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Letters

Rosa Luxemburg to Hanna-Elsbeth Stühmer

Wronke, 10 March 1917

The first time  I went down to the yard known as the Lazaretthof during the recreation hour,  as an inmate in the Barnimstrasse Women’s Prison, I found a lady there with a voluptuous figure, dressed in fine clothes and wearing the contents of a small jewellery shop on her fingers and bosom,  which sparkled whenever she moved. Sullen, with pursed lips and a furrowed brow, she walked restlessly round and round the small yard, her eyes fixed on the ground, clomping her highly fashionable platform slippers loudly as if to protest against the bitter injustice of the world and the military authorities. When she caught sight of my unprepossessing figure, she peered at me for some time, squinting as if short-sighted, but at last introduced herself and immediately began to bewail her lot. Hers was a familiar, typical case: jealous friends—an old grudge—an anonymous denunciation citing ‘anti-German sentiment’—arrest—preventive detention … “And now here I sit in this miserable hole, expected to sit here in glorious summer weather, I, who cannot survive without nature!”[1]  And she told me how she would undertake a costly trip every year to gaze on the sunsets in the Tyrolean Alps. Those sunsets could move her to tears…

The  lady was clearly utterly convinced that nature begins in the Tyrolean Alps—and with a dramatic sunset. If someone had told her that here, at No. 10 Barnimstrasse, where she stood and walked, she was surrounded by nature from morning to night, she would surely have thought that they were mocking her. I said nothing, smiled politely and took my leave.

Now, dear lady, I would like to invite you to take a turn with me in this tiny realm of nature. I am not familiar with your own sweet nature, but what does it matter? I know enough to divine that it is most charming. May I, like Leporello unrolling the famous ‘catalogue’ in front of Donna Elvira in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, sing with a polite bow: “My dear lady, observe and read along with me—observe—and read along with me!…”

The first thing I beheld on rising on 365 days of the year is the grey, weathered back wall with ‘Timners  Essigfabrik’ (Timner’s Vinegar Factory) spelled out in large faded letters. The sooty chimney of this building smokes busily, and constantly infuses the prison air with a slightly bittersweet smell that sometimes—on overcast days—irritates the back of the throat. To the right and left of the factory: a motley collection of ancient tenement blocks, their small windows adorned with consumptive geraniums in pots, canary cages and baby clothes, from which can be heard either bickering and fighting, screaming children, a strumming guitar or a rasping gramophone.

Dear lady, do you know ‘Phantasus’ by Arno Holz? It starts:

The roof soared almost to the stars.
 Thuds came from the backyard factory.
 It was a proper tenement slum,
 With hall- and hurdy-gurdy music!

Rats nested in the cellar,
 Ground floor had brandy, grog and beer.
 And all the way to the fifth floor
 The borough’s misery had its abode.[2]

But every morning, above the broken line of these roofs, which all face east, there is a spectacle, the most beautiful and sublime spectacle since the creation of the world: the sunrise.

Late autumn. Half past five in the morning. The building is still sleeping—just a second of quiet left before the clanking, rattling, key-jangling, rumbling noise of 500 human existences crashes over the dam of night-time stillness like an impatient tidal wave to fill every corner of the enormous building. Just one second left. In these final breaths of the dying night, do you see up there on the gable the tiny shimmering silhouette of a bird? And do you hear its sweet chatter? That’s the starling that waits with me every morning to witness the grand spectacle.

So, now it begins! Do you see, dear lady, over Timner’s vinegar factory, how the dark grey sky is flushing? Suddenly, a rosy flash shoots upwards from there, a whole flock of clouds catches the spark and glows ever brighter until it is ablaze. Now half the sky is already alight and waving flaming torches. And in the middle, right over the chimney of the vinegar factory, the first golden beam breaks through the crimson tide.

It is like a Wagner overture. First the violins chirp down the scale from the highest, thinnest note, hurrying faster and faster, with increasing urgency—then the big, powerful full sound of the oboe chimes in with the leitmotif, then the double basses, flutes and clarinets join in, then the timpani boom and—tutti at last—the whole orchestra swells—an exultation, a jubilation, a hymn! … In the same way, but without a sound, the orchestra of colours in the sky above the drab walls on Barnimstrasse  plays, exults and rejoices. The sun, the sun is rising over Timner’s vinegar factory! Hail, O aged, ageless sun. Hail! If only you continue to smile on me, if only I may see your golden countenance, what do I care about bars and locks? Am I not free like that bird on the roof ridge, who salutes you gratefully as I do? And if it should happen that I, in the heat of a Russian revolution, am led to the gallows, simply light my way on that difficult path and I will stride to my final ascent smiling cheerfully, as if to a wedding feast.

7 o’clock. I am already permitted  to go down to the yard—where I am quite alone until 10  o’clock. Dear lady, will you follow me? Down here you see the simple square of grass, at its centre just one tall elm, and round the edges a few bushes. That is all. But what abundance when you take a closer look!

Just here in the dewy grass, if you will bend down, dear lady! Do you see these masses of green clover leaves? Observe how strangely and faintly iridescent they are—bluish, rosy and mother-of-pearl. What causes it? Each little leaf is bedecked with tiny dewdrops in which the slanting morning light is refracted, giving the leaves their iridescent rainbow shimmer. Have you ever tried to tie together a little bouquet of such simple three-leaved clover stems? They look delightful in a small vase or glass. All seemingly the same, but when you look more closely, each little leaf is slightly different, just as a tree does not really have two leaves the same. Larger and smaller, lighter and darker, the little clover leaves with their elegant oval shape are a varied and lively sight. When I first sent a small bouquet of these clover leaves to the superintendent as a morning greeting, she asked afterwards with interest where I had picked it. The ladies have no idea what grows and flourishes in their own yard and every time I produced an attractive bouquet using the most modest means and a little skill, they asked in astonishment where it came from. Since then, the little clover bouquets have in fact become very fashionable and I was delighted to see on several mornings one or other of the ladies stooping in the yard and hurriedly collecting a handful of the three-leaved stems …

Now gather your skirts, dear lady, and let us step carefully across the wet grass to those bushes over there. Do you know the weigelia—the popular ornamental shrub of northern Germany, with its luxurious clusters of delicate rosy bells? They are not fragrant, but they please the eye, and even the large green leaves are not without beauty. The topmost young leaves shoot upwards, as you see, in tightly rolled packages. May I pull down a branch of little packages towards you? Please take a careful look inside! Hidden in the depths, someone is sleeping: a little red ladybird with five black dots on her back. At this time of the morning in the autumn, you will find a ladybird in every little leaf package on the weigelia. It is still too wet and too cold in the early morning and they prefer to have a lie-in until the sun climbs higher …

Quickly now! Let’s allow the branches to straighten up again gently and tip-toe quietly away so as not to wake the little sleepy-heads …

Now to the green buckthorn over there! Will you break off this thin brown twig? You grasp it bravely and start back in fright. Yuck, how soft and sticky it feels! Now the ‘twig’ is writhing in the air, angered  by the unexpected disturbance. Yes, dear lady, please excuse my little jest: it was a caterpillar. And please observe this amazing case of mimicry which, despite Darwin and the others, still poses a real puzzle. You see on the buckthorn, as on every bush, lots of branches. The youngest ones are thin, cinnamon brown, smooth and shiny. The older ones are thicker, grey-brown and dull in colour. And the miracle? On each little twig sits a caterpillar that matches it exactly in terms of size and colour: here on the young twig sits a slender, light-brown one, there on the older branch a fat caterpillar verging on grey. And here on the side you see what is called a ‘precocious shoot’, like those that tend to shoot out from badly maintained rose bushes in the autumn: a thick, whitish-green branch sticking out clumsily above the others like a walking stick. And see here! On this one sits a matching fat, white-green caterpillar that can only be distinguished from the bush at close quarters and then only by a shrewd eye.

What do you say to that, dear lady? The little creatures are obviously powerless to influence their own shape and colour. The miracle worker here is ‘Nature’ herself or the X to whom we give that name. But the choosing of a twig to cling to that precisely matches the creature’s own garb, without a mirror—surely therein lies some kind of decision-making ability, a deliberate attempt to deceive that almost constitutes a criminal offence and spills over into your younger brother’s area of expertise! … And that is not all. The whole posture: the sharp angle from the branch at which each caterpillar holds itself as a ‘side shoot’, the rigid, immobile position in the air: all this cunning is designed to deceive the sharp eyes of the birds that lurk above.

If you touch one of these caterpillars with your fingers, it twitches impatiently and reddish waves ripple over its little cylindrical body like a flush of anger; it attempts to remove itself from the troublemaker quickly and to freeze again in its Buddhist fakir pose, which it believes to be the only accepted and dignified posture. So, let us leave it in peace.

The sun has now climbed high in the sky and its rays are already reaching the little cotoneaster there by the outer gate. Do you know this pretty ornamental bush, dear lady, with its little myrtle-like leaves with a leathery sheen arranged so evenly along each branch that they form a ready-made bridal wreath? How beautiful such a green wreath would look around your head, which I imagine luxuriously adorned with dark hair! But I am not the only one to find pleasure in the cotoneaster: a large garden spider has elected to take up residence there. Do you see down here, stretched vertically between the branches, the giant, flawless, freshly woven web? How skilfully and deliberately it has been positioned directly against the sunlight so that the reckless flies rushing this way, blinded by the light, are dead certain to be caught in the net! How wonderfully clear and mathematically precise the treacherous web appears in the golden-blue haze of this autumn morning. A breath of air plays gently with the supple construction, which flexes and trembles but does not tear, like a modern flexible bridge in the mountains made from finest steel mesh—a miracle of engineering. There, in the corner, crouches the fat-bellied garden spider, delighting in its work and waiting with chattering teeth for a juicy breakfast … Now that it is approaching midday, I finally take up my Homer and ‘withdraw’ to my cell. Good old Homer has been lying patiently on the bench the whole time. I am sure you too know the wonderful effect of a good book that you keep within reach and … never read. How often at night do I look out a good book to lull me gently to sleep. Sometimes it takes a long time for me to find the right kind of book. Then I place it on the little table by the bed and … do not touch it. Simply having it nearby appears to be enough. In this way, the Iliad accompanies me here on my walk around the yard every morning, but I have not got any further this autumn than the diatribe of hunchbacked Thersites. And  why should I? Thersites has been dead a long time, but the garden spider lives; she shares with me the short moment of existence that is allotted to us by the gods.

An afternoon in the prison passes very quickly. Now, in the autumn, at 4 o’clock the day is already clearly coloured by the approaching sunset. And it is this last lovely hour of full sunlight that the pigeons, which nest over there on the building next to the vinegar factory, choose for a joyful collective flight. See, dear lady, how they constantly sway in circles high over the house, how they clap their wings and how the snowy white of their inner wing feathers catches the blinding sunlight! Now they all settle for a while on the roof—like a colourful bouquet of large magnolia flowers—white, brown and steel blue—and then they all rise into the air again as if by command and fly another dozen circles—sticking together in one flock. After all, one has to make the most of the day, savour every last drop of the sweet sunlight. And another circle, and another …

In the meantime, the buzzing, wheezing, thumping noise inside the large prison building reaches its peak. It appears to erupt towards the close of day. The urgent rattling of keys and rumbling becomes deafening. At last, the liberating final clang of the signal bell: one—two—three—and, as if cut off by a giant pair of scissors, the noise stops. The arrival of the evening hush is so sudden and abrupt that my nerves get a shock every time and a sharp pain throbs in my temples. But now all is calm. My chest breathes a sigh of relief. The hushed yard and huge silent building suddenly seem transformed, contemplative and dreamy …

Do you want to take your leave already, dear lady? Oh please, stay a little longer! Do you look questioningly at my mischievous smile, at my glance upwards? Yes, still to come up there is a main act of the performance that I have taken the liberty of arranging for you … Do you see how up there—high in the sky—delicate rosy clouds are gathering? God knows where they come from! The sky was clear and blue, after all, and now it is teeming with little pennants glowing with the most delicate pink colour—as peaceful as a smile, and very different from the red clouds of the morning. The dark embers before the sunrise have something of labour pains about them, of the grim tragedy of premonition. These evening clouds are like innocent children playing, like the chimes of the Angelus bell from a quiet village church.

The entire sky is undulating and smiling in pink. The stage is set; let the spectacle begin. Chirr-chirr! Do you hear the metallic notes from above, like a fine silver screw? And do you see the dark loops flashing at vertiginous heights? It is the swallows! Now, in the autumn, as the last visitors of the day, they perform their cheerful aerobatic display every evening under rosy clouds, before saying their goodbyes and leaving for Egypt,  for Mexico. How daring and blithely free they are as they dive and shoot through the shining space! And all the while, from on high comes the repeated chirr- chirr!—Farewell! Farewell! We will be leaving soon, but we shall return next year! Chirr-chirr! …

Mörike claims that swallows can ‘sing’, and that they do so while sitting in a tree. Do you know his poem ‘An hour before the dawn’?[3]

Roused by a bird in the early morn,
 In the darkest hour before the dawn,
 I seemed to hear it sing to me,
 Outside my window, in a tree,
 An hour before the dawn:

‘You little know you are forlorn,
 You may well rue that you were born:
 Your sweetheart dear, for all his charms,
 Now holds another in his arms,
 An hour before the dawn.’

O swallow, cease to sing,
 Begone with you, take wing!
 For faithfulness he has forsworn,
 He merely laughs my love to scorn,
 An hour before the dawn.

Is it not a wonderful poem? So simple and so poignant, like a folk song. But I have never seen swallows sitting in a tree and singing. The only sound I have heard swallows make is this chirr-chirr as they perform their evening display up on high.

And, as suddenly as it began, the display is over. The swallows have disappeared, the rosy clouds are extinguished. Dusk and a cool hush falls over the earth. Over Timner’s vinegar factory the pale face of the moon rises in silence. Below in the yard, Mulle the tomcat is on the prowl on silent paws. He looks so uncanny, like a sorcerer—I am almost frightened of him; he has something of the secrets of the night about him … Soundlessly, a dark shadow flits past my window—a bat …

The day is over, gone—it will never come back. Like a pearl, it sinks into the ocean of eternity …

Dear lady, may I now take your delicate hand and escort you home? Here we are already at your vine-clad villa. Many, many thanks for your kind visit to the airy halls of my imagination, and please make do with the little that a poor prisoner has to offer. Ultimately, even a king cannot pay greater tribute to his guest than to lay at his feet the sun, moon and earth in all its green splendour. Good night, dear lady! 

R. L.

Translation: Ros Mendy and Lyam Bittar for lingua∙trans∙fair

Revised by Ros Mendy

Footnotes

  1. Mathilde Jacob later wrote of this meeting, among other things, under the headline “Heiteres aus Gefängnissen” (Amusing tales from jails): “During the war, in 1915, the wife of the then Belgian Minister of Justice [Juliette Carton de Wiart] … was temporarily detained in the Barnimstrasse Women’s Prison in Berlin […] Mme X wanted to attract her fellow prisoner’s attention and, as soon as she had the opportunity, whistled ‘The Internationale’ under Rosa Luxemburg’s cell window. After a few verses, Rosa joined in. A short time after this musical understanding, the two inmates were led down to the yard for a walk and they succeeded in winning over the official on duty to the extent that they were able to talk to one another, despite this being strictly against the rules. The walks in the prison yard were repeated and so were the talks, much to the delight of Mme X, who did everything she could to enjoy this pleasurable diversion in the Prussian jail. When Mme X returned to Belgium shortly afterwards, she told her friends there about her time in detention. A Belgian newspaper editor liked the story and shared the interesting encounter with his readers. In this way, the incident reached the German press too, and a high-ranking Prussian officer sent a copy of the newspaper with the punishable content to the superintendent of the Barnimstrasse Women’s Prison. ‘Oh, what impudence! How the newspapers lie!’ the superintendent exclaimed. ‘And how stupid these lies are. Mme X did not speak a word of German. I myself was completely unable to communicate with her. There is absolutely no question of her having spoken to anyone in my prison.’ In her naivety, the superintendent was unable to imagine that Rosa Luxemburg spoke French just as well as she spoke German.” See Sozialistische Politik und Wirtschaft (Berlin), Ed. Dr Paul Levi, Vol. 2, No. 44 of 17 July 1924. – See also Mathilde Jacob: Von Rosa Luxemburg und ihren Freunden in Krieg und Revolution 1914–1919. Edited and introduced by Sibylle Quack and Rüdiger Zimmermann. In: IWK, Vol. 24, December 1988, Issue 4, p. 465.
  2. For the German original, see Arno Holz: Phantasus. Eine Auswahl mit einem Vorwort von Alfred Döblin, Leipzig 1981, pp. 19. English translation by C. D. Godwin (https://beyond-alexanderplatz.com/phantasus-book-completed/), accessed 04/02/21.
  3. For the German original, see Eduard Mörike: Werke und Briefe. Historisch-kritische Gesamtausgabe. Vol. 1/1: Gedichte. 1867 edition. Part One. Text. Edited by Hans-Henrik Krumacher, Stuttgart 2003, p. 28. English translation by Mick Swithinbank (https://www.cpdl.org/wiki/index.php/Ein_St%C3%BCndlein_wohl_vor_Tag_(Hugo_Distler)), accessed 04/02/21.

Rosa Luxemburg: Die Geheimnisse eines Gefängnishofes, in: Gesammelte Werke (Collected Works), Vol. 7/2, Berlin 2017, p. 1012–1019.