Poetry Blogging: Ilse Weber

“After Auschwitz, writing poetry is no longer possible.” — Theodor Adorno

“The truth is, Adorno couldn’t write poetry before Auschwitz either.” — journalist and publicist Johannes Gross.

I am paraphrasing the Adorno quote somewhat for clarity. In fact, the word-for-word quote most often seen is “To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric”, although there is a larger context to be found in the paragraphs around it, about the impossibility of the very existence of culture after the Holocaust.

In the nineties, I was invited along to a few family events ( birthday parties, Christmas Eve, that kind of thing) and learned quickly that the composition and recitation of a poem — written in the guest’s honor — was Pflicht in certain German families. The poems were kind, maybe a little humorous but always done with warm feelings and in the simplest of rhyme scheme and iambic tetrameter (well-known example: “I think that I shall never see / A poem as lovely as a tree”)

I bring this up because I have just read Ilse Weber, Wann wohl das Leid ein Ende hat: Briefe und Gedichte aus Theresienstadt.

The letters begin much earlier, in 1933 — Weber corresponded with her good friend Lilian Löwenadler, daughter to a Swedish diplomat and living in England. For five years, these letters are filled with normal banter between two highly intelligent women, involving family, children, Weber’s radio engagements, Löwenadler’s new romance. In 1938 the letters take on a much more urgent tone, as Weber and her husband Willi contemplate the risk of sending her oldest boy Hanusch, age 8, to England with the Kindertransports. Hanusch is indeed sent to Lilian and her new husband, then on to Lilian’s mother in Stockholm.
Ilse Weber is moved with her husband and younger son, Tommy, into the Prague Ghetto, and from there to Theresienstadt. Her letters, once pages long, are reduced to a few lines of allowed information, including the probably mandatory “We are healthy.” At this point, no longer allowed to pour her emotions into her letters, she instead turns to poetry for her small charges (she works as the night nurse in the hospital’s children’s ward), unable to spend more than fleeting moments with her husband and her younger son. She writes about all of this in a simple, naive rhyming style that Adorno might not have known what to make of. Her poems, while in an old-fashioned framework, tell honestly and bluntly of the events surrounding her, her fellow inmates, and the above all the children. Her poems tell of little boys sent by their mothers to return stolen coal, of abandoned suitcases, of homesickness, of death.
Where the poems end, an Afterword takes up the narrative. Willi was deported to Poland with 5000 other men and lost contact with his wife. Just before he left Theresienstadt he gathered up all of his wife’s poems, songs and other papers and buried them beneath the floor of a tool shed. Not long afterward, all the patients in the children’s ward were deported as well. Ilse, not wanting them to make the journey untended, took Tommy and traveled with the children — to Auschwitz. She was last seen with her younger son and about fifteen small children, in the line leading to the gas chambers. An acquaintance from Theresienstadt worked there, and risked his neck to approach her. She asked if they were to take showers, and he told her the truth. He also offered some advice — sit the children down on the chamber floor and sing songs with them. The gas will work more quickly that way. Years later he confessed this chance meeting to her son Hanusch, who after the war was reunited with his father. Willi Weber was able to retrieve Ilse’s hidden papers, and much later Lilian’s husband (she died during the war) found the letters in an attic in England.

Brief an mein Kind
(Scroll down for an English translation)

Mein lieber Junge, heute vor drei Jahren
bist ganz allein du in die Welt gefahren.
Noch seh ich dich am Bahnhof dort in Prag,
wie du aus dem Abteil verweint und zag
den braunen Lockenkopf neigst hin zu mir
und wie du bettelst: lass mich doch bei dir!
Dass wir dich ziehen ließen, schien dir zu hart-
Acht Jahre warst du erst und klein und zart.
Und als wir ohne dich nach Hause gingen,
da meinte ich, das Herz müsst mir zerspringen
und trotzdem bin ich froh, du bist nicht hier.
Die fremde Frau, die sich deiner angenommen,
die wird einst sicher in den Himmel kommen.
Ich segne sie mit jedem Atemzug-
wie du sie liebst ist doch nie genug.
Es ist so trüb geworden um uns her,
man nahm uns alles fort, nichts blieb uns mehr.
Das Haus, die Heimat, nicht ein Winkel blieb,
und nicht ein Stückchen, das uns wert und lieb.
Sogar die Spielzeugbahn, die dir gehört
Und deines Bruders kleines Schaukelpferd…
Nicht mal den Namen hat man uns gelassen:
Wie Vieh gezeichnet gehen wir durch die Gassen:
mit Nummern um den Hals. Das macht’ nichts aus,
wär ich mit Vater nur im gleichen Haus!
Und auch der Kleine darf nicht bei mir sein…
Im Leben war noch nie ich so allein.
Du bist noch klein, und drum verstehst du’s kaum…
So viele sind gedrängt in einem Raum.
Leib liegt an Leib, du trägst des anderen Leid
und fühlst voll Schmerz die eigene Einsamkeit.
Mein Bub, bist du gesund und lernst du brav?
Jetzt singt dich niemand wohl mehr in den Schlaf.
Manchmal des Nachts, da will es scheinen mir,
als fühlte ich dich neben mir.
Denk nur, wenn wir uns einmal wiedersehen
Dann werden wir einander nicht verstehen.
Du hast dein Deutsch schon längst verlernt in Schweden
und ich, ich kann doch gar nicht schwedisch reden.
Wird das nicht komisch sein? Ach wär’s doch schon,
dann hab ich plötzlich einen großen Sohn…
Spielst du mit Blechsoldaten noch so gerne?
Ich wohn’ in einer richtigen Kaserne,
mit dunklen Mauern und mit düst’ren Räumen
von Sonne ahnt man nichts, von Laub und Bäumen.
Ich bin hier Krankenschwester bei den Kindern
Und es ist schön, zu helfen und zu lindern.
Nachts wache ich bei ihnen manches Mal,
die kleine Lampe hellt nur schwach den Saal.
Ich sitze da und hüte ihre Ruh,
und jedes Kind ist mir ein Stückchen „du“.
Mancher Gedanke fliegt dann hin zu dir
Und trotzdem bin ich froh, du bist nicht hier.
Und gerne litt’ ich tausendfache Qualen,
könnt ich ein Kinderglück damit bezahlen…
Jetzt ist es spät und ich will schlafen gehen.
Könnt ich dich einen Augenblick nur sehn!
So aber kann ich nichts als Briefe schreiben,
die voller Sehnsucht sind- und liegen bleiben…

Letter To My Son

My dear boy, three years ago today
You were sent into the world alone.
I still see you, at the station in Prague,
how you cry from the compartment, and hesitate.
You lean your brown head against me
and how you beg; let me stay with you!
That we let you go, seemed hard for you —
You were just eight, and small and delicate.
And as we left for home without you,
I felt, my heart would explode
and nevertheless I am happy that you’re not here.
The stranger who is taking you in
will surely go to Heaven.
I bless her with every breath I take —
Your love for her will not be enough.
It has become so murky around us here,
Everything has been taken away from us.
House, home, not even a corner of it left,
Not a piece of what we loved and prized.
Even the toy train which belonged to you
And your brother’s little rocking horse…
They did not even let us keep our names:
We walk through the streets marked like cattle:
With numbers around our necks. That would not be so bad,
If I were with your father in the same house!
Not even the little one may stay with me…
I was never so alone in my life.
You are still small, and you hardly can understand…
So many are pressed together in one room.
Body against body, you carry the suffering of the other,
And feel the full pain of your own loneliness.
My boy, are you healthy and learning your studies?
No one sings you to sleep now.
Sometimes in the night it seems
That I feel you next to me.
Just think, when we see each other again
We will not understand each other.
You’ve long ago forgotten your German in Sweden,
and I, I can’t speak Swedish at all.
Won’t that be strange? If only it already were,
then I’d suddenly have a grown son…
Do you still play with tin soldiers?
I am living in a real Barrack,
With dark walls and dreary rooms
There’s no sun, nor leaves and trees.
I’m a nurse here for the children
And it’s nice, to help and comfort them.
Sometimes I stay awake with them at night,
the little lamp doesn’t give much light,
I sit and guard their rest,
And to me every child is a little piece of “you”.
My thoughts then fly to you
and nevertheless, I am happy that you are not here.
And I would gladly suffer a thousand torments,
If I could pay for your childhood happiness that way…
It is late now and I want to sleep.
If I could only see you for a moment!
But I can do nothing except write letters,
Full of longing, never to be sent.

“Letter To My Child” existed in copy — a woman who had been imprisoned in Ravensbrück gave a copy of the poem to the Swedish author Amelie Posse, who was visiting camps with the Swedish Red Cross. Posse had the poem translated into Swedish and published in the newspaper in 1945 (the poem’s autobiographical elements revealed a child living in Sweden). So in this way Ilse’s letter did reach her son, three years after it had been written.

Wiegenlied vom Polentransport

Schlaf, kleiner Freund, du bist ja so müd,
es singt der Zug sein eintönig Lied,
die Nacht kommt auf leisen Sohlen.
Du bist noch klein und findest noch Ruh,
mach deine lieben Augen zu,
es geht jetzt fort nach Polen.

Schlaf, Kindchen, wir sind schon so weit,
Ach, längst versank in der Dunkelheit
die Heimat, die man uns gestohlen.
Wir hatten sie lieb, man nahm sie uns fort,
nun sitzen wir schweigend und findet kein Wort
und fahren weit — nach Polen.

Schlaf, kleiner Freund, ich sehe dir zu,
ich will aus deiner süßen Ruh
mir Trost und Stärkung holen.
Die Sterne leuchten hell und rein,
ich will nicht länger traurig sein,
Gott gibt es auch in Polen.

Lullabye of a Transport to Poland

Sleep, little friend, you are so tired,
The train is singing its monotonous song,
The night creeps softly in.
You are still small, and still find rest,
Let your dear eyes close,
We’re going now to Poland.

Sleep, little child, we’re already so far,
Ah, long sunken in darkness
our home, stolen from us.
We held it dear, it was taken away,
Now we sit here silently, and find no words
and travel far — to Poland.

Sleep, little friend, I’ll watch over you,
From your sweet rest I wish
to find comfort and strength for myself.
The stars are shining bright and pure,
I no longer want to be sad,
God is in Poland too.

Image found here.

This entry was posted in Germany, history, literature, lives of others, memory, music, singing. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Poetry Blogging: Ilse Weber

  1. Beautiful, heartbreaking. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Marcellina says:

    It’s the least I can do when I find something not widely disseminated on the internet. Some of her poems have been set to music, and some of her *songs* have been recorded by Anne Sophie von Otter.

  3. I would love to hear von Otter’s interpretation.
    Again, thanks for the heads up.

  4. ellroon says:

    Dear woman.. how beautifully sad. Thanks for telling us about her.

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