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Vilna Stories

Arno Nadel

by Martin Wasserman

Arno Nadel was born in Vilna in 1878. In childhood he showed
tremendous talent for musical composition and, consequently, he chose
to pursue music as a career. At the age of seventeen he entered the
Jewish Teacher's Institute in Berlin, and he became so enamored with
that city he decided to spend the rest of his life there. In 1916,
Nadel was appointed conductor for the choir of the largest synagogue
in Berlin, and shortly thereafter he became the musical supervisor of
all Berlin synagogues.

As an adult, Nadel displayed a special aptitude and concern for
the writing of poetry. Until 1935, a dozen books containing Nadel's
poems were published and distributed throughout Germany However, with
the advent of Nazism, Nadel's books were burned and any further
publication of his poetic work was prohibited. In 1943, Nadel was
transported to Auschwitz concentration camp, where he was subsequently

Nadel's poetry gained its greatest popularity in the early 1920s
when the writer was influenced by the spiritual philosophy of Taoism.
A circle of writers, painters, and musicians gathered around Nadel at
this time in order to hear him read and comment on his work. In
addition, actors from the German stage gave periodic reading from
Nadel's Taoist poetry at a major art gallery in Berlin. In 1923, some
of these poems were published as a chapbook entitled Lao Tsu and
Confucius (Poems Following a Chinese Motif).

Although Nadel's Taoist poetry possesses a metaphysical quality,
his motivation for writing in this vein was strictly a worldly one.
According to one observer who heard Nadel's work being read, the poet
intended his material to serve as an antidote to the prevailing
attitudes of selfishness and animosity which existed in Weimar
Germany. Nadel hoped that the quiet, gentle whispering of his poems
would counter the insensitive anger that he currently witnessed all
around him, especially the belligerence connected to a new wave of
anti-Semitism which had emerged in Germany since its defeat in World
War I.

Between 1910 and the year of his death, 1943, Arno Nadel's
poetry was compared favorably to the works of the great German lyrical
poets, Alfred Mombert, Theodor Daubler, and Oscar Loerke. Even though
the latter three individuals have had some of their poems translated
into English, this honor, up till now, has escaped Nadel. The present
translations of Nadel's Taoist poetry apparently are the first time
his work has ever appeared in the English language.

Arno Nadel: Poems

Yes, this is serious--
and has been forever
How are you doing it,
Chien Wu asked Shu,
that the breath
so quietly enters your nostrils,
that your heart
even in the quickest life
so slowly turns?

I think, said Shu,
all that depresses me
is not myself.
And if I did all deeds
I know of none
I would like to keep,
since everything must die:
suffering and the lover's kiss,
fate's favors,
happy news,
and more gifts
from invisible hands---
by cultivating all things,
not one thing
shall harm the self.
It is because of this
the breath so quietly enters my nostrils
that my heart
even in the quickest life
so calmly turns.
I miss nothing,
I have nothing,
and however it may be,
to me it is always a beginning.

Responded Chien Wu:
Great people, from time immemorial,
shall always be unassailable.
No great historian will guide them,
no person move them more than necessary,
for the more they enlighten others
the richer will be their possessions.
They live their momentary life continuously,
that is their wisdom.

Wandering Between Worlds
Now I am awake
and must land again
at the morning's shore
with all the fine sand,
with all the deep mist,
yet I almost do not wish it.

Slowly, out of habit,
as my body has learned to breathe
through day and night,
I again must raise my head.

Still, I would rather lose
the sing-song,
rather travel alone
with my dreams,
rather be a phantom
made of
fervent sound.
Each new sleep is only this---
and only some yawn towards paradise.


Organ Play of Heaven
The organ play of humans is this:
singing into life's crevices,
while the organ play of earth is this:
piping amidst the trees and roofs.

But the organ play of heaven---
what is it?
It blows in ten thousand ways,
barely a storm,
barely a whisper.

Yet surely the music is true:
it is the source
from which the song of life must howl,
the source from which we must heal again.

And when this ideal
sings to the heart,
Confucius shall speak
to lose himself.

The Human Heart
Purify itself to enter in all bonds,
that is what the human heart shall do.
Consecrate and raise itself darkly to inner lusts,
that is what the human heart shall do.

Excited and fomented,
the heart is lost.
It is only lifted by tenderness
to all suffering
that no longer suffers
from profound deeds,
to profound time.

If you try to plane or smooth it,
a heart will entangle and confuse itself;
glowing like fire,
stiffening like ice,
it will not contemplate
and it will not wait sated.
It will not enjoy
the solitude, the peacefulness.
It will only breathe
against its will.

Yet, at rest, profoundly constant--
in action profoundly alive,
empty of decisive pride,
void of all marred shyness,
the human heart shall resonate
to an eternal throb of life.

So spoke Lao Tzu, the Master,
who drank the blood of the deepest words.

But who dares to listen,
honoring these words?
But who are they
that would not wish to?

-Queensbury, New York