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Rosa Luxemburg to Luise Kautsky

Zwickau Prison, September 1904

An excerpt from this letter can be listened to here.

Back when I was at home, I used to creep across to the window very early in the morning—getting up before Father was, of course, strictly forbidden—open it quietly and peek out at the big courtyard. There was, admittedly, not much to see. Everything was still asleep. A cat prowled across the courtyard on soft paws, a few sparrows scuffled and twittered impudently, and lanky Antoni in his short sheepskin jacket, which he wore summer and winter, stood by the pump with both hands and chin resting on the handle of his broom, his sleepy, unwashed face sunk deep in thought. This Antoni was a man of higher aspirations. Every evening after the gate was locked, he sat on his sleeping bench in the entrance and, in the feeble lamplight, sounded out letter by letter the official ›police notices‹, and his reading could be heard throughout the building as a kind of muffled litany. In this he was guided purely by an interest in literature, because he didn’t understand a word, but merely loved the letters themselves. Despite this, he was not easily pleased. Once, at his request for reading matter, I gave him Lubbock’s The Origin of Civilization? I had just read it zealously as my first ›serious‹ book, but he returned it to me after two days, saying that it was ›worthless‹. As for me, it was not until years later that I realised how right Antoni was. —

And so Antoni would always stand for some time sunk deep in thought, but then he would suddenly snap out of it with a shocking, booming, echoing yawn, and this liberating yawn invariably meant: time to get to work. Even now I can still hear the sloshing, slapping sound of Antoni’s wet, crooked broom as he swept it over the paving stones, always artistically, describing careful, dainty, regular arcs around the edges like a border of Brussels lace. His sweeping of the courtyard was pure poetry. And that was also the loveliest time of day, before the dreary, noisy, pounding, hammering life of the big tenement block started up. The solemn stillness of the morning hour lay over the banality of the paved courtyard. Above, the window panes glittered with the early morning gold of the new sun, and way up high, fluffy pink-tinged clouds floated, before dissolving in the grey city sky.

Back then I firmly believed that ›life‹, that is ›real life‹, was somewhere far away, over there beyond the rooftops. I have been chasing after it ever since, but it is still hidden behind some rooftop or other.

Revised by Ros Mendy


The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg. Translated by George Shriver. Edited by Georg Adler, Peter Hudis and Annelies Laschitza. London: Verso. 2011. pp. 172 – 177 [excerpt p. 176f.]