Peter Kien: Five Poems Translated by Sibyl Ruth


Peter Kien: Theatre at Theresienstadt


Peter Kien (1919-1944) was a German-speaking Czech. He became a student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague at the age of 17 but was expelled from in 1939 because he was a Jew. In December 1941, Peter Kien was interned in the Theresienstadt Ghetto-camp.

Having made a name for himself in Prague, he was favoured by Theresienstadt’s Jewish self-government. This meant he was given employment at the Ghetto’s art workshop, establishing himself there as a painter, designer and teacher. He also wrote poetry and the libretto for an opera, The Emperor of Atlantis. Kien’s poems are like parables, creatively reworking his life in the Ghetto.

Together with his wife and parents, Kien was transported to Auschwitz in October 1944. I originally became interested in Theresienstadt because my great aunt was imprisoned there. The historian Dr Anna Hájková introduced me to Kien’s work. [SR]


Sibyl Ruth is the author of two small-press poetry collections and a former winner of the Mslexia Poetry Competition. Her translations of pieces from Heine’s Buch der Lieder have previously appeared on this site.

NB: The first poem is in five sections and is followed by four more poems. The German texts can be accessed via the link under each title.


Peter Kien: Five Poems translated by Sibyl Ruth

peter kien horiz


Kaum wagt der Blick


In this bleak landscape the eye doesn’t see
the dying town which hovers in the air.
The Plague is there.

The ravens fan out like black flags waving.
And vultures whose greed and envy
keep the Plague company.

Through the meadows comes the farmer
(Death in each ditch. Fear at his shoulder.)
wielding his scythe to the song of the ravens.
There is no safe haven.


Once upon a time when Autumn came
all the doors were flung open.
Carpets of many colours
unrolling at his feet.

This year the walls do not speak.
The graveyards thicken with rank weeds
and from widening cracks in the bodies
of people, palaces, animals,
terror breeds.

Where are you now, air of a crisp October morning?
Where are you, red, gold, brown,
your kingly colours? And you, barefoot boys,
who crouch down, go chasing over stubble,
longing to let your kites fly upward?

Swarms of silence fill the sky.
Autumn gives up. He lets his brush slip.
This year the trees will stay green.


The unburied bodies lying out by the wall.
The sick people in the houses, bawling.
That is the Plague with its black swelllings.
That is the Plague, most terrible of wars.

Still the fine iron, clashing in duels.
Still pride in husbandry, each horse in its stall.
There are still masked balls.


Down the streets it rolls, the cart of the dead,
silent workmen at each side, hooded ones,
breaking the frail bones

And the air is a hammer, down on the heads
of people in the frightened town.

There in the last house, the party lingers on.

Crazy sounds from untuned mandolins.
A hokey-cokey of ragged harlequins.
Kisses, blood and wine behind drawn curtains .



No statue above the bustle of the square,
no martyr who confronts the mob’s disdain
can match him. He is half avenging angel,
half gambler in some desperate game.

With hands vibrating in sorrow,
he reaches towards each cankered face.
All the lights are out in his gaze.

Those others dwelling in Death’s shadow
stand round him, helpless, quaking, gripped by fear.
Here in the shambles of the Plague where sweating human
flesh decays, among boys, old men and brazen naked women,
the last doctor works here.


Ein Psalm aus Babylon

Sitting by the walls of Babylon
we wept
as we thought about home.

It’s the murmuring of trees in the gardens.
Music to our ears.

It’s the current rising in the wide river.
Dried up now. Gone.

It’s the shuttered windows on fine old houses.
Razed to the ground.

Sweet yesterday, if I give up on you
I give up on hope.

Sitting by the walls of Babylon
we wept
as we lifted our eyes

to the rubbish tips, the putrid hills.

Misery and Felony walk hand in hand down broken streets
because Madness, who just can’t keep still
slits the belly of the earth
and roots in its guts
for a sign.

Sitting by the walls of Babylon
we wept
as we thought of tomorrow.

Our chains won’t be loosened for a journey home
Instead, like sand before an autumn storm,
we shall be spun by the four winds,
each in a wilderness, alone.


Immer im Kreis

Round and around without any rest
the wolves are doing what wolves do best.

Beyond these walls the fields invite me.
Beyond these walls, the earth glows brightly.

Round and around, without any break
their legs keep running although they ache.

With a blood-red banner for a tongue
they pant and gasp till the bells are rung.

Round and around without looking back
the wolves run on, on this lunatic track

Running all day and all night as well.
No wolf shall weaken in his cell.

Round and around as fast as they can
the wolves run on – at whose command?

There, over in the corner,
that old creature who’s a goner….

With snarls and growls from every throat
they tear a piece off his mangy coat.

Round and around. Some dark force
binds them to an invisible course.

Their eyes shut tight in agony
they dream of the steppes, the forest, the sea.

In this battle of life and death
their fangs are bared in readiness.

As soon as the moonlight
shines through the fence, they fight –

and wrestling

enemies, who fall
on each other in a hellish circle.

Round and around, a deadened whine
the wolves keep running all the time.

The wolves run on, they howl with rage.
backwards and forwards in their cage

There is sweat, there’s blood on the ground
the wolves run round.


Ich bin die grosse Traurigkeit

I am the man they call Despair
and everybody runs from me.
I am the the man they call Despair
The path I tread is solitary.
My step is from a distant shire
My gaze is like an icy fire
Sackcloth and ashes are what I wear.
I am the man they call Despair.

I don’t know where I’ve come from
or the road on which I’ll go.
Those who see me feel no joy;
they’re struck by sudden woe.
Their smiles, their laughter die,
They grieve and they don’t know why.

Despair is the person who I am.
The tears stream down my face
I’m far from everything and everyone,
a lost lamb.
An impossible riddle,a cruel snare
I am the man they call Despair.

On Sunday afternnons, in the grey rain
of strange windows, I play strange tunes.
From the coffins of gramophones
a stack of songs take flight
I’m a dream of women we can never love
I am high heaven, unreachably above
I am the moment when you catch yourself
reflected in a puddle’s fitlh.
I’m the sombre jewels that mourners wear.
I am the man they call Despair.


Schlaf, Kindlein, schlaf

Sleep, sleep, little one.
I am words etched on stone.
Your father perished in the war .
Your mother was a common whore.
Sleep, sleep, little one.

Little one it’s late, late.
The man in the moon has a scythe.
He cuts happiness, cuts each blade,
everything gone by sunrise.
Put on your little red dress, then
we start all over again


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3 thoughts on “Peter Kien: Five Poems Translated by Sibyl Ruth

  1. Many poems are “about.” These poem carry the voice of brave, insightful, heartfelt authenticity. Painful to read. Beautiful.


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