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From Brecht to the survivors

March 17, 2014

Brecht’s poem An die Nachgeborenen was written in segments, and eventually published as a whole in 1938, as the final poem in the collection Svendborg Poems. The third section was published separately in Poems in Exile, under the title An die Überlebenden (‘To the Survivors’).

The poem was posted on a bulletin board at the Newark Community Center, where Tom Hayden worked on the Newark Community Union Project, from 1964 to 1968. He was fond of quoting the lines “we/who wanted to prepare the ground for friendliness/could not ourselves be friendly” to describe his fellow revolutionaries (Staughton Lynd and Tom Hayden, The Other Side, New American Library, 1967, p. 204; Kirkpatrick Sale, SDS, New York: Vintage, 1972, p. 150). In an interview with James Miller in 1985, he recalled it again in talking about the Weathermen (‘Democracy is in the Streets’, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987, p. 312.)

This version is taken from Bertolt Brecht Poems 1913 – 1956, edited by John Willett and Ralph Manheim (New York: Methuen), 1976. The translation was enough of a group effort that the editors weren’t willing to assign a name.

To Those Born Later

I
Truly, I live in dark times!
The guileless word is folly. A smooth forehead
Suggests insensitivity. The man who laughs
Has simply not yet had
The terrible news.

What kind of times are they, when
A talk about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many horrors?
That man there calmly crossing the street
Is already perhaps beyond the reach of his friends
Who are in need?

It is true I still earn my keep
But, believe me, that is only an accident. Nothing
I do gives me the right to eat my fill.
By chance I’ve been spared. (If my luck breaks, I am lost.)

They say to me: Eat and drink! Be glad you have it!
But how can I eat and drink if I snatch what I eat
From the starving, and
My glass of water belongs to one dying of thirst?
And yet I eat and drink.

I would also like to be wise.
In the old books it says what wisdom is:
To shun the strife of the world and to live out
Your brief time without fear
Also to get along without violence
To return good for evil
Not to fulfil your desires but to forget them
Is accounted wise.
All this I cannot do:
Truly, I live in dark times.

II
I came to the cities in a time of disorder
When hunger reigned there.
I came among men in a time of revolt
And I rebelled with
So passed my time
Which had been given to me on earth.

My food I ate between battles
To sleep I lay down among murderers
Love I practiced carelessly
And nature I looked at without patience.
So passed my time
Which had been given to me on earth.

All roads led into the mire in my time.
My tongue betrayed me to the butchers.
There was little I could do. But those in power
Sat safer without me: that was my hope.
So passed my time
Which had been given to me on earth.

Our forces were slight. Our goal
Lay far in the distance
It was clearly visible, though I myself
Was unlikely to reach it.
So passed my time
Which had been given to me on earth.

III
You who will emerge from the flood
In which we have gone under
Remember
When you speak of our failings
The dark time too
Which you have escaped.

For we went, changing countries oftener than our shoes
Through the wars of the classes, despairing
When there was injustice only, and no rebellion.

And yet we know:
Hatred, even of meanness
Contorts the features.
Anger, even against injustice
Makes the voice hoarse. Oh, we
Who wanted to prepare the ground for friendliness
Could not ourselves be friendly.

But you, when the time comes at last
And man is a helper to man
Think of us
With forbearance.

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