On October 5, singer-songwriter, poet and former East German dissident, Wolf Biermann, will be presented with the OVID Prize for his life’s work as a poet at the German National Library in Frankfurt..
The 84-year-old poet and former dissident has announced that he will pass on the prize awarded by the PEN Center of German-Speaking Writers Abroad “without thinking twice” to Belarusian opposition activist Maria Kolesnikova, who has been imprisoned since 2020.
Kolesnikova is one of the best-known faces of the Belarusian protest movement and was sentenced to 11 years in a prison camp in Minsk in early September. Her lawyer Lyudmila Kazak will therefore receive the award on behalf of the opposition politician.
The German government has repeatedly called for the release of the former Stuttgart-based cultural manager.
DW spoke with Biermann about passing on his OVID Prize to Kolesnikova, and his views on the situation in Belarus.
‘Inspiring icon of resistance’
DW: Mr. Biermann, what made you decide to give your lifetime achievement award to Maria Kolesnikova?
Wolf Biermann: Maria Kolesnikova is an inspiring icon of resistance against the dictator in Belarus, and at the same time she is a weak little person sitting in a cell, helplessly at the mercy of Alexander Lukashenko’s henchmen.
She was in the same dilemma as her brave friends: to stay or to leave, and she chose to take the harder path. I won’t be able to save her, but I want to stand by her. When I defend her, I also defend all of us who believe in a free, democratic Europe. By the way, it was (German) historian Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk who gave me the good idea to hand the prize to Maria Kolesnikova.
There seems to be a renaissance of totalitarian regimes if we look at the global developments of recent years. How do you feel about this — especially in light of your own biography?
You put it very delicately. Let’s say a renaissance of depraved bastards all over the world. If the Belarusians didn’t know that Putin would send his army to aid his friend Lukashenko, if ever the people were to make sure that he stepped down, he would have been swept off the historical stage long ago.
There has always been a deep connection between the rebels and freedom fighters in the various dictatorships, even before the collapse of the Eastern bloc. They are always both very lonely and yet connected to each other in solidarity. This is the only way to endure loneliness as a fighter against a dictatorship.
Biermann was expatriated from the GDR in 1976 because his texts were critical of the former East German regime
You will perform your song “Ermutigung” (Encouragement) at the award ceremony, also in Belarusian. What is it that gives you courage right now?
Real courage, but you know that, basically comes from deep despair. It is only necessary in times of existential distress. And since we are talking about Germany, I would like to remind you — we Germans have never been as well off, even remotely, as we are now. The Germans are doing almost dangerously well compared to the state of humanity — of which we are still a part of, by the way. Peace, freedom, prosperity. Some contemporaries forget that all too readily.
Kolesnikova’s lawyer Lyudmila Kazak (pictured right, with Kolesnikova’s father) will accept the award on her behalf
I wish for the Belarusian people that they manage to free themselves from the brutal dictator Lukashenko. My respect goes to the women. Lukashenko fears women even more than men. This is something wonderful and new in mankind’s eternal struggle for freedom.
A song of encouragement
First published as a poem in 1968 and later set to music, Biermann had written “Ermutigung” (Encouragement) for his friend Peter Huchel who was under house arrest and surveillance by the East German Stasi, the state security service.
A reflection on his resignation at being a blacklisted East German artist back then, it went on to become one of his most famous songs.
The English and Belarusian translation of “Ermutigung” follows below:
Don’t let yourself be hardened / In these hard times of ours / The hard ones break so easy / The sharp ones sting so easy / And then are dead in hours
Don’t let yourself be bitter / In bitter times like ours / While in a cell you’re sitting / The rulers will be fretting / Though not for you of course
Don’t let yourself be frightened / Though these are frightening times / That’s all they want, the bastards / That long before the fight starts / We offer up our arms
Don’t let yourself be misused / Make full use of your hours / You can’t just disappear now / You need us and we need somehow / That cheerfulness of yours
We’ll make no secret of it / Our times may be obscure / But soon each branch will flower / There’ll be no need to cower / And then they’ll know for sure
Гэй, ня дай сабе зрабіцца жорсткім / У гэтыя суворыя часы. / Занадта цьвёрдыя, каб зламацца. / Занадта вострыя, каб стачыцца / І каб разьбіцца.
Гэй, ня дай сябе атруціць горыччу / У гэтыя горкія часы. / Гаспадары краіны дрыжаць. / Ты сядзіш за кратамі, / Але не перад сваёй пакутай.
Гэй, ня дай сябе запужаць / У гэтыя страшныя часы. / Яны гэтага й дабіваюцца. /Каб мы склалі зброю / Перад вялікай бітвай.
Гэй, ня дай сябе скарыстаць. / Скарыстай свой час. / Ты ня можаш проста так патануць. /Табе патрэбныя мы. І нам патрэбная / Твая бадзёрасьць.
Мы ня хочам нічога замоўчваць / У гэтыя маўклівыя часы. / Зялёныя парасткі прабіваюцца з галінак. / Мы хочам паказаць гэта ўсім. / Каб яны даведаліся, у чым рэч.
The OVID Prize of the PEN Center of German-language authors abroad is awarded every two years. Wolf Biermann had already been declared the winner in 2020, but the award itself could not be handed over to him until now due to COVID-19 restrictions.