Words Out of Context

Yesterday, once again, I forgot my anniversary. My record for remembering it now stands at 3 out of 26. My husband has only forgotten once that I can remember. The day after, he rushed up to me and apologized and I had no idea what for. Then he reminded me that the day before was the anniversary of our wedding -– the first one, to be exact. That established a pattern which has continued for over a quarter of a century. He thinks about stuff like this and I don’’t.

We went out for dinner and caught up with one another’s lives. Near the end of the evening, we first noticed what was hanging up on the wall above the table next to us.

wenn dich die menschen

Translation (without the rhyme): When the people also offend you, don’t cry! You can think anything, but not say it! Go through life laughing! And if you ever are in pain, no one will give you help, because people today have no heart!

Both of us read it and wondered “What the hell . . .? . . . Who thinks like this? ” And then it occurred to me that some woman (let’’s face it, would a man do this?) spent hours and hours embroidering these words, and someone framed it, and someone decided to hang it on a wall in a public space. There had to be more to it.

I knew this moment would become a blog entry, so I asked my husband to take a picture of it. Because it was our anniversary, he agreed. That set the people at the next table off on a conversation about the saying. The woman said she had seen it before and started philosophizing about where it came from and what it meant. My husband soundlessly and subtly let me know that what she was saying was bullshit. He started googling on his cell phone.

There in the restaurant, we found out that these were lyrics, written by a Viennese song maker named Ernst Arnold, who had lived through the eras of both World Wars and National Socialism. The only other information we could find on Wikipedia was that this man was given an honored grave in the central cemetery of Vienna in the 1960s and that in 1938 there had been a period when the Nazis forbade him from performing. Suddenly the words hanging on the wall had a different meaning. My husband and I discussed for a while whether the sentiment was ironic (my interpretation) or honest (my husband’’s), but both of us were willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt and assume he was a resister.

Later, back at home, I did more research and discovered that there wasn’’t much more to be found about this song or its writer. One tidbit was that this song was written in 1924 -– in other words, a long time before Hitler rose to power in Germany (1933) and was later embraced by Austria (1938). In fact, in 1924, Hitler was still in his prison cell in Germany, putting the finishing touches on “Mein Kampf”. The other tidbit was straight from the central cemetery’’s website:

After the political turning point of 1938, he was employed as a cabaret artist for Simpl and other stages after all the Jewish cabaret artists such as Karl Farkas, Fritz Grünbaum, Hermann Leopoldi and others fled or were arrested.

This sentence made me go back and reinterpret the words on the wall of the restaurant for the third time. Maybe they were not ironic or critical at all. Maybe they were merely an example of a fairly prevalent, cynical malaise of the period: the attitude that people suck generally and the world is going to hell in a hand-basket – the very same attitude that Hitler took advantage of. Over the past century, many other unscrupulous politicians have done the same. They prey on the negative emotions of people and whip up faux frenzies with their alternating scapegoating and self-pity. Their audacity continually increases as they lower the standards for what statements can be made out loud. Bullies are emboldened and more people begin sentences with the words ““I’’m not a racist, but . . .” ” The most recent incarnation of such a politician is currently on the march through my home village.

Of course, this may all be very unfair. The man who sang these words did, after all, get a grave of honor and a park named after him. I guess I would have to spend a lot of time researching to get a clearer picture, but whatever I found out would not change the fact that the words -– by themselves and out of any context – are awful. As I have spent enough time on this already, I guess I will never know what the songwriter was thinking when he wrote those words or their true intended meaning. I also will never know what went through the mind of the woman during those many hours of embroidering them, along with the cutesy flowers adorning the borders. But I think I do know what type of political party she voted for.

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2 thoughts on “Words Out of Context

  1. actually, embroidering (meaningful and not so meaningful) phrases or poems in blue on white linen, was something my Dad did, when he was a Youngster (he was born 1930). My grandmother had a few of those diplayed in her kitchen, his gifts were special to her. So maybe it was a man, stiching the words, after all.

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