Abstract

Among the estimated 135,000 Austrians who fled the country after the Anschluss of 1938 were some 1,200 writers. A good number of these were among the estimated 35,000 Europeans coming through Austria to the United States just before and during the Second World War. Among this lost generation of Austrian authors were some of the best literary voices of their day, offering timely observations on the experience of exile and on America. Many remained in the United States at the war's end, often taking US citizenship. Yet because many of them continued over their lifetimes to write and publish in German, most American readers still have yet to hear their voices or their stories. Examples are provided here of some of the poetry of Ulrich Becher, Guido Zernatto, and Ernst Waldinger.

In the wake of the German-Austrian Anschluss of 1938, some 135,000 Austrian citizens fled the country, among them an estimated 1,200 writers and authors. Many of these made their way to New York City over the next decade, forming literary groups and garnering a surprisingly active audience of readers in an unfamiliar—sometimes frightening and sometimes inspiring—new environment. While most quickly adapted to English for their work, teaching, and journalistic writings, many continued to write and publish in German when turning to verse.

These poets were in more than one sense a lost generation, living during the war, as novelist Lore Segal wrote, on an island of comforts “surrounded on all sides by calamity.” While thankful, as Nobel Prize nominee Hermann Broch wrote, “for a new page,” with their works banned in German-speaking lands, they were often left wondering, as art and theater critic Max Roden asked, “Bin ich noch Hirt einer Herde,/die sich in Worten ermißt?” (Am I the shepherd of a flock which can still be weighed in words?). The question was troubling. Even if careers and dreams of such displaced persons were not always, as Roden worried, “Blüten im Schnee” (blossoms in snow), their work often remained, poet Erich Fried wrote, a body of “Gedichte ohne Vaterland” (poetry with no homeland).

These voices from the twentieth century's greatest refugee crisis often present a hopeful story whose plots and themes still resonate today in our own present, and perhaps with an even more pressing pertinence in recent years. Though they included among them some of the best literary voices of their day, speaking with timely comments on the American experience, the American dream, and America itself, they remain almost entirely untranslated.

Ulrich Becher was born in Berlin in 1910 and fled to Austria in 1933, where he married, taking Austrian citizenship and working as the co-editor of the Notbücherei deutscher Antifaschisten. He wrote novellas, novels, short stories, and theater pieces. In 1938 he fled again, this time to Switzerland, and again in 1941 to Rio de Janeiro, and finally in 1944 to New York. He returned to Vienna in 1948 before moving again to Switzerland, where he died in 1990. His “The Black Sailboat” (undated) describes the hopes and wonders of a transatlantic flight by sea toward the city that would be his home and refuge for four years.

Guido Zernatto, born in 1903 in Carinthia, published stories, essays, and novels, winning a German literature prize for a collection of short stories in 1930. General Secretary of the Vaterländische Front, in 1934 he worked as a state secretary for the Austrian chancellor's office. In 1938 he fled to Paris, working briefly there in hopes of setting up an Austrian government in exile, but moved to the United States in 1940, where he died of heart disease in 1943. His “The Night Swells from a Thousand Springs” (1942) and “This Wind of Foreign Continents” (1943) describe the sense of homelessness and hopelessness he sensed at the height of the war, now as an unwillingly passive observer in Manhattan. Zernatto died in New York several days after penning the latter.

Ernst Waldinger was born in Vienna in 1896. He was seriously injured while serving as a soldier in the First World War, but went on to study art history and German in Vienna, completing a doctoral degree in 1921, then working for a newspaper and publishing his first poetry in 1924. A co-founder of the Socialist Writer's Union, he fled Austria in 1938. Moving to New York, he found odd jobs, working first in an emporium, then as a librarian, and finally, from 1947 to 1964, as a professor of German literature at Skidmore University. A PEN member, he co-founded of the Aurora Press, which published Austrian authors in exile. Waldinger died in New York City in 1970. His “A Horse in 47th Street” (1938) illustrates the curious disjunction between the shockingly modern metropolis of New York City and tactile memories of “old Vienna,” staged in a chance street meeting during a Manhattan lunch hour rush. His “The Skyscraper” (undated), an ode to awe at the city's soaring skyline with its dream-like neon and thunderous traffic, is a literal face-off between a fin-de-siècle poet and industrialized high modernity. Waldinger's “Night on the Hudson” (probably penned in 1946) is an ode to the American river that eventually came, in its unearthly night-time beauty, to replace, in the poet's mind, his own familiar Danube.

Ulrich Becher

Der schwarze Segler

Wir zogen aus ins Meer.
In Schiffes Bauch das Echo klang
von schwerem Tritt. Kein Vogel sang,
zu lindern die Beschwer.
 
Wir rauschen ein ins Nichts.
Das Segel schwellt, ein schwarzes Tuch;
wir kehren uns dem Grossen Fluch,
Entlassne des Gerichts.
 
Wir ziehn in giftge Fern.
Bis grünes Finster uns umquoll
und uns ein letzter Gruss verscholl:
der Kindheit erster Stern.
Flugfischen zugesellt.
Die Schwinge schwarz im weissen Wind
entführt uns meerschaumhaft Gesind,
wohin es ihr gefällt.
 
Delphinenpurzelbaum!
Die dicke Wolk am Himmelsrand
gleich einem Riesenelefant
in Schlaf gestreckt und Traum …
 
Nach einem Mond zur Nacht
tost aus dem Meer ein Ruf empor,
Drommeten-Pauken-Pfeifenchor,
davon wir all erwacht.
 
Der Sturm spie uns an Strand.
Kaum retteten wir Hose, Hemd.
Ein dunkles Antlitz schaut uns fremd.
Wir haben's nicht erkannt.
 
Mann furchtlos hingesehn.
Trockne dein Hemd und fürcht dich nicht;
Es ist des Menschen Angesicht.
Du darfst, du darfst bestehn.
 

The Black Sailboat

We set out to sea.
In the ship's belly the echo rang
from a heavy step. No bird sang,
to soften the decree.
 
We rush into the blankness of sea.
The sail swells, a black sheet;
we turn away from the great curse,
Expelled by legal decree.
 
We pull into the poisonous far.
Till green darkness overcame us
and a last greeting was lost to us:
childhood's first star.
 
Our companions are flying fishes.
The boom black in the white wind,
draws us, seafoam-filled serfs,
at its wishes.
 
Dolphin somersault!
The thick cloud where the sky bent
like a monstrous elephant
stretched in sleep and dreams …
 
After a moon through the night
a call cries from the sea's mire,
Trumpet-tympanum-pipe choir,
at which we all rose upright.
 
The storm spit us up on the beach.
Hardly had we rescued shirt, pants.
A dark face looked at us, askance.
We didn't recognize it its speech.
 
Man with no help left for you.
Dry your shirt, put fear away;
It is a human face.
You may, you may come through.

Ulrich Becher's “Der schwarze Segler” was originally published in Dein Herz ist deine Heimat, edited by Rudolf Felmayer (Vienna, 1955). With the kind permission of Martin Roda Becher.

Guido Zernatto

Aus tausend Quellen quillt die Nacht

Aus tausend Quellen quillt die Nacht
Und übernimmt den Himmel unsrer Träume.
Da ist nichts mehr. Sintflut. Nur noch Nacht.
 
Aus Ozeanen ohne Licht erheben sich Gedanken,
Wie Meerestiere schwimmen unsre Träume
Mit schweren Flossen durch die Finsternis der Räume
Und kreisen um die Hoffnungsschiffe, die versanken.
 

The Night Swells from a Thousand Springs

The night swells from a thousand springs
And takes over the sky of our dreams.
Nothing's left. Flood. Only night.
 
From lightless oceans our thoughts rise,
Like sea creatures, our dreams swim
Through the darkness of space, with thick fins
Circling hope-ships, that capsized.
[New York, 1942]

Dieser Wind der Fremden Kontinente

Dieser Wind der fremden Kontinente
Bläst mir noch die Seele aus dem Leib.
Nicht das Eis lähmt mir das frostgewohnte
Und die Schwüle nicht das langentthronte
Herz, das leer ist wie ein ausgeweintes Weib.
 
Dieser Wind der fremden Kontinente
Hat den Atem einer andern Zeit.
Andre Menschen, einer andern Welt geboren,
Mag's erfrischen. Ich bin hier verloren
Wie ein Waldtier, das in Winternächten schreit.
 

This Wind of Foreign Continents

This wind of foreign continents
Blows the soul from my body.
My heart, used to frost, isn't paralyzed by cold
Nor by humidity, long-dethroned
Heart, empty as an all cried out woman.
 
This wind of foreign continents
Has the breath of another time.
Other people, born in another world,
may find it refreshing. I'm lost here
Like a forest animal in winter nights crying.1
[New York, 1943]

Guido Zernatto's “Aus tausend Quellen quillt die Nacht” and “Dieser Wind der Fremden Kontinente” originally appeared in Die Sonnenuhr: Gesamtausgabe der Gedichte, edited by Hans Brunmayr (Salzburg: Otto Müller, 1961).

Ernst Waldinger

Ein Pferd in der 47. Straβe

Es regnet, und ein Strom vom Schirmen zieht.
Fifth Avenue und Forty-seventh Street.
 
Um Mittag spein die Tore Schar um Schar:
Nach Gummimänteln riecht das Trottoir;
 
Nach feuchtem Müll die Straβe, nach Benzine;
Verkehrskolonnen hupen drüber hin;
 
Nun halten sie; im nassen Asphalt schaut
Ein Autochaos spiegelnd sich und staut
 
Sich, starr, als ob es eingefroren sei:
Das grüne Licht gibt mir die Straβe frei.
 
Von Menschenwogen werd ich mitgeschwemmt –
Da stock ich jäh, den irgenwas ist fremd;
 
Inmitten der Mechanik Segensfluch,
Riech ich vergeßnen, guten Roßgeruch:
 
Wahrhaftig, zwischen Autos ragt ein Gaul,
Mit plumpen Hufen, ruhelosem Maul.
 
Hat er mir nicht soeben zugenickt?
Mit müden Augen so mich angeblickt,
 
Als ständ zu fragen dumpf in seinem Sinn:
Bist du so einsam hier, wie ich es bin?
 

A Horse in 47th  Street

It's raining, and a river of umbrellas meet.
Fifth Avenue and Forty-seventh Street.
 
By noon doors throng, crowded with galoshes:
The sidewalk smells of mackintoshes;
 
The street of damp trash, gasoline;
Rows of traffic honk in the thick stream;
 
Now they pause; from damp asphalt
A motored chaos reflects itself and halts
 
Itself, stares, freezing for a beat:
The green light gives me access to the street.
 
Swept along by waves of men so many—
I hesitate, as something's most uncanny;
 
In the midst of the mechanical blessing-curse,
I whiff the forgotten, good old smell of horse:
 
It's true—a horse stands mid the autos' muddle,
With clumsy hooves, restless muzzle.
 
Did he not nod at me as I did at him likewise?
Like me toward him he gazed with tired eyes,
 
As if the question stood dully in his mind:
Are you as lonely here as I?
[1938]

Ernst Waldinger's “Ein Pferd in der 47. Straβe” and “Der Wolkenkratzer” originally appeared in: Zwischen Hudson und Donau: Ausgewählte Gedichte, edited by Rudolf Felmayer (Vienna: Bergland Verlag, 1958). © Otto Müller Verlag.

Der Wolkenkratzer

Wenn in den Häusergebirgen, in den Klippen,
Um die der Maelstrom der Tumulte brandet,
Von Stock zu Stock der Aufzug tost und landet,
Wenn in den Menschenstöcken, in den Stahlgerippen
Mit tausend Kojen in Beton gewandet,
Vom Tor bis zu des höchsten Turmes Kupferknauf,
Um den die Chöre der Sirenen brüllen,
In Korridoren, die sich hastig füllen,
Die Fieberkurve, der gehetzte Lauf
Sich selber hetzt – o losgelaβne Hölle,
Wo die Arbeit überkocht, als quölle
Die ganze Gier des Universums auf …
 
Dies ist ein Traum, phantastisch wie ein Traum,
Wenn die Giganten sich des Nachts erhellen,
Türme mit tausend strahlenden Kerkerzellen,
In Licht ertrinkend, daβ der weiβe Schaum
Aus allen Poren spritzt von den Fassaden
In Fällen rauscht, in zuckenden Kaskaden,
Unrast ist Licht geworden, Glanz ist Hast,
Verheiβungsvoller, gleiβend-toller Glast,
Mit Strömen von Begehrlichkeit geladen;
Licht tobt, Licht blendet, grell gesschminkte Pracht,
Licht geiβelt sich mädadisch durch die Nacht.
 
Die Wanderschrift am fünften Stockwerk brennt
Mit roten Riesenlettern, atemlos
Brennt sie die Sensationen in den Schoβ
Der Dunkelheit, rotiert und rast und rennt
Mit riesig-roten Lettern, wird verschluckt
Und fängt von neuem an – ein Viadukt,
Der seinen Bogen über Schluchten schnellt,
Saust knapp vorüber, Hochbahnzüge blitzen,
Daβ die Fenster wie die Funken ineinanderflitzen,
Und herab vom Restaurant des Daches schellt
Das Schlagwerk aus dem Kapellenlärm, verloren
Im Lärm der donnernden Autobusmotoren.
 
Dies ist ein Traum, phantastisch wie ein Traum,
Dein Blick stürzt ab, wenn er zur Höhe klimmt,
Die Augen stolpern, und verflirrent schwimmt
Die Linie der Firste druch den Raum;
Ein Schwindel mengt die rasenden Mäander
Von hunderten Geschossenen durcheinander,
Und alles scheint zu taumeln, wächst ins Wirre,
Verkehrt sich und verzerrt sich, fürt ins Irre,
Und scheint bis ins Unendliche zu ragen;
Die Fronten weichen wankend nach der Seite,
Als wollten sie mit ungeheurer Breite
Den Himmel auf der flachen Plattform tragen.
 
Du stehst zu nah, so faβt du nur die Angst
Beseβnen Wildes, das sich selber treibt.
Des Jägers Furcht, der der Gejagte bleibt,
Wenn du ins Weite und zur Schau gelangst,
Dann wird die Zahl, mit Zahlen nicht zu stillen,
Des bloβe Durst, nur um des Durstes willen,
Der selbst sich anspringt, seiner Seele Mord,
Das blinde Mehr, der Wahnwitz, der Rekord,
Die Wollust, die sich an die Wolken raft,
Der Krampf von heute wird einmal die Kraft,
Der Kukunft Samen und vertausendfältigt:
Wer fluchend kam, steht staunend überwältigt.
 

The Skyscraper

When in the house-mountain-ranges, in the cliffs,
Around which the turmoil's maelstrom surges,
From floor to floor the elevator roars and purges,
When in the human hives, in the steel ribs
With a thousand berths that concrete submerges,
From the entrance to the highest copper tower,
Round which the choirs of sirens roar,
In quickly-filling corridors,
The rushing run, the fevered sweep,
Hounds itself—oh liberated Hell,
Where the work overcooks, while swells
Up the universe's whole greed …
 
This is a dream, fantastic as a dream,
When the giants light themselves up at night,
Towers with a thousand dungeon cells so bright,
Drowning in light, which the white gleam
From every pore shoots from the facades
In cases rushing, in twitching cascades,
Unrest has become light, radiance is haste,
Enchanting, glittering-great glass,
Laden with streams of greediness;
Garishly made-up grandeur, raging light, dazzling light,
Light mauls itself, Maenad-like, through the night.
 
The scrolling text on the fifth floor burns
With red giant letters, breathless
Burn the sensations in darkness's
Lap, races and runs and turns
With huge red letters, inward sucked
And starts anew—a viaduct,
Shooting its arc over ravines,
Just beyond flash elevated trains' marks,
Their windows streaking past each other like sparks,
And down from the roof-top restaurant rings
The percussion from the chapel noise, lost
In the noise of the thundering bus engines.
 
This is a dream, fantastic as a dream,
Your gaze plummets as it climbs to the rim
The eyes stumble and, baffled, swim
through space roofs float in a stream;
A dizziness fills the raging meander
Shot from hundreds pell-mell,
And everything seems to stagger, grows to confusion,
Turns and distorts itself, leads to delusion,
And seems to extend ad infinitum;
Façades sway softly side to side,2
As if they wanted, tremendous, wide
To carry the sky on the flat podium.
 
You stand too close, so you only fear
Wild creatures, self-propelled.
The hunter's fear that he himself is hunted,
If you go far in the distance and near,
Then the number, by numbers unsated,
Sheer thirst, for thirst's sake unslaked,
Who starts himself, his soul murder,
The blind More, the madness, the record,
The lust rafting to the clouds' brink,
The cramp of today will be the strength,
That seeds the future thousand-fold:
He who cursing came, stands astonished, over-bowled.
 

Nachts am Hudson

Noch eben rollte er im breiten Schwall
Aus glühendem Abendgold, flankiert von Klippen
Und Fensterreihn; umglittert von den Rippen
Der Türme fingen sie den Sonnenball.
 
Nun ist es Nacht; er kollert Widerhall
Von Zügen, untergrund; und Krane kippen
Mit Golem-Armen; wie von Fieberlippen
Stöhnt einer Schiffssirene dumpfer Schall.
 
Und doch, wie ich im Grase sinnend lieg,
Flieβt nun der dunkle Strom an mir vorbei,
Als ob's noch in der Urwaldlandschaft sei:
 
Kein Groβstadt-Dschungel, kein Maschinenkrieg!
In ewig-unentziffernbaren Sigeln
Seh ich die Sterne sich im Wasser spiegeln.
 

Night on the Hudson

Just rolling in a wide swell
Of glowing evening gold, flanked by cliffs
And rows of windows; glittering ribs
Of the towers caught the sun.
 
Now it's night; it reverberates
With trains, underground; and cranes tilt
With Golem-arms; as from fevered lips
A ship's siren groans its dull sound.
 
And then, as I lie musing in the grass,
The dark stream flows past,
As if still in the jungle landscape:
 
No metropolis-jungle, no machine-war!
In eternally indeterminable outlines
I see the stars reflected in the water.

“Nachts am Hudson” was originally published in Die Kühlen Bauernstuben: Gedichte (New York: Aurora-Verlag, 1946). © Otto Müller Verlag.

Notes

Thanks to Karin Wohlgemuth for help editing and proofreading.

1.

Zernatto died only a few days after writing this poem.

2.

“Fronts” in German can mean a line of buildings, but more commonly refers to the front ranks of an army.

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