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Robert Elsie

The Pied Poets
Contemporary verse of the Transylvanian and Danube Germans of Romania
Selected and translated by Robert Elsie

Forest Books, London & Boston 1990
192 pp.


    The Pied Poets is both an anthology of the most recent poetic activity of the German-speaking minority from the Transylvanian and Danube (Banat) regions of Romania and a commemorative monument, a somewhat frivolous poetic tombstone if you will, marking the passing of a literature and culture. This volume does not set out to be a comprehensive anthology of German-Romanian literature, but an introduction for the English speaking reader to the so-called ‘fifth German literature’ (after that of West Germany, East Germany, Austria and Switzerland) which has come to an end after five centuries of existence.
    The German population of Romania, which still constitutes the second largest national minority in that country (after the 1,700,000 Hungarians), comprises two traditionally distinct groups: the Transylvanian Saxons (Siebenbürger Sachsen) in the centre of the country, and the Danube or Banat Swabians (Donauschwaben or Banater Schwaben) on the western border with Yugoslavia.
    The German minority of Transylvania are the descendants of colonists invited to settle there in 1150 AD by the Hungarian King Geza II “to defend the crown.” Although called Saxons, from a linguistic point of view they are of Moselle Franconian origin, stemming not from Saxony but principally from the Moselle, northern Lorraine, Luxembourg and Flanders. In Transylvania they founded a number of cities and about 250 smaller settlements, and in 1224 were granted special privileges under the ‘Privilegium Andreanum’ of King Andrew II. The Lutheran reform movement introduced by Johannes Honterus was widely followed in Transylvania. In their fortified churches (Kirchenburgen), the ‘Saxons,’ albeit more than once impoverished and decimated by marauding hords, managed to withstand both the Ottoman Turks spreading Islam and the Viennese bent on imposing the Counter-Reformation, and to maintain their bastion of German Protestant culture over the centuries. In 1940, there were still 250,000 German speakers in Transylvania, though evacuation, deportation and emigration during and after the Second World War have now reduced their numbers to well under 150,000.
    The Danube or Banat Swabians settled in the eighteenth century in Banat, the frontier region (formerly governed by a ‘ban’) between Hungary, Yugoslavia and Romania. They originated primarily from southwestern Germany as the name Swabian indicates. Their first settlements were established in 1722-1726 under Emperor Charles VI of Austria, followed by waves of emigration under Maria Theresa in 1763-1770 and under Joseph II in 1782-1787 to repopulate Habsburg territories devastated by war and epidemics. The Treaty of Trianon in 1919 divided the region among Yugoslavia, Romania and Hungary. The population of Banat nevertheless remained very mixed with a distinct German element. Of the three countries, it is only in Romania that a substantial German-speaking minority still exists. In 1939 there were 450,000 Danube Swabians. They now number less than 150,000. Prominent among the Danube Swabians are the German ‘Weltschmerz’ poet Nikolaus Lenau (1802-1850) born in Csatád (Lenauheim) and Tarzan himself, Johnny Weissmuller, whose family came from Freidorf.
    Romania was the only country in Eastern Europe not to expel its German minority after the Second World War. The Germans there are now recognized as an official national minority (or cohabiting nation), and benefit at least from the same rights as the Romanians themselves. During the 1980s, however, when the Ceausescu dictatorship was driving the country into a state of political and cultural isolation and economic ruin, emigration of the two groups to West Germany increased dramatically. By the end of the 1980s, almost all Germans living in Romania desperately longed to leave the country which had become a living nightmare of fear and repression, but very few were allowed to do so. Many of those who were able to emigrate were bought out discreetly by the West German government at up to DM 11,000 per person. Germans and Jews were cynically referred to as Romania’s top export articles, and not without reason perhaps. Though many of the older people understandably chose to stay put, the steady drain on the younger population, coupled with inevitable assimilation, whether natural or actively encouraged by the authorities in Bucharest, brought about stagnation in virtually all spheres of German cultural life in Romania. With over fifty percent of German-Romanians now living in the West, the Christmas 1989 revolution and political opening up of the country after so many years of darkness will no doubt result in a further rapid increase in emigration.
    The effects of the period of stagnation have been particularly dramatic on German literature which in Romania enjoys a tradition going back many centuries. Emest Wichner states unequivocally in his preface to a recent anthology of poetry and prose that the end is in sight.

    “The generation of authors now in their thirties and forties constitute the last German writers in Romania. It is becoming obvious that their numbers have fallen below the critical mass essential for the cultural survival of the German minority there. As opposed to the early seventies, when a dozen or so young authors all began publishing at the same time, there is hardly a young German-language author left with enough linguistic competence to be worthy of support.” (Das Wohnen ist kein Ort, Texte und Zeichen aus Siebenbürgen, der Banat und den Gegenden versuchter Ankunft. in: Die Horen, Zeitschrift für Literatur, Kunst und Kritik 147, Hanover 1987, p. 5) 

    The impact of German-Romanian literature in the twentieth century has not been entirely marginal, despite its peripheral situation. Indeed, twentieth-century German literature as a whole has to a good extent been the creation of fringe groups in political, social or geographical isolation from the mainstream. Paul Celan (1920-1970) born in Czernowitz, for instance, is among the leading German poets of the twentieth century. The integration of the many other Jewish writers into the German mainstream was always ambiguous, most of them living, nolens volens, in some sort of periphery. During the Nazi dictatorship of the thirties and forties, most other German writers of talent found themselves in exile, whether external or internal. Changing borders and the post-war division of Germany and Europe forced many writers to reassess their attitudes to the powers that be and many found themselves in the wrong spot. It is this forced introspection and an awareness of one’s difference which have often contributed to the outbursts of creativity which German letters, especially in Romania, have always enjoyed.
    The last twenty-five years are generally regarded as the zenith of German poetry in Romania, culminating a long tradition. The origins of German literature there lie in the High Middle Ages. Among 15th century works of note are the memoirs of Helene Kottaner of Brasov (Kronstadt) and the anonymous ‘Türkenbüchlein.’ Johannes Honterus (1498-1549), the reformer, introduced Lutheran German as a literary language in Transylvania and set up a printing press, the first one in southeastern Europe. The 17th century was the age of Protestant hymnists and pietist poets, among whom was J. Kelp (Kelpius) (1673-1708) who emigrated to Pennsylvania. The Romantic movement of 19th century Europe made its impact felt in Transylvania and Banat, too. The Banat newspaper ‘Temeswarer Zeitung’ (Timisoara Newspaper), founded in 1852, served as an important vehicle of communication for the German minority until 1949. German-Romanian folk songs and folklore material were collected and printed by numerous writers and scholars. Poetry of all genres, both in standard German and in ‘Saxon’ and ‘Swabian’ dialects, was produced and published, together with short stories, novels and plays. Adam Müller-Guttenbrunn (1852-1923) portrayed the romantic pathos of village life among the Danube Germans in his classic 19th century novels. But it was Adolf Meschendörfer’s journal ‘Die Karpathen’ (The Carpathians) published from 1907 to 1914 which first paved the way to a more cosmopolitan literature, in Transylvania in particular. Both German communities also began to show interest in their Hungarian and Romanian neighbours, and the veil of provincialism receded.
    The Klingsor Circle named after the literary periodical Klingsor published between 1924 and 1939 was associated with the works of Karl Bernhard Capesius, Heinrich Zillich and Erwin Wittstock. Nowadays one can no longer speak of two separate German literatures in Romania. Since 1945, the literary traditions of the Transylvanian and Danube Germans have merged and their intellectual centre is no longer Brasov (Kronstadt), Cluj-Napoca (Klausenburg) or Timisoara (Temeswar), but Bucharest where the literary magazine ‘Neue Literatur’ (New Literature) has been published since 1956. Among the classical authors of 20th century German poetry in Romania are Oscar Walter Cisek (1898-1966), Alfred Margul-Sperber (1898-1967) and Wolf von Aichelburg (1912-).
    Though one must not forget that Transylvania is geographically closer to the Crimea, Istanbul and Asia than it is to Berlin and Munich, German-Romanian literature has always been an essentially Central European literature. Many a dour Lutheran pastor in the fortified churches at the foot of the Carpathians would indeed have shuddered at the thought of being in the heart of the Balkans. This dichotomy (some would call it collective schizophrenia) has often been more a source of disorientation than a blessing.
    Has there ever really been a German Romania? Emest Wichner thinks not. The ancestors of the German Romanians once set off with pioneer fervour to “go east, young man” in order to found a better Germany. The road was beset with the stumbling blocks of history, politics and economics. Now the present generation is returning to its origins, some with the naive expectation of bringing back a better Romania with them. What awaits them in West Germany, the promised land, is no more than reintegration into the mainstream from which they originally fled. German Romania, if it ever did really exist, may now rest in peace.
    Be this as it may, it would be misleading to envisage German-Romanian literature as brooding nostalgically on the problems of exile or preoccupied with socio-political issues and the loss of its quaint folklore traditions. Its contemporary verse, almost disappointingly bereft of local colour, mirrors a whole gamut of familiar human emotions and intellectual pursuits, and is surprisingly in tune with the Western world. It is to be hoped that in this volume, the English-speaking reader may recognize and enjoy these subtle, remote and yet hardly alien reflections of a vanishing world.
    It remains simply for me to thank all those who have assisted me in one way or another in the completion of this project, among whom: Inter Nationes (Bonn) and the Arts Council of Great Britain for their generous publication grants, Elisabeth Ernst of the West German Embassy in Bucharest, Richard Wagner (Berlin) and Barbara Schultz (Ottawa).
    Robert Elsie
    Olzheim/Eifel, West Germany, 1989


  • Introduction
    The shiver poem
    If the street sweepers in Reschinar
    Of all the epistemological affairs
    In the first line
    Im memoriam L.
    Dry eyes
    Snow White open your eyes
    Images of an absurd June
    Late joy
    Pompeii, Via Stabiana
    Poetry Club
    Fortified church in Transylvania
    In the morning
    13 July 1974
    Lament for all I’ve lost to this wide world
    In July 1977
    Indian summer in a department store
    Perhaps I’d take my coffee mug
    Reiner Kunze
    At the cemetery
    Ovid in exile
    Upon reading poems by Weinheber in view of his success in the Thirties
    Transcending borders
    Villon’s arrival in heaven
    Daily routine
    Spacious seconds
    Dobruja realm of shade
    Onetime spate of suicides in the family
    My neighbour makes a poem for me
    Weekend. The head
    Also. An Ars Poetica
    Every evening
    Life. An example
    Right through this house
    Wall, nail, picture
    Workers at the brickyard
    Anna Espresso, Váci St., Budapest, 27 July 1979
    Normal day
    The flag
    Short poem on a little freezing bird
    Artists, critics & cabbage salad
    Golden age of fables
    About my life
    Nightshade rift
    Words of the poet
    The waitress
    Question for Mandel’shtam
    With the painter Lauterbach
    The burning table (from a postcard)
    I was a statue
    Trakl in exile
    Trip to Paris
    Punctual curriculum vitae
    Snow poem for Edda
    Meeting of poets in Sighi oara. ‘Vlad Dracul’ Restaurant
    Holidays at borne
    Winter morning
    Winter poem for Sarah Kirsch
    Subsequent remark about my birth
    Postcard for Frank O’Hara
    Village evening
    A mother’s consolation

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