My Lili of the lamppost

Herman likes to talk. A lot. He always needs to replenish his audience because he wears people out, so he finds me. And since it takes him a long time to get where he’s going, he tends to stay a while once he arrives. The first time he visited me at the piano, he flipped open the seat of his walker and rummaged around until he found photos of his twin great-grandchildren, predictably adorable toddlers. The boy, he tells me, is “the politician” of the pair, always smiling. The little girl is the serious one. Herman is a lovable, sociable guy.

He’s fond of telling me what he calls his “30-second stories,” which are sometimes pretty interesting, like this one:

The World War II−era love song “Lili Marlene” started as a poem by German soldier Hans Leip during World War I. The title refers to two different women: Lili was Leip’s girlfriend back home in Berlin, Marlene an army nurse who waved to Leip each evening as he stood guard.

More than two decades later, Leip published his poem, and it was set to music by German film-score composer Norbert Schultze in 1938. Herman went on to say that Hitler banned the song, fearing it would soften the hearts of the soldiers by making them miss their loved ones at home, but eventually “Lili Marlene” became popular with soldiers on both sides.

I wanted to know more. In Love Me Tender: The Stories Behind the World’s Best Loved Songs, Max Cryer gives this detailed account (he uses one of several variant spellings of the song’s title):

“By 1941, when Germany was occupying Yugoslavia, the Germans were broadcasting to their troops in North Africa from a radio station in Belgrade. When the station was shelled, most of its records were smashed and the station was desperately short of music to play. One day the station’s military director, Lieutenant Karl-Heinz Reintgen, came across a dusty box in which a few records had survived – and right at the bottom was ‘Lili Marleen.’ Officially the recording had been banned, but Reintgen knew that a buddy of his in the Afrika Korps had quite liked the song, and they had precious little else to play, so ‘Lili Marleen’ was broadcast.

It was a turning point. The German troops asked for the record over and over again, and non-military people who could hear the station also requested it. To the surprise, and horror, of the Nazi high command, ‘Lili Marleen’ gained a following that seemed unstoppable…”

Cryer recounts that each night before signing off at 10 o’clock, Radio Belgrade aired the song, featuring German cabaret singer Lale Andersen. Allied troops in Africa could also hear the German broadcasts, and “Lili Marlene” became a favorite across enemy lines. Marlene Dietrich traveled throughout Europe entertaining American troops for the USO during World War II, performing the song in her native German. Toward the end of the war, British songwriter Tommie Connor (best known for “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”) wrote English lyrics for “Lili Marlene,” and a slew of recordings by big-name artists appeared: Perry Como, Vera Lynn, Bing Crosby, Edith Piaf.

Herman’s interest in “Lili Marlene” grew from a keen interest in his German-American heritage. The first time I played the song for him, he read the sheet music over my shoulder so he could check the English translation printed above the original German lyrics. Soon after, he asked me to play the folk song “Du, Du, Liegst Mir im Herzen” (“You Are in My Heart”). And he serenaded me with all four verses. In German. Schön.

Copyright © 2014 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.

This entry was posted in Music and emotion, Music history, Piano performance, Volunteering and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to My Lili of the lamppost

  1. Aunt Evie Kimball says:

    Grandma Bochnig would have liked this story.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    Great story. I shared your post with my dad who is a 90 year old WWII vet. The story reminded him of the radio shows like the one hosted by Tokyo Rose, which were designed to disrupt morale.

    I have a book of German songs called “Klingende Heimat”, if you are looking for more to go with “Du, Du, Liegst Mir im Herzen”.

  3. Jessa says:

    Do you know what the German equivalent to the USO was called? Their entertainment of SS officers is always portrayed as quite jovial. I’m curious if the vivacity of the evening music performances is accurate, or if American movies spin that to make Nazis seem that much more unaffected by the concurrent atrocities.

  4. Judie says:

    What an interesting story! Thank you so much for sharing it

  5. Sharie Van Gilder says:

    Lili Marlene was one of my uncle’s favorite songs, he served in N. Africa and Europe during WWII. It always reminds me of him…Thanx for the memories—Sharie Van Gilder

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