Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Farewell, my friend


Ilse Weber


As I mentioned in another place, I got for Christmas a CD of music and songs from Terezin, or Theresienstadt, the Nazi concentration camp they’d dolled up as a ghetto to fool the Red Cross. The CD features Anne Sofie von Otter, definitely one of the world’s great mezzos, as well as baritone Christian Gerhaher and violinist Daniel Hope.

So there I am listening to it when suddenly, on track 4, something makes me stop what I’m doing (ironing) and listen closely. It’s not so much the words, since I have only very rudimentary German and tend not to take anything in unless I’m listening consciously to the words. It’s the extremely simple music, and one word: Polentransport. I suppose I wasn’t expecting anything so overt. I thought the songs the inmates had written would all have to have been oblique, allegorical, indirect. I stop and pay attention, and listen to what I can of the words. Here they are:

Ade, Kamerad,
hier teilt sich der Pfad,
denn morgen muss ich fort.
Ich scheide von dir,
man treibt mich von hier,
ich geh mit dem Polentransport.

Du gabst mir oft Mut,
treu warst du und gut,
zum Helfen immer bereit.
Ein Druck deiner Hand
Hat die Sorgen gebannt,
wir truce gemeinsam das Leid.

Ade, Kamerad,
um dich ist es schad,
der Abschied wird mir schwer.
Verlier nicht den Mut,
ich war dir so gut,
jetzt sehn wir uns nimmermehr.

Which I translate as:

Farewell, my friend
This is the parting of the ways,
For tomorrow I must go.
I’m leaving you behind,
They’re taking me away,
I’m going on the Poland transport.

You often gave me strength,
You were loyal and good,
Always ready to help.
The press of your hand
Took cares away
We suffered it all together.

Farewell, my friend,
It’s too bad for you,
But parting will be hard for me.
Don’t lose hope,
You meant so much to me,
Now we’ll never see each other again.

I don’t suppose it could be any more straightforward than that. It’s a song of parting, like Ae Fond Kiss, to which I return again and again, but this time there’s one word which signals that the circumstances are different: Polentransport. That single word tells the whole story.

And here’s the story:

The song was written by Ilse Weber (née Herlinger), born in Moravia in what is now the Czech Republic. As a Jew she was taken, after the Nazis invaded, to Terzin with her husband Willi and her son Tommy, from their home in Prague. An older son, Hanus, had been sent to Sweden via a kindertransport, and escaped the war altogether.

Weber had been a children’s author in Prague before the war, as well as a musician, and the two things come together in the naked simplicity of her words and music in this song and in others she wrote while in Terzin, one of which, Wiegala, was a lullaby.

In 1944 her husband was to be transported to Auschwitz (the Polentransport mentioned in the song) and Weber volunteered herself and Tommy to accompany him, so as to keep the family together. Instead, on arrival at Auschwitz, Tommy and Ilse were immediately separated from Willi, and gassed. Willi lived on for 30 years. Hanus, meanwhile, lived in Stockholm as a journalist, not far from the place where Anne Sofie von Otter grew up, the daughter of a Swedish nobleman and diplomat.

Her story is so incredible I’ll leave it to Norman Lebrecht to tell it here. In short, her father heard the confession on a train of a Nazi officer, and when he passed the information on to his government, they did nothing. A better result might have let the world know a lot earlier about places like Auschwitz, and perhaps Isle and Tommy might not have died.

Since it makes little sense to talk about a song nobody has heard or can hear in full, I’m taking the unusual step of putting an MP3 online for a couple of days only, to allow diligent readers to get the full experience. Check it out here.



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