"Wiegala," by Ilse Weber

The song posted below is only two and a half minutes long, and, unless you’re a really bad sport, I don’t think you’ll find it too much of a strain to listen to. It’s in German. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of you already know quite a bit about it, but, for those of you who don’t, I think you might appreciate the opportunity to listen to it without pre-conceptions. (Explanation after the jump…)

For those who like to follow along, these are the lyrics:

Wiegala, wiegala, weier,
der Wind spielt auf der Leier,

er spielt so süß im grünen Ried,

die Nachtigall, die singt ihr Lied.

Wiegala, wiegala, weier,

der Wind spielt auf der Leier.

Wiegala, wiegala, werne,
der Mond ist die Laterne,
er steht am dunklen Himmelszelt
und schaut hernieder auf die Welt.
Wiegala, wiegala, werne,
der Mond ist die Laterne,

Wiegala, wiegala, wille,
wie ist die Welt so stille!
Es stört kein Laut die süße Ruh,
schlaf mein Kindchen, schlaf auch du.
Wiegala, wiegala, wille,
wie ist die Welt so stille!

If you don’t read German, please trust me when I tell you that it’s a light confection of nonsense and numinous nursery rhyme images, expressed in stubbornly untranslatable idiom – wind playing sweetly on a lyre, on the green reeds – nightingale singing, the moon looking down, a lantern in the tent of the night sky – and then the final lines: Viegala, viegala, vill: now is the world so still! No sound disturbs the sweet peace: sleep, my little child, you sleep, too… how still the world is…

It’s my feeling that the song – sung here by Anne-Sofie Von Otter, a Swede – should stand quite well on its own, though I don’t know that it would command attention. Its story had already commanded my attention before I heard it, however, and I would suspect that the vast majority of people who ever hear it, also hear it that way – in its context. For the remaining few who come to it innocently, once they know the tale, it may be difficult if not impossible ever again simply to hear the music.

In his recent book The Third Reich at War, Richard Evans describes the song and the woman who wrote it as follows:

In the end little music of any value was composed in Germany during the war years. The most powerful compositions came from an entirely different source: the Jewish composers imprisoned in Theresienstadt. Besides Viktor Ullmann and Kurt Gerron, many other inmates wrote and performed music in a variety of genres during the brief years of the camp’s existence. Some of the most moving of those compositions were by Ilse Weber, who wrote both music and lyrics and sang them, accompanying herself on a guitar, as she did her night rounds in the children’s ward of the camp hospital, carrying out her duties as a nurse. Born in 1903, Weber had worked as a writer and radio producer in Prague before her deportation in 1942. Her husband and younger son were in the camp with her; they had succeeded in getting their older son to safety in Sweden. […]

The warm simplicity of her settings was never more moving than in her lullaby ‘Viegala,’ which she reportedly sang to children from the camp, including her son Tommy, as she accompanied them voluntarily into the gas chamber at Auschwitz on 6 October 1944: “Viegala, viegala, vill: now is the world so still! No sound disturbs the lovely peace: my little child, now go to sleep.”

65 years ago today…

For those of you who knew nothing of Ilse Weber, does the song sound any different now? I find it heart-stoppingly beautiful, but it will always be inseparable for me from what I know about it – the poor little lullaby, overwhelmed by history…

George Jochnowitz has often referred to the insanity of the Nazis, banishing the very people who, in a united Germany, might have brought their nation the triumphs they craved for it. He normally refers to the scientists, but I think the depth of the Nazi illness is also revealed, and perhaps more strikingly, in this song – its evocation of a part of the German body and soul that the Germans chose to reject, amputate, and destroy.

Or maybe it’s better instead just to imagine two mothers – maybe German, maybe Jewish, singing this lullaby to their children… to each other’s children… and maybe we have to try to hear it as the children would hear it. Even if that’s impossible, maybe the effort is worth it anyway, and maybe history is extinguished, and should be, in the ecstasy of listening closely.

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Writing since ancient times, blogging, e-commercing, and site installing-designing-maintaining since 2001; WordPress theme and plugin configuring and developing since 2004 or so; a lifelong freelancer, not associated nor to be associated with any company, publication, party, university, church, or other institution.

7 comments on “"Wiegala," by Ilse Weber

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      • Thank you. I know I have “orphan pages” on my website many broken links and even the “blog” of my mother’s letters home to Germany in the mid 1930s has broken links to YouTubes of trailers from the movies and radio broadcasts she mentions in her letters. You remind me that I should clean those up.

        This song is so haunting. Our book group just finished reading two versions of Sholom Asch’s “God of Vengeance” and Vogel’s new play “Indecent” which retells the history of Asche’s play and uses the lyrics to great effect in crucial scenes.

        • My pleasure.

          Agree about the song, though I think the “haunting” aspect mostly comes from the historical context, as I discussed way back when, also a bit reminiscent of the effect when a movie psycho-killer likes to hum or whistle a certain tune. I think almost any song, but lullabies especially, are vulnerable to that, “gone to sleep” being a common if not universal euphemism for “died.”

          I’d never heard of Asch’s and Vogel’s works, and glad to know about them.

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