Kaunas 1941

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    Kaunas 1941, written in October 2004, refers to a poem by Johannes Bobrowski with the same title. Both Hein and Bobrowski allude in their poems to the murder of ten thousand Lithuanian Jews in autumn 1941. Hein wrote Kaunas 1941 after having read Dies Kind soll leben1 (Let This Child Live) by Helene Holzman, a German painter who was living in Kaunas at the time with her Jewish husband, who was murdered in 19412 (cf. Kelletat 2007: 79). Holzman wrote this report after the liberation of Kaunas in 1944/1945, but it was only published posthumously in 2000. She uses the words of a painter to describe the horrible situation of the Jewish people in Kaunas, using images that Hein later adopted in his poem, in particular the comparison of the yellow autumn leaves with the yellow stars the Jewish people were forced to wear during that period (cf. Kelletat 2006: 19):

    „The end of October had come [...] The lamentable prisoners wander through the streets. They beg for bread and cigarettes. The yellow maple leaves on the wet earth look like the stars on the dark clothes of the Jews. Is there no end to this sorrow, no mercy? The SS boots rattle through the streets.“ (Holzman p. 187; translation by TH)

    In the poem Kaunas 1941 it is the language that the leaves are falling from in the shape of “Inbilder”; literally “in-pictures” or “pictures in something”, a kind of symbol embodying remembrances or images of memory – perhaps emphasized by the consonances of „l“ and „b“ in both „Laub“ and „Inbilder“. With these leaves falling down, the language is leaving “us”, says the poem right at the beginning. Only two lines later, the voice of a “me” appears – saying that he or she was “coming too late” (too late to do what?) and now is “rummaging” for “names of shadows” (line 4) that are “fading away” under the “maple leaves” – “the autumn of the Yellow Stars” (Helene Holzman!) – witnessed by the Lithuanian poet Kazys Binkis (lines 3-9). The disappearing of the Jews alluded to here is emphasized by the special alignment of the poem: every third line is indented – like a leaf falling down slowly, later than the other ones.

    Hein was familiar with Binkis as a modernist poet who founded a Lithuanian avant-garde group and created an almanac3 and a modernist journal entitled The Four Winds (note the spelling of “the four winds” in lower case letters in Kaunas 1941, probably an allusion to its symbolic meaning as the biblical prophecy of war and destruction). Hein translated some of Binkis’ poems, published them in Trajekt4 – together with an essay on avant-garde poetry in Lithuania by Jan Peter Locher5, in which the latter claims that Binkis was an „innovator of Lithuanian poetry“ (cf. Locher 1986: 330). One of Binkis’s-poems even opens Hein’s grand avant-garde-anthology of Eastern European poetry Auf der Karte Europas ein Fleck6 (A Spot on the Map of Europe). Only when reading Helene Holzmans writing did Hein discover the fact that Binkis and his wife were involved in saving Jewish people from the Kaunas Ghetto (cf. Kelletat 2007: 79). He visited Kaunas several times in the 2000s, certainly to put himself into Binkis’ position, to find out how he must have experienced the period of the German occupation: a train of thought reappearing in Kaunas 1941. With Binkis’ as a witness (he has “seen” it, line 9) the voice of the “righteous” is creating a language (with witnesses and metaphors) that appears to be in contrast to the language of the first line, the language of the “guilt” which makes people fall like the leaves of a tree.

    The Inbild of war and destruction (the four winds) in the poem is followed by the Inbild of the falling maple leaves (the disappearing of the Jewish stars, the people themselves) of the Kauener Schrecken (line 7). That last expression demands further attention, because Kauen is the German word for Kaunas used especially in the Third Reich by the Nazis. The SS-commander Karl Jäger for instance, who was tasked with “eliminating“ all the Lithuanian Jews, spoke about “Kauen” in his report of the killings, the so-called-Jäger-Bericht, that contains a list of all Jews, communists and political commissioners murdered in Lithuania and Belarus from July to November 1941. According to this detailed list7 the members of his task force alone murdered 137.346 people within these five months. For the date of the 29th October 1941, there is a note that says: “Kauen-Fort IX: total killings 9 200, cleansing of the ghetto of superfluous Jews” (“Säuberung des Ghettos von überflüssigen Juden”). The word “cleansing” with regard to Jews appears also in a description of the speaker’s father in Hein’s autobiographically based novel Fluchtfährte:

    "June 41 at the radio the father thinking of us in a cleansed Jew-house. . . February 43 some things ordered from Auschwitz: in case a package arrives. . . “ (Hein 1999: 214; translation TH)

    In a softened form, this house reappears now in the last three lines of the poem: during the same period as the “horror of Kauen”, in 1941, “my” father is moving into a house “free of Jews” (lines 10-12). That means that the persona in the poem is probably the son or daughter of a German soldier of the Third Reich, and he or she is “coming too late” (line 3), because the “language” to describe and to mention what happened has “left its leaves”, with each Jew murdered, one leaf of all the leaves that make a tree beautiful has gone, until only an ugly trunk is left. The parts of language embodied in these leaves (as Inbilder) can be found among others in the witnesses, poets and painters (Binkis and Holzman). Only the former soldier remains silent, the language has left “us” (line 1) – the generation of the father and the generation of the son, the last one searching in vain for “names of shadows”, of people who have been considered not worthy of living, stripped of their names, only appearing in numbers in reports, as numbers that “have been fading away” like the maple leaves falling down, randomly and in a huge numbers, leaving no traces. The opening poem of the collection containing Kaunas 1941, Aufriß des Lichts (tearing open/sketch of the light), also refers to these “shadow-names”, again with Holzman’s leaf-image, here alluding to the scenes of horror per se:



    wie der Ahorn rotgelb die Blätter

    Hände fallen läßt wahllos

    Srebenica Lidice Katyn Birkenau


    Namen Blätter Hände wehrlos

    Abklatsch auf Asphalt

    aufzufangen wie

    vor Ort wo ich geh −


    in Sprache Sprache

    die uns trennt


    hier zum Ende

    welcher Zeit −8


    THEN NAMES HAVE BEEN FALLING / like the maple red and yellow the leaves / that make fall hands randomly/ […].” A poem about innumerable fates that “have been made fall down” (actively, by the tree - as well as the “language” makes fall down the leaves in Kaunas 1941) and again a poem about language (“Sprache Sprache”). Only that here the language is not “leaving us”, but “separating us” - and again the reader can not be sure if “us” means “us all”, everybody without any difference of race and history, or if it means “us” as a belonging to one group: us, father and son, who have no language to cope with the past:

    “You knew, then – certainly not everything, but enough. And you have remained silent until the end.” (to the father, in Fluchtfährte, Hein 1999: 192, translation by TH)

    Theresa Heyer 

    1 Holzman, Helene: „Dies Kind soll leben.“ Aufzeichnungen der Helene Holzman 1941-1944. Edited by Reinhard Kaiser and Margarete Holzman. Frankfurt/M.: Schöffling & Co. 2000.

    2 As was Marie, one of their two daughters.

    3 The Vierwindprophet in 1922 (cf. Locher 1986: 329).

    4 Trajekt. Beiträge zur finnischen, finnlandschwedischen, lappischen, estnischen, lettischen und litauischen Literatur. Edited by Manfred Peter Hein. 6/1986. S. 321-322.

    5 Locher, Jan Peter: “Zur Poetik der litauischen Avantgarde.” In: Trajekt. Beiträge zur finnischen, finnlandschwedischen, lappischen, estnischen, lettischen und litauischen Literatur. Edited by Manfred Peter Hein. 6/1986. S. 329-331.

    6 Hein, Manfred Peter (ed.): Auf der Karte Europas ein Fleck. Gedichte der osteuropäischen Avantgarde. Ammann, Zürich 1991.

    7 https://web.archive.org/web/20070425145151/http://www.david-irving.de/jaeger.html and in: "Schöne Zeiten". Judenmord aus der Sicht der Täter und Gaffer. Edited by Ernst Klee, Willi Dreßen, Volker Rieß. 1988 Frankfurt am Main, S. Fischer, p. 52 - 62. 

    8 Aufriß des Lichts, p. 5

  • Bibliographic information
    Manfred Peter Hein: Aufriß des Lichts. Göttingen: Wallstein, 2006, p. 110
    even in: Axel Kutsch und Amír Shaheen (Hrsg.): Spurensicherung. Justiz- und Kriminalgedichte. Weilerswist: Verlag Landpresse 2005, p. 69
    (written on 22nd October, 2004)
  • Translations
    Language Year Translator
    Polish  2011 

    Rafał Żytyniec

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