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The Spirit of Man Goeth Upward

Research by Laura S. McKee, Berea Sound Fellow, regrading how WW-II era radio and personal histories have shaped the development of "From the Diary of Eve", a narrative series of poems set in Southern Appalachia.

Adolf Hitler to Reichstag, 1-30-39

I found this radio program to be particularly interesting from a historical, regional perspective.  Transmitted live via WHAS, this CBS broadcast presents Hitler speaking to the Reichstag during the build-up to World War II.  For the most part, Hitler’s speech is broadcast in long stretches, with only periodic interruptions by translators and commentators. In brief, Hitler rallies his supporters and argues for what he feels is Nazi Germany’s destiny.  He rails against “the red pest” as well as the “forces of Communism and Jewish Internationalism,” while celebrating what he calls “the Nazi Miracle.” His speech also attempts to ward off those who would intervene by warning they should not try to stop the “Nazi march toward new triumphs in 1939.”

It is incredible to imagine any American unfamiliar with German listening to the original German speech in full, but it is particularly fascinating to think of a rural Appalachian family leaning into their radio, trying to parse the unrecognizable language on the brink of an inevitable and terrifying war.  The following poem locates Eve, Isaac, and Patrick in such a moment and tries to imagine Eve’s experience of listening to this broadcast surrounded by the family she loves and fears for.

 


Adolf Hitler speaking to Reichstag with English translation interspersed. 1-30-39, Part I
Commentary by CBS newsmen H.V. Kaltenborn and Harold Peters.
WS-ET-39000. WHAS Historical Radio Collection, 1936-1967, HC 41.

"For Almost an Hour Now*, 1939"

The Chancellor’s voice gallops in the air.
The radio frowns; gathers us from nowhere.
My uncle rocks and scowls, digging at a crumb of dirt
beneath his nail. My brother pantomimes a gulping
trout, then chugging a moonshine handle, for the throaty,
galumphing vowels sound to us like a man drowning.
My brother laughs and I remember the time he held
his breath exploring the depths of an abandoned quarry
while I watched and waited for his hair to darken
the water, his curls pulled long like a sea fern
below the surface. But he didn’t return at first.
Diving so deep, the water had time to still behind him,
and even the trees flattened to a single plane as if he’d found
the earth’s edge and every ancient myth at once
restored: middle-aged gods taking youths into
the dark maw of a cave, a pomegranate, an unmined
mountain miles deep, or into their blinding chariots
that burn back darkness. All of this I saw when he didn’t return
those agonizing minutes, though I knew he’d practiced
holding his breath in the pond behind the house. His lung
the size of shield. He could beat back death. And when
he surfaced, the breath I’d held had turned to stone.
The foreign voice returns me there. As if the world waits
for a boy to resurface or fall to an unmeasureable depth.
I know the dread on my uncle’s face as he listens to
the man’s voice. Armies gather. Mechanical
horses paw the dirt of a country someone else calls home.
Though not us. We understand nothing. The translators
hold back. Then arising from the wreck of syllables, a few
words shore familiar: moralisch, fantastisch, nation.