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Anthems

By Angela Bowman

For weeks I had struggled under the weight of my foreignness. Now we were all foreigners, and I had the advantage of being more foreign than anyone. In twenty minutes I achieved celebrity as translator, American, and party girl.

I learned the Ukrainian word for pretty; someone wanted to pay me a compliment. I said the word out loud: nepoganiy. I liked the way it felt on my tongue. Anton and Roman shouted with delight.

"You are Ukrainian! Your family comes from the Ukraine?" No, no, I protested. Not even close; I'm Irish.

"Oh no no, you are Ukrainian. Say osvoyvatisya." I obliged, and they cried out with joy, filled my cup.

"You are, you are! Our little Ukrainian girl!" They clapped me on the shoulders and danced with glee.

My mother had taught me a bit of her college Russian when I was a girl, and the clipped zzh's and nya's felt nice and familiar.

It came time to sing. The Ukrainians prefaced each song with a short translation.

"This song is about the suffering of the Ukrainian people."

"This is about the hard lives of the Ukrainian farmers."

"This is about love and the lives of the Ukrainian people, and how they have suffered."

They knew more songs than we did, and they sang with skill and passion, rocking as a boat on the waves of their collective memory. The dissonance rose closely next to the sweeter harmonies; how could one ever separate them? We sang for them, songs of lonely millers and weeping, tripping brooks. We offered our best songs of moonlight and of sweet May. In singing, the Germans relaxed happily into themselves. The melodies spoke truly and surely of a folk they knew well, and allowed them a tender moment of pride.

The singers made several short speeches, proudly toasting to the friendship of Germany and the Ukraine. The Germans heartily raised their glasses in agreement, deeply honored. "Nastrowya!"

"Prost!" answered the Ukrainians in German. Some turned to me.

"Cheers! God bless America!" The vodka flowed.

The Ukrainians proudly announced their national anthem. They sat up straight and gathered themselves for the occasion. Some of the women held hands, and the room was still. The well-worn verses ran in familiar grooves; each carried its own bundle of feeling. Hundreds of Ukrainian winters crowded into the warm chords, swelling into the conclusion. The hair on my arms rose to attention. We applauded ferociously. What a wonderful thing to be Ukrainian!

"Now," said the director, "We sing Ukrainian national anthem, you sing German national anthem!"

The Germans froze. The National Socialists had knocked down entire countries with the German Nationalhymnus, especially with its crowning verse: Deutschland, Deutschland, uber alles. The Germans had allowed their anthem to survive the war, but had severed the offending kick. Today, one sings the final verse only at risk of prosecution. The first two verses remain awkwardly in place.

A small woman named Susanne shook her head. "Nein," she said.

"Das singen wir nicht." We won't sing that. We don't sing that.

Well, we wouldn't sing the last verse, someone murmured. Several looked about, troubled.

"Nope. No way. Out of the question." And it really was.

The Ukrainians only looked puzzled for a second. They turned to me.

Angela! You sing American anthem!

But I felt too silly. I hadn't come to Europe expecting to sing America's praises; I'd been more prepared to defend it against allegations of empty culture and obnoxious behavior. How could I sing the national anthem here in this Polish hotel? I ruefully declined. Undaunted, they requested "America the Beautiful," and I finally obliged. The roomful of strangers gave me their complete attention, and it tasted of honor.

Humbled, I relaxed and felt the proud verses fill me.

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Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): zine cover.

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