Bertolt Brecht - his Poetry & Period - his Politics & Person
Brecht and many others saw the war coming from afar via news reports and information that was leeked to the outside from communists and socialists who had remained in Germany. They followed each regretful detail and examined it for what it might mean for the future. They knew that the Nazis were preparing for a protracted war.
Georg Grosz: Cain, or Hitler in Hell, 1944
Click on title for German original
THE HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE
From the East there is a story: the horsemen of the apocalypse
Had flung their fire, villages and cities were in flames
And they came near nightfall. At a gravelly spot in the river
The bloodied riders were busy watering their exhausted horses.
(According to the old writings, they still rode horses in those days.)
But the animals bent their necks, recoiled at the death and decay
Floating down the river. The riders stood cursing, when by the bank
A little woman waved to them, and then led them with faltering gait
Possibly confused by the fires, or weak-kneed from years of
Hunger, with a faltering gait, I tell you, she led them, I tell you,
Through the blasted cottages of her blasted village to her
Own burnt out cottage. In silence she pointed to the well.
She stood alone, a tiny thing, in the glimmer of the flaming sky
Saw the horses drink the fresh pure water.
Only then, when the bloody riders remounted, did she open her mouth:
“Forward!” she said out loud with the thin voice of the aged
“Forward!” she said urgently. “ Ride on, my darlings. ride on!”
Click on title for German original
The Childrens’ Crusade
In Poland in the year thirty-nine
Battles ravaged the nation,
That turned whole cities and towns
Into a scene of vast devastation.
The sister lost her brother ,
The wife her husband to war.
Between the fires and rubble
Children had parents no more.
No word was heard out of Poland
No letters, no news reports;
But in those eastern lands
An odd story passed about.
Snow was falling in the east
As the story began to spread
Of a crusade of children
That through Poland led.
Children scurried hungry
Along the roads in a little band
And took with them the others
From the blasted land.
They wanted to escape the battles
Run from the horror and pain
And arrive one day in a land
Where peace reigned once again.
They had picked a little leader
To guide the ragged group.
He had just one big worry:
Where to take his little troop.
A young girl of eleven
Led a four year old by the hand.
She had all that makes a mother
Except a peaceful land.
A Jewish boy with a collar
Of satin bravely marched along:
Used to the finest white bread
He was resolute and strong.
And a thin boy clad in gray walked
With them off to one side in isolation.
He carried a terrible burden of guilt
This stray from a Nazi legation.
And then there was the dog
They’d caught to kill for meat
They took it along, hungry now too,
The animal they’d no heart to eat.
A girl who was good at school
Taught the others calligraphy
And a pupil of hers on a burnt out tank
Learned to write as far as ‘pea..’
A boy of fifteen, a girl of twelve
Found a life of love and care,
In a shell-shattered village
They sat as she combed his hair.
This was a love that could not last
Because of the cold and frost:
When young trees are frozen fast
The tender blossoms are lost.
There was a burial, too, when the boy
With the velvet collar died.
Two German and two Polish boys
Carried him to his grave side by side.
Protestant, Catholic and Nazi
Helped him to his final berth,
And at the end a little Communist
Spoke of man’s future on earth.
They had faith and even hope
But bread and meat were hard to find.
Let no one reprove them, if they stole
From those who were unkind.
And the poor man who did not invite them,
Let no one think of him ill:
For fifty hungry children, it takes
Bread and not just good will.
They went mainly to the south.
Where the sun is in the sky
And standing at twelve noon
Made the course they steered by.
They found a wounded soldier
Lying on duff beneath the pines
They tended him for seven days
Asked him the road, for lack of signs.
To Bilgoray, * he told them
But that was the fever talking,
And on the eighth day, he died.
So they buried him and kept walking.
If there were sign posts
They were covered with snow
And they were twisted around
So the right direction did not show
That wasn’t done as practical joke
But to confuse the armies underway.
Thus the children could not find the road
And as they tried to go to Bilgoray
They stood about their leader.
Who looked at the falling snow.
And pointed with his little hand
And said, this must be the way to go.
Once, at night, they saw a fire
To go close, they did not dare.
Once, three tanks rolled on by.
There were men in there.
They began to make an arc
When a city came into sight.
Until they were well past it
They only traveled at night.
In a hard falling windy snow
Where southeast Poland had been
Is the last time the fifty five children
When I close my eyes
I watch them on the run,
From one war-torn farm yard
to the next war-torn one.
Above them high in the clouds
I see other armies, great and new to ponder!
The exhausted homeless facing cold winds
And the aimless with no road to wander.
Searching for a land of peace
Without thunder, without gun-blast
Unlike that from where they came,
Great armies growing ever more vast.
And through the twilight I see
The little army grow and change;
Made of many other little faces,
From Asia, France and Spain.
In Poland in that January
A wandering dog was seen
A sign around his skinny neck
His body starved and lean.
The sign read: we need help!
The way ahead is unclear.
There are fifty-five of us
The dog will lead you here.
If you can’t come
Please chase him away.
Don’t shoot him, please
Only he knows where we stay.
The writing was that of a child.
Peasants read the sign.
That was a year and half ago.
The dog was famished and died.
This poem is based on various reports of groups of children, displaced by war, wandering about in Poland.
* Bilgoray is a city in eastern Poland, (population 27,000) south of Lublin, historically a center of a large Jewish community of 4,500 people in 1931. Issac Bachevits Singer’s mother was from Bilgoraj and he lived there for a time as a child. Many of his stories use the town as a setting.
Click on title for German original
THE WAR GOD
I saw the old war god standing in a swamp between a chasm and a cliff wall.
He smelled like cheap beer and carbolic acid and was showing the teenagers his testicles, because
He had been rejuvenated by some medical professors. With the hoarse voice of a wolf, he
Reaffirmed his love for all things young.
A pregnant woman was standing nearby, trembling.
And without shame, he spoke on and presented himself as a lover of order.
And he described
How he put all of the barns in order by emptying them.
And the way bread bits are thrown to the sparrows, he fed poor people with crusts taken away From other poor people.
Sometimes his voice is loud and sometimes soft, but always hoarse.
In a loud voice he spoke of the great times to come
And with a soft voice, he told the women folk how to cook crows and seagulls.
Withal he had a restless back and was always looking over his shoulder as if afraid of being stabbed.
And every five minutes he assured the audience that he was only thinking of appearing on stage for a very short while.