Retrieving Gertrud Kolmar

60 years later, her lusty, doomed heroines come to life

Gertrud Kolmar is hardly a household name, even in the households of the most exalted literary circles. Born in Berlin in 1894, she was a kind of latter-day Emily Dickinson, who led a quiet, reclusive life caring for her aging parents and writing astonishing poetry until the rise of Hitler and her deportation—probably to Auschwitz—abruptly ended her days.

In verse both passionate and controlled, she gave voice to her seething inner life, roiled as it was by profound sexual longings, anger, and her unfulfilled yearning for a child. Many of the themes that dominate the poetry appear, with varying emphasis and success, in two works of fiction, A Jewish Mother From Berlin (c. 1931) and Susanna (c. 1940) —previously unpublished in English. They were translated as a labor of love by Brigitte Goldstein before she knew that any publisher would support the project.

Set in the 1920s, A Jewish Mother chronicles the life of Martha Jadassohn, a somber yet deeply passionate woman who, like the author, is the caretaker of elderly parents. She falls in love with Friedrich Wolg, a Gentile, and, despite the opposition of his father, marries him. But Friedrich is soon disenchanted with Martha’s cool self-reliance. She has no interest in his shallow leisure pursuits: paddle boats and motorcycles, movies and coffeehouses. Even her ardent sexual desire begins to repel him. When their child, Ursula, is born, Martha loses whatever interest she had in him, and he takes off for America. When he returns, a year later, he is gravely ill and soon dies.

Martha and Ursa take up residence in a cheap apartment on the outskirts of Berlin. Martha finds work in a photographer’s shop and leaves Ursa with an elderly neighbor. One evening, Martha returns to find her daughter missing. After a frantic and agonizing search—the description of which is almost unbearable to read—Martha finds Ursa, raped and badly wounded. Convinced that Ursa will never recover, Martha secretly administers a drug that kills the girl.

Striking up an affair with another Gentile, Albert, Martha begs him to bring the rapist to justice. Yet this affair—at its start so erotically charged—comes to a bad end. Martha is abandoned once again, but not before she learns the full depth of Albert’s scorn and anti-Semitism. Lost in a poignant reverie in which she imagines she once again holds little Ursa in her arms, Martha descends to the river, where she drowns.

This could be the stuff of which cheap melodrama is made, and in less able hands it might be. And at its worst, A Jewish Mother suffers from stilted dialogue and a didactic intent that at moments overpowers such literary concerns as motivation and character. Yet what Kolmar foretells is fascinating. Although A Jewish Mother was completed in 1931, before Hitler had officially seized power in Germany, Kolmar’s novel seems to predict the terrors to come.

Martha, seen as an eccentric Jew in the midst of Gentiles, becomes increasingly isolated. The authorities as well as Martha’s neighbors, co-workers and even lovers brim with barely concealed anti-Semitic scorn. In Kolmar’s decadent yet rigidly bound world, the possibility of coexistence between Jews and Gentiles has come to an end. As Dagmar C.G. Lorenz points out in her interesting new study, Keepers of the Motherland: German Texts by Jewish Women Writers (University of Nebraska Press), Martha’s assimilation—for instance her relationships with Gentile men—ultimately leads to corruption and ruin.

Lacking the input of other people, [Martha] is unaware that she is increasingly affected by racism and Nazi ideology. For example, she allows her lover… to interpret her uninhibited sexuality as an ingrained Jewish trait…. Martha derives the license to kill her deeply traumatized daughter from this skewed image of Jewish behavior in conjunction with the doctrines of eugenics and social Darwinism, which she combines with a confused, homespun mythology of animal instinct and a Jewish mother’s love. Only when she discovers a collection of racist journals on her lover’s desk does she recognize which ideology actually is the driving force behind her actions, and she becomes aware of her unintentional complicity with her people’s enemies.

Yet A Jewish Mother is more than its ideology. Written in language that is by turns lyrical and savage, the book takes its most lasting power from its undercurrent of sexuality. Throughout, Martha is portrayed as a deeply sexual being:

Her eyes darkened, as if filling with blood. She was glowing, hot. She tore the shirt from her shoulders, stood naked in front of the undraped window. Let them look at her…. The air was mild…. It was pouring [She] groped for her old loden coat and stole out of the apartment…. She pulled open her coat: it slid off her shoulders and chest. How white were her naked breasts in the dark. How hot… and how cooling was the drizzling rain. It splattered, kissed her lips. What if a man came by?

Martha’s sexual frankness finds no consistent fulfillment; over and over, she is shunned and despised. Perhaps it is being thrown back upon herself time and again that begins to taint her desire, turning it toward inappropriate outlets, as in her feverish devotion to her daughter:

Her child. Only two days before, in the evening, she had been jumping about like a frog, without a chemise, stark naked; she had been afraid that she might catch cold. Then she had, as usual, washed the little round face, the soft body, the little breasts that seemed like weak, unclear stars, the tummy and the strong little thighs, and her … vulva, a glowing, budding flower, an unopened flower… so lovely, so sweet. She wept.

Susanna, completed almost a decade later, shows Kolmar in even greater command of her prose style. The occasional awkwardness of A Jewish Mother has been smoothed away, leaving a lucid, powerful tale that moves swiftly and inexorably toward its tragic conclusion.

The story she tells is narrated by an “old governess with graying hair, a furrowed forehead and tear-filled bags under her eyes.” The governess—never named—takes a position caring for a beautiful 20-year-old woman, an orphan, who suffers from an unspecified mental disorder.

At the first meeting, the governess is charmed by her new charge:

She was beautiful—perfect soft skin, the hue of old ivory, a round forehead underneath black hair, a fine straight nose. The eyes radiated dark and laughing; they were of a very deep blue, but that I only saw in the next few days. Her mouth and voice were as charming as her figure; everything about her was grace and sweetness.

Susanna’s unconventional manner—her meditations on the tactile or fragrant quality of words, her fanciful invented tales, her convictions about the secret lives of animals— all are equally charming. The governess accepts her new routine with pleasure. She and the girl take walks, sew, share meals, read; a peaceful existence exclusive of men. But one night she is awakened by a noise and goes downstairs to investigate. There she sees Susanna—unaware of her presence—leaning out the window, deep in conversation with a man in the garden below. “She stood there barefoot and quivering, laughing softly and beguiling,” Even more shocking are Susanna’s words: “I … oh, I am melting away…. I am burning . . . my clothes are on fire . . . I want to tear everything off in front of you … in the winter’s night, you… oh, you…”

The governess knows she ought to stop this exchange, but does not. Instead, she becomes the go-between, delivering letters and messages for them. Finally, she confronts the man —and he promises he will end the affair. The governess tells Susanna that her lover will be going away—traveling for his work. Susanna responds by saying, “He won’t go. I am writing to him…. He is good.” But her letter falls into the hands of his mother, who storms over to confront Susanna, calling her a “man-crazy, dim-witted whore.”

Soon, Susanna is gone, along with her suitcase, hat, best dress and coat. Many hours later, her broken body is brought back to the house, where she is mourned by the housekeeper and governess who failed to protect her.

Merely recounting the plot of this elegant, spare story does not sufficiently capture the poetic beauty of its language nor the rich wealth of thematic material it successfully contains and elucidates. Like Martha, Susanna is Jewish: “I am a daughter of King David or King Saul. They lived a long time ago; but we have not forgotten about it.”

The governess too is Jewish: “Does it make you very happy?” Susanna asks.

“No. It did not make me happy. I had forgotten. I was not proud, carried no mark of the royal house; I carried a stain. The stain was small and bothered me little, but I concealed it as much as I could.”

Susanna, aware of her Jewishness and proud of it, must live apart from others because of her mental state. The more well-adjusted governess, who has effectively abandoned her Jewishness, sees it only as a “stain.” Ultimately this abandonment renders her powerless—as Martha was powerless to protect her beloved child—to save Susanna. Once again, we are confronted with issues of race and power, but here they are perfectly and harmoniously interwoven into the very fabric of the story.

Susanna shares another trait with Martha: her unabashed acceptance of her own sexuality. She offers herself to her lover when they are alone in the night; she offers herself to him again in the letter she sends. It is her sexual candor that so enrages his mother. Even more disturbing is the fact that the woman who so upbraids Susanna is herself Jewish. Susanna the pariah is scorned by Jew and non-Jew alike. There is no place for her on earth; as it was for Martha, death is the only resolution.

For readers already familiar with Kolmar, these two books will add a richness and depth to any understanding of her poetry. On their own, they are dark and haunting works from whose pages paradoxically emerges the image of an author bathed in light.

Yona Zeldis McDonough’s most recent book is Anne Frank (Henry Holt, 1997], illustrated by her mother, Malcah Zeldis. She wrote about Gertrud Kolmar’s poetry in the Spring 1992 issue of Lilith.

Jewish Woman in the Motherland

Keepers of the Motherland: German Texts by Jewish Women Writers (University of Nebraska Press, $55) is a remarkable new analysis by Ohio State University professor of German, Dagmar Lorenz. It is the first comprehensive study of the last two centuries of German and Austrian Jewish women’s fiction, non-fiction and biography , starting with Gluckel of Hameln, continuing through the writings of Bertha Pappenheim, Gertrud Kolmar and more contemporary writers like Crete Weil and Ruth Kluger. The following passage from Lorenz’s introduction gives the flavor of the author’s fascinating contribution:

Ever since the late eighteenth century, when Jewish women stepped into the public arena as authors and critics, they have written against the patriarchal structures of both Gentile and Jewish culture through the issues they raise as well as through their use of language and the characters they create. Questioning, criticizing, or openly rejecting their two fatherlands’ androcentric power structures, their works suggest as their anchoring point an elusive motherland where the Jewish woman’s language and voice reign supreme, defying the political boundaries and institutions of her nation or community….

[T]he indifference to nationalistic concerns, the presence of an authoritative female voice, and the significance of maternal relationships in the works of the majority of Jewish and Jewish identified authors are a common theme…. Dominant female characters, matriarchal structures, and close female-female relationships evoke a feminine realm, an intercultural and multilingual motherland….

While being exposed to the same inimical forces as Jewish men—Gentile anti-Semitism and negative Jewish stereotypes internalized by German-speaking Jews—Jewish women also had to assert themselves against Jewish and Gentile misogyny…. Yet it is precisely the tenuous position at the crossroads that proved to be a creative stimulus for many authors.