Rosa Luxemburg to Sophie Liebknecht, December 1917


A Letter Written by Rosa [Luxemburg] to [Sophie] Liebknecht, from Breslau Prison, in December 1917.

It is a year now that Karl lies in the Luckau. I have often thought of it this month. And exactly a year ago you were with me in Wronke; shared your beautiful Christmas tree with me. I had one procured for me this year, but they brought me a dreadfully shabby one, with branches missing, -- no comparison with last year's. I don't know how I shall arrange on it the eight little candles I have acquired.

It is my third Christmas in my cell, -- but don't take it tragically. I am as calm and joyous as ever. Last night I lay awake a long time, -- I can never sleep nowadays before one o'clock, but have to be in bed by ten, -- then dream all sorts of things in the darkness.

Yesterday, then, I thought how remarkable it is, that I live always in a joyous intoxication, without any particular reason. So, for instance, I lie here in the dark cell on a mattress hard as stone. About me in [the] building reigns the usual deathly stillness. One imagines oneself entombed. A light-spot, from [the] lantern which burns before the prison all night long, patterns itself on the ceiling. Now and then I hear the muffled vibration of a train passing in the distance; or, very near, beneath the window, the throaty cough of the guard, as he takes half a dozen slow steps in his heavy boots, to ease his stiff legs. The sand crunches so hopelessly under this footfall, that the whole desolation and inescapability of existence ring through the damp dark night.

So I lie alone, quietly, wrapped in the manifold black sheath of winter, -- the darkness, the boredom, the unfreedom, [of] it, -- and yet my heart beats with an unknown, incomprehensible, inner joy, as though I walked through meadows in radiant sunlight. And in the darkness I lie smiling on life, as though I knew some secret charm which would give the lie to everything that is mean and dreary, turning it into [shear] radiance and joy. And all this time I search within me for the cause of this joy, find nothing, and have to smile again at myself. I believe the secret is nothing but life itself; -- the impenetrable darkness is as beautifully smooth as velvet, if one will only see it rightly. And in the grinding of the wet sand under the slow heavy footfall of the guard, there rises a wonderful song of life, -- if one only knows how to listen. In such moments I [page 2] think of you, and wish I might share this magic key with you, so that you might always, and under all conditions, realize the beauty and the [fullness] of life; that you might live in the same intoxication, walking as through meadows. I do not mean to tempt you to asceticism, and to imaginary joys. I welcome for you all real joys of the senses. It is only that I would give you, if I could, my inexhaustible inward cheer; that I might know that you walked through life wrapped in a star-embroidered cloak, sheltering you form all that is small, and trivial, and disheartening.

In the Steglitz Park you picked a cluster of black and purple berries. The black ones must have been either elder-berries, hanging heavy like grape-clusters among large feathery fronds, -- surely you know them, -- or, more probably, liguster-berries, -- on slender, upright, spiky, stems, among narrow leaflets. The purple berries hiding under tiny leaves [may] be dwarf-mispel. They are [ordinarily] red, but at this late season a little over-ripe, touched with decay, often appearing a purple-red. The leaflets look like those of the myrtle, small, with pointed ends; [dark] green; leathery on the upper surface, rough underneath.

Soniusha -- do you know Platen's "Verhangnisvolle Gebel"? Could you send it to me, or bring it? [Karl] once mentioned to me that he had read it at home. The poems of Georges are beautiful. I know now the origin of the line,

"and under the rustle of tawny grains" -- which you used to repeat when we walked through the fields. Could you sometime copy for me The New Amedis? I love the poem very much, -- of course thanks to Hugo [Wolf's] song, but haven't it here. Are you continuing to read the Lansing-Legend? I am again going on with Lange's History of Materialism, -- which always stimulates and refreshes me. I do wish that you would read it some time.

O, Sonitchka, I recently suffered a keen anguish here. In the court, where I go walking, military trucks often come, packed full with bags, or soldiers' coats and shirts, often [illegible] bood-stained. These are unloaded here, distributed among the cells, mended; then reloaded, and returned to the army. Recently such a [wagon] came, [driven] with buffalos instead of horses. For the first time I saw these animals at close range. They are more broadly and powerfully built than our cattle, with flat head and horizontally-curved horns. The skulls are rather like those of our sheep -- quite black, with great liquid eyes. They come from [Romania], -- war-trophies. The soldiers who drive these [wagons] tell that it was very difficult to catch these animals, accustomed to freedom; and still more difficult to break them in for dragging [loads?]. They were frightfully beaten, -- so that the term vae victis applies. About a hundred of these animals are said to be in Breslau alone. Moreover, they receive only miserable and scanty fodder. They are heedlessly exploited, dragging every possible burden, -- and so quickly perish. [page 3]

Several days ago, a [wagon] laden with bags came in, [illegible] so heavily loaded that the buffalos were unable to pass the threshold of the portal. The soldier who was driving, a brutal fellow, began belaboring the beasts with the thick end of his whip, until the prison-superintendent, outraged, called him to task, asking whether he had no compassion for the animals. "No one has any compassion for us men [either]" he answered, with an ugly laugh, and went on more brutally still .....

At last the beasts drew up over the hill, -- but one was bleeding .... Sonitchka, the hide of the buffalo is proverbially tough, -- and even this was bleeding. During the unloading, the beasts stood quite still, exhausted, and one, -- that which bled, -- looked before him with the expression, over his black face, and in his dark soft eyes, of a weeping child. It was exactly the look of a child which has been severely punished, and knows not why; knows not how to escape the brutal violence and the agony of it. I stood before him, and the beast looked upon me. My tears rolled down. His own tears they were. One cannot, for his dearest brother, quiver in anguish greater than I, in my helplessness, did at this mute woe. How far, how utterly beyond reach, lost, the free, opulent, pastures of [Romania]! [How?] otherwise the sun shone there, the winds blew. [How otherwise ] were [illegible words] calls of the herdsmen. And here, [illegible words] hideous town; the dank stable; the nauseating hay, mingled with rotting straw; strange, terrible, men, and,  -- blows, -- the blood running from the fresh wound ..... O buffalo, brother, we two stand together here, so helpless under the yoke, -- one only in our suffering, our impotence, our longing.

Meanwhile, the prisoners busied themselves about the [wagon], unloaded the heavy bags, and dragged them into the building. The soldier pushed his hands into his pockets, strutted across the court, grinned, and whistled a popular song. And the whole glorious war passed before me ...........

Soniusha, darling, be calm and of good cheer in spite of all. This is life, and we must accept it, -- brave, undismayed, and smiling, -- in spite of all.