invaded by both Soviet and German forces, and both regimes used forced deportation of elements they considered undesirable.  After 1941 the fascist government organised ghettos for Jews and eventually internment camps.  Celan survived the camps but his parents did not.  Celan’s poem ‘Todesfuge’ (Death Fugue) was his response to life in an extermination camp.  It begins:

 

Death Fugue 

 

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening

we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night

we drink and we drink

we shovel a grave in the air there you won’t lie too cramped

A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes

he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margareta

he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling, he whistles his hounds to come close

he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground

he commands us to play up for the dance. 1

 

 

Gertrud Kolmar was born in Berlin in 1894 into a well-off assimilated Jewish family and died in Auschwitz in 1943.  She is regarded by many as one of the most important woman poets writing in German.  First published in 1917, she continued to write up to her death.   This excerpt gives a flavour of her work.

 

Murder  

 

The murderers are loose! 

They search the world

All through the night,

oh God, all through the night!

To find the fire kindled in me now,

This child so like a light, so still and mild.  

They want to put it out.

Like pouring ink

Their shadows seep from angled walls;

Like scrawny cats they scuttle

Timidly across the footworn steps.  

And I am shackled to my bed

With grating chains all gnawed with rust

That weigh upon me, pitiless and strong.

And bite raw wounds into my helpless arms.  

The murderer has come! … 2

 

 

Günter Grass was born in 1927 and served from February to April 1945 in a Waffen-SS tank regiment before being wounded and then captured by American troops.  He was among those expelled from his home city of Danzig when it was annexed to Poland.  Most famous for the novel ‘The Tin Drum’,  he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999.  His first collection of poetry came out in 1957.

 

Music for Brass

 

Those days we slept in a trumpet.

It was very quiet in there,

we never dreamed it would sound,

lay, as if to prove it,

open-mouthed in the gorge –

those days, before we were blown out.

Was it a child, on his head

a helmet of studied newspaper,

was it a scatty hussar

who walked at a command out of the picture,

was it even those days death

who breathed that way on his rubber stamp?

Today, I don’t know who woke us,

disguised as flowers in vases,

or else in sugar bowls,

threatened by anyone who drinks coffee

and questions his conscience:

one lump or two, or even three.

Now we’re on the run and our luggage with us,.

All half-empty paper bags, every crater in our beer,

cast-off coats, clocks that have stopped,

graves paid for by other people,

and women very short of time,

for a while we fill them.

In drawers full of linen and love,

in a stove which says no

and warms its own standpoint only,

in a telephone our ears have stayed behind

and listen, already conciliant,

to the new tone for busy.

Those days we slept in a trumpet.

Backward and forward we dreamed,

avenues, symmetrically planted.

On a tranquil unending back

we lay against that arch,

and never dreamed it would sound. 3

 

Günter Eich, born in 1907 wrote plays, including many radio plays for the Nazi broadcasting system, poems, songs and books.  Although he applied for party membership in 1933 he was rejected, and later wrote about the incompatibility between poetry and politics.  He served throughout the war with the Wehrmacht (army) until he was captured by US forces.  On his release in 1946 he set about forming ‘Gruppe 47’, a group of writers that included Günter Grass and Paul Celan.   In 1953, he married the Jewish Austrian writer Ilse Aichinger.

 

His first collection ‘Abgelegene Gehöfte’ (Outlying Farms) contains ‘Inventory’ one of the best-known poems in German to come from the Second World War.

 

Inventory 

 

This is my cap,

this is my coat,

here’s my shaving gear

in a linen sack.

A can of rations:

my plate, my cup,

I’ve scratched my name

in the tin. 

Scratched it with this

valuable nail

which I hide

from avid eyes. 

In the foodsack is

a pair of wool socks

and something else that I

show to no one, 

It all serves as a pillow

for my head at night.

The cardboard here lies

between me and the earth. 

The lead in my pencil

I love most of all:

in the daytime it writes down

the verses I make at night.

 

This is my notebook,

this is my tarpaulin,

this is my towel,

this is my thread. 4

 

 

Marie Luise Kaschnitz (1901-74) became an important poet after the war, noted for her hopeful viewpoint and original diction.  She and her archaeologist husband had travelled extensively after their marriage in 1925, but became trapped in Frankfurt in 1940 when the city was firebombed.  This experience influenced her writing.

 

Hiroshima

 

The man who dropped death on Hiroshima

Rings bells in the cloister, has taken vows. 

The man who dropped death on Hiroshima

Put his head in a noose and hanged himself.

The man who dropped death on Hiroshima

Is out of his mind, is battling with risen souls

Made of atomic dust who are out to attack him.

Every night. Hundreds and thousands of them.

None of it’s true.

In fact, I saw him the other day

In his front garden, there in the suburb—

With immature hedges and dainty roses.

You need time to make a Forest of Forgetting

Where someone can hide. Plainly on view

Was the naked, suburban house and the young wife

Standing beside him in her floral dress

And the little girl attached to her hand

And the boy hoisted up on his back

And cracking a whip over his head.

And he was easy to pick out

On all fours there on the lawn, his face

Contorted with laughter, because the photographer

               Stood

Behind the hedge, the seeing eye of the world. 5

 

 

If the selection above seems rather short on poets sympathetic to the Nazi cause, it is because the NSDAP had little use for them, preferring volkisch-nationalist novels, plays and films with themes that supported their ideology.  Hitler had few volumes of poetry in his library and the most prominent ‘Nazi’ poet, Hanns Johst, was better known for his play ‘Schlageter’ in which a character utters the much quoted (and misquoted) line, ‘Wenn ich Kultur höre … entsichere ich meine Browning!’ (‘When I hear the word culture. . . I release the safety catch of my Browning’.)  This excerpt from his early collection ‘Mother’ (1921) shows rather a different side to his personality:

 

God the Father Himself did weave the splendour
with starry light and rays of the sun.
They however pushed the wreath of thorns
down into His hair and head and blood.
I weave for the child
only meadow herbs and larkspur.
Please, God, spare it the cross and thorns! 6

From 1933 the Reich’s Chamber of Literature was under the control of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister for Propaganda, and Germany was the major publisher of books in Europe – in 1937, books were third behind coal and steel in value to the German economy.  Yet by restricting the range of new writing permitted, to serve ideological ends, the Nazis effectively strangled their native literature.

 

Germany as a nation is very young by European standards.  Its turbulent history has seen Germans suffer, and cause, almost unimaginable horrors.  A visitor to Berlin today would see many memorials to those horrors; they are not hidden, and there is none of the triumphalism that often characterises memorials to the past all over Europe.  They are clearly and bravely intended as a lesson from History.  If this does not dispel the stereotypical picture of a ‘German’ then the selection of poems above, written by German soldiers and the innocent victims of a perverted ideology, should help.

 

 

Translators: 1 John Felstiner, 2 Henry A. Smith, 3 Christopher Middleton, 4 David Young, 5 Eavan Boland. 6 Wikipedia – translator not cited

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Phil Dunn

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Phil Dunn lives in the lovely cathedral town of Southwell in Nottinghamshire. He is former scientist and Primary School teacher and only recently a writer and performer of poetry. He began writing with a short story and articles, published locally, but now concentrates on poetry, some of which appears in the iBook ‘>Poetry 2016’ and in literary journals.

 

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