Flight and Exile

 

 

Brecht wrote some of his most significant plays during the years of his flight and exile in Scandinavia, first in Denmark, and then in Sweden and in Finnland.  He also wrote poems about his battle with Fascism and reflected on  on the war to come, and later- its horrible progress, and on the condition of exile. 

 

 

 


Sitting pretty in the bow in the light
You see a leak well up back in the stern.
Keep it in view. It’s a real concern
Because death has you right in its sight.

Brecht and Walter Benjamin at chess in Sobovskrand in Denmark where he

and his family lived from '33 to '39.

Click on title for German original

 

In the Second Year of My Flight

In the second year of my flight
I read in a newspaper in a foreign language
That I had lost my citizenship.
I was not sad and not happy
When I read my name along with many others.
Good people, and bad.
The fate of those who had fled did not seem worse to me that of
Those who had remained. 

 

Click on title for German original


Thoughts on the Length of Exile


I

Do not hammer a nail into the wall
Throw your coat on the chair
After all, it will only be for four days.
You are going back tomorrow
Don’t bother watering the young tree
Why bother planting a tree?
Before it is as high as a stair step
You will be leaving here.
Pull your cap down over your face when people pass
Why poke around in foreign grammar books?
The news that will call you back home
Will be written in a familiar language
The same way the white wash is crumbling off the beams
(Don’t do anything about that!)
The wall of terror will crumble
That has been set up at the border
Against justice.

II

Look at the nail that you’ve hammered into the wall:
When do you think you are really going back?
Do you want to know what you really think in earnest?
Day after day
You are working toward liberation
Sitting in your little room, writing.
Do you want to know what you think of your work?
Look at the little chestnut tree in the corner of the courtyard
The one you lugged a brimful watering can to.
    

(1937)

 


Click on title for German original


Spring 1938

I

Rain clouds are massed over the Sound, but the garden
Is still gilt with sunshine.  The pear trees
Have green leaves and still no blossoms, the cherry trees
On the other hand have blossoms and no leaves.  The white sprays
Seem to be sprouting out of the thin branches.
Over the shimmering water of the Sound
A small boat is tacking with a patch in its sail.
The twittering of the starlings
Is mixed with the distant thunder
Of the maneuvering gun ships
Of the Third Reich.

II

Early today, Easter Sunday,
A sudden snowstorm went over the island.
Snow lay between the green hedges.  My young son
Led me to an apricot tree planted near the base of the house
Took me away from a verse that I was pointing directly at those
Who are preparing for a war that might
Destroy this continent, this island, my people,
My family and me. In silence
We put a sack
Over the freezing tree.

III

In the willows along the Sound
The screech owl calls often during these spring nights.
According to the superstition of the farmers
The owl informs people that
They haven’t long to live.  As far as
I’m concerned, who has spoken the truth
About those in power, I have no need
To be informed about this
By the messenger of death.
 

    (1938)

 

Click on title for German original

SWEDISH LANDSCAPE

Under the gray-green pines a house is being torn down.
Among the debris a table painted white.
An altar?  A counter from a shop?  That is the question.
Was the Body of Jesus sold here?  His blood
Served up?  Or were linen and boots celebrated?
Were mundane or heavenly gains sought here?
Did priests sell here or did merchants preach?
Gods wondrous creations, the pines
Are being chopped down by the mechanic from next door.   

(1939)

 
 

Click on title for German original

 

Nature Poems

I

(Svendborg)

Through the window, all twelve squares of glass,
I see a gnarled pear tree with hanging branches
In an irregular lawn bestrewn with some straw.
It is bordered by a tract of plowed-up earth
planted with bushes and smallish trees.
In back of this hedge, barren now in winter
Runs the footpath,  bordered by gate
Of knee high slats, painted white: just one meter back of it,
There is a little house with two windows in green wooden frames
And a shingled roof, that is as high as the wall.
The wall is painted white,  as well as the few yards of wall
That extend the house to the side, an addition,
Are all painted in a clean white. There is a green wooden door
on the addition, as well as one on the left,  somewhat recessed,
And since the bay begins just on the other side of the house
Where you can see the water to the right veiled in fog,
Sheds and straw roofs in front of it,
The little house probably has three doors all in all.
It would make good house for occupants who are against injustice
And could be picked up at any time by the police.

II

(Augsburg)

A spring evening in the outskirts of town.
The four houses in the tract
Look white in the twilight.
The workers are still sitting around
At the dark tables in the courtyard.
They are talking about the yellow peril.
A few little girls bring beer,
Even though the evening bells of  the Ursuline Sisters have long since rung.
Their fathers in shirt sleeves are leaning against the base of cross-membered upstairs windows.
The neighbors are covering the peach trees at the house walls
In small white sheets to protect them from the night frost.
 

Click on title for German original

FINLAND 1940

I

We are refugees now
in Finland.

My little daughter
Comes home in the evening, no child
Wants to play with her. She is  German and comes
From a people who are a bunch of gangsters.

When I say a few loud words in the family give-and-take
I am admonished to silence. Loud language
Is not liked here from a person
Who hails from a bunch of gangsters.

When I remind my daughter
That the Germans are a bunch of gangsters
She is glad with me, that they are not liked.
And we laugh together.

II

To me, a descendant of farmers
It is abhorrent to see
Bread thrown away.
They understand
How much I hate the war.


III

Over a bottle of wine
Our Finnish woman friend described to us
How the war had devastated her cherry orchard.
The wine that we are drinking, she told us, came from there.
We emptied our glasses
In remembrance of the demolished cherry orchard
And of reason itself.

IV

This is the year, they will talk about.
This is the year, they will not talk about.

The old watch the young as they die.
The foolish watch the wise as they die.

The earth no longer bears, but swallows.
The heavens throw no rain, but only iron.
 

 

Click title for German original


THE LARDER AT A FINNISH FARM 1940

Ah, shady larder shed!  A dark spruce  
Laces your air inside at night and leaves a tang        
Mixed with a fresh milk smell from a big can
And the smoked hams at the stone ledge where they hang.          

Beer, goat cheese, fresh bread and berries
Picked from the gray shrubs in the morning dew!
Oh you, who are kept by the war with empty bellies
Over the seas - if I could only invite you!
 

 

Click title for German original

 

Finnish Landscape 1940

Waters teaming with fish! Forests of exquisite trees!
The scent of birches and berries!
Wind of many tones, cradle-rocking through air
As mild as if those distant iron milk cans  
Rolling away from the white manor house were standing open!
Smell and sound and image and sense meld together.
The refugee sits in the alder grove and once again
Takes up his difficult handicraft of hope.

He heeds well the sheaves so nicely piled high
And the strong creatures, bending down to the water
And those, too, not nourished by grain and milk.
He asks the ferry loaded with logs of trees:
Is this the wood, without which there would be no wooden legs?
And he sees a people,  silent in two languages

 

Click title for German original


1940

I

Spring is coming. The mild winds
are freeing the islands from the winter ice.
Trembling, the people of the north await
the battle fleets of the House Painter.  

II

Forth from the libraries
come columns of butchers.

Pressing their children to their bosoms,
mothers stand and peruse the heavens,
confounded by these new inventions of learned men.

III

The design engineers sit bent
over their desks in the drafting rooms:
One mistaken number and the cities of the enemy
will remain undestroyed.

IV

Fog enshrouds
The streets
The poplars
The farms and
The artillery.

V

I am located on the little island of Lindigö.
But recently at night
I had troubled dreams and dreamed, I was in a city
And discovered that the street signs
Were in German.  Bathed in sweat
I awoke and with great relief
I saw the fir tree in its nighttime black outside the window
And I knew I was in a foreign land.


VI

My young son asks me: Should I learn mathematics?
I’m tempted to say, what for?  That two pieces of bread are more than one
Is something you’ll figure out pretty quickly.
My young son asks me: Should I study French?
What for,  I’m tempted to say. This regime is going under.  If
You merely rub your hand over your stomach and groan
They will understand you just fine.
My young son asks me, should I study history?
What for,  I’m tempted to say.  Learn how to stick your head in the ground,
And maybe that way, you’ll be overlooked and somehow survive.
Yes, learn mathematics, I say to him,
Learn French, and learn history.
 
VII

At the whitewashed wall
Stands the black military suitcase with the manuscripts.
On top of it lie my short cigars, the matches and the copper ashtray.
The Chinese scroll that depicts the Doubting Man
Hangs over it all.  The masks are here as well.  And next to the bed
Stands the small, six tube loudspeaker.
In the morning
I turn on the radio and listen
To the victory announcements of my enemies.

VIII

In flight from my fellow countrymen
I’ve find myself newly arrived in Finland.  Friends
That I did not know yesterday, put up a few beds
In clean rooms.  On the radio
I hear the victory announcements of the scum.  Curious,
I pore over the map of this part of the world. Way up in Lapland
Approaching the Northern Sea of Ice,
I see there is still a little door.
 

 

 

 

Click on title for German original

 

On J. M. R. Lenz'  "The Private Tutor"

This is Figaro on this side of the Rhein!
When nobles take lessons from the lower classes,
Here it's honor, over there it is power that amasses;
In Paris it is a comic play, here  it is the tragic kind.

The poor guy can't keep his eyes on literature,
To the rich girl's cleavage they always seem to stray.  
And since this kind of Gordian Knot is hard to fray,  
It is himself he attacks, and the problem has no cure.

His member rises, but his salary too is in the air,
He needs bread and sex, clutches only at despair.
He must choose, and decides upon a wretched trail.   

His stomach churns, and this seals his fate,
He cries and rails, curses, proceeds to emasculate
Himself. The poet's voice breaks as he tells the tale.     .  

Brecht re-worked J.M.R. Lenz’s  The Private Tutor, (Der Hofmeister) after WWII.  In this play of 1774, the protagonist, a private tutor, caught between his need for sustenance and sex, emasculates himself.  In this poem, Brecht sees the same revolutionary impulse present in Beaumarchais’ Figaro.  In Germany, however, it is stifled. This poem dates from 1940.
 

Brecht sees Lenz  (1751-1792) as strongly naturalistic writer, who does not idealize his characters as Goethe and Schiller did.  Lenz was a well known figure in German literature, contemporary with Goethe, known for his flashes of genius and great promise, He succumbed to mental problems and died in Moscow, where he was found dead on the streets.
 

 

Click on title for German Original

 

A Visit to the Banished Poets
 
At the point in the dream when he stepped into the hut of the banned
Poets, situated next to the hut
Where the banned teachers lived (from which he overheard
Arguments and laughter), he was approached at the entrance
By Ovid who said to him in a soft voice,
“Better not sit down. You haven’t died yet.  Who really knows       
For sure if you aren’t going back? And without anything changing
Than you yourself.”  But then, with solace in his eyes
Po Chü-yi approached and said with a smile: “Heavy-handedness
Can be expected by anyone, who even once called injustice by its proper name.”
And his friend, Tu-fu said quietly, “Banishment
Is not the place, where pride is overcome.”  But in a more downright manner,
A bedraggled Villon joined the group and asked,
“How many
Doors does the house have in which you live?” And Dante took him aside
And holding by the sleeve, mumbled,” Your verses
Are riddled with errors, my friend, just think
Of who all is against you!” And Voltaire called over,
“Watch out for your sous, otherwise, they’ll starve you out!”
“And mix some jokes in there,” Heine yelled. “That doesn’t help,”
Scolded Shakespeare,”When James arrive
I too was no longer allowed to write.” “ If it comes
To a trial, get a shyster lawyer!” advised Euripides
Because he knows the loopholes in the law.”
Laughter
Continued, when from the darkest corner
Came a call, “Hey, you!  Do they know
Your verses by heart? And those who know them
Will they escape persecution?” “Those
Are the forgotten ones,” said Dante softly
“It was not only their bodies that were destroyed, but their works, as well.”
The laughter ceased. No one dared glance over at him. The newcomer
Had turned white as a sheet.

 

Click on title for German original

The Story of the Shipwrecked Man

When the shipwrecked man stepped onto our island
He arrived like a person who had reached his goal.
I think in fact seeing those of us
Who ran over to help him
He even felt sorry for us.
From the very start, he
Concerned himself only with our matters.
From the experience of his shipwreck
He taught us how to sail. He even taught
Us courage. He spoke of the tempestuous waters
With great regard, mindful
That they had conquered a man like himself. Of course
They had divulged many of their tricks in doing so. This
Knowledge would make better men of us, his students.
Since he missed certain foods that he liked, he improved our cuisine.
Though he was obviously dissatisfied with himself
He never let up in being dissatisfied with all conditions
Surrounding him and ourselves. But never
During the whole time, that he spent with us
Did we hear him complain about anyone else but himself.
He died of an old wound. Flat on his back,
At the very end, he was trying out a new knot for our fishnets.
And so, he died, still learning.

(1939)
 

This poem is based on the personal history of Dr. Waldemar Goldschmidt, the lead doctor of the cancer unit of the  Rothschild Hospital in Vienna, whom Brecht met during his stay on the island of Lidingö in Sweden in the fall of 1939.  Goldschmidt was Jewish and forced out of his post and Austria by the Nazis. He and his wife took refuge in Stockholm, where he stayed and practiced until his death in 1947. In November of 1939, Steffin begins to work with Goldschmidt, transcribing his past, his service in several armies in WWI, his career in Vienna, anf finally, his flight.
 

 

 

Click on title for German original

AN ANIMAL POEM

.
A pill bug once lived in a shamble
In a cellar where she liked to amble.  
One day she got knocked off her perch
When the cellar gave way with a lurch;  
As the whole house shook and caved in
She almost got her head staved in.
They say she then turned to the Church.  
 

1934. -- Brecht wrote children’s verses in Svendborg for his son, Stefan.  They usually ended with a jibe at the political or social order.
 

Brecht and Benjamin at chess, Sobovskrand

Click on title for German translation


Why should my name be mentioned?

1

Once I thought, in far off times
When the houses I lived in have fallen down,
and the ships on which I traveled are rotted
my name will still be mentioned,
along with others:

2

Because I praised what was useful, which
in my time was considered ignoble,
Because I fought religion,
Because I fought against suppression or
For some other reason.

3

Because I was for humanity and
Assigned it all responsibility and thus honored it.
Because I wrote verses and enriched the language
Because I taught a practical kind of behavior or
For some other reason or another.

4

Therefore I thought, my name would still be spoken
That it would stand somewhere on a stone,
Would be taken from books,
And printed in new and other books.

5

But today
I am reconciled that it will be forgotten
Why ask about the baker, if there is enough bread to go around?

Why should the snow be praised that melted
If new and other snowfalls are yet to come?
Why
should there be a past, if there
is a future?

6

Why
Should my name be mentioned?

I have no need of a gravestone, but
If you have need of one for me
I would like that on it be written,
He made suggestions.  We
Accepted them.
By such an inscription
We would all be honored.

(1936)




 

 

Click on title for German original

 

On J. M. R. Lenz'  "The Private Tutor"

This is Figaro on this side of the Rhein!
When nobles take lessons from the lower classes,
Here it's honor, over there it is power that amasses;
In Paris it is a comic play, here  it is the tragic kind.

The poor guy can't keep his eyes on literature,
To the rich girl's cleavage they always seem to stray.  
And since this kind of Gordian Knot is hard to fray,  
It is himself he attacks, and the problem has no cure.

His member rises, but his salary too is in the air,
He needs bread and sex, clutches only at despair.
He must choose, and decides upon a wretched trail.   

His stomach churns, and this seals his fate,
He cries and rails, curses, proceeds to emasculate
Himself. The poet's voice breaks as he tells the tale.     .  

Brecht re-worked J.M.R. Lenz’s  The Private Tutor, (Der Hofmeister) after WWII.  In this play of 1774, the protagonist, a private tutor, caught between his need for sustenance and sex, emasculates himself.  In this poem Brecht sees the same revolutionary impulse present in Beaumarchais’ Figaro, though in Germany it remains stifled. This poem dates from 1940.
 

Brecht sees Lenz  (1751-1792) as strongly naturalistic writer, who does not idealize his characters as Goethe and Schiller did.  Lenz was a well known figure in German literature, contemporary with Goethe, known for his flashes of genius and great promise, He succumbed to mental problems and died in Moscow, where he was found dead on the streets.   


 

 

 

Click on title for German original

To be read mornings and evenings:


He, whom I love
told me
that he needs me.

Therefore,
I take good care of myself,
watch every step of the way,
am afraid that even one raindrop
might be the death of me.


(August 1937)

This poem was written for Ruth Berlau