German Jewish Poetry of the First World War German Jewish Poetry of the First World War

Collected and translated by Peter Appelbaum

INTRODUCTION

For somebody such as myself brought up and educated in the English-speaking world, First World War poetry has been by definition British comprising men such as Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Isaac Rosenberg. Germany, a country of poets and dreamers, has been reticent about its own World War One literature. So it came as a surprise to me when I found such a large amount of poetry written by German-Jewish authors (many of them soldiers who died early in the war). The more I dug the more I found. The styles are many and sometimes overlap: romantic, idealistic, and super-patriotic; war-like and Germanic; expressionistic; accusatory; sad, betrayed, and questioning; harsh and cruel; and bitingly satirical. And most of the work has not been translated into English before but lain dormant hidden from even German eyes. All authors except for Sternberg, Feuchtwanger, Toller, and Tucholsky were killed during the war. All translations are my own.

Peter Appelbaum


EMMANUEL SAUL (1876-1915)


TO MY CHILDREN

When I left home to fight for Fatherland

Against the threat of danger and deceit

You, children, happily around me ran

Rejoicing in your father’s bravery,

His uniform and other warlike clothes,

And in his newfound worth and bravery.

All hid from child-like sight was what it means

When now your father leaves for war and death.

But later when you are mature and wise,

And when perhaps my bones far east may lie

Bleaching alone under a wooden cross –

Then dread and horror you may start to feel

And you will think about that far-off time

When we all said farewell for the last time.

The certainty will ease your private pain

That proud and joyful he did join the ranks

Who all fought for our Reich’s security.

And do you want to know why I went out,

Enthused and happy joining all the  rest,

My life by sweetest wife and love still crowned,

While you in childhood’s blossom sweet and pure

Appeared before me in your  beauteous youth?

I say to you, and listen carefully

I left you all because a German I,

No other way could I think, feel or act!

A German in each fibre of my heart.

Strong feelings  as a student came to me

Of noble, precious German worth and good.

My childish heart rejoiced when I did hear

Of German victories and greatness told.

But when each sudden blow my nation struck,

It shattered me deep in my inmost soul;

It penetrated me so deep in marrow’s core

That it became my life’s experience.

So moved was I deep in my heart of hearts

Because of tragic destiny that struck

And tried to kill the noble dynasty

The kingly breed of Hohenstauffens proud,

So deeply moved was I that, yet a child,

Still tied to school desk and not yet mature

It held the grip of written fantasy.

Then came a war with German forces strong

Not only against German pride and power –

But against German peoples,  German kind,

Consciously evil, devilishly conceived –

A war, not fought as knights with weapon bared,

But hunger’s ruin forcing us to yield.

With bold lies and the basest treachery

With despicable and immoral acts

They wanted to destroy our long-sought peace

Achieved by German peoples’ work and toil.

The blooming of our scientists’ research

Creations of our keen artistic Volk

The blessings of our culture most refined

The glorious and proud acts of German spirits

The sound of German poetry and bloom

Of happy lives created by hard work

The blessings of our work with brother’s hands

In company with values strong and good.

Yes, snuffed out and destroyed, removed from life

A world without our art they wished to see!

It is a war, heart beating strong in breast

With mindful thoughts and blood strong in the veins,

Proclaimed against a hellish evil beast.

And to what end? The merchants to enrich

And thieves hungry for gold to make more rich.

And then our holy anger was enflamed:

How else could I have  thought and felt right then

When German nation’s brave and brightest youth,

When I too loved our holy German art?

Could outrage not then fill my deepest soul

When German essence is now so defiled

When we are blamed for all outrageous acts

When  slanderous doubts of our nobility

Drag us all down in mud and dirt and filth.

Relief and not complaint rose in my soul

When fate chose me for battle’s severe test,

Vengeance to take on malice, lies, deceit

Defending German richness and fair bloom,

To fight for wife and child for my land’s sake,

Protecting them from Asiatic hordes,

That breed of tigers at our eastern gate

Who heinously with us in past has dealt.

What noble joy! Thus did I leave with hope,

A German, German borders to protect –

And yet another thing drove me to war.

I am a Jew, and faithful, true and proud

Of the tribe from whose blood  I take my source.

In time of peace we oft are spoken  of

With calumny about our Jewish faith.

We are called base cowards unfit to fight

And turned away from lofty goals of life,

Mean, low and selfish, gain-obsessed,

They curse us cruelly  – and this is the worst

The hard blow that strikes like the whip’s lash –

As foreign on the soil for which our fathers

Have paid both with their sweat and with their blood. –

My heart is now gripped with time’s urgency

One will have I, one single holy wish

That Jew and German bind themselves as one.

That we are German needs no outside proof,

The truth thereof shines clearly as the sun,

We Jews all leave for war of our own wish,

Joyful to throng around our country’s flag

To gain for ourselves – even if fate wills

That we pay with our blood – our Fatherland.

For Jewish kin have sadly called the land

In which we live Stepfatherland:

This was my last but well-considered wish.. .

That I and all of us will prove our strength:

Our Fatherland for which we have such love

That placed us at the back unjustly, wrong

And that we fight bravely when duty calls

To strike the foe like, once in days of yore,

The Maccabees, proud scions of our tribe  -

Who are our enemies in this just war,

The Judas,  old notorious foe of yore

The cruel old oppressor of our race,

The enemies of culture, freedom, right,

Who are our enemies now? – One hate

Unites us, finally, with freedom’s joy

Warriors for culture, German, Jew unite

And then will bloom one common destiny:

Defeat may lead to our destruction, sure,

But victory frees, ennobles, gives us joy.

For what  can we expect from our cruel foe,

That now spills Jewish blood in their own lands,

Flowing in streams, and causes grief and woe

To Jewish children, women without fault?

Therefore I left for battle, as I am.

A German Jew to fight in holy war.


Emmanuel Saul  -  Translated by Peter Appelbaum

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WALTER HEYMANN (1882-1915)


RIDER, DEATH AND DEVIL

[Not marked as such, but probably after the etching Ritter, Tod und Teufel (1513) by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528)  -  PA.]


A strong brave knight must always ride

With Death and Devil by his side.


The Devil is his lancer man

Sticking the soft parts when he can.


He walks behind; with owl-attack

He looks into his armoured back


The look of death is full of pain

He is the horse’s strong neck-chain.


Who begs impertinent and old

And says to the ghost-rider: hold!


The knight is sitting on his steed

His visor open due to need.


The rider stares and rides and duels

With ghostly comrade that him rules


What weighs his armour down so low

What in his saddle happens so?


A righteous knight has got to ride

With Death and Devil by his side.


Where hell does stink and boils so grim

The Devil has forged arms for him


The armour which the rider wears

Is next to helmet, sword and spears


His leg is splinted all along

He follows whom he serves so long.


But now he must continuously

Death dog-like still accompany.



He is as thin as an old man

But journeys on as best he can.


The knight with pity then is fooled

Although the rider’s lance is hurled.


Hearts blood then comes all streaming out

And death does squint round him about.


He knows the tracery of iron

That rib cage struck  by cruel design.


He knows a steel so hard extreme

It pulls from the Last Day’s beam.


He knows about the stroke so dire

He rides his last day with his Sire.


Walter Heymann  -  Translated by Peter Appelbaum



TRENCH POST AND FIELD WATCH


Rise and awake, it is the hour!

The patrol makes the rounds

And examines each man on watch

Standing on the loamy mud-wall

Peering through the night,

Listening for every echo,

Rifle cocked.

Up and awake for your comrades!


Hear, they snore without restful sleep

Buried into their gloomy lairs

In which the foe lives in their dreams,

But no-one budges.

So, when each man creeps out with the patrol

Only the full moon

And the waking stars

Silently greet the far-away Homeland.


So, now you are standing in the little forest of field guards

Where the enemy, from every fold in the earth

Squints out of the trees,

Squat, all of you, properly hid.

If you are discovered

Then – good shot!

How the turnip-leaves wave like humans,

As if they are rushing en mass – against us!


No, from there – is the swarm of fire from there?


Now pay attention and  sound the alarm at once.

The singing from telegraph poles

And nothing else. – but a whiplash sound

Strikes near your ear. It was but a sound

And the bullet flew past.

But ahead, where the enemy watches in the forest

You can hear the crashing of their rifles.


Quiet then, restless cool emptiness,

Close your tired lids, heavy with sleep,

Shake yourself and do not give in,

Do not go to sleep,

But think: you are all alone

On watch here;

Sleepers that only have eyes like your own

Sleep around you in the trenches.


And –halt, who goes there! – they come running

Dark men, deeply rooted in the earth,

They call the well-known password;

Your ear also knows the brave voices,

Friend: shoot your rifle.

They are there! Soon you will be relieved!

Whomever then is on watch – for me—I bless him

May nothing worse befall him.


Walter Heymann  -  Translated by Peter Appelbaum

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GOLDFELD

(Killed during the war: no details available;no more is known about him, not even his first name.)


TO A MISSING FRIEND

You have no grave, no cross … but you did die.

Maybe in some dark thicket your bones lie

Or you were sunk in swamp in deep of night,

Or Cossacks cruelly robbed you of the light.


And when it was and where and how …and why

I know not: death in forest does not cry.

You are a skull now white-bleached by the rain

Round which the weasel lightly leaves its train.


You are the ploughed earth on which horses stand

You are the grain that once did crown the land

You are the bread the farmer once did eat

You are the strength when peace returns to greet.


Translated by Peter Appelbaum


ROBERT ZIEGEL (1895-1916)


SOUNDS OF ELLUL  

(This is the Hebrew month preceding the High Holiday autumn season.)


A black and rainy evening

With vague feelings of fear

 Alive with garish shrieking

Of shots both far and  near.

 

What bring you, laughing soldier

To my heart’s dark command

When I, pensive and sober,

In my own grave do stand


What strange column unmoving

Appears with such dark dread?

-- Oh, friends you are still living! --

Death, is your realm not fed?


At home with pious greeting

Loved ones the graves do search

Where are the dead now meeting?

The wind blows o’er the church


Death touches grave and heather

And sings: “This have I done.”

Perhaps from my eyes forever

Night will now hide the sun.


Translated by Peter Appelbaum

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LION FEUCHTWANGER
(1884-1958)


SONG OF THE FALLEN


The skin dries up on our foreheads.

A worm our brains inside us shreds

The flesh in meadows rots all round

Our mouths blocked  up by stones and ground

We wait.


The flesh decays, the bone is dry;

We ask one question: why, oh why?

This question will not go away:

Why, why and why? Alack the day!

We wait.


Our mouths are stopped with earth and dust

Our question bursts out: is this just?

The ground that covers us bursts out

We restlessly the answers doubt.

We wait


We, the earth’s seed, await in fear

The answers come, the answers near

Woe if it strikes! Hail whom it spares!

The answer’s slow but comes: who hears?

We wait.


Translated by Peter Appelbaum

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LEO STERNBERG (1876-1937)


OUT OF THE TRENCHES

1 THE BROTHERS

The man has submerged in the great army;

The army has disappeared into the earth; far away lies the sea

Of night-covered forest chains.

Lost breezes pass between home and enemy land,

They meet and fade away.

And patrols rise up from the trenches like ghosts from the grave

A helmet appears large for a moment before the night sky.

Then the whispering troop disappears in the stormy woods.

Only the wind rustles in the tree-tops and a call echoes in the darkness

Patrol meets patrols and stamps like shadows past each another

And one recognizes, from a  voice in the dark, his brother and like a choked cry

Whispers are heard  as they pass: Wilhelm? Heinrich? Mother wrote today?.

“Greetings” Till we meet again!”

And then they disappear in different directions in the darkness

The forest paths gleam brightly lit broadly by a flare

Again sunken in the night: shots from the forward posts

Silence of the hostile world.

 

2 THE RELIEF

We lie snowed in the trenches like snow-covered clods of earth,

Unknowing mirrors of the days and nights that roll over us,

In the foremost trenches, cut off from the help of the world

In front of the gun barrels of the enemies who aim across the level field,

Our breasts, like our raised earth wall, only a defense

Our death cry only a signal for the army

Behind us, We are only the feelers and the nerve cord

On which the burning town in the night and the flare pistols play their song

Every whispered word, heard at the front

Every step, that hisses in the  trenches before us

Until the hour of relief nears, when suddenly out of the foggy night

An unknown person stirs us, who will watch for us and continue the fight.

And we reach our comrade, whom we do not see.

Through the fog we grasp his hand and take up the rifle and start to go.

Then before we leave our post,

A bullet lies before us in the snowy clods atop the trenches edge.


Leo Sternberg  -  Translated by Peter Appelbaum


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ALFRED LICHTENSTEIN (1889-1914)


PRAYER BEFORE BATTLE

The soldiers pray fervently, every man for himself:
God, protect me from bad luck.
Father, son and holy ghost,
Please don’t let any shells hit me,
Or those scoundrels, our enemies
Imprison or shoot me,
Don’t let me kick the bucket like a dog
For the dear Fatherland.

See, I would like to still live
Milk cows, bang girls,
And beat up that rascal, Sepp.
And get boozed up many times
Before I meet my holy end.
See, I’ll  pray well and willingly
Say seven rosaries daily,
If, God, in your mercy
You kill my friends Huber or Meier
But spare me.
But if I’ve got to take it
Let me not be wounded too heavily.
Send me a light leg-wound,
A small arm injury,
So that I return home as a hero
Who can tell many a story.


Alfred Lichtenstein  -  Translated by Peter Appelbaum


ROMANTIC JOURNEY


A thousand stars are shining in the heaven

The landscape shines, and from the far-off meadows

The human marching  column slowly nears.

Just once  it is detached – and, lost in thought --

A young lieutenant, a page-boy in love.

But finally combat wagons start to move.

The moon makes this all look particular.

And now and then the drivers shout out loud:

Halt!


High on the wobbliest cartridge wagon sits

Like a small fiery toad, refinely carved

From blackest wood, his hands balled lightly closed,

His rifle on his back, sword buckled light,

A large smoking  cigar in crooked mouth

Monk-lazy, full of longing like a dog

Valerian drops pressed tightly to his heart –

Old-funny, mad, serious, with yellowed mouth:

Kuno.


Alfred Lichtenstein  -  Translated by Peter Appelbaum


[Kuno was one of Lichtenstein’s comrades.)



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ERNST TOLLER (1893-1939)


THE ROAD TO THE TRENCHES


Through grenade furrows

And filthy puddles

They walk.

Over soldiers

Freezing in a hole in the ground

They stagger.


Rats dart squeaking over their path

Stormy rain knocks with fingers of death

On decaying doors

Signal rockets

Plague lanterns…


From trench to trench.


Translated by Peter Appelbaum




CORPSES IN THE PRIESTER WOODS


A dung heap of rotting corpses:

Glazed eyes, bloodshot,

Brains split, guts spewed out

The air poisoned  by the stink of corpses

A single awful cry of madness


Oh women of  France,

Women of Germany

Regard your menfolk!

They fumble with torn hands

For the swollen bodies of their enemies,

Gestures, stiff in death, become the touch of brotherhood,

Yes they embrace each other,

Oh, horrible embrace!


I see and see and am struck dumb

Am I a beast, a murderous dog?

Men violated….

Murdered….


Ernst Toller -  Translated by Peter Appelbaum



NIGHTMARE


On a pole, rotten and foul

Squats the  conscience of nations,

Three childrens’ bones dance around the pole

Broken from a young mother’s body.

A sheep bleats the rhythm bäh bäh.


Ernst Toller -  Translated by Peter Appelbaum

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KURT TUCHOLSKY (1890-1935)


HELMET OFF

 

There the large Pickelhaube lies

In a black, dark hole in the earth.

It rests quietly…But look, I believe

That it is still moving.


A  District President displays his large teeth

“Must I recite mocking poetry at the grave?

De mortuis nil nisi bene! “

As it happened.


Do not forget them: the chevaliers,

The officers who sat on their wealth at home

The young one is playing the zither of complaint –

All of them beasts.


Helmet off!

Full of piety? Yes, full of cakes.

He lies on well-deserved dungheap.

We must first of all curse the old

And then look for good new ones to curse

Until he has decomposed.


Translated by Peter Appelbaum




PRAYER AFTER THE SLAUGHTER


Heads off for prayer!


Oh God, our dirty and muddied old bones

Have crept forth once more from  the trench’s chalky stones.

We appear before you to pray and do not remain silent.

And  ask you, Oh God:

Why?


Why have we given our heart’s blood away?

While the  Kaiser’s six sons all living do stay.

We once believed….Oh how stupid we were…!

They made us all drunk….

Why?


One man  screamed in his hospital bed for six months,

Before dry food and staff doctors finished him off.

Another became blind and took opium secretly.

Three of us between us have only one arm…

Why?


Faith, life, war and everything else we have lost

It was they, the powers, who tossed us into it

Like film gladiators.

We had the best audience,

But it didn’t die with us.

Why? Why?


Lord God!

If you really are there as we daily do learn

Descend from starred heaven and show your concern!

Come down to us mortals or send us your son!

Tear the flags down, the orders, the decoration!

Announce to the countries of the earth how we have suffered;

How hunger. lice, shrapnel and lies our bodies have covered!

Chaplains have carried us to our graves in your name.

Declare they have lied! Is it us that you blame?

Chase us back to our graves, but answer us clear!

We kneel before You as best we can –but please lend us your ear!

If our dying has not been completely  without point,

Do not anoint us with  another year like 1914!

Tell the people and drive them to desert!

A battalion of corpses looks to you for comfort.

All that remains for us is to come before you and pray!

Away!


Kurt Tucholsky  -  Translated by Peter Appelbaum


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Read the biographies of the German Jewish poets above.



Most of the German Jewish poetry of the First World War found on this page has never previously been seen translated into English. Only Alfred Lichtenstein is well-known.

These poems give a fascinating insight into the German and Jewish experience of the First World War.

Poets on this page

Emmanuel Saul
Walter Heymann
Goldfeld
Robert Ziegel
Lion Feuchtwanger
Leo Sternberg
Alfred Lichtenstein
Ernst Toller
Kurt Tucholsky

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Copyright © 2013 The translations of the German Jewish poems on this page  -  Peter Appelbaum

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Lives of these poets

Copyright. Lion Feuchtwanger’s poem is reproduced here with the permission of the copyright holder: Aufbau Verlag.


Pictures showing German troops in action in the First World War and a formal funeral service near a front line.

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War poetry by David Roberts