The poetess Gertrud Chodziesner (Gertrud Kolmar), who after working as a slave laborer in a Berlin munitions plant was sent to her death in an extermination camp, was one of the most remarkable of the figures in the German Jewish cultural upsurge under the early years of Hitler’s regime. One short volume of poetry, published in 1938, just before the pogroms that marked the end of the period of Nazi tolerance of Jewish activity, was enough to indicate her importance; in recent years, more of her work has come to light in Germany. The present article was translated from the German by Martin Greenberg.
On October 26, 1941, a Jewish woman in Berlin wrote a letter to a relative who had reached a haven of safety outside Germany. At that time the deportation of German Jews to the extermination camps in the East had been proceeding for more than a year and a half, and the sense of their lost liberty, and of their helplessness and hopelessness in the face of the menacing future, weighed heavily on those still remaining behind. She wrote: “Believe me when I say that come what may I shall not be unhappy, I shall not despair, because I know that I am going the way I have chosen in my heart to go. . . . So many of us, through the centuries, have gone that way, why should I wish a different one? Even now, in these last moments, my father thought of emigrating to Uruguay to join his brother. There is a question whether it is still possible to do that; he wanted to leave for my sake—his own life he regards as ended—but I said no. It would be something forced on me solely by external circumstances; I don’t want to run away from what I feel in my heart I ought to undergo. In the past I never knew, as I know now, how strong I am, and knowing this makes me very happy . . .”
In February 1943 her last letter reached her sister in Switzerland. At that time she was working as a slave laborer pasting cartons in a munitions factory. The octogenarian father whom she had not wanted to part with was already in Theresienstadt. After that she was heard from no more.
Her name was Gertrud Chodziesner. As a poet she had sometimes used the name of Gertrud Kolmar. A poet died with her, and the world lost no ordinary poet in this death.
After the Emancipation, the German Jews . for more than a hundred years had enjoyed a distinctive communal life. This was not limited to purely religious activities carried on in the famous rabbinical schools and “congregations” in the exact sense of that term. The kehillot, for all the outward tendency of the Jews to assimilate, provided religious sustenance, and also encouraged important scientific work in Jewish history and sociology. On the other hand, most individual creative work tended, as it did everywhere in the West, to merge with that of the surrounding world, and often very successfully.
But after the First World War the situation changed. The B’nai B’rith took over the task of cultural education as its own, Zionism kept growing stronger, and creative writers devoted themselves more and more to purely Jewish ends. This was made easier for them by the existence of several excellently edited periodicals, among them the Jüdische Rundschau, edited, by Kafka’s friend Robert Weltsch, the C. V. Zeitung, and, excelling in terms of literary interest, Der Morgen. (These survived until the pogrom of November 1938; the distinguished journal Der Jude, edited by Martin Buber and Ernst Simon, had perished earlier.) In painting and the graphic arts, too, there was a marked tendency toward a narrower Jewish concentration.
And so when the cataclysm came, an already existing framework made it possible for creative work to be continued. In the early years of the Nazi regime there came a sudden and unparalleled upsurge of the creative and performing arts, carried on by Jews for an exclusively Jewish audience. The movement gave spiritual nourishment to thousands, strengthening them in their Jewish identity amid all the degradations and dangers to which they were exposed. This was the time when many were receiving spiritual strength from the teachings of Franz Rosenzweig and Leo Baeck. The Kulturbund was founded, and was active not only in the big cities but throughout the country; its theatrical productions, lectures, and public readings served to distract people, for a time, from the exceptional cares of those years. All this was managed by the Reichsvertretung der deutschen Juden, at the head of which stood the venerable Baeck, aided by such others as Otto Hirsch, Paul Eppstein, and Julius L. Seligsohn; these men sacrificed themselves for the community, and the three latter subsequently died the death of martyrs.
Thus it happened that in this period of the downfall of German Jewry new and hitherto unknown names came to the fore in fiction and, more especially, in lyric poetry. For reasons which we cannot here go into, these names are still little known on this side of the Atlantic, except that recently a great deal has been heard about the lyric poet Nelly Sachs, whose work does indeed merit recognition. She, happily, escaped the ordeal of the concentration camp, and was rescued and brought to Sweden by Selma Lagerlöf. But she was only one of several women poets who made their appearance in those threatening days and who from the very first displayed an original and mature poetic style. It is something that seldom happens in poetry and is therefore all the more precious when it does. A lyric poem, if it is to endure, must display, above all, originality and distinction of form; often, given individual poems to read, one only too easily confounds the names of their authors.
Oddly, not a single new male poet appeared who can be ranked with the several first-rate women poets of this time. There were of course a number of works of the highest order published by men whose names were already well established in German literature: like Karl Wolfskehl, who, after his long association with the Stefan George circle, turned for the first time to writing lyrics of the purest kind about the Jewish fate that had overwhelmed him; and Alfred Mombert, whose place in the front rank of German lyric poetry, next to Rilke and George, had long been acknowledged.
Wolfskehl died an octogenarian two years ago in exile in New Zealand. His book Die Stimme ruft, published in 1936,1 and the poems of Gertrud Chodziesner, together represent both climax and end of a tragic development which had its beginnings—in some ways very doubtfully—with Heine. Tragic, certainly: this poetry which so purely expresses the Jewish consciousness and avows the Jewish fate finds its medium in the noblest German—the language of the people who condemned the creators of the poetry to death.
In 1938, only a few months before the pogroms that wrote finis to everything, a book of poems entitled Die Frau und die Tiere (“The Woman and the Beasts”) was published by Gertrud Chodziesner, whose name had been scarcely heard before. It was probably the last book put out by a Jewish publisher in Germany. On the strength of this single instance of her powers, the author was hailed as an extraordinary appearance in the field of lyric poetry. The publication of her poetic remains, since the end of the war, confirms this judgment, and justifies the highest praise.
She was born December 10, 1894, the daughter of a well-known Berlin attorney. She grew up in the typical spiritual and social atmosphere of a German Jewish upper-middle-class family at a time when on the surface everything seemed to be going well, with the dream of assimilation still unshattered. Yet in one respect, at least, her background was not typical: the family owned an estate in the Mark Brandenburg where the children passed a considerable part of their youth. This experience played an important part in the creative life of the eldest daughter Gertrud. The metaphors she uses in her poetry, in the book mentioned above especially, would seem to characterize her as coming not from a family of Jewish intellectuals but from the Brandenburg peasantry or from among the fishermen at one of the many lakes surrounded by the woods of that region; rarely is there an image in her poems to recall that they were written by a woman of the metropolis. The very title of her book, Die Frau und die Tiere, suggests the unusual, hinting at solitude and an absence of human intercourse, a turning to the eternal world of dumb creation at whose hands one need fear no disappointment. She never married; indeed, it was the deep disappointment she met with in a love affair that brought her poetry to its full stature; in the shock of this experience she found herself. However, unlike those effusions of the second-rate so painfully prompt to take the reader into their confidence, very seldom does her verse refer directly to her personal experiences. In this as in many other ways she takes her place beside those few immortal old maids who stand in the forefront of the lyrical poetry of the Western world—Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, Marcelline Desbordes-Valmore, Emily Dickinson. The resemblance here is not only biographical, it is also aesthetic.
Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, who died a hundred years ago, brought to the German poetry of her times a new realism that transcended the prevailing romanticism, and she has always been considered the greatest German lyric poetess; her accomplishment in the German language was unmatched until Gertrud Chodziesner appeared. At this point, to be sure, the name of Else Lasker-Schueler will occur to many; yet it must be said that her poetry, compared with Gertrud Chodziesner’s—even if we disregard the latter’s greater range—has something contrived and artificial about it. Else Lasker-Schueler, for all the special charm of her work, was only a late representative of those romanticists who made use of the played-out ideas of the fairy tales as symbols for their fantasies; she lived in the Berlin Bohemia of the first decades of this century and was popular in the literary circles of the time, but she remained the eccentric voice of a romanticism that had passed into history—a woman born too late.2
Gertrud Chodziesner, Else Lasker-Schueler’s younger sister in art, was entirely a child of her own time and lived the full life of a citizen, removed from the narrow world of literary faddism, which she despised. In this detachment from the literary world, also, she resembled Droste-Hülshoff and Emily Dickinson; alone, she created her work, and never talked of it. As for Nelly Sachs, the only other German poetess whose work might be placed beside that of Gertrud Chodziesner, she is at best a delicate harpist of limited range—though very genuine, too. On the basis of the poetry she wrote in exile, she too would rank above Else Lasker-Schueler in terms of universal human significance. In fact, when one considers Gertrud Chodziesner’s gift to lyrical realism, it can be said that except for the Austrian lyricist Ernst Waldinger, now living in this country, there is perhaps not a single Jewish poet, male or female, whose work is so solidly rooted in the multiplicity of the external natural world and so shaped by an utterly unabstract and deeply felt experience. And yet each of her poems rests on its own special laws, derived from the material of experience but growing into a new, organic form, uncompromisingly disciplined.
During the First World War, when she was working as a translator in the German Foreign Office—she had a considerable gift for foreign languages—a book of her verse appeared, and shortly after the end of the war a second book, with the expressive title Preussische Waffen (“Prussian Arms”). But she herself knew that she had not yet found her proper accent; these first two volumes went almost unnoticed and for a long time no more was heard from her, until at last she felt confident of her maturity.
Just before German culture fell prey to Hitler, the exacting Insel Verlag, publishers of Rilke, decided to put out a volume of her poems. Several of these had already appeared in the annual Insel Almanach. Events put a stop to everything. Thus it was not until 1938, with Die Frau und die Tiere, that she was able to publish any considerable body of work deserving of close study. This volume is made up of two poem cycles: Weibliches Bildnis (“Feminine Portrait”) and Tierträume (“Animal Dreams”). Titles of the individual poems give some indication of the range of her subjects; “The Jewess,” “The Ugly Woman,” “The Blind Woman,” “The Old Maid,” “Grandmother,” “The Spirit of the Sea,” “The Herons,” “The Bee,” “The Otters,” “The Roe,” “The Toad Demon,” “The Morning Birds.”
So much we knew of her before she died. Since then some of her poetry has been published posthumously in Germany: the book Welten (“Worlds”)—not a very happy title—and a wide-ranging cycle of fifteen poems printed last year in the excellent magazine Sinn und Form which is published in the Russian Zone of Berlin. This year the Peter Suhrkamp Verlag of Berlin, successor to S. Fischer, will issue her collected works, including several stories and plays never before published. All her published works now appear under the name of Gertrud Kolmar. With her extraordinary gift for language, she had learned Hebrew in her very last years; so well, in fact, that she had begun to write poems in the language. But none of them has been preserved.
It is difficult to convey the quality of poetry as unique as this later work of Gertrud Chodziesner without the reader’s having before him a selection of the poems in the original German. For they not only extend the area of experience that the lyric has dealt with, but also possess the consummate formal perfection, the organic inevitability of form, so vital to the genre. Many of the verses of this poet are crystalline in their rigor of form, and at the same time spare and pure in their intellectual and emotional quality, to a degree that we otherwise find only in the work of men, and then only seldom. There is nothing in her poetry of cheap and passing irony, and none of those modish psychological experiments in subject matter—mere prose turned mechanically into verse—which one meets with so often these days in this country.
The poems in Welten are composed of loose, long, flowing unrhymed lines of free verse on the order of Walt Whitman’s, but there is imposed on them—even more, perhaps, in her work than in Whitman’s—the inner constraint of a kind of fugal meter. Yet the old essential melos is preserved. By an act of unique intuition, the poems succeed in objectifying the writer’s ultimate inner experience of plants, animals, visionary landscapes, in achieving mastery over the dark forces of the inexplicable to which the poet is peculiarly close. We might call some of the poems elegies of a unique sort, others are in essence ballads, and in many there is a demonism at work such as has never before been encountered in poetry written by a woman.
The work recently published in Sinn und Form may perhaps be said to be even more strikingly perfect. In these last poems, written shortly before her death, in the full consciousness of what surely awaited her, Gertrud Chodziesner completely realized herself as artist and human being. The form she uses is again the severe stanza of her first important work published ten years before. All was written—it cannot be sufficiently emphasized—under the pressures of that period of dreadful expectancy, and it is moving to see how the quiet resolution displayed in the letter quoted at the beginning of these remarks is unflaggingly maintained in these poems. Not one of the events of those fearful days is used directly in journalistic fashion for the subject of a poem; but one can feel in the very rhythms of the poems the tremors of what was taking place and the great and bitter melancholy of death and decline. There is the absolute beauty and perfection of such a poem as Abschied (“Parting”), which might almost have been written by Christina Rossetti; the poem is worth quoting in full:
Nach Osten send ich mein Gesicht:
Ich will es von mir tun.
Es soil dort drüben sein im Licht,
Ein wenig auszuruhn
Von meinem Blick auf diese Welt,
Von meinem Blick auf mich,
Die plumpe Mauer Täglich Geld,
Des Treibrad Sputedich.
Sie trägt, die Welt in Rot und Grau
Durch Jammerschutt und Qualm
Die Auserwählten, Tropfentau
An einem Weizenhalm.
Ein glitzernd rascher Lebenslauf,
Ein Schütteln grosser Hand:
Die einen frass der Mittag auf,
Die andern schluckt der Sand.
Drum werd ich fröhlich sein und still,
Wenn ich mein Soll getan;
In tausend kleinen Wassern will
Ich rinnen mit dem Schwan,
Der ohne Rede noch Getön
Und ohne Denken wohl
Ein Tier, das stumm, ein Tier, das schön,
Kein Geist und kein Symbol.
Und wenn ich dann nur leiser Schlag
An blasse Küsten bin,
So roll ich frühen Wintertag,
Den silbern kühlen Sarkophag
Des ewigen Todes hin,
Darin mein Antlitz dünn und leicht
Wie Spinneweben steht,
Ein wenig um die Winkel streicht,
Ein wenig flatten, lächelnd bleicht
Und ohne Qual verweht.
(To the East I send my face:
I want to get it away from me.
Let it stay in the light over there,
To rest up a little
From my looking at the world,
From my looking at myself,
The great wall Daily Money
The drive-wheel Hurry Up.
That world in red and gray, it brings,
Through ruins and smoke,
The chosen, dewdrops
On a stalk of wheat.
A glittering, hurried life,
The trembling of a great hand:
One the midday ate up,
The other was gulped by the sand.
Therefore I shall be happy and still
When I have done my task;
In a thousand little streams
I want to flow with the swan,
Who is without speech or sound
And without thought,
A beast that is dumb, a beast that is
No spirit and no symbol.
And when I have become but a soft pulsing
Against pale shores,
Then on an early winter’s day
I shall roll away the silver cool sarcophagus
Of eternal death,
Wherein my face shows thin and light
Like cobweb threads,
Stretching a little at the corners,
Fluttering a little, pale and smiling,
Blown away without pang.)
There is the full-blown nobility of “Leda”; the restrained sorrow of Die alte Frau (“The Old Woman”); the mournful vision of the ballad-like Die Tiere Nineves (“The Beasts of Nineveh”), the story of Jonah, whose title and theme sufficiently proclaim its intention; and there is the shocking Der Tag der grossen Klage (“The Day of the Great Lamentation”)—all these demonstrate the vast scope of the poet’s powers. There is the poem Asien (“Asia”), which begins: “Mutter, die du mir worst, eh mich die meine wiegte, ich kehre heim” (“Mother, you who were with me before my own mother rocked me, I am returning home”); and above all there is the poem Wir Juden (“We Jews”), written in her last loneliness as a kind of consolation—perhaps the profoundest recent summing up of the millennial Jewish experience:
Nur Nacht hört zu. Ich liebe dich, ich lieb
dich, mein Vólk,
Und will dich ganz mit Armen umschlingen
heiss und jest,
So wie ein Weïb den Gatten, der am Pranger
steht, am Kolk,
Die Mutter den geschmähten Sohn nicht
einsam sinken lässt.
Und wenn ein Knebel dir im Mund den
blutenden Schrei verhält,
Wenn deine zitternden Arme nun grausam
So lass mich Ruf, der in den Schacht der
Die Hand mich sein, die aufgereckt an Got-
tes hohen Himmel rührt.
Denn der Grieche schlug aus Berggestein
seine weissen Götter hervor,
Und Rom warf über die Erde einen ehernen
Mongolische Horden wirbelten aus Asiens
Und die Kaiser in Aachen schauten ein süd-
wärts gaukelndes Bild.
Und Deutschland trägt und Frankreich trägt
ein Buch und ein blitzendes Schwert,
Und England wandelt auf Meeresschiffen
bläulich silbernen Pfad,
Und Russland ward riesiger Schatten mit der
Flamme auf seinem Herd,
Und wir, wir sind geworden durch den Gal-
gen und durch das Rod.
Dies Herzzerspringen, der Todesschweiss,
ein tränenloser Blick
Und der ewige Seufzer am Marterpfahl, den
heulender Wind verschlang,
Und die dürre Kralle, die elende Faust, die
aus Scheiterhaufen und Strick
Ihre Adern grün wie Vipernbrut dem Wür-
Der greise Bart, in Höllen versengt, von
Verstümmelt Ohr, zerrissene Brau und dun-
kelnder Augen Flehn:
Ihr! Wenn die bittere Stunde reift, so will
ich aufstehn hier und jetzt,
So will ich wie ihr Triumphtor sein, durch
das die Qualen gehn!
Ich will den Arm nicht küssen, den ein strot-
zendes Zepter schwellt,
Nicht das erzene Knie, den tönernen Fuss
des Abgotts harter Zeit;
O könnt’ ich wie lodernde Fackel in die fin-
stere Wüste der Welt
Meine Stimme heben: Gerechtigkeit! Gerech-
Knöchel. Ihr schleppt doch Ketten, und ge-
fangen klirrt mein Gehn.
Lippen. Ihr seid versiegelt, in glühendes
Seele. In Käfiggittern einer Schwalbe flat-
Und ich fühle die Faust, die das weinende
Haupt auf den Aschenhügel mir zerrt.
Nur Nacht hört zu. Ich liebe dich, mein
Volk im Plunderkleid.
Wie der heidnischen Erde, Gäas Sohn ent-
kräftet zur Mutter glitt,
So wirf dich du dem Niederen hin, sei
schwach, umarme das Leid,
Bis einst dein müder Wanderschuh auf den
Nacken der Starken tritt!
(Only the night listens. I love you, I love
you, my people,
And want to hold you warm and close in my
As a woman embraces her husband bound
to the whipping post,
As a mother at the pondside won’t let her
reviled son sink all alone.
And if a gag stifles the bleeding shriek in your
If your trembling arms are now cruelly
Let mine be the cry that plummets into the
pit of eternity,
Mine the hand that stretches up to touch
God’s high heaven.
For the Greek struck his white gods out of
And Rome flung a brazen shield across the
Mongol hordes whirled out of Asia’s depths,
And the Emperors in Aachen looked south
wards to a delusion.
And Germany bears and France bears a book
and a glittering sword,
And England roams in ships the bluish
silvery paths of the sea,
And the flame on Russia’s hearth makes her
shadow hugely swell,
And we, by the gallows and the wheel we
came to our maturity.
This bursting heart, the death sweat, a tear
And the eternal groan at the martyr’s stake
drowned in the howling wind,
And the thin claw, the wrinkled fist, its veins
green as an adder’s brood,
That reaches out of pyre and rope to grapple
with the executioner.
The gray beard, singed in hell, plucked by
the devil’s hand,
Cropped ear, scored brow, and dim imploring
You! When the bitter hour grows full, I’ll
stand up here and now,
I’ll be the arch of triumph for your torments
to march through.
I’ll not kiss the arm swollen by a boastful
Nor the brazen knee, the clay foot of the idol
of this hard time;
Oh, if I could lift my voice like a flaring torch
In the dark waste of the world. Justice! Jus-
Ankle. But you drag a chain, and my hobbled
Lips. You are sealed, stopped with glowing
Soul. Behind the cage bars a swallow’s flut-
And I feel the fist that drags my weeping
head to the ash heap.
Only the night listens. I love you, my people
Like the pagan Earth’s, Gaia’s, son, who
crawled exhausted to his mother,
Cast yourself under the foot of the meanest,
be weak, take grief in your arms,
Till one day your weary wanderer’s foot shall
press on the neck of the strong.)
There have been few lyric poets able always to resist being seduced by their verbal dexterity into the making of verse that might just as well have remained unmade, verse lacking all inner life. In the work of Gertrud Chodziesner there is not a single such poem; each springs from a deep inner need to which the poet, with inexorable self-discipline, has given the one possible form.
Last winter the Berlin radio dedicated a program to her memory. Among other tributes, a letter was read from the novelist Elisabeth Langgässer (who died some weeks ago) to the dead poet’s publisher. “I have always loved them,” Mrs. Langgässer wrote, “these strange, immensely subtle, and melancholic stanzas. . . . What a solitude, what a flight like a bat’s along opal evening skies submerging into dusk! . . . As a woman, as a lyric poet, and as a person of the same blood, I should have liked to have written the preface or the epilogue to these poems.”
The Germans destroyed her body, but not the immortal voice speaking their language.
1 By Schocken Verlag. An English translation was issued by Schocken Books in New York in 1947, under the title 1933: A Poem Sequence.
2 For a different estimate of Else Lasker-Schueler, see Heinz Politzer's essay “The Blue Piano of Else Lasker-Schueler,” in the April 1950 COMMENTARY—Ed.