Bertolt Brecht: On the Term Emigrants (1937)

Bertolt Brecht’s poem on the difference between emigration and exile

Sacre Coeur, Paris, 1938 © Fred Stein Archive
Sacre Coeur, Paris, 1938, photographed by Fred Stein, published with the kind permission of Peter Stein © Fred Stein Archive

Immer fand ich den Namen falsch, den man uns gab:
Das heißt doch Auswandrer. Aber wir
Wanderten doch nicht aus, nach freiem Entschluss
Wählend ein andres Land. Wanderten wir doch auch nicht
Ein in ein Land, dort zu bleiben, womöglich für immer
Sondern wir flohen. Vertriebene sind wir, Verbannte.
Und kein Heim, ein Exil soll das Land sein, das uns da

Unruhig sitzen wir so, möglichst nahe den Grenzen
Wartend des Tags der Rückkehr, jede kleinste Veränderung
Jenseits der Grenze beobachtend, jeden Ankömmling
Eifrig befragend, nichts vergessend und nichts aufgebend
Und auch verzeihend nichts, was geschah, nichts verzeihend.
Ach, die Stille der Sunde täuscht uns nicht! Wir hören die

Aus ihren Lagern bis hierher. Sind wir doch selber
Fast wie Gerüchte von Untaten, die da entkamen
Über die Grenzen. Jeder von uns
Der mit zerrissenen Schuhn durch die Menge geht
Zeugt von der Schande, die jetzt unser Land befleckt.
Aber keiner von uns
Wird hier bleiben. Das letzte Wort
Ist noch nicht gesprochen.





Always have I thought the name given to us was wrong:
That means those who leave their country. But we
Didn’t emigrate, on free will
Choosing a different country. Nor did we emigrate
Into a country in order to stay, possibly forever
But we fled. We are expellees, banished.
And no home, but an exile shall the country be
That accepted us.

Restless we sit, as near to the borders as possible
Awaiting the day of return, observing every little change
Across the border, questioning every newcomer
Eagerly, not forgetting and not giving up
And not forgiving anything that happened, nothing.
Alas, the silence of the straits does not deceive us! We hear the

From their camps until here. Are we ourselves not
Almost like rumors of atrocities, who have escaped
over the border. Every one of us
Who walks through the crowd with ripped shoes
Is testimony of the disgrace that has blemished our country.
But none of us
Will stay here. The last word
Is yet unspoken.

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) was a playwright. Because he was a communist and his political convictions were reflected in his plays, he left Germany after the Reichstag fire in February 1933, even before the National Socialists came to power. He fled to Denmark via Prague, Vienna, Zurich, and Paris. In 1935 he was stripped of German citizenship, which made him a stateless person.

Brecht wrote dramas, some of which were also performed in Paris, and wrote articles for exile magazines in various European cities. He lived with his family in a house in Denmark for five years until he was able to emigrate to the USA via the Soviet Union in 1941. He lived there for another five years, but after the end of World War II in 1945, his communist convictions caused him trouble: on the one hand, he had an aversion against the United States, and on the other hand, in light of the looming Cold War, he was put under general suspicion as a Communist. In 1947 he traveled to Switzerland, and one year later he returned to Berlin. In East Berlin he and his wife Helene Weigel founded the successful Berliner Ensemble Theater, which still exists today.

In his poem “On the Term Emigrants” Brecht deals with the word “emigrants”, which in his opinion is not applicable to people who fled from National Socialism – rather they are “expellees, banished”, their host country “not a home”, but “exile”. In this way Brecht explicitly differentiates between refugees and emigrants, since they did not go to another country “of their own free will” but were forced to do so. At the same time, Brecht emphasizes that he longs for the return to his homeland. He describes hope for an improvement of the political situation in Germany as well as the decision not to give up and not to forget or forgive the National Socialist persecution.

For the German version, see: „Über die Bezeichnung Emigranten“, from: Bertolt Brecht, Die Gedichte. © Bertolt-Brecht-Erben / Suhrkamp Verlag 2000. Published with kind permission of Suhrkamp Verlag.

Translation into English © Minor Kontor.