A Poem About Truth

Ed Newman

May 18, 1944. At Hitler's war conference he is told that the enemy has carried out two spy operations during the night on the heavily defended French coastline. At one place, near Calais, German troops have found an orange peel, an empty flask, and a shovel lying on the beach. Years later they would say that they also found a landscape painted on driftwood, a finely crafted home made flute and a dagger. In the estuary of the river Somme, two British commandos were discovered in the late afternoon. "They came ashore in a rubber dinghy," General Jodl, chief of Wehrmach operations, tells Hitler. "They claim to know nothing."

The scene changes to a French restaurant once frequented by Napolean. The restaurant serves excellent Italian fare. Three nights have passed. A stout German woman makes pasta in the kitchen. Two French chefs argue about how to make croissants. They are smoking cigarets and sipping wine. They know that Hitler is a madman, but it does not affect their cooking. This story is about the taller chef, thinnest of the two, who is also a writer. At night he composes poetry in the same way that a garden produces flowers. The effect is dazzling. His mother also was a poet, as was his grandfather. He does not believe in war or death. He is restless, anxious about love, and lives alone. If he had a lover, he knows that he would write less poetry, since he writes only to fill his piteous empty hours. When he reads his poems, he cries, then burns them. He is brutally honest with himself.

The following evening he overhears a Nazi under-lieutenant commenting on Britain's secret operations. He seizes the opportunity to become part of an adventure. He never again sees his home. Later that night the chef is captured in a forbidden zone near the Seine whereupon he fakes an English accent and says he is a spy. He is blindfolded and driven to a chateau where he must stand before Rommel. He makes up a story about a wife and daughter in Britain. The details are vivid, but Rommel loses interest and orders him to be shot. He is overcome by a feeling of ubiquitous doom. By morning he has written a poem about the event and leaves it in his cell. The German officer who reads it laughs at the insipid rhymes and melancholy metaphors. He shares it with his friend who notices that the word "mayhap" is misapplied and that "appenage" would have been a better choice of words than "freehold."

By week's end a hundred eyes have beheld the poem. Many jokes are made of it. Heinrich (we do not know his last name), a company agent from Stuttgart, makes a copy of the poem, then translates it into German. In the translation he improves the meter and resolves the problematic third stanza. He sends it to his mother who does not understand it, but keeps it in a small wooden box on the bureau next to a framed photo of the Fuhrer.

It is possible the original poem is still in existence somewhere, but no one knows for certain. My cousin, who married a German woman, says that his father-in-law saw the poem, the original version, and remembers that it was called Truth Is A Fire That Burns. We do not know if this was the same poem, or if he saw the poem at all. After the war many German soldiers say they saw the poem, and many more say they made copies of it to send to the Fatherland. We know that most of them are lying.

Over the years versions have appeared in journals, some superior to others, all of them improvements on the original. I have seen it thrice in English literary journals -- once, I believe, in the Antioch Review, though it may have been one of the other college publications that begin with the letter A. Someone told me that it has been translated into 87 languages. In Thailand, the mountain peoples now say that it is the Word of God.

No one remembers the French chef who gave his life to produce the poem. His unknown name has been swallowed up by time, but his poem lives on in human hearts.