Wo ist das Land und wo sind die Zeugen -
Mein Vater starb am achten Mai am Tag
der Kapitulation. Und kam ums Leben
amtlich zur Ruhe
zwanzig Jahre später unter zwei trockenen Fichten
schräggesunken in Dantes Wald der Welt.
Es ist gut einen fahrbaren
zwei Achsen und vier Räder
Die Vertriebenen (The displaced people) is a tribute to the author’s father based on autobiographical experience. In the three stanzas the speaker mentions the death of his father (happening twice) and quotes his “deathbed statement.” The irregular metre conveys a sense of uneven roads on which the the family claimed in the title (which was the family oft he author) probably escaped from East Prussia at the End of the Second World War.
Among the most striking elements of this poem are the multiple pleonasms: the fact that the father died is repeated three times: he died (“starb”, line 2), he lost his life (“kam ums Leben”, line 3) and he came to rest (“kam zur Ruhe”, line 4) – all of them are synonyms for “dying”. Actually, two different deaths are mentioned: a “real” death at the end of the war (the day of “surrender”, line 2-3), when the speaker’s father lost his ideological and geographical homeland; and the “official” – physical – death twenty years later, in the same year the poem was written (1965), under “two1 dry spruces” (line 5) in “Dante’s forest of the world” (line 6). “Midway upon the journey of our life/ I found myself within a forest dark,/ For the straightforward pathway had been lost.// Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say/ What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,/ Which in the very thought renews the fear.// So bitter is it, death is little more […]”2 says Dante’s Hell. Hein, who plunged into Dante’s world when he visited Florence in 19533, could have imagined this “savage, rough and stern dark forest” as similar to the place of his father’s death. Hein’s family fled from their home in East Prussia to a wooded place in Hessen, which the author’s father called his “Waldasyl” (forest asylum, cf. Kelletat 2003: 69).
In the second stanza, there is another repetition, this time of the exact same word, in the announcement: “his last verbally transmitted last word” (lines 7-9). Here, the repetition might refer to the father’s double death, and it stresses the possibility that the father might have never said another word after his first real death (the second one being merely “official”).
The pleonasms and repetitions convey the impression that the persona is stammering or confused or even traumatized. They are so obvious that they might even underline that traumatic memories come up arbitrarily and innumerably, rendering the speaker unable to suppress them.
The third stanza contains the “last words” of the father in direct speech: “it is good to have a mobile/ undercarriage/ two axes/ and four wheels” (lines 10-13). Usually, “deathbed statements” are expected to be meaningful and important for the next generation, but this one seems ridiculous and embodies the the father’s despair that all the power and possessions he once had in his country (which does not exist any more, neither ideologically nor geographically) are reduced to some kind of carriage with four wheels. When the family arrived in their place of refuge, a village in Hessen, they were perceived as “have-nots, who knows where they came from into the village with nothing. Half Pollacks”4 (Fluchtfährte, p. 110, translation TH)
The numbers two (deaths, spruces) and four (wheels) occur throughout the poem like a mysterious code (typical for Hein’s poetry), here also in the fact that the last stanza contains exactly four lines.
In summary, it can be observed that Die Vertriebenen is an allusion to two things: First, the father’s ideological and geographic homelessness, because of which the only thing he owns and values is an “undercarriage”; and second, a loss of language, implied in a psychological death on the day of “surrender” (not in the sense of “liberation from fascism”, proclaimed by Weizecker in 1985, the poem being written in 1965- and which, from the father’s point of view, was certainly seen as a “defeat”), so that he spoke his last last words (lines 7,9) on that day and remained silent until his “official” death twenty years later.
Andreas Kelletat describes Hein’s way of coping with the past5 as a development from political remembrance (for instance in participating at the meeting of East Prussia refugees in Hamburg in the 1950s) to a nostalgically melancholic remembrance constantly bringing up images from his childhood (lost together with the home region).
In that way, the poem gives an answer to its own initial question: “Where is the land and where are the witnesses?” (line 1) The (home-) land of East Prussia and the witnesses (with their language) have died, they cannot be found anywhere.
1 Note that the word „two“ here can be seen as another allusion to the father’s double death .
2 https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/inferno-canto-i (update 15th February 2018) From The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1867)
3 cf. Hein’s autobiographically based novel Fluchtfährte p. 152-153 and Kelletat 2003: 12.
4 cf. the entry Vertriebene in Kelletat’s commentary on the Fluchtfährte 2003: 67
5 cf. Kelletat’s Fluchtfährte commentary under the entry Ostpreußen (Kelletat 2003: 5)