Heinz Zander (1964)

An example of living conditions on cargo ships.
The breaking up of the ship, the Oskawa, by her crew

Translated by Tom Kuhn, from ‘Bertolt Brecht. Collected Poems’ (forthcoming: Norton-Liveright 2018)

“Early in the year 1922

I put on board the six thousand ton freighter OSKAWA

Built four years previously for two million dollars

By the United States Shipping Board. In Hamburg

We took on a cargo of champagne and liquor for Rio.

Since the wages were bad

We felt the need to drown

Our troubles in alcohol, so

Several cases of champagne found

Their way into the crew’s quarters. In the officers’ quarters too

Even on the bridge and in the chartroom

Just four days out of Hamburg you could hear

The clinking of glasses and the singing

Of sailors with no care in the world. Several times

The ship veered off course. Yet still

Favoured by all kinds of lucky circumstance, we reached

Rio de Janeiro. When we unloaded, our skipper

Counted out one hundred fewer cases of champagne. But because he could

Find no better crew in Brazil

He had to make do with us. We loaded

Over a thousand tons of frozen meat for Hamburg.

Just a few days back at sea we were overcome once more by our troubles

The bad wages, the uncertain provision for old age, and

One of us, in his despair, poured

Too much oil in the furnace, and the fire

Burst out of the funnel all over the decks, so that

The boats, bridge and chartroom were destroyed. So as not to sink

We helped put out the fire, but

Grumbling about the bad wages (the uncertain future!), we didn’t take

So much care to salvage what was left of the decks. That would be

Easy to rebuild, at some expense, and they had

After all, saved themselves enough on our wages.

Too much exertion in mid-life

Ages a man quickly and unfits him for life’s struggle.

So one fine day, because we needed to conserve our energies

The dynamos, which need the sort of care

That apathetic folk cannot render, burnt out. Now we were

Without light. At first we used oil lamps

So as not to collide with other ships, but

A tired mate, discouraged by thoughts

Of a joyless old age, threw the lamps, to save work

Overboard. About this time, just off Madeira

The meat began to stink in the refrigerated hold

Because of the failure of the dynamos. Regrettably

A distracted crewmember, instead of the bilge

Pumped out nearly all the fresh water. There was enough to drink

But no longer enough for the boilers. So we had to

Use saltwater for the engines and that in turn

Blocked up the pipes with salt. Cleaning them out

Took quite a while. And it had to done seven times.

Then there was a breakdown in the machine room. Grinning

We patched it up. The Oskawa

Limped slowly into Madeira. There

There was no facility to undertake repairs on the scale

That were now already necessary. We simply took on

Water, some lamps and a little oil for the lamps. The dynamos

Were, it appeared, completely ruined, and consequently

The cooling system didn’t work and the stink

Of the rotting meat became intolerable for our

Frayed nerves; the skipper now

Only walked the decks armed with a revolver – a symbol

Of hurtful distrust! One of us, finally

Enraged by this unworthy treatment

Diverted a shot of steam into the refrigeration pipes, so that the damn meat

Would at least be cooked. That afternoon

The whole crew sat down and painstakingly worked out

How much this cargo would cost the United States. Before the end of the voyage

We managed to excel ourselves: off the coast of Holland

We suddenly ran out of fuel oil, so that

At considerable expense, we had to be towed into Hamburg.

The stinking meat caused our skipper a load more trouble. The ship

Went straight to the boneyard. Any child, we thought

Could see that our wages had

Really been too niggardly.”

[1935; P1935.

Here Brecht retells an episode from Louis Adamic, Dynamite: The Story of Class Violence in America (1931).]