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Children's Crusade, Op. 82 [Der Kinderkreuzzug]

Benjamin Britten
Language: English



In Poland, in nineteen thirty-nine,
there was the bloodiest fight:
turning ev’ry town and village
into a wilderness of night.

Young sisters had lost their brothers;
young wives their men at war;
in the blaze and the heaps of rubble
children found their parents no more.

Nothing has come out of Poland,
letter or printed report;
but in the East runs a story
of the most curious sort.

Snow fell as they told one another,
there in an Eastern town,
about a children’s crusade:
deep in Poland, wand’ring round.

Lost children were scuttling, hungry;
in little formations were seen.
There they gathered with others,
standing where villages once had been.

They wanted to fly from the fighting,
let the nightmare cease;
and one fine day they’d come
upon a land where there was peace.

They had their little leader,
keeping them on the go,
he had a terrible worry:
the way he just did not know.

A little Jew was found marching in step:
he had a velvety collar,
he was used to the whitest bread,
and yet he showed much valour.

Once two brothers joined the pack,
tried strategic campaigning.
When they stormed a peasant’s empty shack,
they left it because it was raining.

A thin, grey boy kept himself apart,
he avoided provocation.
He was marked by a fearful guilt:
he came from the Nazi legation.

And there was among them a drummer-boy,
he found drum and drumsticks in a village shop
that had been raided,
the troop allowed no drumming:
noise would have betrayed it.

And there was a dog,
they’d caught him to eat him;
kept him on as an eater:
that was the only way to treat him.

They had their symphony,
by a waterfall in the snow,
our drummer-boy could use
his drumsticks,

since nobody could hear him. No!
And then there was some loving.
She was twelve, he was fifteen;
there in a ruined cottage,
she sat and combed his hair.

But love it is not for ever
not in the biting cold:
for how’ can the saplings blossom
with so much snow to hold?

Then there was a war,
war against some other children on the run;
and the war just simply ended:
sense it had none.

And then there was a trial,
on either side burned a candle.
What an embarrassing affair!
The judge condemned! What a scandal!

Then there was a funeral,
Velvet Collar it was whom they buried,
the body by Polish and German bearers
to burial was carried.

Protestants and Catholics, and Nazis were there,
to consign him to his mother earth.
At the end they heard a little socialist
talk with confidence of mankind’s rebirth.

So there was faith, there was hope too,
but no meat or bread.
Had people who cuffed them for stealing
offered them shelter instead!

But none should rebuke the needy man
who would not part with a slice:
For fifty odd children you need flour,
flour not sacrifice.

They wandered steadily southward.
South is there, where the sun
stands high at midday
for ev’ry-one.

Once, to be sure, they found a soldier
wounded, in pine-woods he lay.
They tended him seven days,
so that he could tell them the way.

He spoke up clearly: “To Bilgoray!”.
His fever made him rave.
An eighth day he did not live to see:
for him too they dug a grave.

True, there was a signpost also:
deep in the snow they found.
In fact it had ceased to show the way:
someone had turned it round.

And when they hunted for Bilgoray,
nowhere could they find it.
They stood there, around their leader
He looked at the snow-laden air,
and made a sign with his little hand,
and told them: “It must be there”.
Where once the south-east of Poland was,
in raging blizzard keen,
there were our five-and-fifty
last to be seen.

Whenever I close my eyes I see them wander
there from this old
farmhouse destroyed by the war
to another ruined house yonder.

High above them, in the clouded sky
I see others swarming, surging, many!
There they wander, braving icy blizzards,
homes and aims they haven’t any.

Searching for a land where peace reigns,
no more fire, no more thunder,
nothing like the world they‘re leaving
mighty crowds too great to number.

In Poland that same January,
they caught a dog half strangled:
a cord was hung round his scraggy neck
and from it a notice dangled.

Saying this: please come and help us!
Where we are we cannot say.
We’re the five-and-fifty
the dog knows the way.

The writing was in a childish hand.
Peasants had read it over.
Since then more than a year has gone by.
The dog starved: he didn’t recover.


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