Bonhoeffer’s “Who am I?”

Bonhoeffer’s “Who am I?” September 1, 2014

Much attention has been directed to the legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer lately due in part to the popular biography by Eric Metaxas (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy) and, more recently, the more scholarly approach of Charles Marsh (A Strange Glory: The Life Of Dietrich Bonhoeffer).

For most American Christians, the best known of Bonhoeffer’s works are probably The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together. Permit me though to direct the reader to his poetry, some of which is found in his Letters and Papers from Prison edited by Eberhard Bethge. Recently, I’ve made my own translation of the poem “Wer bin ich?” (Who am I?), and I share it here:

Who Am I?

Who am I? They often tell me,
I come out of my cell
Calmly, cheerfully, resolutely,
Like a lord from his palace.

Who am I? They often tell me,
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As though it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me,
I carried the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one who is used to winning.

Am I really then what others say of me?
Or am I only what I know of myself?
Restless, melancholic, and ill, like a caged bird,
Struggling for breath, as if hands clasped my throat,
Hungry for colors, for flowers, for the songs of birds,
Thirsty for friendly words and human kindness,
Shaking with anger at fate and at the smallest sickness,
Trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Tired and empty at praying, at thinking, at doing,
Drained and ready to say goodbye to it all.

Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today and another tomorrow?
Am I both at once? In front of others, a hypocrite,
And to myself a contemptible, fretting weakling?

Or is something still in me like a battered army,
running in disorder from a victory already achieved?
Who am I? These lonely questions mock me.
Whoever I am, You know me, I am yours, O God.

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  • Joyce Brown

    Wonderful…..when I am weak, then I am strong comes to mind. The victory is not in what we can do, but when we are stripped of everything that’s the victory! I have loved all his writings, but this personal poem is I think the most powerful.

  • John Turner

    Beautiful poem (and translation)!

  • Hillary Spragg