Errinerungen an Prometheus

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Poem by Robert Schindel, 1964

Included in Robert Schindel's collection of verse entitled Im Herzen die Krätze (1988), the lengthy autobiographical poem "Errinerungen an Prometheus" ("Memories of Prometheus"), written in 1964, deals with the poet's birth and upbringing during the years of Hitler's reign over Austria. As such, it includes details regarding his parents' incarceration in concentration camps and the death of his father, as well as the murder of millions of Jews as a result of the Holocaust. The poem thus intertwines the general tragedy of the Holocaust with the poet's own personal history.

The main body of the poem is divided into three stanzas, labeled a, b, and c, and it is preceded by modified short excerpts from each of the sections, which are also labeled a, b, and c. Each of the three introductory sections begins with a question, playing on the three meanings of the word bestehen: "What are our origins?" "Of what are we composed?" and "What do we demand?" Each of the answers contains a range of vivid imagery from the longer sections, such as "Knochengerüst," "Monde," and "Himmel."

The first and longest stanza begins with a reference to Schindel's birth, which he describes as a matter of fate, of his being "thrown" into the town of Bad Hall, located in the middle of the Ostmark, the name for the Austrian territory annexed by the Nazis. He also refers to his being the offspring of "racially low-quality" parents who participated in the resistance against Hitler as foreign workers in Alsace. The bitter, ironic tone used here, as well as the description of each event and person through the perspective and language of the Nazis, lends the poem a sense of resentment that he happened to be born a Jew in the middle of annexed Austria during the Holocaust. The tone also conveys a sense of distance, from which the author chooses to write about the first years of his life, normally a most intimate subject. That Schindel wrote a poem dealing with the subject at all is surprising, however, for at the time there was little public discussion of the events of the Holocaust in Austria, whether by Jews or non-Jews.

The first stanza also interweaves the events of his earliest birthdays, when he was not yet fully aware of the world around him, with the fate of his parents under the Nazis. He "hears" that there existed a good relationship between the parents and their child in the year before the identities of the parents were discovered and they were transported to concentration camps, and he "hears" that the conditions in the cattle car in which his mother was transported were terribly crowded. He also "hears" that his father, who died in Dachau, loved music and gymnastics. Of course, he can have heard this information only from his mother, the lone witness to the events, as she, but not his father, returned from the camps. His refusal to quote directly the source of his information, however, and his distanced language and tone support his reference to his own childhood as "myth," as if he is uncertain of its occurrence. He writes that it is possible, but not probable, that the "brat" of those years and the current writer of the poem are the same person. Almost 30 years later Schindel returned to the theme of doubling to describe his identity as the child of Nazi victims in the novel Gebürtig (1992), in which Demant, the main character, who is also the son of Jewish parents who resisted Hitler, has a twin brother who is writing the story.

Although the poem is autobiographical in content, each section maintains its distance from the direct identification of experience. The second and third stanzas refer to the perpetrators of the Holocaust alongside imagery of the landscape in which the murders took place, the efforts of most people to forget the gruesome events, and finally the myth of Prometheus, which links the stanzas together.

—Lisa Silverman