20TH CENTURY POETRY AND WAR
PART 4: Crimes against humanity

 
       
      

   

 
     

 

 
 

CONTENTS
Introduction
  the first world war
  the 1930s
  the second world war
  crimes against humanity
Refugee Blues
Bread and a Pension GO
Dispossessed GO
After the War GO
  the nuclear age
  other wars
  responsibility
  women's voices








Refugee Blues by W H Auden

Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there's no place for us, my dear, yet there's no place for us.

Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
Look in the atlas and you'll find it there:
We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.

In the village churchyard there grows an old yew,
Every spring it blossoms anew;
Old passports can't do that, my dear, old passports can't do that.

The consul banged the table and said:
'If you've got no passport, you're officially dead';
But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.

Went to a committee; they offered me a chair;
Asked me politely to return next year:
But where shall we go today, my dear, but where shall we go today?

Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said:
'If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread';
He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.

Thought I heard the thunder rumbling in the sky;
It was Hitler over Europe, saying: 'They must die';
We were in his mind, my dear, we were in his mind.

Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,
Saw a door opened and a cat let in:
But they weren't German Jews, my dear, but they weren't German Jews.

Went down the harbour and stood upon the quay,
Saw the fish swimming as if they were free:
Only ten feet away, my dear, only ten feet away.

Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees;
They had no politicians and sang at their ease:
They weren't the human race, my dear, they weren't the human race.

Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
A thousand windows and a thousand doors;
Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.

Stood on a great plain in the falling snow;
Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:
Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.


   

INFORMATION

   


'Refugee': a person who flees to another country to escape being persecuted for their religion or politics, or to escape war.
'Blues': a slow, sad song, traditionally with 3-line stanzas with 4 beats to each line. The music features 'blue notes': mainly flattened thirds and sevenths. The Blues were first sung by African Americans working on slave plantations in the southern states of the USA; these melancholy ballads expressed the unhappiness of the slaves' lives. Later, Blues became part of the development of popular song and jazz. WH Auden's poem uses many of the characteristics of a blues lyric.
'souls': individual people
'consul': an official appointed by a country to represent its citizens in another

   

HISTORY

 

See also:
Holocaust


Jews have lived in Europe for nearly 2,000 years. Throughout that time they have frequently experienced racist hostility and persecution. In the 1920s, German Jews began to face such anti-Semitism from the Nazi (Nationalist) political party, led by Adolf Hitler. When he came to power in 1933, he introduced laws which, step by step, deprived German Jews of their human rights; after 1939 the Nazis organised a systematic programme to deprive them of their lives as well. This included forming death squads who, under cover of the Second World War, hunted down Jews (especially in Poland and Russia) in order to kill them.

In the 1930s many German Jews looked for refuge - became refugees - abroad. At first they were received kindly, but as war approached many countries became reluctant to take them, at least in large numbers, and made immigration more difficult.

   

IDEAS

 

 















See also:
Israel background to conflict

 


WH Auden does what a blues writer would do: takes a single main theme and makes variations on it, leading to a particularly powerful finale. The theme of this 'song' is the abuse of human rights experienced not only by German Jews but by other Jews and by refugees anywhere.

'Some in mansions, some in holes' - but no home at all for the refugee.

'Once we had a country': now, not only no home, but no country either. In the Jews' case, since the exodus from Palestine in the 1st century, many had, where and when they could, taken the nationality of whichever country they grew up in. From the end of the 19th century many Jews hoped to emigrate to Palestine, but this was not easy: the country was also the home of Arab Palestinians, and Palestine itself had long been run by foreigners. (From 1922 till 1948, the administration of Palestine was British.)

'Old passports': out of date and officially invalid and non-renewable for Jews.

'The consul': representing a country to which the refugees wanted to travel.

'a committee': officially set up to try to help refugees, but with its hands tied politically.
'
a public meeting': one of a number of such meetings held in countries receiving Jewish immigrants - there was resistance to strangers 'stealing our jobs'.

'they must die': it is generally agreed that Hitler gave an order to exterminate Jews, for whom he held a lifetime's hatred.

'poodle in a jacket': the Jews were treated as lower than animals - and later the Nazi officials would speak of them as sub-human.

'fish swimming as if they were free': even animals seem to have more freedom than the Jewish refugees.

'no politicians': the decision to destroy the Jews was a political decision; a decision to go to war is a political decision.

'a building with a thousand floors': copious accommodation? A vast ghetto? An image of Babel, and the many races of the world? None has room for the Jews.

'ten thousand soldiers': troops looking for Jews to send them to labour camps, from which few emerged? Or, later, the death squads sent to find Jews and kill them? Either way, this 'song' arrives at its terrifying ending: the refugees are being deliberately hunted down, and, as the preceding tension-building stanzas have made clear, they have nowhere at all to go.

Imagine it.

 
            
     

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