Jan Campert was born 1902 in The Netherlands. During his short life he was a journalist, theater critic and writer. During World War II he lived in Amsterdam were he became involved in aiding Jews while the country was under German occupation. Campert was eventually arrested and taken to the Neuengamme concentration camp, where he died. The poem, “De achttien dooden” (“The Eighteen Dead”), tells of the execution of fifteen resistance fighters and three communists by the Germans. The poem was written in 1941, and published illegally in 1943. Campert died in 1943. He is the father of the popular Dutch novelist and poet, Remco Campert.
The Song of the Eighteen Dead
A cell is but six feet long
and hardly six feet wide,
yet smaller is the patch of ground,
that I now do not yet know,
but where I nameless come to lie,
my comrades all and one,
we eighteen were in number then,
none shall the evening see come.
O loveliness of light and land,
of Holland's so free coast,
once by the enemy overrun
could I no moment more rest.
What can a man of honor and trust
do in a time like this?
He kisses his child, he kisses his wife
and fights the noble fight.
I knew the task that I began,
a task with hardships laden,
the heart that couldn't let it be
but shied not away from danger;
it knows how once in this land
freedom was everywhere cherished,
before the cursed transgressor's hand
had willed it otherwise.
Before the oath can brag and break
existed this wretched place
that the lands of Holland did invade
and for ransom her ground has held;
Before the appeal to honor is made
and such Germanic comfort
our people forced under their control
and looted as a thief.
The Catcher of Rats who lives in Berlin
sounds now his melody,—
as true as I shortly dead shall be
my dearest no longer see
and no longer shall the bread be broke
and share a bed with her—
reject all he offers now and ever
that sly trapper of birds.
For all whom these words think to read
my comrades in great need and those who stand by them through all
in their adversity tall,
just as we have thought and thought
on our own land and people—
a day does shine after every night,
as every cloud must pass.
I see how the first morning light
through the high window falls.
My God, make my dying light—
and so I have failed
just as each of us can fail,
pour me then Your grace,
that I may like a man then go
if I a squadron must face.
Sonnets for Cynara (XIV)
Rebel. My heart, jailed and enslaved,
that on the trellis of the mundane pulls;
do not feel pressured by your temporary fate ,
even if the shackles are hard, and the walls tight.
For in the beginning was predestined for you,
that a few have continued to succeed
in breaking the bar that presses on their shoulders,
so do not let up, but fight and fight and fight.
Break out and blow upon the muted cinders
that lie hidden under the smoking ruins;
move swiftly like a storm over the low garden
called Holland; strike deadly and quick,
so that wickedness shall meet a terrifying end,
o heart, my heart, o rebel the color of blood.
Translated by Cliff Crego