The Children’s Crusade

I watched the movie The Good Lie with Reese Whiterspoon recently and the first part of this movie about the “Lost Boys of Sudan” made me think about my favourite Brecht poem (I have to say that poem might not be the correct word for it’s a ballad but not the romantic type). My mother introduced me to this piece by Brecht when I had my WWII phase at the age of 11. After reading Nie wieder ein Wort davon by Barbara Gehrts in school – a heartbreaking autobiographical children’s book about the resistance group “Rote Kapelle” – I scavenged all the bookshelves at home and at the library for books about WWII and the Holocaust. Knowing my love for poetry my mom read the following ballad to me:

Kinderkreuzzug von Bertold Brecht

In Polen, im Jahr Neununddreißig
War eine blutige Schlacht
Die hatte viele Städte und Dörfer
Zu einer Wildnis gemacht.

Die Schwester verlor den Bruder
Die Frau den Mann im Heer;
Zwischen Feuer und Trümmerstätte
Fand das Kind die Eltern nicht mehr.

Aus Polen ist nichts mehr gekommen
Nicht Brief noch Zeitungsbericht.
Doch in den östlichen Ländern
Läuft eine seltsame Geschicht.

Schnee fiel, als man sich’s erzählte
In einer östlichen Stadt
Von einem Kinderkreuzzug
Der in Polen begonnen hat.

Da trippelten Kinder hungernd
In Trüpplein hinab die Chausseen
Und nahmen mit sich andere, die
In zerschossenen Dörfern stehn.

Sie wollten entrinnen den Schlachten
Dem ganzen Nachtmahr
Und eines Tages kommen
In ein Land, wo Frieden war.

Da war ein kleiner Führer
Das hat sie aufgericht’.
Er hatte eine große Sorge:
Den Weg, den wußte er nicht.

Eine Elfjährige schleppte
Ein Kind von vier Jahr
Hatte alles für eine Mutter
Nur nicht ein Land, wo Frieden war.

Ein kleiner Jude marschierte im Trupp
Mit einem samtenen Kragen
Der war das weißeste Brot gewohnt
Und hat sich gut geschlagen.

Und ging ein dünner Grauer mit
Hielt sich abseits in der Landschaft.
Er trug an einer schrecklichen Schuld:
Er kam aus einer Nazigesandtschaft.

Und da war ein Hund
Gefangen zum Schlachten
Mitgenommen als Esser
Weils sie’s nicht übers Herz brachten.

Da war eine Schule

Und ein kleiner Lehrer für Kalligraphie.
Und ein Schüler an einer zerschossenen Tankwand
Lernte schreiben bis zu Frie…

Da war auch eine Liebe.
Sie war zwölf, er war fünfzehn Jahr.
In einem zerschossenen Hofe
Kämmte sie ihm sein Haar.

Die Liebe konnte nicht bestehen
Es kam zu große Kält:
Wie sollen die Bäumchen blühen
Wenn so viel Schnee drauf fällt?

Da war auch ein Begräbnis
Eines Jungen mit samtenen Kragen
Der wurde von zwei Deutschen
Und zwei Polen zu Grab getragen.

Protestant, Katholik und Nazi war da
Ihn der Erde einzuhändigen.
Und zum Schluß sprach ein kleiner Kommunist
Von der Zukunft der Lebendigen.

So gab es Glaube und Hoffnung
Nur nicht Fleisch und Brot.
Und keiner schelt sie mir, wenn sie was stahl’n
Der ihnen nicht Obdach bot.

Und keiner schelt mir den armen Mann
Der sie nicht zu Tische lud:
Für ein halbes Hundert, da braucht es
Mehl, nicht Opfermut.

Sie zogen vornehmlich nach Süden.
Süden ist, wo die Sonn
Mittags um zwölf steht
Gradaus davon.

Sie fanden zwar einen Soldaten
Verwundet im Tannengries
Sie pflegten ihn sieben Tage
Damit er den Weg ihnen wies.

Er sagte ihnen: Nach Bilgoray!
Muß stark gefiebert haben
Und starb ihnen weg am achten Tag.
Sie haben auch ihn begraben.

Und da gab es ja Wegweiser
Wenn auch vom Schnee verweht
Nur zeigten sie nicht mehr die Richtung an
Sondern waren umgedreht.

Das war nicht etwa ein schlechter Spaß
Sondern aus militärischen Gründen.
Und als sie suchten nach Bilgoray
Konnten sie es nicht finden.

Sie standen um ihren Führer.
Der sah in die Schneeluft hinein
Und deutete mit der kleinen Hand
Und sagte: Es muß dort sein.

Einmal, nachts, sahen sie ein Feuer
Da gingen sie nicht hin.
Einmal rollten drei Tanks vorbei
Da waren Menschen drin.

Einmal kamen sie an eine Stadt
Da machten sie einen Bogen.
Bis sie daran vorüber waren
Sind sie nur nachts weitergezogen.

Wo einst das südöstliche Polen war
Bei starkem Schneewehen
Hat man die fünfundfünfzig
Zuletzt gesehn.

Wenn ich die Augen schließe
Seh ich sie wandern
Von einem zerschossenen Bauerngehöft
Zu einem zerschossenen andern.

Über ihnen, in den Wolken oben
Seh ich andre Züge, neue, große!
Mühsam wandernd gegen kalte Winde
Heimatlose, Richtungslose

Suchend nach dem Land mit Frieden
Ohne Donner, ohne Feuer
Nicht wie das, aus dem sie kamen
Und der Zug wird ungeheuer.

Und er scheint mir durch den Dämmer
Bald schon gar nicht mehr derselbe:
Andere Gesichtlein seh ich
Spanische, französische, gelbe!

In Polen, in jenem Januar
Wurde ein Hund gefangen
Der hatte um seinen mageren Hals
Eine Tafel aus Pappe hangen.

Darauf stand: Bitte um Hilfe!
Wir wissen den Weg nicht mehr.
Wir sind fünfundfünfzig
Der Hund führt euch her.

Wenn ihr nicht kommen könnt
Jagt ihn weg
Schießt nicht auf ihn
Nur er weiß den Fleck.

Die Schrift war eine Kinderhand.
Bauern haben sie gelesen.
Seitdem sind eineinhalb Jahre um.
Der Hund ist verhungert gewesen.

The only translation I could find online is the version that Benjamin Britten turned into music. Brecht wrote different version himself and the German one above was the last version, the one he dedicated to his lover, Margarete Steffin, who he had to leave behind when he fled to the US; she died of TB in Moscow. You will probably find a more accurate translation in a library. This one still conveys the drama and the sadness of Brecht’s work:

The Children’s Crusade by Bertold Brecht

In Poland, in nineteen thirty-nine,
there was the bloodiest fight:
turning ev’ry town and village
into a wilderness of night.

Young sisters had lost their brothers;
young wives their men at war;
in the blaze and the heaps of rubble
children found their parents no more.

Nothing has come out of Poland,
letter or printed report;
but in the East runs a story
of the most curious sort.

Snow fell as they told one another,
there in an Eastern town,
about a children’s crusade:
deep in Poland, wand’ring round.

Lost children were scuttling, hungry;
in little formations were seen.
There they gathered with others,
standing where villages once had been.

They wanted to fly from the fighting,
let the nightmare cease;
and one fine day they’d come
upon a land where there was peace.

They had their little leader,
keeping them on the go,
he had a terrible worry:
the way he just did not know.

A little Jew was found marching in step:
he had a velvety collar,
he was used to the whitest bread,
and yet he showed much valour.

Once two brothers joined the pack,
tried strategic campaigning.
When they stormed a peasant’s empty shack,
they left it because it was raining.

A thin, grey boy kept himself apart,
he avoided provocation.
He was marked by a fearful guilt:
he came from the Nazi legation.

And there was among them a drummer-boy,
he found drum and drumsticks in a village shop
that had been raided,
the troop allowed no drumming:
noise would have betrayed it.

And there was a dog,
they’d caught him to eat him;
kept him on as an eater:
that was the only way to treat him.

They had their symphony,
by a waterfall in the snow,
our drummer-boy could use
his drumsticks,

since nobody could hear him. No!
And then there was some loving.
She was twelve, he was fifteen;
there in a ruined cottage,
she sat and combed his hair.

But love it is not for ever
not in the biting cold:
for how’ can the saplings blossom
with so much snow to hold?

Then there was a war,
war against some other children on the run;
and the war just simply ended:
sense it had none.

And then there was a trial,
on either side burned a candle.
What an embarrassing affair!
The judge condemned! What a scandal!

Then there was a funeral,
Velvet Collar it was whom they buried,
the body by Polish and German bearers
to burial was carried.

Protestants and Catholics, and Nazis were there,
to consign him to his mother earth.
At the end they heard a little socialist
talk with confidence of mankind’s rebirth.

So there was faith, there was hope too,
but no meat or bread.
Had people who cuffed them for stealing
offered them shelter instead!

But none should rebuke the needy man
who would not part with a slice:
For fifty odd children you need flour,
flour not sacrifice.

They wandered steadily southward.
South is there, where the sun
stands high at midday
for ev’ry-one.

Once, to be sure, they found a soldier
wounded, in pine-woods he lay.
They tended him seven days,
so that he could tell them the way.

He spoke up clearly: “To Bilgoray!”.
His fever made him rave.
An eighth day he did not live to see:
for him too they dug a grave.

True, there was a signpost also:
deep in the snow they found.
In fact it had ceased to show the way:
someone had turned it round.

And when they hunted for Bilgoray,
nowhere could they find it.
They stood there, around their leader
He looked at the snow-laden air,
and made a sign with his little hand,
and told them: “It must be there”.

Where once the south-east of Poland was,
in raging blizzard keen,
there were our five-and-fifty
last to be seen.

Whenever I close my eyes I see them wander
there from this old
farmhouse destroyed by the war
to another ruined house yonder.

High above them, in the clouded sky
I see others swarming, surging, many!
There they wander, braving icy blizzards,
homes and aims they haven’t any.

Searching for a land where peace reigns,
no more fire, no more thunder,
nothing like the world they‘re leaving
mighty crowds too great to number.

In Poland that same January,
they caught a dog half strangled:
a cord was hung round his scraggy neck
and from it a notice dangled.

Saying this: please come and help us!
Where we are we cannot say.
We’re the five-and-fifty
the dog knows the way.

The writing was in a childish hand.
Peasants had read it over.
Since then more than a year has gone by.
The dog starved: he didn’t recover.

My love for (German) poetry and especially for ballads was influenced by my mother and initiated by her giving me a cassette (yes, cassette, I was born in the 80ies) produced by Lutz Görner called “Balladen für Kinder” (ballads for children). Just this Saturday my sister told me that she still envies me for this cassette (which believe it or not I still have and actually know where it is – when we bought a new stereo a few years ago, I insisted on buying one that had a cassette compartment just so I could still listen to this cassette -that’s how much I still love it). You can get his recordings as CDs etc now and I will probably get my sister one for her birthday, so that she can listen to it with her children. I found a video of a reading of Brecht’s Children’s Crusade and although the video as such isn’t great the recording is. Enjoy (if you understand German)!

 

header pic from here

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. Megan says:

    Oh god, the last line is so sad. It’s interesting to see how Brecht revised his poems over time although I wish he had kept that stanza about the drummer boy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Debra says:

      Yeah, the last line is the most heartbreaking one. But the one about the love that cannot grow is so sad too. I have honestly cried more than once reading the Children’s Crusade. There are a few poems/ballads that have this effect on me. I cannot access your blog anymore – is there a reason? 😦

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Megan says:

        This poem is really haunting, and honestly, it sounds 100% better in German than in English. I’m kinda prone to tearing up when reading sad poems or watching sad movies so I prefer to be alone when doing these activities 🙂 I just took my blog offline for a while because I need to focus on dealing with Life these days. Rather like you and L., my best friend and I are discussing whether we should move in and buy a house or move away to another city. Long story short, the Toronto landlords have started to hike up their rents like crazy, and I don’t like having to spend so much on housing. But the whole house hunting process is also giving me a headache and taking up all my time. Urgh, I hate being an adult sometimes.

        Like

      2. Debra says:

        I totally understand. I should seriously grow up but somehow I can’t. I am at that point in life when I cannot just say “I will do this later, another time, when I am older etc etc” My hubby just turned 40 and we have to decide soon if we want kids or not. The whole Brexit crap makes everything worse. My dream of moving and living in Scotland was what gave me a purpose, direction where I was heading. I dreamt of growing old here, preferably rotting away on some Shetland island where you can die in peace. I struggled more than I thought I would with the whole assimilation bit and then Brexit happened and we kinda knew we wouldn’t stay. We would consider staying in an independent Scotland but not in a post-Brexit UK Scotland. I am still not over this whole bubble bursting, still grieving the loss of a life’s dream. Us not wanting to stay is a principle thing. We don’t like Westminster but could tolerate it as long as it was EU. We are staunch EU believers and love our right of free movement. Still, I am not ready to plan where to go next. I would love to go to Finland but I doubt it will be possible financially (moving to horses across Europe is a bit expensive DE-GB cost me 2000€) and I struggle with the darkness in Scotland, Finland would be worse. We kind of settled for the Kiel area as I cannot go back to NRW. I don’t like the amount of people, the buzz and the stress. The south is not really an option for me, neither is the east – it’s a mentality issue. We are thinking about getting an old Frisian farm with some friends like L. or get some land and build tiny houses. We want something alternative. I love Northern Germany as I partially grew up in Eastern Frisia but I did not think I would ever go back, so it is really hard to accept it. Best of luck to you and although I cannot read anything you wrote for a while, I hope we keep communicating this way. Tata

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Megan says:

        Thanks so much! I will definitely be reading your blog updates in the future, no changes about that 🙂 I totally understand what you mean about the whole Brexit situation. The vote outcome was incomprehensible to me (I made an effort to understand the other side of the argument by reading Arron Banks’ Brexit memoir, but only ended up with high blood pressure). Sometimes I feel like maybe I’m insane and I should just learn how to be normal. Truthfully all I want is to buy a hut/house/farm somewhere far away and get some peace and quiet in my own little eden. I quite dislike living in cities nowadays because the noise, congested traffic, rampant consumerism, and it drives me bonkers that I have to pay so much to live in a place that I don’t like because it’s hard to find jobs elsewhere. Finland does sound pretty awesome btw with all their saunas and reindeers, but I concur that the dark weather would be a downer. Best wishes to you whatever your final decision will be! At least we can take comfort in Emerson’s adage that to be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.

        Liked by 1 person

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