Broken Carousel WWI Poetry Review.docx
Resurrected Voices of a Century Ago
Rabbi Carl Choper
Broken Carousel: German-Jewish Soldier-Poets of the Great War;
Selected, edited and translated by Peter C. Appelbaum with James W. Scott;
Stone Tower Books, Lampion Press LLC; Silverton, Oregon; 2017
Mother, please let me go,
Mother, it hurts when you touch.
You can tell by my face
How I flame and burn up.
Give me one last kiss. Set me free.
Pray for me as I go.
And that I shattered your life,
-Alfred Lichtenstein, 1889-1914
One of the things I like best about having a connection with a small liberal arts college is the possibility of learning across disciplinary lines. When people who are experts in their particular field of study are gathered in such a small space, knowledge and ideas are bound to cross-pollinate.
So it was that as Adjunct Jewish Chaplain of Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania, I found myself sitting next to Dr. James W. Scott, a retired professor of German language and literature. We started talking and he said, “You can help us with something.”
He continued to tell me that for years a colleague of his has been collecting poetry of Jewish soldiers who served in the German army during the First World War. Dr. Scott explained that some soldiers at the front would write poetry and send the writings back to their families. Many of these soldiers did not survive the war, in which case the poems were left in the hands of their families. After the war, many were not interested in re-visiting the war so the poetry was often ignored. Later, as we know, the German-speaking Jewish community was annihilated so there was not even a natural audience for such literature. Perhaps that is why Dr. Peter C. Appelbaum, retired Professor of Pathology at Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine, spent years collecting this poetry, much of which has never before been published. Dr. Appelbaum eventually approached Dr. Scott for assistance in translating the 140 poems from 17 different Jewish soldier poets. At the time I found myself sitting next to Dr. Scott, the volume of poetry titled Broken Carousel had just recently been published and greeted with what Dr. Scott characterized as “a deafening silence.”
Perhaps publicity about the publication of the book has been poor and so no one has heard about it. Perhaps still today few people want to read the poetry of young German-speaking men who fought in a purposeless war for a country which twenty years later turned viciously on them and their families. The tragic irony of the entire situation is heart-breaking. Yet on some level that hard and sad context makes reading the poetry that much more compelling. Here are the thoughts and feelings of men sometimes compelled, sometimes willing, maybe both compelled and willing to give their lives for the German Fatherland. Exactly a century later, we readers may want to warn these soldier-writers not to continue. But they could not know the future. These poems are artifacts testifying to a German-Jewish cultural reality which is hard for us to understand or accept today.
These poems are also in many cases by modern standards good literature, from what I can see. The poems are published both in the original German and in English translation on facing pages. This is important, as it is difficult to translate poetry preserving meaning, meter and rhyme scheme. The translator notes that it is the rhyme schemes that he sacrificed most, so it helps the English speaker to be able to read the English meaning and note the German rhymes. My own German is poor, coming from a knowledge of Yiddish combined with times traveling in German-speaking countries. My own knowledge of German literature is also limited, coming from time I spent looking with my Austrian-born grandmother at some of her favorite poems. She came of age in the German literary world between the wars, and as she grew old she returned to that world more and more. These poems remind me in style of the literature she recalled.
The poems themselves seem to depict a wide variety of Jewish self-awareness. Some poems are Zionist, some are full of German patriotism, and many others reflect the universal fears and yearnings of men away from their families and at war.
According to the short biography provided within the book, Ludwig Franz Meyer was a Zionist who died of his battle wounds in May 1915 at the age of 21. He is one of the few in this anthology whose poems were previously published, in a little book at the request of his mother one year after his death. One of his poems is titled “Galuth,” which tellingly is not a German word but a Hebrew word meaning “Exile.”
This is our galut – speaking foreign tongues
While having our own songs inside our hearts.
This is our galut – breaking foreign bread
And eating honey from other’s hives.
That is our galut – bearing the sharp pains
Of want, the curse of loneliness.
That is our galut – to hold within our hearts
The highest hopes, but never risk attainment.
That is our galut- ever so softly weeping,
Yet hardly knowing whence this sadness comes.
That is our galut – ever to seem cold,
Although a thousand torches burn within.
This be our galut – that we might give
To all our tears but one single expression:
That we struggle now and yearn in order
To live with new joy in our ancient land
The poems of Leo Sternberg who survived the war, but whose brother did not, often celebrate the German cause. His poem Germany For Ever and Ever, begins with a reference to the British having cut the trans-Atlantic cable near the beginning of the war:
So what if the cables were cut, that cross the ocean’s floor,
the butterflies will go flying over the seas as before,
with tidings of German gardens and their perfume.
And if the German oak should shattered fall,
-the wind would put out the lights in every hall
and turn the world into a tomb.
So let our blood flow down then in broad rivers!
There will awake, wherever two kiss as lovers,
a longing that calls the German hero home.
Students of Jewish history will know how deeply many Jews of Germany had absorbed German patriotism into themselves, but poems such as these help us see and realize this in a fuller way. The juxtaposition of Jewish and German sensibilities shows how seamlessly these identities seemed to so many German Jews a century ago. A striking example is found in Samuel Jacobs who struggled to maintain Jewish observance while in the German army during the war, and wrote:
Tisha B’Av 1916
I look behind and peer ahead
And doubts arise within me now.
I beg you, Lord of All, Creator of all beings,
Oh please have mercy! Look graciously down on us
On Tisha B’Av.
Let lightening flash and thunder roll,
Our duty calls, we must and also wish
To faithfully defend our cherished Fatherland
On Tisha B’Av.
The poems also depict the numbing horror of war and the minutiae of trying to exist in the midst of trenches we read about in history books. Ernst Toller wrote:
Going Off Duty
Man after man
Staggers in the communication trench.
Knapsack weighs on tired bones.
Mud-caked clothes chafe.
In grey faces dull eyes.
Someone stumbles, falls down.
Rally at the burial ground in the woods.
One man dreams by the mass grave
“For just such piles of gingerbread
I once wished as a child,
One mine blew fourteen buddies to bits.
When was that anyway?
Many more of the poems are simply heart-breaking. All together as a collection, the poems take us into a social reality different from ours today, but with potential parallels. They remind us of the pointlessness of most wars, and of the dangers of giving too much of ourselves over to nationalisms. Reading many of these poems feels something like watching a traffic accident unfold in front of us in slow-motion. On the other hand, they can cause us to ask if a century from now others will feel the same way about how we navigated our lives in the societies in which we participate now.
The editors of the anthology included short biographies of each of the soldier-poets. Some of the biographies are very short indeed, in some cases because little else is known of the poets. The greatest limitation of the book is in telling the history of the poems. How did the poems get from the poets to us? When I met the translator, Dr. Scott, he told me that Dr. Appelbaum went to great lengths to find these poems and these poets. I understand he dug through libraries and archives to bring these voices to our attention. But the book itself only gives hints of what that process was. Where have these poems been through the last century, and how did they come into our hands now? The book would be more of a literary adventure, and would do more honor to the poems, the poets and their families, if that story were better told. After all, most readers will not have the opportunity I had to be seated next to the translator who could give me an explanation directly.
Still even with this limitation, this anthology of poems 100 years after the events that inspired them does us a great service. The poems even with minimal framing bring us into the historical moment in ways few history books can. By resurrecting these lost voices, Drs. Appelbaum and Scott have given us another view into a significant, forgotten and tragic piece of the Jewish experience of the last century.
Rabbi Carl Choper is based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania where he serves as a de-facto community rabbi, working as Rabbi of the Jewish Home of Greater Harrisburg, a state prison chaplain, campus rabbi at Lebanon Valley College, President of the Interfaith Alliance of Pennsylvania and encouraging interfaith dialogue and cooperation as founding director of The Religion and Society Center.