Wednesday, 23 January 2013


There's a lovely piece on the BBC called Goettingen: A Song that Made History. If I were French or German, I probably would have heard this song before but, as things are, it was new to me.

The singer and songwriter was known as "Barbara." Her real identity was Monique Serf, a French Jew uprooted and homeless through the war, hiding from both the Germans and their French collaborators. Any bitterness or hatred that she felt would be only natural.

However, she travelled to Göttingen in Germany, and fell in love with it. She started a love song to that city, which she finished back in Paris. It became a hit in both France and Germany. The article I linked to argues that it helped to heal the hatred many French still felt for Germany. Streets were named after her. Barbara appeared on a stamp. Heads of State praised her and her song.

Here are the lyrics (my quick translation following each verse).

Bien sur, ce n'est pas la Seine,
Ce n'est pas le bois de Vincennes,
Mais c'est bien joli tout de meme,
A Gottingen, a Gottingen.

For certain, it is not the Seine,
It's not the Forest of Vincennes,
But it's lovely all the same
In Gottingen, in Gottingen.

Pas de quais et pas de rengaines
Qui se lamentent et qui se trainent,
Mais l'amour y fleurit quand meme,
A Gottingen, a Gottingen.

No quays, and no familiar songs
That lament and linger on
But all the same, love grows strong
In Gottingen, in Gottingen.

Ils savent mieux que nous, je pense,
L'histoire de nos rois de France,
Herman, Peter, Helga et Hans,
A Gottingen.

They know more than we, je pense,
The story of our kings of France,
Herman, Peter, Helga, Hans,
In Gottingen.

Et que personne ne s'offense,
Mais les contes de notre enfance,
"Il etait une fois" commence
A Gottingen.

And none should take the least offence
That the tales told our innocence
With "Once upon a time" commence
In Gottingen.

Bien sur nous, nous avons la Seine
Et puis notre bois de Vincennes,
Mais Dieu que les roses sont belles
A Gottingen, a Gottingen.

True, at our feet we have the Seine
And then the Forest of Vincennes
But, God!, the lovely roses in
Gottingen, in Gottingen.

Nous, nous avons nos matins blemes
Et l'ame grise de Verlaine,
Eux c'est la melancolie meme,
A Gottingen, a Gottingen.

We, we have mornings without aim
And the grey soul of Verlaine
But their sorrows are the same
In Gottingen, in Gottingen.

Quand ils ne savent rien nous dire,
Ils restent la a nous sourire
Mais nous les comprenons quand meme,
Les enfants blonds de Gottingen.

When they have no words to say
They stay to send a smile our way--
we know its meaning anyway,
The blonde children of Gottingen.

Et tant pis pour ceux qui s'etonnent
Et que les autres me pardonnent,
Mais les enfants ce sont les memes,
A Paris ou a Gottingen.

Tough luck for people who would blame
Or offer pardon for my shame
But the children are the same
In Paris or in Gottingen.

O faites que jamais ne revienne
Le temps du sang et de la haine
Car il y a des gens que j'aime,
A Gottingen, a Gottingen.

Make it so they won't return,
The times when blood and hatred burn
For those to whom my heart has turned,
The ones I love in Gottingen.

Et lorsque sonnerait l'alarme,
S'il fallait reprendre les armes,
Mon coeur verserait une larme
Pour Gottingen, pour Gottingen.

And if there should ring alarms,
If we must, again, take up arms,
My heart would cry for the harm
To Gottingen, to Gottingen.

Here is Barbara singing the song in French.

Here she is, singing it in German.

In his second Inaugural Address, after President Obama acknowledged those who fight necessary wars, he said, "But we are also heirs to those who won the peace and not just the war, who turned sworn enemies into the surest of friends, and we must carry those lessons into this time as well." In some measure, that is what Barbara tried to do with this song: A few years after the end of World War II, she tried to turn sworn enemies into friends. And Obama was right: In our generation, with a new set of enemies, we have inherited her cause.


  1. 50 years afterwards Barbara becomes famous in England ? Is not that amazing. Alas, it is not only for art, it is also, and Barbara that I used to know, would complain as she could not bear unjustice, a zionist propaganda...

    1. Thank you for your comment. It is certainly good to make contact with the past and listen to it carefully. I hope you liked my translation of the song. I know it is not perfect, but I did my best.