Songs from the City of Death

Rediscovering forgotten words from the Wilna Ghetto.


Essay and translations by Schirin Nowrousian
Poems by Hermann Adler

Samuel Bak, The Ghetto of Jewish History, 1976. Oil on linen, 52 x 48 in. Courtesy of Pucker Gallery, Boston. 

Verleumdung war der Grund,
denn ihr entwuchs der Mord!

These are the opening lines of a book of poetry written in German by a poet I wish to introduce to you. They have not left me since I first read them two years ago in the very heart of Vilnius, in the old Jewish Ghetto, where the poet narrowly escaped his death. 

These two lines hold one of mankind’s most horrible truths. There are several possible ways one could translate them. The word around which most possibilities turn is “Grund”, a German word with several meanings. In these lines you hear many of them: the ground, the bottom, the base, the root, the reason. Of and for something.

Defamation was the ground
as the murder grew out of it.

But also:

Defamation was the reason
as the murder grew out of it.

Defamation for Verleumdung, or else calumny, calumniation, libel, slander, aspersion, backbiting, traducement, obloquy, detraction. The sheer quantity of words in English which can, in one way or another, render the idea of defamation is impressive.

In German there are also many words. We could talk about a degrading, detractive, depreciatory, pejorative or disparaging contumeliousness, or revilement by calling it, for instance, an entwürdigende, erniedrigende, herabsetzende, menschenunwürdige, verunglimpfende, geringschätzige, verächtliche, abschätzige or else pejorative Beschimpfung

What these opening lines announce is that the book is about murder, and that this murder did not come ‘out of nothing’, but that there has been a pre-history to it, an evolution which started from and with defamation, from and with the active use of defaming words. This process carried defamation along its way so that it lived and grew in and with the vilifying words people used (in thought and in speech) and shared (orally and in writing); the words that people used created their habits of mind, and those habits at the same time influenced the words they used. 

To say it differently and in the present tense: when someone begins to vilify, to discriminate against, and to defame somebody—a single person or a whole group—he or she uses words to do so. These words might reflect a way of thinking within the speaker, a way of thinking that precedes the speech. At the same time, by using these words, the speaker reinforces his habits of mind. Or else one who does not share these habits, nevertheless begins to use words in a defamatory fashion, and through such use begins to think in accordance with the words. And it’s important to say that the use of language can be unconscious, as when you pick up things you read and hear and just repeat them without even questioning their meaning and influence.

Words and their use are never innocent. They directly influence the life that societies live and mankind lives. In any language upon this earth. To use them with care in order not to hurt or set ablaze should be one of the basic teachings in any culture. One has to learn how to criticize and be critical about something and someone; one might want to argue, harshly at times; one might even want to revile someone for his or her actions. Such rhetoric need not threaten someone’s existence, someone’s life. If you don’t care about the words you use, if you see nothing harmful in defaming language, or if you use such language with full intent to humiliate and cause suffering, you deliberately contribute to the hate and to the physical violence to come; you open the door to this violence. That is why doing so is considered a crime in any society that sincerely looks for peace. In human societies of that kind—in peace-seeking societies—using defaming words against another human being or groups of humans is not allowed, and this has nothing to do with any kind of ‘political correctness’. Words at all times directly contribute to the creation and the shaping of the always newly emerging reality; so do defaming words: they are the trailblazer for violence and persecution. This is the horrible truth that lies in the opening words of the book of poetry I will talk about now. And it’s the truth we all have to face. Always, and directly. Now. In our time.

 Defamation was the ground / because the murder grew out of it are the opening lines of the book Gesänge aus der Stadt des TodesSongs from the City of Death—by the poet Hermann Adler. Adler was a German Jew or a Jewish German. And the texts in this book all report on the consequences of the defamation of the Jews in Europe.

You might now ask: who is this Hermann Adler, and why have I never heard of him? The answer to the second part of the question is easy and sad at once: you have never heard of Adler because he is a forgotten poet. This is precisely what I hope to change through my research into his work. 

Adler was born in 1911 in a small town near Bratislava (today in Slovakia), where his mother was visiting a cousin, and he died in 2001 in Switzerland. His family was from Nürnberg, Germany, and that is where he grew up. As a young adult, he became a teacher, either for handicapped children or disadvantaged youths, in a smaller city in Lower Silesia near the Polish border. Sources concerning his teaching career before the war are not entirely clear on the nature of his work, but we do know for certain that he was an educator when Hitler seized power in 1933. In 1934 Adler fled to Prague—the first of many migrations he would be forced to make in search of sanctuary.

He next travelled to Poland (Katowice and Cracow), in 1939, and then, probably that same year, to Lviv in the Ukraine, which at the time was a part of Poland occupied by the Russians. At the beginning of 1940, as the Soviet regime began deporting refugees to Siberian labor camps, Adler, together with seven other Jews set out on foot for Wilna (also known as Vilnius in Lithuanian, Wilno in Polish, or Wilne in Yiddish, which corresponds to the English spelling Vilna). They walked by night in freezing cold to reach the city without being apprehended. 

Why Wilna? Adler answers this question in a radio feature he produced in the sixties: “Lithuania was said to be a neutral country and it was said to receive refugees, quite in opposition to Switzerland. It was also said that in Wilna and Kaunas, the two biggest cities of the country, there were Palestine offices. Each refugee would get a Palestine certificate and would then be able—with the approval of the British—to travel to Palestine while passing through Armenia, Turkey and Syria.” (My translation.) 

But with the Soviet invasion of the Baltics in the summer of 1940, his plan to escape to Palestine was foiled shortly after he arrived in the city. That same year, Adler married Anita Distler, one of the refugees with whom he’d fled from Lviv. The newlyweds had hopes of escaping by ferry to Sweden, via Riga, but then yet another disaster struck: on June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. In a matter of days the German troops entered Wilna. Adler, his wife, their friends, and all of Wilna’s Jews, were trapped.

On August 31, 1941 the preparations to install the ghetto began. The Nazis brutally forced all Jews into the ghetto in the heart of the city. The killing in and around Vilnius would proceed apace over two years, as German soldiers and Lithuanian collaborators conducted a series of surprise operations, seizing hundreds or thousands of Jews at a time for mass execution by gunfire in the Ponary forest outside of the city. In August 1943 the Germans began to ‘empty’ the Ghetto of its remaining inhabitants, and on September 23 the Wilna Ghetto was completely liquidated. Some of the survivors were deported to Latvia and Estonia, others were executed. Very few Jews would survive the atrocity.

Adler was one of them, as was his wife. They were able to leave for Warsaw thanks to an Austrian sergeant named Anton Schmid, who would be executed by the Nazis for helping over two hundred fifty Jews escape the city. In 1943 they participated in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. As the noose tightened around the Jews of Warsaw, the Adlers would escape once more, this time to Budapest, from which they were deported to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. That is where they were, among the survivors, when the war ended. The rest of their lives they would live in Switzerland. 

Adler became a poet during and because of the war. He did not publish many books in his life, and most of his work surfaced immediately after the Shoah, in response to it. Songs from the City of Death was released in Switzerland in 1945, just as Europe began the struggle to rebuild and recover from the trauma. The poems reflect the chronological and geographical order of Adler’s flights, beginning in Wilna. In the book's preface, Adler writes (and I translate):

Rife with opposites is all that exists; and yet perhaps tomorrow already humanity will be fraught with fervid yearning for conciliation; and so this tiny book, with whose composition I follow up on my vow which I gave my brothers in the Wilna Ghetto at the time of the great destruction, has not been written in the language of the victims, but in the time-honored language of—their murderers!

In this passage we already find one of Adler’s astonishing and deeply touching characteristics: his indomitable wish for future conciliation! In other texts the idea of revenge surfaces; it certainly does. But this book of poetry contains both wishes. Adler is very much aware that they exist simultaneously, one next to the other, and the book expresses his wish that conciliation will overcome the desire for vengeance. In the penultimate poem of the book, “…Peace be with thee!,” Adler pushes his desire for conciliation even further, envisioning a grand utopia of peace in Europe, of universal peace between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, and all countries. Addressing God, the poem reads:

For so long the peoples of Europe have suffered! For the countries of this earth soon knot
the connecting tie from the shared suffering; 
teach the peoples to honor common ground and to respect differences
the same way You love the Crescent Moon, the Cross and the Jewish Star!
You sever mothers from children and women from men —let it be that
tomorrow mankind understands again how they belong together!

Have a look now at the three poems I chose for you. The theme of the first is the agony of Jews during the Shoah which, as the poem says, exceeds the pains of previous calamities in Jewish history. We here have a direct address of the Prophet Jeremiah, the “weeping prophet”. The second poem, mentioning the Wilna Ghetto specifically, addresses Jewish-Christian relations; Jesus from the cross utters the “Hear, o Israel…” while the Jewish people walk the way of the cross and Christians pass by without saying a word. The third poem offers direct testimony from the ghetto, where soldiers and militia searched houses for Jews, forcing them to hide in desperation; the slightest sound could betray their hiding place. In this poem, to save her companions from certain death, a mother kills her own little son as he begins to cry out. There are many more texts in Adler’s book that report, in the richly condensed form that is the property of poetry, on acts of the most iniquitous cruelty—the rape and execution of a teenage girl, a soldier cutting an infant from a pregnant woman’s body, torturing and killing mother and child at once. My cursory descriptions of these episodes fail to convey their full meaning as given shape in Adler’s poetry, through which they are saved from oblivion. These poems come to us as a glimmer of resistance from a place where, for many, almost no resistance was possible.

“But if the crimes of insanity reported here,” Adler writes in his preface, “had not really been committed so that the eyewitness must eternally fall silent or else cry out, only madness could have versified them!” Adler would not fall silent. He vowed to his murdered brothers and sisters to testify to what took place. He wrote for the Jewish people, but he also had other audiences in mind—the future generations of all peoples on earth, and especially the future generations of the Christian world. 

Defamation was the reason
as the murder grew out of it.

Adler’s book is a direct testimony of the result of the stigmatization, humiliation, and debasement of a group of people—the Jews—who were discredited over many years before the Nazis initiated what they called the “Final Solution.” Adler’s texts testify in the most ‘undisguised’, in the most ‘naked’ way from within the Shoah in Lithuania, Poland, and Germany: Vilnius, Warsaw, Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen. With their ‘classical touch’ and biblical references, the poems might give the impression of being from another time; their style may seem to clash with their content. Yet they deserve to be read, for they enclose one writer’s immediate response to the crimes of the Shoah. The longer you stay with these texts, the greater their power, and this is certainly not despite their language, but because of it. These poems somehow burn themselves into your memory, which is the best thing they can do, for this is how they can warn us, and heighten our sensitivity to the grave dangers of defamatory language and thought. Such poetry may contribute to the forming of the true protective shield (a kind of mental immunization) against all forms of defamation we may come across. 

Defamatory thought will eventually unveil itself in words. Racism, sexism, misogyny, fascism, authoritarianism, totalitarianism are all in need of language. Through language, tyrants achieve their ends: to deploy and apply their oppressions in the physically tangible world of our bodies. 

So I invite you to read Adler’s texts again. And again. They belong to the darkest literature you may read, but that they exist is a glimmer of what can be called ‘hope’. To borrow an image from Jewish tradition, the poems are like old grains that begin to germinate after years of dormancy, thanks to the attention of new readers. They enclose the rescue of the thoughts of a Mensch. He speaks through his texts in the name of so many Menschen who could no longer raise their voices. Against all the agony the killers and defamers caused, the lives they stole, the culture they wrecked, Hermann Adler, survivor and witness, speaks to us of commemoration and conciliation. 


from Songs from the City of Death

by Hermann Adler


Comfort, comfort my people!

We sat at the waters of Babylon weeping over Zion,
and the prophet sang his song, comforting the mourning people.
But the millennia brought us only now the bloodiest sufferings,
for Babylon was nothing compared to today’s pain.
Could you comfort your people, Jeremiah? You’d have to fall silent;
see: Your lament has only been the beginning of the song!—

May someone, living in peace, hear the sad melodies
that were sung in Babylon, then he thinks of us!
Gather, my brothers, the blood in the alleys of death in the ghetto,
write with the blood the song of our endless pain;
if you lack paper, then write on the face of the murdered brothers;
and he who almost chokes on pain, because he is still alive, sing the song!


Because they do not know what they do!

Close to the wall of the Ghetto in Wilna a wooden cross stands bleeding,
and the crucified looks piously up at the sky.
Shaking with pain the mother presses herself against the wall of distress;
some Poles pass by, not mocking, that’s true, but silent…
Now the sons of the Ghetto walk the way of the cross; the Poles may soon follow;
No one shall live when freedom once again shines!

Endlessly tormented by pain the crucified shouts out in prayer:
«Father, forgive the murderers; rouse the silent ones!»
And with the swish of the wings of death he speaks under his breath as if blessed:
«Hear, o Israel…» And then the pale mother falls to her knees:
«Father in heaven, you take our children from us, you sentence us to death;
but if you let witnesses live—then speak through them, o God!»


Love thy neighbour as thyself!

We are a hundred hidden people and still more,
and the soldiers go round and seek,
burst the gates and rage and curse,
by night in the house, but the house seems empty…
Thousands are pushed on the path of death,
thousands, who relied only on luck,
will be shot in the Ghetto this very day.
Those who keep hiding will be caught tomorrow!

…Do not breathe and do not whisper,
soldiers are standing outside,
and even those who speak softly
will betray us!

Thankfully our hiding place has not been seen;
suddenly—a boy starts to cry loudly!
But it mustn’t be that due to one
all have to walk the path of death today!
And only the mother accepts the dictates
of this minute and she kills the boy
with a bleeding heart. We all then shook
her hand dumbly, and she fled to death!

…Do not breathe and do not whisper,
soldiers are standing outside,
and even those who speak softly
will betray us!


Issue 1
Publication Date: May 17


Schirin Nowrousian is a German-Iranian poet, translator, dramaturge, and scholar with a PhD in French literature and theater studies from Sorbonne University in Paris. She is the author of three books of poetry published in Ireland and Germany and currently teaches at Vilnius University in Lithuania. Later this year she will publish a much longer essay on Adler, in German, in the the following Polish publication: Między trauma a postpamieą. Literatura wobec Zaglady / Zwischen Trauma und Postmemory. Literatur angesichts der Shoah, Wydawnietwa Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego, Warsaw 2017. 

Hermann Adler (1911–2001) was a German Jew, a Shoah survivor, and a poet. His first book Songs from the City of Death, published in 1945 in Switzerland, is a testimony of his wartime experiences in Vilnius, Warsaw, and Budapest, as well as in the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen. After the war, Adler lived the rest of his life in Switzerland.    

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