Letter from Durs Grünbein to the poet Zbigniew Herbert

Dear Zbigniew Herbert!

It is a little late to write to you. The chance to approach you by letter has long been lost, I know. The idea that any of what is happening here and now can reach you is just a pious illusion. And not only for Christians, but also for the physicists among us, who at least succeeded in the experiment of teleporting quantum states over hundreds of kilometers away, which gave rise to the hope that such remote action of matter particles could one day enable the targeted transmission of information, also, why not, out into space. But never and never will this highly technical magic by means of photons reach that place (or rather non-place) that has been called the afterlife since the earliest times, in ancient Egypt, for example, a kingdom that consisted of the planes of heaven and the underworld.

Where you are now, you can only get the thunderous echoes of cosmic explosions, the radiation from atomic bombs, which are tested every now and then, or a touch of global warming that climatologists calculate for us, with the intention of humanity as a whole, the population in the digital age could learn from the mistakes of the industrial age and change their behavior towards the atmosphere of the planet. It is hard to imagine that you would have noticed the giant plume of smoke captured by a camera aboard the International Space Station on September 11, 2001, an aerial view of the burning twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center moments before they crashed what changed the political map of the world forever. War in the Orient, terror worldwide, flight and expulsion of millions, a wave of refugees from Afghanistan to the heart of Africa that is no longer calm were the direct and indirect consequences.

I can only tell you that that was the turning point with which the 21st century began that you did not live to see when you died in Warsaw in 1998. A sudden nostalgia that has gripped me since then, like you, a child of the twentieth century, flashes something like envy – a feeling I am ashamed of. I cannot forget the verse that Paul Valéry gave me on the way in his poem “The Cemetery by the Sea” (Le Cimetière Marin): “Le vent se lève! … Il faut tenter de vivre! “A wind comes up! … and it’s time to live!

You probably knew this verse too. A fundamental optimism in everything I read about you, and with all the sarcasm that has not escaped me, suggests that you too must have felt the wind we are talking about . You, who as a young person witnessed the horrors of World War II, the occupation of Poland by my ancestors, the brutal occupation policy of Himmler and Frank, this deliberate infamy of first building the Jewish ghettos on Polish soil, then the extermination camps. Poland and Germany have been a problematic neighborhood relationship for centuries, ultimately a murderous one. Who am I telling this?


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