In Honor of the Day of Victory:

[UPDATE: Comments enabled; sorry for the initial glitch that kept them from being open.]

Saturday is the Russian version of V-E Day (known as the Day of Victory there). Friday is of course also the American V-E Day; and I certainly honor the sacrifices of the Americans and the other western Allies, recognize that the west did much to defeat the Nazis, condemn pretty much all the other actions of Soviet Russia, and recognize that the Soviet leadership helped the Nazis in various ways (both through the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and through purging some of their leading military men in the years before the war). Still, the fact remains that the Soviets and Soviet soldiers bore the lion's share of the European war's casualties, inflicted the lion's share of the casualties on the Nazis, and should probably be credited with the hardest and most important victories.

In honor, then, of the Day of Victory, I thought I'd blog a link to The Ballad of the Soldier's Wife, by Bertolt Brecht, which starts like this:

What was sent to the soldier's wife
From the ancient city of Prague?
From Prague came a pair of high heeled shoes,
With a kiss or two came the high heeled shoes
From the ancient city of Prague.

Click here to read more.

I remember hearing this several years ago and being quite struck by it. It's hard to effectively pull off poetry condeming the enemy and praising his death; there's too much of a risk that the tone will come across as too strident. But this seemed to me to work very well. Perhaps it was helped by the direct emphasis on plunder rather on killing (though the killing is of course not far in the background).

* * *

Now to turn from honoring the Day of Victory to some thoughts on the poem's history: It turns out that the ballad was first published as a poem in 1943, in a collection of many poems by many authors, called War Poems of the United Nations. The Day of Victory was still far in the future; the Introduction, for instance, spoke of how various 1930s conflicts were "as much part of the great crisis of our time as what is happening today in Africa." The German version of the song was sung by Lotte Lenya on a propaganda shortwave broadcast in 1943; the music was by Paul Dessau, though the later versions of the song were with Kurt Weill's music.

The poem was apparently translated by the editor of the collection, Joy Davidman, and found in reading it that my reactions were subtly different from those on hearing the song. Part of this might have stemmed from the original wording, which didn't strike me as forcefully, whether because Davidman wasn't as good a translator as later translators, or because the cadences expected of written verse might be different from those optimal for the song.

But part, I think, came in seeing the poem from the perspective of 1943, rather than from the perspective of after the war, which is when I had thought it had been written. In 1943, it's still a prophecy, and one with an air of wishful thinking to it. The sense of confident looking back and writing an account of (and judgment on) what had actually happened is missing. I wonder if others share my reaction.

The poem was, of course, written long before Brecht's very late disillusionment with Communism; another poem two pages earlier in the anthology illustrates this, with the stanza about

The bloody fool
who did not know the road to Moscow was long,
who did not know the eastern winter was cold,
who did not know the will of workers and peasants
to defend their land, the first of lands
where man is not a wolf to man.
There were fools to spare in that time, it appears. But while this tells us something about Brecht, I try to avoid having the author's diminish my enjoyment of his other works.