I believe in …

Music & Audio © 4 Nov 2022 Alexander Massey – All Rights Reserved

I believe in the sun, even though all around be dark. I believe in God, even though he be silent. I believe in love, even when love must hide. [English lyrics: Alexander Massey]

The original text on which this song is based appeared during the Second World War, on the wall of a cellar in Cologne, and is believed to have been written by one or more Jews hiding from the Nazis:

Ich glaube an die Sonne, sei es auch dunkel, Ich glaube an Gott, mag er auch schweigen, Ich glaube an Nächstenliebe, obwohl sie sich nirgends zeigen darf.

Everett Howe translates this, as he says, “not literally, but into colloquial English that captures the spirit and meaning of the original”:

I believe in the sun, even in the darkness. I believe in God, even if God is silent. I believe in compassion, even when it must remain hidden.

In 2017, Howe posted four blog entries reporting his brilliant investigation into the source of the text, showing how versions in English, and the stories surrounding its supposed origin, vary in important ways, and ultimately do a disservice to the original, unknown author(s). In 2021, Howe, finally uncovered the earliest known version, and reported this in a fifth blog post. The earliest source that Howe could find was an article from 26 June, 1945, in the Catholic Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Nachrichten. The article is about underground bomb shelters and disused underground passages in old buildings that the Catholic resistance used as hiding places from the Gestapo. The resistance helped nine Jews hide there for a time. Over the decades, the story of the text’s origin transformed into strange kitsch versions. Some accounts suggest the Jews were prisoners, that they were interned at Auschwitz, or that the words were written by a 12 year old girl in the Warsaw Ghetto, that the girl died just before liberation (and, of course, the Warsaw Ghetto was, tragically, never liberated anyway), and was found lying next to the wall on which the words were written. The original text also underwent its own distortions. Modern misquotations look something like this:

I believe in the sun even when it does not shine; I believe in love even when I feel no love; I believe in God even when he is silent.

Notice that the first line misses the point that the Jewish fugitives were hiding in the dark even when the sun was shining. The English word ‘love’ fails to capture the full meaning of the German word ‘Nächstenliebe’ which is ‘neighbourly love’. And the second line about God has been moved to the end, changing the original intent of the text. The original text is less about making some kind of theological statement about having faith in God against all odds. Rather the original text more likely expresses belief in God, at the same time as keenly feeling God’s current absence. On the other hand, the kindness of neighbours—or strangers—is clearly present, and can be relied upon even when, in the interests of safety, it has to be carefully hidden. Howe asks important ethical questions about how we quote or use other people’s words, not least when those words arise from appalling experiences during the Shoah.[1] As Howe writes: “[I]f you take one moral from these essays, let it be: For heaven’s sake, always cite your sources.” I choose to trust the account and wording provided by the anonymous author of the 1945 Swiss newspaper article, though I cannot think of any way to check its accuracy. My thanks go to Matthew Faulk, who helped me interpret the original German words can create the English lyrics for my own musical setting. I hope these new lyrics, and the musical setting, might honour the writer(s) of the original text.

I believe in the sun, even though all around be dark. I believe in God, even though he be silent. I believe in love, even when love must hide.

[1] Hebrew word for “catastrophe”, used to denote the mass murder of Jewish people under the German Nazi regime during the Second World War.