Emigrant’s Monologue
transl. Karein Goertz

Once I had a beautiful Fatherland,
as did the refugee Heine[1].
His was along the Rhine,
mine upon Berliner sand.

Once we all had a home to claim
storm-scattered now, devoured by plague’s teeth.
Oh, little rose on the heath,
To break you was their[2] aim.

The nightingales[3] stopped singing,
seeking safe refuge to occupy.
Only the vultures on high
above the graves are screeching.

Never will it be again as once before,
even if things change completely.
Even if the bell chimes[4] sweetly
and the sword clanks no more.

Sometimes a feeling comes I can’t ignore
as if my heart did break.
An occasional homesick ache
I just don’t know what for.

[1] Kaléko felt great kinship with the German-Jewish poet, Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), who went into exile in France to escape anti-Semitism and censorship in Germany, but who continued to long for his homeland.

[2] The heather rose features in German folksongs and, most importantly, in Goethe’s well-known poem “Heather Rose” (1779) which was put to music by Schumann (1815) and other composers. In the poem, a boy finds a fresh rose and announces that he will pick it. The rose protests, saying that she has thorns to defend herself. The thorns are useless, however, and she has to grant his pleasure as he breaks off the rosebud. Similarly, Germany’s cultural and humanitarian ideals are not able to assert themselves against fascist Nazi ideology. The rose with “thorns that dared to oppose” is overpowered by a new strongman whose motto is: Strength through Joy. A Nazi organization with this name sponsored leisure activities for the people. I replaced “Strength through Joy” in the original with “they” because the translation of the motto sounded awkward in the poem. In German, the title of the folksong (Röslein auf der Heide) rhymes with the Nazi slogan (Kraftdurchfreude), thus establishing a paradoxical connection between high culture and its descent into barbarism. In translation, the rhyme would have fallen elsewhere.

[3] The nightingale was the favored bird of many German Romantic poets, including Heine, symbolizing love, poetry, and longing.

[4] In numerous lullabies, prayers, and children’s songs, the “liebes Glöcklein“ (dear little bell) rings to cast the worries of the day aside and to usher in a night of peaceful sleep. The bell is also associated with those that rings when peace is declared.

Karein Goertz is a university lecturer at the University of Michigan's Residential College, as well as a freelance translator.


Mascha Kaléko

Ich hatte einst ein schönes Vaterland,
So sang schon der Refugee Heine.
Das seine stand am Rheine,
Das meine auf märkischem Sand.

Wir alle hatten einst ein (siehe oben!)
Das fraß die Pest, das ist im Sturm zerstoben.
O, Röslein auf der Heide,
Dich brach die Kraftdurchfreude.

Die Nachtigallen wurden stumm,
Sahn sich nach sicherm Wohnsitz um,
Und nur die Geier schreien
Hoch über Gräberreihen.

Das wird nie wieder wie es war,
Wenn es auch anders wird.
Auch wenn das liebe Glöcklein tönt,
Auch wenn kein Schwert mehr klirrt.

Mir ist zuweilen so als ob
Das Herz in mir zerbrach.
Ich habe manchmal Heimweh.
Und weiss nur nicht, wonach.

Biographical Note by Karein Goertz:

Kaléko’s poems, first appearing in Berlin newspapers in 1929, immediately drew praise for their signature blend of satire, wit, and lyricism. She captured the “spirit of the times” and won the hearts of Berliners with her “everyday miniatures,” often written in Berlin dialect. Kaléko quickly rose to fame and was a regular at the literary Romanisches Café and the Kü Ka artist’s cabaret. Her poems were frequently set to music and performed by cabaret singers. The publication of her first volume of poetry, Das Lyrische Stenogrammheft, coincided with Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933. Soon, her work was censored and her promising career cut short. In 1938, Kaléko, her husband Chemjo Vinaver, and their young son fled to New York. For the next two decades, Greenwich Village would become “something like a second home,” although the family struggled financially and Kaléko had to support the family writing copy for advertisements. In her third volume, Verse für Zeitgenossen, published in Boston in 1945, Kaléko reflects on her experience of exile and the loss of her homeland. Her poems are more sarcastic, less lightly humored than her earlier work in Berlin. One recognizes the voice of another exiled German-Jewish poet, Heinrich Heine, whom she calls her forefather. Kaléko returned to Germany for the first time in 1956, giving poetry readings to large crowds. Three years later, she declined the prestigious Fontane literary prize when she learned that a jury member of the Academy of Arts had been an SS-Officer. In 1959, Kaléko moved to Jerusalem to support her husband’s career as a composer and scholar of Hasidic music. Not speaking Hebrew, Kaléko felt isolated and she increasingly suffered from poor health. After her son’s premature death, followed by that of her husband five year later, Kaléko died in 1975. Several volumes of poetry were published posthumously. Kaléko remained largely forgotten until the occasion of her 100th birthday when a new biography, readings, concerts, and several exhibits throughout Germany led some critics to call her the “most successful German-language femal poet of the 20th Century.”

Kaléko first published “Emigrant’s Monologue” in 1945.


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