Bertolt Brecht: On the Term Emigrants (1937)

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

Always have I thought the name given to us was wrong:
Emigrants.
That means those who leave thir 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 hour does not deceive us! We hear the
Screams

From their camps from here. Are we ourselves not
Almost like rumors of misdeeds, who have escaped
over the border. Every one of us
that 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 deprived 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 difficulties: On the one hand, he had an aversion to the United States, and on the other hand, in view of the approaching Cold War, he was 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 by Minor Kontor.

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