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The Girl Who Lives Forever

Night had fallen over the North African desert, and our battalions(营) tanks were huddled(推挤,乱堆) in a protective circle. A group of my fellow soldiers stood around a radio. As I approached, one of them put his finger to his lips.

From the radio came a bugle call, then a tender, come-kiss-me womans voice singing in German the most haunting melody I'd ever heard.

Vor der Kaserne
vor dem grossen Tor
stand eine Laterne
und steht sie noch davor…
Vor der Kaserne
vor dem grossen Tor
stand eine Laterne
und steht sie noch davor…

I didn't understand the words, nor did most of us. For we were not the German Afrikakorps but the British Eighth Army---the Desert Rats. Yet we were captivated by this mysterious voice that somehow reached deep into our thoughts and memories.

Only a short distance away, German soldiers were listening to the same song, sharing our loneliness and longings(渴望,热望). This was the spring of 1942; both sides were far from home, but we were all in love with the same girl in the song. So were millions of other soldiers of almost every nationality---and they continue to sing of her to this day. Her name was Lilli Marlene.

Who was Lilli, and how did she transcend(超越) borders, languages and generations to become every soldier's sweetheart? Her story begins in 1915, in the early stage of World War I.

One foggy April night in Berlin, Hans Leip, a young officer cadet(军官学校学生) and budding poet, was standing guard outside a fusiliers(燧发枪手) barracks. Across the way, fog swirled eerily around a brightly lit lantern.

A little while before, Leip had been in the arms of a pretty greengrocers daughter nicknamed Lili. He was dreamily thinking about her when out of the lamp-lit haze came Marleen, a coquettish beauty with sea-green eyes whom Leip had met at an art gallery. For him it was love at first sight.

Marleen was on her way to a nearby hospital to help nurse wounded soldiers. She waved and called a greeting just as the sergeant of the guard came to the gate. Unable to reply, Leip forlornly watched her disappear in the fog.

That night, he lay on his bunk dreaming of Lili and Marleen, and was inspired to write a poem coupling their names. He called it "Song of a Young Sentry".

It tells of a soldier standing in lamplight outside a barracks saying good-bye to his sweetheart, Lilli Marleen. A bugle sounds. The soldier yearns to stay with Lili, but the bugle calls again. As he leaves, he wonders aloud: Should anything happen to me, will another man stand under the lamplight with my love? or will my ghost embrace her once again?

Posted to the Russian front, Leip never saw Lili or Marleen again. Some 20 years later he included "Song of a Young Sentry" in an anthology of his poems. Berlin composer Norbert Schultze spotted the poem, set it to music, entitled it "Lili Marleen" and offered it to tenor Jan Bayern---who turned it down as "too simple."

Schultze gave "Lili Marleen" to a nightclub singer named Lale Andersen, a striking blonde with a haunting, sensual voice that suited the songs melancholy. In 1939 the Electrola Company recorded it. By then war had broken out, and only 700 copies of "Lili" were sold---each worth about '300 today.

The song remained in obscurity for two years. After Germany occupied Yugoslavia, the Wehrmacht opened Radio Belgrade to broadcast to its troops in the Balkans and North Africa. The station director had to scrounge some records. In a cellar at Radio Vienna, a soldier unearthed a dust-covered collection of recordings among them Andersen's "Lili Marleen". On the evening of August 18, 1941, it went on the air for the first time.

My future brother-in-law, then a tank officer in the Afrikakorps, heard the song. "I was spellhound," he told me years later. So were thousands of other soldiers. Requests for repeats poured into Radio Belgrade.

The song also became a homefront favorite, broadcast regularly on Radio Berlin. “My son has fallen,” wrote one German mother to composer Schultze. “In his last letter he wrote of 'Lili Marleen.' I think of him whenever I hear your song.”

The Afrikakorps' commander, Gen. Erwin Rommel, shrewdly saw the song as a means to rally his men. He ordered “Lili” played every night. At 9:55 each evening the song became Radio Belgrade's sign-off and cast its magic spell almost until the war's end.

In his book The Great Lili, Carlton Jackson records that Nazi propaganda minister Josegh Goebbels detested “Lili.” He wanted morale-boosters like “Bombs on England”. He ordered the original master copy of Lale Andersen's recording destroyed. When Stalingrad fell in January 1943, after 300,000 German soldiers had been killed, Goebbels banned the song entirely, saying that “a dance of death roamed throughout its bard.”

But unknown to Goebbels, a second master had been sent to neutral Switzerland. Three days after his ban, “Lili” was back on the air.

Unable to stifle the song, Goebbels vented his anger on the singer. He ordered lLale Andersen put under surveillance and had rumors spread that she was a friend of Jews. Andersen did have close Jewish friends. To one in Switzerland, she wrote letters saying how much she wanted to get out of Germany.

In Italy, after a troop concert tour, Andersen decided to escape across the Swiss border by train. She was seized on a Milan station platform by two Gestapo agents. Back in Berlin, a Nazi official produced copies of her incriminating letter. Falsely accused of being a spy, she was placed under house arrest and told she might be sent to a concentration camp.

British Intelligence heard of her arrest. The BBC broadcast the news that the Nazi had put Germany's beloved singer into a concentration camp. This British intervention may have helped save her. The Gestapo seemed to lose interest in her, and she slipped away quietly to her grandparents' home on a North Sea island, staying there until the war ended.

As novelist John Steinbeck once wrote, “Songs have a way of leaping boundaries.” The German song was “captured” by the British fighting Rommel in the desert. But like Goebbels, British army brass disliked the song. It was not the right thing for their soldiers to march to –especially singing in German.

Back in England, Carlton Jackson relates, some Eighth Army veterans were belting out “Lili Marleen” one night in a pub frequested by song publisher J. J. Phillips. He remarked that village police might think they were German spies. “If you're so fired up about it,” a soldier yelled, “why don't you write us some English words?”

Phillips took up the challenge with the help of songwriter Tommie Connor. Lili became “My Lilli of the Lamplight”; “Marleen” changed to “Marlene”; and out went the fog and the spirit rising from the grave to kiss her. The new Lilli was the girl left behind, waiting wistfully for her soldier to return safely.

Underneath the lantern by the barrack gate,
Darling, I remember the way you used to wait;
'Twas there that you whispered tenderly,
My Lilli of the lamplight,
My own Lilli Marlene.

It was an immediate hit. Within six months sheet-music sales topped half a million copies. The haulting ballad expressed all the fears of a soldier far from home, yearning to be in his love's arms. Adaptations of Leip's poem have appeared in more than 40 languages

Over the decades moviegoers have heard the straight version of “Lilli” in dozens of feature films and documentaries. And she is still heard today whenever old soldiers gather to sing of loneliness and loves gone by.

Why did the song steal so many hearts? Lale Andersen's simple reply was: “Can the wind explain why it becomes a storm?” Amid the brutal, ugly cacophony of war, Lilli Marlene always struck a sweet and tender note. She belongs to all nations.