Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Children's Crusade 1939

In 'thirty-nine, in Poland
a bloody battle took place,
turning many a town and village
into a wilderness.

The sister lost her brother,
the wife her husband in war,
the child between fire and rubble
could find his parents no more.

From Poland no news was forthcoming
neither letter nor printed word,
but in all the Eastern countries
a curious tale can be heard.

Snow fell when they told one another
this tale in an Eastern town
of a children's crusade that started
in Poland, in 'thirty-nine.

Along the highroads in squadrons
there hungry children tripped,
and on their way picked up others
in villages gutted and stripped.

They wanted to flee from the fighting
so that the nightmare would cease
and one day at last they'd arrive in
a country where there was peace.

They had a little leader
who was their prop and stay.
This leader had one great worry:
he did not know the way.

A girl of eleven carried
a toddler of four without ease,
lacking nothing that makes a mother
but a country where there was peace.

A little Jewish boy marched in the troop,
with velvet collar and cuff,
he was used to the whitest of bread
and he fought bravely enough.

And two brothers joined this army,
each a mighty strategist,
these took an empty cottage by storm
with nothing but rain to resist.

And a lean grey fellow walked there,
by the roadside, in isolation,
and bore the burden of terrible guilt:
he came from a Nazi legation.

There was a musician among them
who in a shelled village found a drum one day
and was not allowed to strike it,
so as not to give them away.

And there was also a dog,
caught for the knife at the start,
yet later kept on as an eater
Because no one had the heart.

And they had a school there also,
and a small teacher who knew how to yell,
and a pupil against the wall of a shot-up tank
as far as peac... learned to spell.

And there was a concert too:
by a roaring winter stream one lad
was allowed to beat the drum,
but no one heard him. Too bad.

And there was a love affair.
She was twelve, he was fifteen.
In a secluded courtyard
she combed his hair.

This love could not last long,
too cold the weather came on.
How can the little tree flower
with so much snow coming down?

And there was a war as well,
for there was another crowd beside this
and the war only came to an end
because it was meaningless.

But when the war still raged
around a shelled pointman's hut,
suddenly, so they say, one party
found their food supply had been cut.

And when the other heard this, they sent
a man to relieve their plight
with a sack of potatoes, because
without food one cannot fight.

There was a trial too,
with a pair of candles for light,
and after much painful examining
the judge was found guilty that night.

And a funeral too: of a boy
with velvet on collar and wrist;
it was two Poles and two Germans
carried him to his rest.

Protestant, Catholic and Nazi were there
when his body to earth they were giving,
and at the end a little Socialist spoke
of the future of the living.

So there was faith and hope,
only no meat and no bread,
and let no man blame them if they stole a few things
when he offered no board or bed.

And let no man blame the needy man
who offered no bread or rice,
for with fifty to feed it's a matter
of flour, not self-sacrifice.

They made for the south in the main.
The south is where the sun
at midday, twelve o'clock sharp
lies straight in front of one.

True, they found a soldier
who wounded on fir-needles lay.
They nursed him for seven days
so he could show them the way.

He told them: To Bilgoray!
Delirious, surely, far gone,
and he died on the eight day.
They burried him too, and moved on.

And there were sign-posts also,
though snow rubbed the writing out;
Only they'd cease to point the way,
having been turned about.

This was not for a practical joke,
but on a military ground,
and when they looked for Bilgoray
the place was not to be found.

They stood around their leader
who looked up at the snowy air
and, extending his little hand,
said, it must be over there.

Once, at night, they saw a fire,
but better not go, they decided.
Once three thanks rolled past them,
each with people inside it.

Once, too, they came to a city,
and skirted it, well out of sight;
till they'd left it well behind them
they only marched on at night.

In what used to be South-East Poland
when snow swept the landscape clean
that army of fifty-five children
was last seen.

If I close my eyes and try,
I can see them trudged on
from one shell-blasted homestead
to another shell-blasted one.

About them, in the cloudy spaces,
I see new long trains progress,
painfully trudging in the cold wind's face,
homeless, directionless.

Looking for the country at peace,
without fire and thunder's blast,
not like that from which they have come;
and the train grows vast.

And soon in the flickering half-light
no longer the same it seemed:
other little faces I saw,
Spanish, French, yellow ones gleamed.

That January, in Poland
a stray dog was caught;
hanging from its lean neck
a cardboard notice it brought.

It reads: please come and help us!
We no longer know the way.
There are fifty-five of us.
The dog won't lead you astray.

Don't shoot him dead.
Only he knows the place.
With him
our very last hope you'd efface.

The writing was in a child's hand.
By farmers it was read.
Since then a year and half have passed.
The dog, who was starving, is dead.
Copyright © Bertolt Brecht [translated by Michael Hamburger]

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