Your Cart

  • Title
  • Copies
  • Price

The Elephants

German Letters 1940

Dong Li


hopes on the frost
shortage of potato
shortage of coal

rationed goods from one particular shop
the tomcat has all the meat

the Party arranges the tenant for the house
the moving out of the house a death sentence

hypotheses about Russia Finland Sweden
everything remains in the dark

English renaissance planes entering Germany from Holland
the waiting gets harder each day

meat and foodstuffs coupons taken away
more work on the Curriculum

the war makes no progress before spring


the heavy frost

inactivity in the West
everything unchanged

every day
prison sentences for listening to enemy broadcasts

the Führer speaks combatively
subversive poison

of lies


the frost abated

food shortage more serious
all the world curses and complains

the riddle: the mood of the people

whom do I see
whom do I listen to

fewer coupons than Comrades of the People
fearful help from women and men

apart from cooking little reading aloud

all day every day the pressure: what is going to happen?

Volunteer Metal Donation
decree: no crime against the Great German War of Liberation

pious speech from Hitler
new belief in Providence



house rent out from June the first


new house still unsettled

dismal situation:
meeting with emigration adviser of the Jewish Community
result less than zero: must get out - no possibility
American-Jewish committees support only observant Jews

occupation of Denmark and Norway
small Winter Aid

English newspaper headline: Israel arise!
new start perhaps on the Baltic

the house rented out for two years
arranged through NSDAP headquarters
extortion and instrument of future harassment


overcome by fear

utter uncertainty

constant trips to the Jewish Community
two rooms settled after rage after rage
helpless and without rights

German victories over the English in Norway
latest cutback in foodstuffs: cake will be provided against bread coupons

question marks on big German victory


the new landlord likes animals
and no objection to Muschel

a teller at a bank to a messenger:
we’ll put the Jews where we can make use of them

out and about for hours
bank and Community then moving company
tomorrow to Land Registry

no one will help no one could help

a great deal of reading aloud

no word from Georg since April 1939
message in a bottle

internal crisis looming
protest attacks
harmless bombs at the TU Dresden: broken windowpanes
a new group a new motto:
Everything for Germany, Nothing for Hitler

the decisive Blitzkrieg the latest catchphrase
gobbling up of Europe

illegal deals going on everywhere

is it sustainable in the long term

Montesquieu philosophy on history:
the republic would have fallen, even if Caesar had not crossed the Rubicon

fearful invincible
halo of the Führer

gloomy wedding anniversary

initial successes of Liege, Northern Holland
lightning victory and counterattack

language tertii imperii
every day the French collapse
the chaos of the move
ravaging the past

only Uhu left: a freer time and spirit of Eighteenth Century
paper from the time of war and revolution

incomprehensible course of events
future destroyed

principle activity of the day: burning and then burning
and burning for hours on end
heaps of letters and manuscripts

French defeat a catastrophe
latest propaganda tenet: the true military genius is our Führer

will miracle happen
will deliverance come

Jew’s House, 15 B Caspar David Friedrich Straße

modern villa stuffed full
of people of the same fate

meadows and fields behind strips of trees and gardens
an abundance of lilac chestnut blossom
spring in all its forms
Dresden at its best

proper wash for the last time
after that day and night in the same sweaty shirt
teeth not brushed or shaved once in città
Jews now allowed out until nine

which way will the war go

alternating hope and hopelessness
Zionism equated with Hitlerism

since the move heavy sultry heat
amid chaos and dreary standing around
a little bit of strength

the cat its box its imprisonment

again and again hopes and rumors
and secret news

a few gaps in the chaos
a few boxes in the cellar

still a wasteland


every day a torment

superior concentration camp

Italy in the war since yesterday
coup-de-grâce for England-France

sancta simplicitas everywhere
American intervention appears probable

nowhere in the house to shave
reading aloud impossible

on language: the ruthless lightning fast change of tone
a flower box for the balcony a couple flowerpots

the expression Bolshevism no longer exits
in the paper:
the war criminals – liberated Europe—the young nations—France ruined by England

comrades of the people comrades of the people


new prohibition of Jews:
no entry to the Great Garden and other parks
every animal is more free and has more protection from the law

eight-year sentence for moral traitors who listen to foreign broadcasting stations
whole families in prison

the J will be the alibi

short walks after evening meal
use of the minutes until nine on the dot

the cat is still alive still alive

skeptical of big ideas
fatherland national honor heroism
general feature of growing old

her birthday flowers and wine
a trip on the Elbe

the truth—completely collapsed

before a corpse is cold the Jewish Community already has hands on things
Jewish clothing in the Third Reich

headlines: England throws itself into the abyss
final expulsion from the house in Dölzschen

poor poor food
many eggs from Denmark

East Prussia crowed with troops

tomorrow or the day after
a new beginning to writing


changing moods in the house
fraying nerves in ghastly situations

new notice: no telephones for Jews
latest Slogan: our Führer -“Creator of a New Europe”
Polish Jews wear Zion armbands and are forced to labor

the Jews are to blame for the war
the Jews are to blame for the war

mixed race soldiers no longer at the front
mixed children no longer admitted to secondary schools
everything points to a constant worsening of the situation for Jews

air raid shelter every night
destruction and dead everywhere

for weeks autumn weather with wind and rain and cold
everything an undifferentiated viscous endlessness

first air raid warning in Dresden
she smokes a cigarette before going out to the street

the never-ending rain
the already poor harvest the endangered potatoes

the insoluble riddle: the mood of the populace

after years of gardening her foot improves
the long walk
always nearby to the southwest
always a village nucleus with handsome farmhouses old manor and porches
limited shopping hours

no support no hope around
absolutely alone

everyday the rumors and the new torments
confiscation of Jewish sewing machines and typewriters
yellow armbands for the Jews

no thinking beyond tomorrow


bombings in Berlin
triumph and fear alternating in the Jews House

the mood and the conversations the same every day
the nuances change by night


days getting shorter
irritating early darkness
house arrest after eight again
long walks in the afternoon
the only thing she has the only thing she has

terrible isolation

who wishes whom freedom

walks in the Lockwitzgrund
the brilliant autumn colors

depreciation of the superlatives

new coercive measures in judaeos: no use of lending libraries
no contact between the populace and the critical minds

fourth air raid warning in Dresden
six hundred thousand people have got no sleep
no real coffee for a full year

the German roof has to be built
last reserve melting away


two days of snowfall
front muck awful roads
cold with shortage of coal

brutal evacuation of Jews from Württemberg
expelled naked and empty handed at two hours notice

possible move to Berlin where there is more freedom
best not to tempt fate
destruction threatens everywhere

more air raid warnings in Dresden


the bad weather the early dark
the shivering in the unheated apartment
the terribly meager food

her declining power of resistance
not a note played in the house
hardly a book and no newspaper opened

the whole world wants to move to Berlin
the whole Jewish world wants to move to Berlin

pubic Jew-baiting on the rise
film propaganda Jud Süss and the Eternal Jew

along the promenade of Teplitzer Strasse
the Romantic: the darkness, the lights, the moon, the open fields

lingua tertii imperii: the Jew, the Englishman

nothing but collectives no individual counts

hanging details of everyday life
severe frost for days

chilblains on the fingers chapped hands and feet
when the moon shines they eat out shriving through the evening

new intensification of Jewish harassment:
after eight confined in the apartment no visit with other residents of the house
no lingering in the entrance hall or on the stairs

will the day come

Language of the Third Reich
superman and subhuman

language tertii imperii:
Hilter New Year Order of the Day: Victories of Unparalleled Dimensions
American superlatives:
the year of 1941 will see the accomplishment of the greatest victory in our history

the year of summer rambles

hearing the stars he walks out of the new apartment that they share with a friendly old lady whose mouth cannot stop spitting loneliness in their faces until everything becomes a cauliflower in the ear now the night is falling now the curfew at eight is on the walk before total nightfall becomes the only joy in a day full of worry for a future in a fog he stares into the night sky as it brightens in winter a streak of translucent blue seeps on the black canvas of the sky which almost feels like hope he is staring at the sky waiting for the moon dust to gather when the dust gathers into a full moon he would collect his courage to strut out past eight now he sneaks by fences of the Great Garden where stiff branches jar on northern winds he thinks about his childhood Berlin and how his brothers and their achievements hung on him so he went breathless away to the provinces to the far lands where another language was spoken where he could walk into another century which fit his sensibility better the freshness of the eighteenth century France so close the weight of the fatherland so distant now he has no means to move away now he thinks how he should stick until the brittle and bitter end what is the worst to come before this thick shield of untouchable blackness a sheen of translucent air slowly gathers on the heated blackness of the sky a fog seems to rise like hands around the blackness he feels for the neck his own the neck longing bends and the head reaches forward before the whole body falls into the enveloping black air he wonders what happens after the trains unload and the people gone like flowers like flowers long gone in winter that no one notices in the house it is cold no heat she sleeps with her back to the world no note strikes the old piano which now holds a sheen of gray dust from afar it almost looks like a puddle of gray hair that whitens in the pooling of days where everything goes under where air strikes so frequent there is nowhere to hide nowhere to eat a warm meal nowhere to warm the shuddering hearts he has not looked into her eyes since they moved to this new apartment the night glitters in the wind as the moon dust gathers near and reluctantly to a circle he blows breath onto his palms and the palms rub back and forth as he blows breath into the chill air as the breath fogs a puff of black air excerpt for breath there is no curved forms in winter unlike spring when willows wave on the slender branches and tease their reflections in the water in winter all the images are sharpened to an edge to a point like the point of a knife shining like bayonets ready to pierce flesh and bone like his hand out in the darkness pointing to the dust faintly forming into a moon shape out of the blue comes a flying curve in the low sky branches hit on each other a tremolo of wind as a sound falls through he sees a cat he calls out Muschel Muschel Muschel though Muschel is home and cannot leave the apartment he runs after the cat a rivulet of white breath piercing the cloak of darkness he hears his breath a halo of fog radiates before his face and disperses as his face goes into the eye of the fog and his hands are swimming forward a paw on the solid ground another paw in the grass the cat in the swishing blackness breathlessly a shudder in his heart as if a heavy note falls on her piano keyboard as if she brawls from the bed as if something plunges into the abyss of a gloomy winter that takes them out of house and then out of the precious heart he trespasses into the Great Garden and under the brittle canopy of evergreens he hums the first note of a Schubert lied then the note gathers heart then the note rips out of the suffocating grave of dust and the enveloping blackness gives away to a full moon dusting as he looks through the brittle canopy as he looks forward to the quiet rising of the moon and his hands stretch out toward its brilliance as his fingers curve the moon shape before his eyes specks of dust are still gathering toward the moon and he smoothes his hands on the night face specks of chill sucks a swoon of heat in his face as he closes his eyes whose lids ashen like stars that his hands are about to touch

Dong Li was born and raised in P.R. China. His honors include fellowships from German Chancellery-Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Akademie Schloss Solitude, PEN/Heim Translation Fund, Yaddo and elsewhere. He has poems in Kenyon Review, Conjunctions, Cincinnati Review and others. His work has been translated into German and appeared in manuskripte (Austria) and Neue Rundschau (Germany).

This originally appeared on November 5, 2017