Moabit Sonnets I-X

By Albrecht Haushofer (translated by Cameron Lambright)

Albrecht Haushofer was a geography professor and member of the resistance in Nazi Germany. His father was an early geopolitical scholar whose writings were influential on Hitler and the Nazi worldview. Albrecht was implicated in an assassination attempt on Hitler and imprisoned in 1944. As Soviets marched through Berlin in 1945, Haushofer and fellow prisoners were released from prison, but were seized outside the prison by a passing Nazi SS squad and executed en masse. Five sheets of paper were later found clasped in the hand of Haushofer’s corpse, covered in tiny handwriting, comprising an 80 poem sonnet cycle written in prison. These became known as the Moabit Sonnets.

[ I translated the first ten of these sonnets some years ago, and they seem especially pertinent today. ]

I. In Fetters

For him, who is to sleep in it at night,
the cell’s bare walls will seem such vivid things,
rich and alive. His guilt and fate will weave
its vaulted air into a grey veiled light.

Live breath is in the grief that overflows
this building. Underneath its brickwork and
hard iron bars, a secret tremble can
be felt that reveals pain in other souls.

I am not the first within these builded seams
whose wrists the fetters slice into and bleed,
upon whose grief the wills of strangers feed.

Sleep becomes waking then as waking dreams.
As I listen, I sense through these grey walls
many trembling hands on which the same fate falls.

II. Nightly Message

Another message trickles from the night
into scarce conscious layers of my being,
’til waves of sound and distant faces seem
to bear from the dead to me a last insight.

Interpretation of the feeling is denied.
The dead call to us in suitable refrain,
of star journeys that echo through our brain —
I only know one thing come morning time:

So little as the matter bounded sphere,
since the moment that our universe began,
allows nothing to become a grain of sand,

So little may a soul just disappear.
To where it drifts when it departs its body —
they shun the question who can see no boundary.

III. Tibetan Mystery

In that far land, where pristine winter storms
encircle this world’s highest mountain parts,
men are said to live who understand rare arts,
sitting safely inside cloistered tower dorms.

The wisest of the wise live in that place,
in cells of their own wrought, walls of their thinking.
With disciplined soul radiation linking
them to others, released from time and space.

What fugue and symphony must seem to the deaf,
what red and green seem to the color blind,
Are such arts to the materialistic mind.

Where holy awe, or even quiet belief,
are well developed skills and practiced free,
the me in little I becomes great Thee —

IV. Wave Calls

Perhaps I already know more of these things
than deaf know music. Perhaps as much as one
who hear the distant song of a flute, but
has ears filled up with wax: distant soundings.

Though in any case it is enough, to hear
the pitches of some of the tones, enough,
not to disturb the player’s play, enough,
for me to admire the music in my ear.

So it is that with bound hands I listen
to much, that has been directed to many,
to much, that has been addressed to only me,

and cry out from the walls of this prison,
if rough and weakly still, that I may give
the note: do not despair — you too will live!

V. On the Threshold

The paths that lead away from mortal pull,
I have examined them with eye and hand.
A sudden strike — then no prison wall can
do anything to touch a living soul.

Before the guard beside the doorway might
open the thick and heavy iron block,
a sudden strike — and then my soul, unlocked,
would shoot into the light — far into night.

The wishes, hopes, beliefs that men hold dear —
are gone in me. Such empty shadow plays
life seems to be, without a rhyme or aim.

What holds me yet — the way for me is clear.
It is not allowed to us to circumvent,
if a god wants, or a devil, our torment.

VI. The Hemlock Cup

In Athens they will still show you the spot
where Socrates was said to sit and wait
for the end of the holy festival days,
so he could bow to face his fatal lot.

I once passed along that dark threshold,
My eyes turned upward toward the Parthenon,
to gaze there, spellbound from the shine, upon
that cup of death which in the sunlight glowed.

Now I regret I just passed by that place.
It would have been proper to bend my knee,
and join him in drinking the hemlock tea.

It was an act of greatness for him to take
onto himself his state’s blind murderous vice,
rather than to stop an animal sacrifice.

VII. Barbarism

In Syracuse, in an uncivilized age,
it was natural to set prisoners free
when they cast aside their dungeon misery
singing choruses from Aeschylus’ stage.

Even Genghis Khan, thirsting for blood,
when his warriors built pyramids of skulls,
gave orders for his men to spare the blows
of death from thinking men and artisans.

The time of such choices is in the past.
Who would dare now to be a Genghis Khan?
Or free prisoners for ransom of a song?

So we admire their barbarity at last.
In our own time our skulls are all equals.
En masse we are, oh yes, so rich in skulls.

VIII. Round March of the Prisoners

In Moscow, I once saw a fine painting.
Van Gogh, the master. A dark, square structure —
a prison yard. Men, grey in grey color,
hopeless, in a small circle, walking.

Now, I myself look through prison bars to
a prison yard where people are driven
like herd animals, and guarded like them,
until the axe is given to them too.

One man, as the ruler of our grey cage,
stands outside and is filled with joy when
others suffer. One man, who still shouts when

already others, silent, foresee the change,
the growth that long since started from the dead,
long before running red in streams of red.

IX. The Watchmen

Our imprisonment is supplied by watchmen
who are good fellows. Boys from the country.
Torn from their village-life security
into a world they do not comprehend.

They hardly speak. But their eyes in moments,
ask mute, as if wishing to know what their
hearts should never learn, the heavy share
of burden fate has placed upon their homes.

They come from eastern parts of the Danube,
that warfare has already devastated.
Their tribe is dead. Their farms all desolated.

Perhaps they still wait for some signs of life.
They serve in silence. Prisoners — they are too.
If they realize that? Later? Never? Soon?

X. Avalanches

Whoever calls the highest mountains home,
knows one must avoid the mountainside
where with sudden, crushing snowy slide,
an avalanche may storm from high to low.

Whole mountains may lay quietly in wait —
the smallest snowball can unleash their force,
and hillsides then roar whitely on their course.
Death buried valleys under white walled fate.

What presumption, to start a frozen flood!
What crime, to enjoy the ravage of the snow.
And fool as well, to not regret the throw.

What presumption, in evil or in good —
I atone for having tried to stop it still.
A push — a whirl — a deathly, deathly chill…